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Essentials for Home Cooking

My favorite room in the house where I grew up was the Fruit Room, an oversized basement closet behind my father’s workroom (the name was coined in deference to Mother’s annual canning efforts). The Fruit Room was a classic pantry with floor-to-ceiling shelves lined with home canned fruits and vegetables including Mother’s fabulous crunchy pickles, “store bought” canned and boxed foods, household cleaning goods, paper goods and an old fashioned wooden butter churn used weekly throughout the War.

I spent hours in the Fruit Room playing store, rearranging the shelves so that my most loved foods were front-and-center, at my eye level. Just opposite the door, red labeled cans of Campbell’s soup took up almost an entire shelf: Tomato, Chicken With Rice, Black Bean, Alphabet, Chicken Noodle, Scotch Broth, Vegetable Beef and Cream of Mushroom. The last foot was saved B&M Baked Beans, B&M Brown Bread and Daddy’s favorite, Hormel Chili and Tamales.

In the kitchen were two more pantry spaces, the Cooler, a cabinet built through the wall, screened to the outside and a floor-to-ceiling cabinet we called the Pantry that held shelf stable goods.

Those spaces and my mother taught me how a thoughtfully stocked pantry enables home cooks to prepare spontaneous meals quickly because it provides ready access to special ingredients and added flavors without time consuming, expensive trips to the store. And those added flavors are the secret to cooking wonderful foods with leftovers.

My pantry is a collective of shelf stable, refrigerated, frozen and dried foods that not only are basic ingredients for all kinds of cooked foods, but also help create condiments, sauces, marinades and some of my most fun, made up meals.

Here is an updated version of The Well Stocked Pantry from my book The What To Fix For Dinner Cookbook. Where I thought it might be useful I have added how I use different foods. Don’t be overwhelmed by the size of mine. If you haven’t built a pantry before, begin with one or two items, stocking your pantry over time. I promise that it will be well worth your effort and dollars.


Combine your leftovers with items from your pantry.

I try to be vigilant about replacing things right away. When I don’t, I forget, reach for something essential to a recipe, remember it’s gone and either have to repress a tantrum or go to the store (both crummy options).

Shelf Stable Foods


Canned Diced Tomatoes
Canned Pureed Tomatoes
Boxed Chicken Stock (emergency only!)
Canned Tomatilla (for winter and emergencies)
Unsweetened Chocolate (97% cacao, for cooking)
Semi-Sweet Chocolate (97% cacao for cooking)
Unsweetened Chocolate Powder (Mexican recipes)
White Chocolate (middle of the night sinning; never lasts long enough to be there for cooking)

Flours, Sugars, etc.

All Purpose Flour
Potato Flour (finely ground, thickening substitute for cornstarch in some soups and sauces)
Cornmeal (coarsely ground for polenta)
Baking Sugar (finer grind)
Brown Sugar, dark
Muscovado dark sugar (special flavor for special baking)
Baking Powder (small containers replaced every 6 months)
Baking Soda

Nuts, Dried Fruits, Grains, Seeds, Legumes

Whole Roasted Almonds
Sliced Almonds
Roasted Marcona Almonds (Spanish, delicious for hors d’ oeuvres or salads)
Pepitas, Mexican Pumpkin Seeds (I roast and season them for salads and snacks)
Pecan (halves bought on sale, kept frozen)
Pine Nuts
Walnut halves (halves bought on sale, kept frozen)
Dried Apricots
Dried Plums or Prunes
Pearl Barley (soups, lamb shanks, barley risotto)
Japanese Medium Grain Rice
Italian Short Grain Rice (Arborio or Carnaroli for Risotto)
Brown, Long Grain Rice
Wild Rice
Toasted Sesame Seeds
Canned and Dried Black Beans
Dried Cannellini Beans
Canned and Dried Chick Peas (garbanzo)


Olive: Extra Virgin (salad dressing and cooking); Lite (flavorless contains Omega 3 fatty acids, use it when olive taste isn’t desired)
Safflower, Peanut or Corn: (burns at a higher temperature than olive oil; use it to fry)
Pure Sesame (most Asian sauces and marinades)


Balsamic (Whole Foods 365 aged Modena balsamic vinegar is award winner and very economical)
White Wine (sauces and vinaigrettes)
Cider (for mayonnaise, marinades)
Unseasoned Rice (the purest and least astringent plain vinegar)

Sweet Sauces

Maple Syrup
Light Corn Syrup

Refrigerated Foods

Mayonnaise (homemade)
Crushed Ginger (Asian marinades, some Mexican recipes)
Pickled Ginger
Capers (coleslaw dressing, Caponata, fish sauces)
Sun-dried Tomatoes (buy them dehydrated, soften in microwave with water and store in extra virgin olive oil…cheaper and better)

Flavored Sauces

Tabasco: Original; Smoked (barbecue marinades; Green (all Mexican cooking)
Mild Curry Paste (Garam Masala brings slight curry flavor, not a substitute for dried curry powder)
Asian Plum Sauce (sweet taste for Asian marinade)
Teriyaki (flavor enhancer for marinades and sauces)
Soy Sauce
Fermented Black Bean Sauce (wonderful flavor for Mexican recipes)
Nouc Mam, Asian Fish Sauce (for Thai or Vietnamese spring roll dipping sauce)
Chinese Red Chili Paste (taste booster for many foods)

Pastes in Tubes

Anchovy (many fish sauces and soups, Caesar salad dressing)
Garlic (emergency)


Mango (for curry or grilled poultry)
Rhubarb (grilled pork or poultry)
Cranberry (grilled pork or poultry)


Dijon (grilling glaze, sandwiches, vinaigrettes)
Whole Grain (sandwiches, some meat recipes)


Pitted Calamata (tapenade, Italian red sauces, Caponata, sandwiches, salads etc.)
Fresh Cured (instant hors d’oeuvre)

Seasonings, Spices and Dried Herbs


Kosher (all cooking)
French Sea Salt, coarse and fine grain (most sauces)
Salt in grinder (coarse)


Black Peppercorns (stock, refill grinder)
White Peppercorns in grinder (fish sauces and others where no color matters)
Pink and Green Peppercorns in grinder
Dehydrated Red Pepper Flakes (slight taste booster for many foods)
Dehydrated Onion (for emergency only)
Dehydrated Garlic (for emergency only)

Dried Herbs (for winter and emergencies)

Tarragon, Herbs de Provence, Basil, Marjoram, Thyme, Sage leaves, Bay leaves


Ground: Cinnamon, nutmeg, ground clove, ground allspice, ginger (baking only) curry powder
Whole: vanilla bean, cumin seeds (I grind for all Mexican foods and many soups), fennel seeds (I coarse grind for soups),

Flavor Extracts

Vanilla Extract (buy a good brand and add 3” vanilla bean, scraped slightly along with 1 tbs. bourbon or brandy. Replenish in same jar…really good); orange extract, lemon extract, almond extract

Frozen Foods

Stocks: Homemade Chicken, Meat, Fish
Unsalted Butter
Stock Bag
Italian Sausages (for last minute favorite: Penne, Sausage and Kale or Broccoli Rabe)
Bone-In Chicken Breast
Raspberries, Blueberries
Puff Pastry Dough (emergency dessert base)
Cake Flour (very finely ground flour used so seldom that I freeze it)
Flour Tortillas


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