Cleaning out the pantry yields lost treasures like this still vibrant garam masala,
an Indian spice blend made up of cardamom, cumin, coriander, cloves, mace,
nutmeg, black peppercorns, cinnamon, bay leaves and ground ginger.
I’ve spent the last two weekends cleaning out the pantry.
Along with stray cashews, shredded onion skins and the missing top of the box of dog biscuits, I discovered some forgotten treasures: a stash of creamy white peppercorns that Camille sent from Cambodia, and a tin of homemade garam masala dated 8/24/06. Both are still lively, especially the spice blend, which practically vibrates with the aromas of green cardamom, cinnamon and cloves.
(Note to self: Rethink rule about tossing ground spices after six months.)
It may be the smallest room in the house, but the pantry gives me boundless pleasure. Basically it is not much more than a walk in closet with floor to ceiling shelves on three sides. Last year I had it painted white—Sherwin Williams Satin Duration Extra White, to be exact—which I love. Bright white makes colors pop, as painters like to say, and it is easy to clean up drips of kecap manis or the remains of a rotted winter squash.
Is this the perfect pantry? Of course not. Naturally, even though the shelves are an astonishing 210 square feet, I could use twice the space. I’d really like a counter and a window, maybe even an extra sink. I’m not crazy about the fluorescent lighting, and I do love the red floor in Arzak’s flavor bank. But in all, this pantry is a cook’s dream come true.
Why is the notion of the pantry so appealing?
A pantry, it seems to me, offers assurances of the future. It is a bulwark against expected, or unexpected, turmoil. With shelves full of good things to eat, you can pretend that you will never go hungry. Ice storms may knock out your power, but as long as you have two boxes of kitchen matches (always!) to light the gas stove, you can make comfort food—say, fusilli with oregano scented tomato sauce, or potatoes fried in olive oil with Indian spices—and feel that life is continuing in ways that feel safe and familiar.
But it’s more than a culinary security blanket. The pantry also offers the promise of deliciousness, the pleasure that comes from knowing that you can throw together a risotto with dried porcini mushrooms, white wine and chicken broth on a cold wet night, or that you have coconut milk and spice paste for an impromptu vegetable curry. If you, like someone I know, are hopelessly retro and love jellied beef consome, you can store a dozen cans of Campbell’s to pull out when the mood strikes.
There are two types of pantries: fast and slow. Or maybe three, if you admit the possibility of a hybrid.
Last night Serendipty and I were discussing a fast pantry In New Jersey. This pantry is a temple of instant gratification, a testament to the joy of grazing. “It’s so much fun,” she said. “I love to go in there and just snack.” What’s in the fast pantry? Trail mix, cereal, chocolate covered fruit and nuts, tortilla chips and salsa, potato chips and ranch dressing, cookies, candy bars and much, much, much more.
The downside is that fast pantries are emptied quickly. They require continuous restocking, so if you have one, you may find yourself rising at dawn to go to the supermarket to fill up a cart with all the yummy things you have just eaten. Two, maybe even three times a week.
On the other hand, there is the slow pantry. Serendipity put her finger on the difference: “You walk into our pantry, look around, and ask yourself, ‘What am I going to make?’” The slow pantry is full of grains and pasta, cans of coconut milk and chick peas, bottles of fish sauce and rose water. There are two shelves of spices, a dozen oils from France and Spain, vinegars from Italy and Japan. Jars of salted capers, brined green peppercorns, hoisin sauce and smoky chipotle chiles.
My slow pantry is a personal paradise, an experiential museum of places I’ve gone, recipes I’ve tried, flavors I adore. (I just have to remember to use that exquisite Mexican vanilla that’s been lurking for three years.) As Jocelyn remarked about Arzak's flavor bank, it gets to "the collector gene response."
The truth about the slow pantry is that it is a treasure house of wondrous ingredients that go into the making of food you love. My pantry has plenty of short cuts—aseptic cartons of chicken, beef and seafood broth, for instance, and ready made spice blends—but they are the building blocks for delicious meals that involve actual cooking.
That doesn’t necessarily mean slow cooking. When I’m eating lunch at home, I often make Bhutanese red rice simmered in chicken broth. During the 35 minutes it take to cook, I can write a blog entry, dither over what clothes to take to India, or photograph early crocuses in the woods. In summer I might dress up the rice with luscious chopped tomatoes, herbs from the garden and lemon juice. But since it’s winter, I’m more likely to turn to the pantry and toss it with toasted walnuts, sea salt and few drops of hot chili oil. Of course, a little leftover roast chicken and a scallon or two would also be delicious. What I’m trying to say is that the rice is the basis of an easy pantry-based meal.
Can your pantry be fast and slow at the same time? My guess is that the ideal pantry would have it both ways. Lots of wonderful ingredients for cooking, but also some yummy instant snacks. For me, that would be walnuts and pistachios, a bar of Valrhona Manjari chocolate and paper thin Moravian ginger cookies from Mrs. Travis Hanes.
Are you curious about what’s in my pantry? I’m making a list, which I’ll share soon.