My Achilles Heel

I have a friend who can’t sleep at night if she has less money in the bank than she’ll need to cover 6 months of expenses. I, on the other hand, can’t sleep at night when we run out of penne pasta.

Not when we run out of pasta, mind you. That is a circumstance I can not even fathom. I literally can’t imagine what would be going on in the world that would result in my allowing myself to run out of pasta. Robot invaders, maybe?

And the thing is we don’t even eat that much pasta. I just happen to be a woman who likes a well-stocked pantry. “Likes” may not be a strong enough word here, but you get the idea.

I have no idea where this weird quirk of mine came from. My Mama thinks I must have been poor and gone hungry in a previous life. Maybe so, but  you can be damned sure I’ve never gone hungry in this one.

Here are a couple of things you should know before you judge me:

1. Most of the time I would rather eat my own cooking than go out. Someone should be benefitting from all that money my ex-husband spent on Culinary School, right? (Thanks, Steve!)

2. Erin and Paige receive room and board as part of there compensation.

and

3. Although we are just three women living here, farm chores make you hungry. And believe me when I say that those two tiny girls can eat!

In addition to copious amounts of flour (unbleached and whole wheat), sugar, brown sugar and Kosher salt, here’s my list of essentials.

Every once in a while I’ll wish I had lived in Sense and Sensibility era but then I remember that they didn’t have canned tomatoes or ziplock bags. Canned tomatoes might be the most important invention of all time. I am being deadly serious.  I buy Diced, Whole, Sauce and Paste at Costco in 8 or 12 packs of cans.

It is a cruel fact of life that, in spite of my Southern pedigree, I can’t make biscuits. Lord knows I have tried! There is not one fool-proof recipe that I haven’t screwed up. Which is why I have such an enduring fondness for Southern Biscuit Original Restaurant Style Biscuit Mix Formula L. [I don't know why the Formula L.] I have reason to believe that it’s only sold in the South but it’s 100% worth the drive if you care at all about biscuits like I do.

Dried beans really are a world better than canned but they are also a PITA when you’re trying to make dinner on a weeknight. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret that will blow your mind: You can soak beans, drain off the excess liquid and freeze them for future use. This is my new favorite trick and the beans suffer not one iota in the process.

Polenta-in-a-tube doesn’t hold a candle to real polenta but it’s good enough for everyday dinners when you’re sick of pasta and rice. We keep it mostly for breakfasts- saute polenta slices until crispy and top with a fried egg and pesto or tomato sauce.

Pasta of many shapes and sizes. As you can see I don’t have a preference as to brand; I stock up with whatever is on sale.

Ounces for ounce, Dried Mushrooms pack more flavor in a small space than almost anything else. Great for whomping up a weak sauce.

The Three Horsemen of the Baking Apocalypse. Keep these on hand and you’ll never want for cookies.

Speaking of baking, why oh why would anybody ever buy just one pound of butter? I mean, it freezes beautifully and you know you’re going to need butter again, right? I stock up when it’s on sale. Always unsalted. I do the same with cream cheese and whipping cream.

Speaking of the freezer, as you might have guessed, we have a large one. Not huge or anything- I think it’s 12 cubic feet?- but it plays a key part in my being able to leave the farm as little as possible.

But I’m getting ahead of myself with all this freezer talk. Back in the pantry I always have a 20 pound bag of Royal Basmati Rice from Costco. It’s wicked cheap and the best, most consistent rice I’ve ever used. I also keep couscous, wild rice and boil-in-bag brown rice on hand. Right now we also have quinoa but I don’t use it often. I can’t keep more than a couple of pounds of potatoes and sweet potatoes because they seem to get soft and eye-y so quickly, but I’ve heard that keeping them in a wooden box buried under some sand extends their life, so someday I might try that. Of course we always have 10 or so pounds of onions, loads of fresh garlic and shallots. (I never knew how crucial shallots are to fine cooking until I went to Culinary School.)

We eat a good bit of oatmeal using the rice cooker method I wrote about last winter- I always buy whole oats, never Quick or Instant.

