Nuts. Every pantry should have a good variety of nuts. These can be used for quick, satisfying snacks, in baking, to add texture and crunch your cous cous, rice and quinoa dishes and to enhance the perfect cheese plate. I always buy my nuts unsalted... you can always add but it's hard to take away salt. My personal favorites and staples are raw almonds, Spanish marcona almonds, raw cashews, shelled pistachios and toasted pecans.
Building off the nut topic, we have seeds and dried fruits. You can mix them together to make your own custom blended trail mix and add sweetness and crunch to most recipes. I love pumpkin seeds for a high protein, crunchy snack. I'm also a fan of shelled sunflower seeds to use in breads and salads. On the fruit side, golden raisins, dried cranberries and dried apricots give you a pretty solid base to work off.
Next let's take a look into the baking shelf. Here's an area that I fully admit that my stock is significantly more expansive that then average kitchen needs to be. My baking rack actually extends out of the kitchen to a shelving unit in the basement because I have 9 different types of flour. Bearing in mind that the average person doesn't bake all of their own bread, I feel I can adequately par down this list. Let's start with a good all purpose, unbleached flour, baking soda, baking powder, unsweetened cocoa powder, corn starch, dark brown sugar, granulated sugar, confectioners sugar, unsweetened flake coconut, powdered gelatin, active dry yeast and dark chocolate chips. This will give you the foundation to make most cakes, brownies, cookies and breads from scratch without any issue. You can then figure out where, if anywhere, you want to develop from there.
Finally, I want to touch on my favorite shelf... spices. Spices are the foundation of flavor in cooking and I firmly believe they're worth the investment. I've written a previous entry on Penzey's in Arlington, Mass. They're the best place I've found for developing a solid spice cabinet affordably. Best part... they ship from their website so they're accessible to everyone. If you happen to have one of those spice spinners that came prefilled from Target or Walmart, please throw them away. They've been sitting in that box for months (often longer) before you purchased them and every herb and spice is past it's peak. When possible, you want to grind for each use (cinnamon, nutmeg, etc...). This ensures you are really maximizing flavor and getting the freshest possible product. I've put together a shopping list for "revamping" your spice rack. Any item with a * is a Penzey's blend and I'm sure there are suitable substitutes available, just check out their website to see what's in it. I also recommend buying smaller jars of spices as to maximize the flavor profile. I know this goes against my belief in value shopping and technically spices don't go "bad" but if you really want to experience them for their full intensity of flavor, it's worth the investment.
Shopping List for Spices:
Bold Taco Seasoning*
Chinese Five Spice
Curry (Sweet or Hot)
Himalayan Pink Sea Salt
Montreal Steak Seasoning
Herbs de Provence
Pure Vanilla Extract (Not Imitation)
Quick lesson... spice refers to the root, seeds or bark of the plant, herb refers to the leaves, stems and stalks. If possible, use fresh herbs. Dried ones really only carry a fraction of the flavor of fresh. Another good option, pureed or frozen herbs. Check your grocery store's produce section for tubes of pureed fresh herbs or the freezer for little ice cubes of frozen ones. This will let you pack the full flavor punch without worrying about spoilage.
Well, there you have it. A pantry stocked with staples that will help you take a basic chicken breast and turn it into a delicious meal. I hope you enjoyed this tour of my cabinets... I've posted a few pictures below just to show you how much space my pantry actually takes up (I know I'm a freak...)