Wednesday, July 03, 2013

The universal and particular in pantry organization

If you're new to cooking, or newish to cooking in your own household, recipes may seem like a blur. Each one calls for X ingredients. You go out and buy those, you make the dish, and then you eat. Then you clean up. Division of labor as applicable.

What you may not consider is that it's a rare recipe that won't leave you with extras. Not as in leftovers. As in, a huge amount of sumac, or pumpkin pie spice, or who even knows, and then what? Did your frugality (because really, that's why you're cooking and not eating out) extend to figuring out what to do with all that zatar? Just because a dog will happily eat all the bonito flakes doesn't make that a sensible use of a huge container of the stuff.

All of this ends up in the pantry. Everyone should have a well-stocked pantry! But what does that even mean? What about the profound non-overlap of what's needed for even seemingly similar cuisines?

My own cooking is maybe 75% pseudo-Italian (that is, pasta, vegetables, olive oil, and mostly Italian cheeses, but not adhering to much traditional this-shape-goes-with-that-sauce), and another 25% whichever other cuisine I've decided to become obsessed with for the moment. Sometimes that cuisine is also Italian. Thus the semolina flour in the cabinet. Thus the successful addition of homemade pizza to the rotation. Thus the thankfully-never-purchased-but-seriously-considered pasta-maker.

But there have been others - Thai, French, Mexican, Chinese, to name a few. And my inability to recreate restaurant magic is quite something. And it's not about certain cuisines being 'exotic' - I'm an American Jew, and my attempts at American, Jewish (Ashkenazi, Israeli), and American-Jewish cuisine have been not so impressive, either. Bagels? Fuhgeddaboudit. 

I'd always thought Japanese food was going to be a must-have-outside sort of situation. I'd tried and failed to make sushi a number of times over the years, including for a dinner party (for which I'd also prepared chicken and tofu in vaguely-Asian marinade, much to the relief of my guests). I'd bought dry soba noodles, only to find that as appealing as these are out, I'm never sitting at home, thinking, gee, I could really go for some pasta that doesn't go with cheese. 

But then... "Cooking With Dog" and the rice cooker. Teaching at NYU bringing me back into contact with Sunrise Mart. All this, along with some kind of sense of a mission: I was going to make agedashi tofu at home, dashi stock and everything, and that's that. (The amazing sushi place in town doesn't seem as interested in the equally-compelling deep-fried-everything aspect of Japanese cooking.) Miso soup. Miso eggplant. Sushi - well, hand rolls. 

As one might imagine, this has meant something of a pantry overhaul. Wasabi powder! Potato starch! Kombu! Roasted sesame seeds! The obstacle here is less cost (the average item was maybe $2 - this is not truffles-and-saffron territory) than space and organization. There's just this heap of little packets of this or that. All of which will go to waste if I don't remain as captivated by this cuisine for the next three to four years.

Which means - what else could it mean? - that I will need to simply face facts. I can have two, maybe three, cuisines going at a time, without wasting all kinds of materials. With all due respect to other cuisines, it's looking like Chez WWPD is going to be an Italian/Japanese restaurant for the foreseeable future.


Britta said...

My cooking style has also been faux-Italian, and I hit a major roadblock in my cooking when I started dating an actual Italian. It turns out if the dish does not have a name and some sort of genealogy, it is not a legitimate pasta dish. Also, the pairing sauces with the right shape is a thing, as I discovered the first time he asked me if I had pasta, and I said yes, only for him to discover, when it was too late to buy more, it was the wrong shape. Luckily the meal was not completely ruined :P

I have discovered real Italian food might have the same ingredients, but takes about 3 times as long to make, and requires spending the entire time on the phone with la mama to make sure it's done right. In fairness, it's about 10 times more tasty though.

Nicholas said...

We have a similar mix of cuisines, though the proportions are reversed--mostly Chinese, with a little Italian thrown in. The big advantage of sticking with Chinese, I've found, is that there are approximately ten ingredients that show up in different amounts, all of which can be bought in bulk and which don't spoil in any realistic timeframe. Dinner decisions are reduced to which meat/vegetable combinations, rice or noodles--but the recipes are different enough that we don't get stuck in a rut. I've been unable to duplicate this with Italian so far--I blame Marcella Hazan--but there's no doubt that figuring out how to do everything cheaply and easily was a big feature in Chinese becoming the go-to food of choice in the first place. It also all fits on one shelf of the pantry, a big plus now that the house is becoming overrun with wedding-related items.

kei said...