I like to have a large container of cooking Olive Oil and another smaller bottles of Extra Virgin Olive Oil for dressing salads- NOT FOR COOKING. It drives me nuts when tv chefs recommend Extra Virgin for cooking with because all of the subtle nuances that make it Extra Virgin are destroyed with heating and it’s more expensive. I also keep canola oil on hand but use it very little, and a couple of specialty oils like Walnut and Grape, although we don’t really use them enough to justify the expense. Oil goes rancid so quickly so you should never buy more than you think you’ll use fairly quickly. Vinegar wise I have cheap, grocery store Balsamic (which isn’t really Balsamic at all, but whatever), really good, aged Balsamic, a good white wine or Champagne vinegar and one or two other specialty vinegars for mixing salad dressings. Right now I think I have sherry vinegar and raspberry. Of course we also have plain ole white and apple cider as well. Oh, and shortening for making cookies.

EDITED TO ADD: Totally forgot another great trick I learned in Culinary School. Keep a bottle of Sherry- NOT COOKING SHERRY- and a bottle of Maderia in your pantry at all times. You can use them as a substitute for white and red wines (respectively) in recipes for more intensity of flavor. And because they are fortified wines, they’re shelf stable and last forever. Much more convenient than opening a bottle of wine when you only need half a cup for your stew or whatever.

We also have an ample supply of peanut butter- which can save a hungry person- and Nutella, pancake mix for Sundays, a couple of boxes olives, “emergency” cake mix and some “thin and crispy” premade pizza crusts for last minute dinners.

And of course, there’s a whole shelf devoted entirely to ingredients for my granola: coconut, various kinds of nuts, dried cranberries and blueberries, etc. (I am working on a recipe to convert the granola into granola bars. I’ll let you know when it’s ready.)

Now, back to the freezer. I keep it stocked with all the usual stuff: whole chickens- because Roast Chicken is my go-to comfort food, a couple of roasts and loins and loads and loads of homemade chicken stock.

In fact, I could probably live without the extra freezer if it wasn’t for the chicken stock. I use Nigella Lawson’s method of stock-making, basically saving all the chicken bones whenever we have chicken in a ziplock bag in the freezer until I have a lot and then making several gallons of stock at a time. I do the same with vegetable scraps, throwing onion skins and end pieces as well as celery and carrots scraps, mushrooms stems, etc in a ziplock till it’s full. When I have five or six full bags I make vegetable stock.

There are a couple of  super cool thing we’ve started doing with our big freezer. One is buying four or five baguettes from the bakery at a time and freezing them so that we always have good bread for dinner. I just grab one out of the freezer and put it in a hot over for 5 or 6 minutes just before we eat.

Also, whenever I make cookie dough now I scoop out the dough on a cookie sheet and put the whole thing in the freezer overnight. In the morning I toss all the dough scoops into a ziplock and label it with the baking instructions on the bag. That way Erin and Paige can make one or two cookies whenever they want one without us having a ton of fattening desserty stuff sitting around tempting me.

The freezer also comes in handy when things like bacon go on sale, cause let me tell you, these girls can eat some bacon!

As for the regular fridge, my staples are celery and carrots for making mirepoix (which nearly everything starts with), lots of kind of of cheese for grilled cheese sandwiches, quesadillas, mac and cheese and snacks, tortillas, 2% milk that no one drinks and I keep vowing to stop buying, lemons and limes, really good prepared pesto and salad greens.

And that, in a nut shell, is everything. I hope I haven’t bored you to tears with this exhaustive look inside my pantry. If you have any questions just leave them in the comments and I’ll try to answer them in this post.

47 Comments

  1. YUM!!!! This is why I like coming over. Well that and the sheep, goats, hard work, yarn, fun times, good company, and YOU. But we had so much fun in and around the kitchen, it’s clear that a well-stocked kitchen is very important.

    I love the tip about freezing soaked beans! That’s a GREAT tip and totally makes this post worth it, if for nothing else. :)

  2. Yeah, when can I come over for dinner ^_~ Your freezer is way more organized than ours.

    I love the way you handle cookie dough, I may have to start doing that myself. We don’t/shouldn’t eat cookies enough to merit baking them as much as I like to, but doing that would just be perfect!

  3. Can I come to live at your house?

  4. I think we may have been separated at birth. Our pantries certainly look like twins!

    My husband was giving me his Curious Face one day as I was unloading a case of diced tomatoes, and I told him, “You might get tired of pasta and red sauce in my house, but you Will Not Go Hungry.”

    So there!

