A Tale of Two Pantries
By Chef Stephanie Michalak
I grew up with two different concepts of what a pantry should consist of between my parents’ homes. I distinctly remember crawling up onto the counter as an eight or nine-year-old at my father’s house so I could see what was in the cabinet. I normally found pancake dry mix, pickles, spaghetti, pasta sauce, popcorn, instant hot chocolate, a cake or brownie mix, and some spices that had probably been there for as long as I had alive. I typically went for the microwave popcorn and instant hot chocolate while watching movies at night. Otherwise, the pantry was put into use on Sundays when my father would make one of his signature meals: Bisquick pancakes with scrambled eggs, bacon, and cantaloupe.
My mother’s pantry was filled with less typical ingredients like pumpkin seed oil, canned chickpeas, harissa, crispy wonton noodle chips, artichoke hearts, Jiffy Pop left over from one of our camping trips, and assorted dried fruits. I loved that it fostered a wider range of creativity and allowed me as a young cook to play with pantry ingredients and leftovers, turning them into something completely different.
However, neither example taught me much of what I would need to stock my own pantry with once I became a young adult. My first year of college, I horded instant oatmeal packets, dried fruits and nuts, as well as an assortment of baking supplies: AP flour, sugar, yeast packets, salt, ground cinnamon, and not to mention vanilla extract. I baked avidly because a) it is a stress reliever of mine and b) I realized other hungry students might just want to buy them. While this allowed me to develop planning and organizing skills (as well as make a little cash on the side), I still had no clue how to properly maintain staples that could make a nutritious meal or snack on a regular basis.
Even during culinary school, I never really developed this skill –why would I? I worked with food day and night. I ate either in class or at work. Sometimes I would have time to run to a farmer’s market and dream of dishes that I wanted to play around with, but then I would bring produce back to my apartment just to realize I didn’t have oil or the right sea salt for the idea anymore. The moral of this story is – just because you work with food or are particularly organized in other facets of your life: stocking a healthy pantry for home cooking (and no, shelves of ramen or instant oatmeal packets does not count) is not a breeze.
However, maintaining a set of key non-perishable ingredients can help you, and anyone you live with, save money, make healthier choices, and be more successfully prepared for impromptu meals. That is why I am conducting Stocking a Healthy Pantry. Why not take a little time to evaluate what your pantry currently looks like and how you can improve it for the sake of yourself and your loved ones?