The Right Stuff
Stocking the Refrigerator, Freezer, and Pantry
Cooking without a book starts with a well-stocked refrigerator and pantry. One of the signs of a successful businessperson is how few times she handles the same piece of mail. To me, one of the signs of a successful working cook is how few times she shops for food.
For want of any meal planning, many cooks end up repeatedly running to the store. Since most American family schedules are erratic and unpredictable, long-term meal planning can be frustrating, but running to the grocery store every day or two also takes time and energy that most people just don't have.
On vacation, I shop every day because I enjoy it. When I work, however, I try to stock up once a week, running back maybe once more if I'm entertaining or I've left something off the list. Every few weeks I go to my gourmet store for olives, cheese, oil, vinegar, and other pantry items. I also stop at a good bakery for French and Italian bread, which I freeze.
I take time to shop because if I find myself with an empty refrigerator at 6:00 on Wednesday night, I'm more likely to grab the family and head for a restaurant. Surrounding yourself with good food is the first step in effortless cooking.
In stocking my freezer, refrigerator, and pantry, I'm neither frugal nor extravagant. Sometimes I get hit with sticker shock at the checkout, but when I think of what I would have spent if our family had gone out for dinner even once during the week, I quickly realize that food shopping is a bargain.
The following pantry, refrigerator, and freezer lists may look long. Although many of the items are necessities (e.g. canned tomatoes, chicken stock, salt, onions, garlic, oil, vinegar), others are not. Simply pick and choose from each list what looks good and makes sense for you. Besides, you probably have many of the ingredients in your kitchen now. And, once you're stocked, it's just a matter of replenishing the supply now and again. As time goes on, you will internalize the list and automatically know what's missing from week to week.
Poultry, Meat, and Fish
Depending on your preferences, keep the following in your refrigerator or freezer. Unless you plan to use it within a day or two of purchase, freeze all meat, poultry, and fish. They can be defrosted in the refrigerator or microwaved to room temperature at the last minute.
* Boneless skinless chicken breasts (or thighs)
* Whole chickens
* Chicken wings
* Turkey cutlets (or boneless skinless turkey breast that can easily be sliced into cutlets)
* Ground turkey
* Turkey or chicken sausages
* Duck breasts
* Boneless New York strip steaks
* Boneless rib-eye steaks
* Filet mignons
* Ground chuck
* Thick-cut boneless pork chops or boneless rib-end pork loin roast for cutting into chops
* Pork tenderloin for cutting into medallions
* Raw and cooked sausage (Italian, chorizo, andouille, or kielbasa)
* A hunk of deli-style baked ham (or turkey).
After letting package after package of sliced-to-order deli meat spoil within a few days of purchase, I've started buying larger pieces of these meats. This way the meat lasts much longer, and I can cut it the way I want--slices for sandwiches, julienne for salads, small dice for omelets, and large dice for soup. If you can't use what you've bought within a week, divide it and freeze one half.
Fish and Shellfish
* Any fish fillet, such as thick flounder, catfish, snapper, tilapia, grouper, or other thin, white-fleshed fish
* Any fish steak, such as tuna, swordfish, or salmon
* Jumbo dry scallops
* Littleneck, top neck, or small cherrystone clams, eaten within a day or two of purchase
* Mussels, eaten within a day or two of purchase
Food for the Freezer
* Frozen green peas, spinach (two 10-ounce packages of spinach serve four people), and corn. On the nights when the vegetable bin is low or you need an instant vegetable, it's nice to look in the freezer and find something. It's also good to have corn on hand for soups and chowders, and for freshening up quick polenta.
* Good-quality bread. Well-made bread can turn a good meal into a great one. I shop for bread once every couple of weeks. I buy and freeze at least four baguettes, some crusty rolls for soup, and often a loaf of raisin bread or challah for breakfast.
* A quart of premium vanilla ice cream. Having a quart of vanilla ice cream in the freezer is like having a little black dress in the closet. Adorned or not, it's the ultimate quick dessert.
* Two packages of frozen fruit such as strawberries, blackberries, or blueberries. With frozen fruit on hand you can have a cobbler in the oven in ten minutes. They're also handy for baking a batch of muffins on the weekend.
* Frozen puff pastry. This is one of my favorite convenience products. If I've got a sheet of puff pastry, I can whip out turnovers, tarts, and quick cookies with very little effort and no recipe.
Food for the Refrigerator
* Buy fresh seasonal vegetables and fruits that keep well, then store them properly.
* In addition to seasonal fruits and vegetables, I almost always have the following on hand:
Red or yellow peppers
Parsley and other fresh herbs on occasion
Romaine hearts and other lettuces
* Although the following vegetables are not stored in the refrigerator, they are included in this section. For extended life, keep them in a cool, dark place.
At least one red onion
Red boiling potatoes
A couple of heads of garlic
A bag of yellow onions
Besides low-fat milk, I keep the following dairy items in the refrigerator:
* Buttermilk. Since it has a relatively long shelf life, I use it for pancakes, muffins, biscuits, and corn muffins
* Heavy cream. Like buttermilk, heavy cream has a long shelf life and it's great to have around for impromptu entertaining and simple pan sauces
* Three or four cheeses of your choice. A good sharp cheddar, some sort of blue or goat cheese, a chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and a bar of cream cheese are my favorites.
* Low-fat plain yogurt for making yogurt cheese and desserts. If not used for those purposes, it can always be sweetened and eaten for breakfast.
Food for the Pantry
* Large and small cans of low-sodium chicken broth
* Bottled clam juice
* Cans of crushed and whole tomatoes packed in purée
* Canned tuna
* Canned clams
* Anchovies or anchovy paste
* Evaporated milk
* Peanut butter
• jam and/or jelly
* Dried mushrooms
* Oils: olive, sesame, and vegetable
* 1 jar roasted red peppers
* Pastas: spaghetti, macaroni, egg noodles, and couscous
* Grains: long-grain white rice, instant polenta
* Dijon mustard
* Vinegars: red and white wine, balsamic, and rice wine
* Barbecue sauce
* Bottled horseradish
* Soy sauce
* Asian fish sauce
* Marinated artichokes
* Canned beans: black, white, and chickpeas
* Dried breadcrumbs
* Dried fruit: raisins or currants and cranberries
* 1 jar each: piquant black olives such as kalamata and green olives
* All-purpose flour
* Granulated sugar
* Light or dark brown sugar
* Baking powder
* Baking soda
* Unsweetened and bittersweet chocolate
* Chocolate chips
* Unsweetened cocoa powder
* Vanilla extract
Herbs and Spices
* Bay leaves
* Ground black pepper
* Ground cinnamon
* Ground cloves
* Ground cumin
* Curry powder
* Herbes de Provence
* Ground nutmeg or whole nutmeg for grating fresh
* Hot red pepper flakes
* Sage leaves
* Dried thyme leaves