  5. OMG!! You are far more organized than I could ever imagine being. I just hope my “DH” doesn’t read your blog or I’m doomed to try to live up. Great kitchen!

  6. wow, i was amazed that we seem to think alike when it comes to preparing for future meals! what i didnt know was the trick with the beans!!! thanks! i love beans, but usually use canned cuz i cannot think about soaking beans overnight, etc. did u learn this lil gem from cooking school!?

  7. ok, now all you need it some corn tortillas, ribeye steaks, and some big fat fresh jalpenos for tacos this coming weekend!!! (those are staples in my kitchen) :)

  8. I am a great follower of your site, a live vicariously through it really. One suggestion, have you considered doing a cooking school in the same way you have a week for people who come to stay on the farm with you?

  9. Maureen J (mljan)

    December 28, 2009 at 8:35 pm

    Jacques Pepin says that he just starts beans cooking without any pre-soaking, his theory being that it’s the soaking that slightly ferments the beans and gives you gas.

    My garage freezer, not too big, is filled with marinara sauce made from my home grown tomatoes (almost 100 pounds of tomatoes processed this year from my city garden), bread. whole roasting chickens when they’re on sale (so satisfying to have a wonderful grilled chicken dinner for less than the price of a Big Mac), and all my bread making ingredients, flour, yeast, starters. They all stay reasonably fresh much longer, and, more importantly, no bugs.

    I also have some Girl Scout cookies, Thin Mints, hidden in the back ;)

    • Susan

      December 28, 2009 at 9:07 pm

      Maureen, I hate to disagree with Jacques, but most people just don’t have time to cook beans without soaking them first which means that they either resort to canned beans- which are appallingly bad and over salted- or just don’t eat them at all. By pre-soaking and freezing them you’ll always have some one hand.

  10. Loved your tips on cookie dough, dried beans, bread, and stock-making! I am curious – are those individual baskets in your freezer part of the freezer or did you buy those and stack them? (newsas on rav)

  11. SusanI (Olliepup)

    December 28, 2009 at 8:41 pm

    Love the tip about the cookies and the beans. I hate to have lots of cookies around but would like some when the grandkids come. I will try this. Also, I like beans but hate the soaking etc. so I usually used canned. I will also try this idea. Great pantry, wish mine was as organized.

  12. It’s surprising how interesting a post like this is! I love to see all the things you keep as essentials–and the tips you’ve passed along from culinary school. Thanks!

    A quick question, from one Fort Worth girl to another—-do you have any tried-and-true Tex-Mex recipes that you love? I’m living here in upstate NY, about as far away from real Tex-Mex as you can get, and I realize that if I want to have my enchiladas suizas or flautas, I’m going to have to make them myself. Do you have any recipes you just love and could pass along? (In your spare time, of course… ;)

    • Susan

      December 28, 2009 at 9:02 pm

      Tracy, this is your lucky week! My friend Suzy is coming this weekend and we’re going to post a tutorial for Kip’s Tacos and some other goodies that you will love. Even as far south as VA I have to resort to self-help when it comes to Mexican food, so I completely understand where you are coming from.

  13. Oh, thank you thank you thank you! I’ll be waiting on pins and needles. (The Old El Paso tacos I had tonight with Wegman’s [made in Rochester] salsa just didn’t do it for me.) I can really use some good recipes in my repertoire!

  14. So you have chicken stock labeled Scarlet, Mustard, Emerald and Juniper Green? Or do you store dye in the freezer too? Love the tip about the beans and cookies. It’s silly for me to make a batch of cookies unless someone will take most of them. This will work great for me!

    • Susan

      December 28, 2009 at 9:21 pm

      LOL! Actually, I am just super-lazy and didn’t scrub the dye names of the top of the lids before reusing them for stock. I washed them- no worries there- but we write on them in Sharpie and it’s not easy to remove.

  15. would you be willing to share that toffee shortbread recipe as well? ;)

  16. but if you have to open a bottle of wine for cooking….well, then you get to drink the rest of the bottle….

  17. Susie, Susie, Susie. You are sayin’ you’re a Southern gal and you don’t know how to make scratch biscuits? Honey, when I get home from Hong Kong (14 months left now), I’m comin’ to Virginia to teach you how to make’em. I’m originally from Birmingham, and I’ve been making scratch biscuits for Yankees, Japanese, Chinese and Australians for years. Blows them away.

