Pantry Chef – Who Knew?

Cooking is second nature to me, after nearly 60 years. I am a practical cook with a taste for heat, eclectic palette, and a bit of flair. I mostly love to cook to feed people, to honor guests. In COVID time, I have been cooking mostly for myself, and finding that I am just as happy with these meals as I am when I used to dine out. I have learned to make a good number of favorite restaurant items for myself, which has been very satisfying.

I love inventing new recipes, particularly when I am cooking in someone else’s kitchen, where I may not find an old reliable ingredient but I may discover something I do not usually include. Some of my best recipes were conceived in kitchens other than my own.

But my mom taught me about maintaining a practical kitchen. My friends’ moms did the same. By the time I moved into my first apartment in 1972, I had a full kitchen setup of hand-me-downs and garage sale treasures. Many of the new-to-me goods came from my grandfather, when he closed up his apartment. I still use everything daily.

My friend, Jill, has referred to my kitchen as the Magic Kitchen because I can always create a meal from whatever is on hand. Maintaining a stocked pantry/cupboard was part of my homemaking education, as was creating meals worth eating on a serious budget. I have essentials that I purchase several at a time so I can just pull what I need from the shelf. I can always find coconut milk, anchovies, chick peas, tomatoes, and primary condiments like mayo, ketchup, tikka masala sauce, and jellies.

I have a cupboard for baking and specialty items. There are three places in the kitchen for spices depending in how often I need them and the size of the jars, another cupboard for oils, vinegars, coffees, and odd containers. I like containers. Jill has also remarked on how everything in my kitchen is in a special container, which is so for the most part. I have a grand assortment of jars, covered containers, etc., and when I get home from shopping, much of what I buy of dry goods goes into a receptacle. I am ready for any whim or when I am close to running out of bread.

Then there are the restaurant shelves to compensate for the lack of a walk-in pantry. Nuts, grains, more flours, onions, potatoes, some appliances and supplies, a hodgepodge of needs at one time or another, all within reach.

So when I hear some of the trendy young chefs talking about being “pantry chefs” or explaining about why it is important to keep a couple of cans of diced tomatoes on hand at all times, my first reaction is “DUH!” Then I call a woman in my age bracket and ask them if this is a thing. How is this a thing? This is what a home cook knows to do. It is why I prefer to watch Rachael Ray than some of the others because she makes everyday foods marvelous and achievable without breaking the bank. Or the icon who is Jacques Pépin, a maestro as much as a chef.

I tried one of the meal plan deliveries that come to the door as a freebie from a friend who subscribes. The ingredients were all fine quality and “artisan” sourced often, but the packaging it took to get the box to me was overwhelming and likely will wind up in a landfill in spite of attempts to recycle. The glossy 3-hole punched recipe cards with full-color staged photos, and the teeny bottles with a tablespoon of soy or vinegar, the precise portions with not one scrap to pick at later, were too programmed for me. It reminded me of painting by numbers kits I used to buy at the Westcott Variety Store. These plans may be good for folks who are learning to cook, or really busy professionals who need the middle man to expedite dinners for the week, but I am neither. It is also quite pricey. But I admit I like to scan the recipes often for ideas.

When the box with some primo steaks was stolen from my porch, the company was wonderful and credited my account. I appreciate that customer service. But I am not their demographic. So I skip delivery every week. I tried to quit but they encouraged me to stay. I forgot one week to cancel so I got three dinners I was not expecting. I was also not expecting to pay $65 out that week. Oh well. I think I turned the chicken into something else.

The entertainment I am getting, not just from cooking but posting the results, then receiving reactions from from folks all over the country has been a terrific diversion in our current relative isolation. Maybe I am becoming an influencer. Another of those baffling things for me. When did that become a career path? Who knew?!

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