1. Clean out the pantry
There are several items sitting in your pantry right now that you will never use. There are others that I plead you not to use. Top Ramen packets come to mind. Without looking, make a mental list of all of the ingredients you have used in the last couple of months. Now look through the pantry/cupboard and remove anything that didn’t appear in the mental list. If you have an exotic spice rub from a gift basket two years ago, trust me, you are not going to get around to it. Same goes for that weird barbeque sauce that has no origin. Clear the shelves for vibrant, quality ingredients that you use often. Get rid of 3 year old spices and herbs. They may look fine, but the flavor is gone. Flavored oils have a shorter shelf life than raw oils. Check for expiration and get rid of anything that has been opened longer than six months. Donate the rest (unopened and not expired) to a food bank.
2. Less is more. Buy quality.
There are just some things we need to get cooking! You can still stay on budget and buy quality ingredients if you keep a short list of essentials.
Let’s talk salt. Quality salt takes your cooking from good to great! Always use kosher or sea salt for cooking. Stay away from the iodized variety with the yellow umbrella. It has a slightly acidic flavor that does your cooking no favors. The size of the salt grain matters. Larger grains take longer to dissolve and are better suited to slow cooked dishes. Using a grinder gives you more control when adding salt while cooking.
Use whole black peppercorns and grind as needed. Freshly ground pepper is quite different than pre-ground varieties. The flavor is stronger and more vibrant. Whenever in doubt, taste both and decide for yourself.
Beyond Italian food, oregano is a solid pantry item. Many recipes call for dried oregano. I often start with a large bunch of fresh oregano, remove the stems and dry out until it can be crumbled. It is widely available in supermarkets, but search for a quality brand that uses mainly fragrant leaves instead of stems. The greener the better!
What can I say. You can’t cook without it. A good quality olive oil is the foundation of many great meals. I usually have two different bottles on hand. One for everyday cooking with heat and one high end variety for drizzle and dressings.
Olive oil comes to us primarily from Spain, Italy and Greece. There are subtle differences in flavor and the best thing to do is taste them side by side. I prefer Spanish brands. I find that they are a little more green and earthy which is something I like in my cooking. Others swear by Italian brands for bread dipping and salad dressings. Experiment! Know the difference. This is one ingredient that has the ability to change the quality of your cooking simply by choosing the right brand!
Always buy extra virgin olive oil!
I’m still trying to exhaust all the ways this ingredient can be used. From dressings and sauces to dips and desserts, it is truly a versatile component to your kitchen cupboard. Look for the best aged balsamic that fits within your budget.
Brown rice & whole wheat pasta
Whole grains add an element of health to your kitchen. A lot of moms tell me they just can’t make the switch. I promise you can! I’ve listed my basic recipe here. It uses half butter/half olive oil and a little onion. Start to replace white rice varieties with brown rice for optimal health.
1 Tablespoon butter
1 Tablespoon olive oil
½ cup chopped onion
2 cups long grain brown rice
2 cups water
2 cups chicken stock (or water)
1 teaspoon salt
In stockpot (whichever one you have the lid for) melt butter and add oil and rice. Sauté onion and rice for about 3 minutes until rice starts to brown. Add liquid and bring to boil. Reduce to simmer, cover and let steam for 25 minutes before you even think about touching that lid!
3. Come clean with the fridge
At the beginning of every year, I remove something from the pantry that is so far beyond expiration date or usefulness, that I am somewhat ashamed. I started fridge cleansing every 9 months. When I can’t stand it anymore, I throw out everything in the fridge. Everything! Old ketchup, specialty mustard that no longer has a purpose, soy sauce, ancient taco sauce and my personal favorite, last summer’s pickles. Fridge purge is a healthy process. It sheds away the heavy, unwanted burden of fridge clutter and gives any kitchen a facelift. You can help fight bacteria and cross contamination of meats and vegetables by thoroughly cleaning out the fridge every month!
4. Choose your weapon
Keeping a tidy utensil drawer is no easy task. I continue to struggle with the idea of every utensil in its place. I find that a countertop catch-all of tongs, spatulas and wooden spoons works best. Keep the things you use everyday within easy reach on the counter in a utensil holder. Everything else like cherry pitters, pizza cutters and soup ladles (to name a few) can be tucked away in a drawer. Also, I’m a big advocate of magnetic knife strips. They just feel cleaner than blocks.
Either way, it is best not to throw knifes in a drawer. There’s nothing quite as unfortunate as reaching into a drawer and coming up against a hiding knife.
5. Plan ahead
We all know life can get hectic. A little planning goes a long way. Sunday is the perfect time to write down lunch schedules and make sure there are easy snacks available for the upcoming week. Get the family involved! Ask the kids what they would like to pack in lunches or munch on after school. You will start to see patterns in eating habits developing and this will make it easier to plan in advance.
Photo credit: Trent Lanz Photography