    And….I did NOT see any pictures of grits in your pantry photos. PLEEEEEEZ tell me that you have some, and you just forgot to take a picture…

    Susan in HK

  18. Thank you for this post. I would have enjoyed it normally as I enjoy food and cooking myself, but today this post gave me something to take my mind off of my heartbreak. Tonight I had my beloved greyhound put to sleep after 12 and 3/4 long years of life. She is my baby girl and I love her more than anything! And reading your post helped me to calm my nerves and settle myself. So thank you.

    • Susan

      December 28, 2009 at 10:42 pm

      Oh Kari. My heart breaks for you. I lost Biscotti, my Maremma, about a year ago and I still can’t even talk about it. Be gentle with yourself and know that you made her life lovely and amazing.

  19. Wow…this is an excellent post! Great cooking tips! I do have to call shenanigans on you though, for this comment:
    Much more convenient than opening a bottle of wine when you only need half a cup for your stew or whatever

    That’s totally bogus, and you know it. There is NO SUCH THING as “only needing half a cup”.
    Crazy talk, woman. There are children in Africa who don’t have wine to drink, you know.

  20. Thank you for the cookie tip! I love to make cookies but there are only two of us now and I hated having to throw away stale ones.
    I will also be passing your bean tip off to my daughter who uses a lot of dry beans!
    If you ever need someone else to work the farm for room and board please keep me in mind!!

  21. Wow, you are so amazingly organized. And you’ve given me lots of good ideas so I have what I need on hand.

    What I do for beans is: I don’t presoak them at all although they do cook for awhile. I put them in the crockpot overnight with the amount of water varying depending on the type of beans. Kidney beans, which I make the most, take 3 cups of water for every cup of dry beans. I love homemade chili in the winter or cornbread baked over spiced beans and always have the ingredients for both on hand. Anyway I start with the crockpot on high while I’m awake, usually a few hours, then change it to low while I sleep. By morning they are cooked. The crockpot makes the whole thing easy-peasy. And homecooked beans are so much better than canned. Then I do freeze any extra. I always have beans on hand.

    I love your blog. I could be happy living the way you do.

  22. HilaryGermany (in Sicily)

    December 29, 2009 at 5:53 am

    We love beans, but don’t need huge quantities at one time, being a small household. I object to the amount of energy it takes to cook ‘em, (unless I do ‘em on the grill or in our wood-fire pizza oven, after the main use is done.) Solution: The Stainless Steel Thermos! 1 cup lentils, fill w/ boiling water, leave 1 hour. Perfect lentils. Small white beans: about 1.5 hours. Large beans – 2 hours, drain, refill with fresh boiling water and let sit another hour or so. It’s critical to always lay the thermos on it’s side to prevent the beans packing themselves into the bottom of the thermos!! Rice can also be cooked this way — especially brown and wild rice.

    Steel cut oats: soak in cold water the night before. then in the morning they only need to cook about 10 minutes – another major reduction in gas/electricity. In fact, with an electric stove, you can just bring ‘em to the boil, turn off the ring, cover & let sit on the ring for 10 minutes.I do this with white rice, leaving covered for 20 min, and pasta, leaving covered for 10-15 min.

    I didn’t see any fish in your freezer! Or ground pistacchio in the pantry. I can’t keep house any more without ground pistacchio!!

  23. HilaryGermany (in Sicily)

    December 29, 2009 at 7:52 am

    I totally forgot: Rancid oils: You can store oils in the refrigerator or freezer to extend shelf life. Just let sit on the counter overnight before using. If overnight thawing is a problem, store the oil in a straight sided container, so you can pop it out and grate what you need off the frozen block. (no – I won’t tell how I know…..)

    Walnut oil: I only keep 2 kinds of oil in the house. Extra Virgin Cold-pressed Olive oil (right now I can get it unfiltered, the same day as the harvest and pressing) and walnut oil. Both are considered to be ‘heart-healthy’ oils. Since walnut oil is not available in Sicily, I have friends in Germany supply me with it. I use it in all sweet baking, It’s superb as either a total or 50% replacement for butter and other fats. I use it to completely swap out for butter in banana, zucchini or carrot bread and brownies. In cookies I replace about 1/2 of the butter with walnut oil. For pastry, swap out all the lard or butter with walnut oil. (for savory pies use olive oil)

    Now for the deep, dark secret: I’ve actually used Extra Virgin Olive Oil to make yellow cakes. From a box! The only comments made were how great it tasted, and how moist it was. No one could discern a flavour or colour difference when the olive oil was used.