This is an absolutely impractical suggestion, but what has gotten me to cook more Japanese at home is to go to Japan and miss it--especially the food--badly. A slightly less but still quite impractical suggestion is to watch more Japanese shows.

I don't have any suggestions for organization, but yes, having the dog help out is one of them! We give Mitsu bonito flakes too! Sometimes I'll put tofu and sprinkle her food with miso soup, too.

As for sushi rolls, what resources did you use to make them? My mom taught me a couple of subtle tricks when rolling (e.g., we always make California rolls with the nori on the inside--nori on outside is harder to roll neatly) and when cutting (make sure the knife is wet, clean it each time you cut).

Phoebe said...


"In fairness, it's about 10 times more tasty though."

I have mixed feelings/experiences with authenticity equalling tastiness. (I also have no Italians in my family. Belgians, Koreans, yes. Hungarians, even. No Italians.) Sometimes, clearly, there are traditional pairings that someone not familiar with said tradition would have never thought of, but that are wonderful. (See: pesto, sushi.) Other times, though, these can just feel like arbitrary restrictions or, worse, like instances where a little fusion would be a good thing. Example: despite my overall enthusiasm for Belgian cuisine, the preference for mayonnaise over vinaigrette on salad is not something I can get behind.


Is there a Chinese cookbook you'd recommend? With pseudo-Italian, I find it mostly works in terms of frugality/practicality. Wash a whole lot of arugula, store it properly, and put that plus cheese, lemon juice, and olive oil on pasta. There are some individual expensive ingredients (parmesan!), and the further one goes from vegetarian, the more risks spoiling. But if pasta forms the bulk of each meal, that's a lot of food that's cheap and won't go bad.


Yes, going to Japan would be ideal! (And is the plan, however distant.) I mean, just going to Tucson got me on the Mexican-cooking kick, so I can't even begin to imagine...

Japanese shows - cooking shows, or shows generally? "Cooking With Dog" has helped me just see that Japanese food can be home cooking - something I of course knew in the abstract, but there were some basics I'd have never thought of on my own. YouTube has a whole bunch, and is indeed more accessible than Japan. A miniature gray poodle is nice, but not essential, for a cooking program.

Sushi rolls... I got the mat, used the right kind of knife, but that was it. The dinner-party sushi experiment revealed a) that I'm the world's worst person at making this, and b) that a friend who's a visual artist did not seem to find it nearly so overwhelming.

Also, this was pre-rice-cooker. A now-famous story from this party is that I'd somehow managed to screw up the rice, to the point that a friend of ours from China looked at the pot, asked my husband what was in it, because that's how little it resembled rice. So not beginning with porridge may also help.

Anyway, the tricks you mention do sound like a start! I'm inspired to try again.

Sigivald said...

Terrible influence time.

If you love pasta, and have a stand mixer? Get the pasta maker.


You won't regret it. I didn't.

Phoebe said...


I hear you. But I a) don't have a stand mixer (nor room for it, what with the rice-cooker and deep-fryer), and b) think I may actually prefer dry pasta to fresh.

caryatis said...

Is it actually worth it to have a rice cooker? If you manage to produce recognizable cooked rice without it?

Nicholas said...

I swear by Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Plenty, which I understand to be the English-language Sichuan Bible. It is Sichuan, though, and so everything is at varied gradations of spicy (the fiancée does not much like that, so it can all be toned down--but it has to be consciously done). There are three or four excellent dumpling recipes, two different ways to do Dan Dan Noodles, a Kung Pao, a few sesame chicken-based recipes, and a view salads that look intriguing but that I haven't tried--enough to rotate without repeating for quite some time. From what I've gathered, one can drop over into neighboring Chinese cuisines without too much of a change in ingredients, but I've only just started on that--Dunlop kept me occupied for the last year.

Phoebe said...


As with any kitchen device, the answer is that if you don't find you need it, you don't. My rice was always a gamble, never quite right. A rice cooker does make cleanup easier, though, so it's not just about producing rice that looks like itself.