A pantry is a very personal thing. While daily marketing may provide the basics for most meals, it is the pantry that provides the style. The fishmonger sells you salmon, but your pantry is what makes the fish fit your taste. Dipped in Moroccan spices and broiled? Steamed with black beans and soy sauce? Surrounded by a spicy tomato sauce?
To paraphrase Brillat-Savarin: Tell me what is in your pantry and I'll tell you who you are.
In my pantry, for example, you won't find a lot of exotic spice blends; if I want blends, I've got plenty of spices on hand to make my own. You won't find sun-dried tomatoes; to me they taste like rancid oil. And while I like fish sauce in other people's cooking, it's not yet part of my culinary lexicon.
The fact that I don't have those things in my pantry does not in any way mean that they aren't worth having. It's just that they don't fit my cooking. My pantry is where I keep the ingredients to cook the things that please me.
It's also the place I turn to when I'm caught off guard. Friends drop by without warning? I've got this great little tuna spread I can put together in five minutes using nothing but the basics I keep on hand. Need a quick dinner? A mouth-filling plate of spaghetti with anchovies and bread crumbs can be ready in the time it takes to boil water. Snacks, appetizers, desserts . . . they're all in there, just waiting for me to call.
When I moved into an older house, one of the key selling points for me was that it had a real, honest-to-god pantry (which gives you some idea of my real estate acumen). But after years of trying to shoehorn things into an apartment kitchen, the prospect of what seemed like unlimited space was irresistible. Of course, within a year I was looking for more shelves to put things on.
Here's what's in my pantry. I'm leaving out the more neutral items--flour, butter, vegetable oil, eggs, etc.--in favor of those things that are specific to my style of cooking. Your pantry may be similar or totally different, but this list may give you ideas for new items to keep on hand.
When it's hot, when you're exhausted, or when you're just hungry for a meal and can't wait two hours to eat, a well-stocked pantry can make quick meals easy. Following the list are recipes that show what you can do with a pantry and a couple of minutes. Every ingredient in these recipes is a staple--at least at my house.
* Mozzarella: Though I love the fresh mozzarella you can find now, it's a pretty perishable item. The cheese I always have on hand is the firmer, drier type that melts so well on top of pizzas, inside of quesadillas, over eggplant . . . I could go on.
* Parmigiano-Reggiano: I always have a good chunk--or even two--on hand. Though I'm normally a pretty stingy shopper, this is one time when I buy the best I can find, without thinking too much about the price. That cheese is too fundamental to too many things to quibble over a buck or two.
* Fresh goat cheese: In my family, goat cheese began not as an affectation but as a necessity. For many years, my daughter was allergic to cow's milk, so goat cheese was the only alternative. Now, we've developed a taste for it and we still use it more than any other cheese.
* Bread crumbs: Do you have a problem with those expensive rustic breads going stale before they're finished? Cut off the crusts, cut the loaves in cubes, toast them in the oven and then run them through the food processor. You can use the crumbs over pasta, in soups, in a zillion ways.
* Black olives: Another basic, either as part of an instant appetizer plate or as a flavoring in a prepared dish. Check Greek and Middle Eastern markets for the best buys. I never use those canned California olives.
* Roasted sweet red peppers: When they're cheap, I buy fresh red peppers by the carload, roast them on my barbecue, peel them and stick them into small plastic food bags with a little slivered garlic and some olive oil. They'll last all year in the freezer and are much better than the pickled type, which is all you can buy in the store.
* Stock: I'm not the kind of cook who makes fresh stock for every dish. But I am the kind of cook who makes a lot of stock once in a while and then freezes it in ice cube trays. Just be sure to dump them into a plastic food bag before guests go looking for ice cubes for their drinks.
* Walnuts: One of my dessert standbys, I always have walnuts in the freezer to go into cookies or flour-less cakes.
* Cheese-filled tortellini or ravioli: These are strictly for those instant meals at the end of long work days. You can get them with all kinds of fillings, some of them wildly esoteric. The simpler the better in this case. Serve them with a little brown butter and sage and you've got an elegant weeknight dinner.