  24. Yeah, I’m going to need you to publish/link/share that toffee shortbread recipe. Sounds amazing!

  25. To eliminate soaking the beans, someone told me this a long time ago: Put beans in the pot that you intend to cook them in. Cover with about an inch of water. Put the cover on the pot, bring to a boil, then simmer for 30 minutes. Fill with fresh water, return to stove, add ham bone or smoked ham hock (or not) bring to another boil, reduce heat to simmer and cook til beans are done. Works for me!

  26. Hi Susan, if you haven’t found La Michoacana in C’ville on High Street I totally recommend their house made corn tortillas. They are the tops for beans and rice dinners and quick quesadillas. It is a fantastic little hole in the wall place where everything is home made including the rockin’ salsas.

    I heart my freezer.

  27. Thanks for the tip on cooking with “cooking olive oil” vs. EVOO. It hadn’t occurred to me, or I had forgotten that the extra-virgin part was destroyed with high heat.
    Thanks also for the tip on soaking and freezing dried beans; will have to try that!
    Re- your biscuit mix, I don’t want to be a buzzkill, but the “L” may stand for lard. Just sayin’.
    Re- your granola recipe from another post, it is my go-to recipe for granola. Yes, it is a PITA, but it is so worth it.

    Cheers, Erin

  28. Don’t forget that 2% milk can also be frozen. We use freezer jars in varying sizes according to recipes.

  29. OMG! I seriously learned so much with this post!!! Wow, man, your instincts on what is interesting vs what is totally boring are WAY off… I’m going to send this to Ken.

  30. I, too, thought this was an interesting post. I would like to ask, why unsalted butter only? I have been at the grocery store multiple times lately, looking at the butter, telling myself I should really learn the difference between the two (besides the obvious that one has salt and one does not). There must be pros and cons to each option. Please enlighten me.

  31. Great information! Especially the bean trick. Can you really freeze dairy products? I had no idea!

    I’d love to hear more about what you do with mirepoix. Once the mirepoix is made up, what direction do you take it in?

  32. Three women alone in an isolated farmhouse without vanilla beans????

    I’d be terrified.

    • Susan

      December 29, 2009 at 7:51 pm

      No worries! I didn’t write about what’s in my spice cupboard- that’s a blog post for another day.

  33. smile, your freezer and pantry sound like ours! although most of our tomatoes and sauces are home canned. Have you read barbara kingsolvers animal vegetable miracle? good read! i use her recipe for a 30 pound batch of tomato canning in a day, beautiful! (and we have the huge bag of organic quinoa and the small bag of basmati)

  34. You’ve just made me really want to come over for dinner. (And cookies. And breakfast.)

  35. Sadly, there is not much in your pantry that I can eat except the beans and broth. I am borderline diabetic and starting to fall off the edge. But cutting all refined carbs has brought my blood sugar back to a safer level and the weight is starting to come off as well. So, if I stay on track, I’ll be able to eat the occasional pasta, rice, bread or cookies again in about, oh, maybe a year and half.

  36. OK, it’s official…with this blog post, I’m in love with you! =0)

  37. You know, between this and all your other posts you really make it sound like a wonderful and fun life living on your farm. Certainly challenging and exhausting, but rewarding and fun. Thanks!

  38. I am curious about freezing cream. I’ve tried but the consistency afterwards is weird. And the ice cream I’ve tried to make was not a good smoothness. Is there some special trick to freezing it?

  39. wow i’m so glad i’m not the only one who likes having food stocked and things on hand just in case!
    i too must have been starved in another life–it certainly wasn’t this one.
    hugs and love to kari (i think that’s u’r name) who had to put down her puppy dog. DO know she will always be with you because LOVE NEVER DIES.
    much love to all of you this day before new years eve.
    hugs
    and more love,
    rona

  40. ABOUT BISCUITS: A coworker, like me, can’t make biscuits from scratch either, so she told me what helped her. Someone told her to mix heavy cream and flour (I use self-rising) into a dough, cut it, and bake it just like you would regular biscuits. They came out great! No sweat!

  41. I think I’ll just move in.

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