Saturday, November 7, 2009

Pantry Matters

I have (another) confession to make. I am easily seduced. By chefs, that is, and by chefs on television especially. Occasionally the stars and planets will align properly and the local PBS station will string a number of really good cooking shows on a Saturday afternoon, and I'll pour a glass of wine before 5 pm and sit back and enjoy them. The current lineup includes old Julia Child and Jacques Pepin episodes, and a newer entry, Avec Eric ("We cook, therefore we are"), which I just love. But I also delight in people who simply cook and write about cooking.

By far my favorite foodie is Mark Bittman, whose book Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating provided my Saturday morning reading this week. A couple of weeks ago the combination of a bit of extra cash and a 40% off Borders coupon produced two amazing additions to my cookbooks/books-on-cooking library: the Bittman book, and the companion to PBS's Spain: On the Road Again, Spain: A Culinary Road Trip, mostly by Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow--but Bittman and Spanish actress Claudia Bassols were both along for the ride. Beloved Spouse and I enjoyed the show enormously, and I'd wanted the book ever since.

So, snuggled down with the puppies (the BS is in New Haven coaching this weekend), I bit into Food Matters (sorry) and came away--as often happens when I conduct my Sabbath business of reading all morning--inspired.

Nearly ten years ago, when we first looked at this house, two things sold me: the half-acre property with a huge compost bin (useless as it turned out) and a fence full of blackberries (now long gone), and the pantry: a pantry just about the size of the one in my grandmother's kitchen at Cottonwood, where she used to put pies to cool, and which always smelled fabulous. If I ever come across that smell again, I'll undoubtedly swoon with pleasure.

My pantry, alas, doesn't have much of an odor, and if it did, it would probably waft up from the dog food bins. It's also occupied by a large hot water heater (artfully omitted in the photo; it's to the left of what I shot) that takes up way too much space. We had planned to replace the original heater with a tankless job, but the old one died on us last winter and we couldn't afford to wait the two weeks it would take to get the tankless version installed, so we had to simply replace it with a traditional, though more energy efficient, model. Some day we'll donate this one to charity and do the right thing, but for now I have to live with The Hulk.

When we were in the process of bringing the house up to code after we bought it (it had space heaters in every room, some freestanding and some built in), a safer central heating unit had to be installed, and the contractor wanted to put it in the pantry. Good thing for me that there was another alternative--a large closet adjacent to what is now the study--and he tucked it in there. The closet also houses the Beloved Spouse's tennis things, so everybody won out; and I got to keep my pantry.

Over the years, however, the pantry itself has become something of a mess, and it perennially attracts moths, so that anything not completely sealed (such as boxes of cereal or pasta) ends up with extra protein in it. The other problem now is that as I try to reduce the number of processed foods we consume, the tired shelf coverings are beginning to show, and the whole room screams for an overhaul.

What Bittman's book did for me this morning was to add direction to my already-recognized need for reorganization and general spiffing up. Little in the book is really new to me, but his approach is straightforward, no-nonsense, and a bit of a smack upside the head for those of us who preach something and don't always practice it. I do need the occasional kick in the bum to keep me honest, and Food Matters has provided the latest one.

If anyone else needs a nudge, I recommend Jane Goodall's Harvest of Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating as well. Surrounding oneself with inspiring philosophical and practical advice is one way to keep interest and energy focused on a worthwhile project.

For advice on what to put in a pantry, Aglaia Kremezi's beautiful The Mediterranean Pantry can't be beat in terms of recipes for condiments and seasonings, but a more complete list can be found in the pantry section of Clifford Wright's A Mediterranean Feast, my current food bible.

Whilst scooting around the internet on the topic of pantries, I came on Everything Pantry--a bit cute here and there, but there are sections on vintage pantries and butler's pantries. My breakfast room, which connects the kitchen and the dining room, shows signs of once having been a butler's pantry, which would have made the current pantry more of a scullery. I'm grateful for the built-in sideboard that would have held cutlery and crockery in the years after the house was built, and still does.

The Perfect Pantry is a blog focused on this very topic, with some nice entries on how to stock and use ingredients, plus a nifty continuing exploration of "Other People's Pantries"--for the food voyeur. For stocking and preserving advice, nobody is better than Sharon Astyk on Casaubon's Book. Her philosophical approach meshes nicely with Bittman's and Goodall's books.

So here's the plan: I'm tripping off to Home Depot today for better shelf paper, or perhaps some cork sheets. BS and I bought floor tiles last year to be used in the pantry and the back-porch laundry room, so I'll probably spend some time figuring out how best to install those. Since I painted the room white when we moved in, it doesn't really need to have that re-done, so I can concentrate on reorganizing shelves, rethinking contents, and simply cleaning up. I'll post the results eventually, but don't hold your breath. Inspiration comes and goes as the work load increases, and since I have grades due on Tuesday, I'll undoubtedly run out of steam as soon as I have the shelf covering in hand.


Martha Z said...

This sounds like an interesting assorment of books, I'll have to check them out.
I finally got around to getting a chest freezer. Now when I cook soups, casseroles, meatballs, and other things that lend themselves to freezing, I cook a lot and freeze the remainder. I hope that in the long run this will mean less energy consumed. We'll see.
It also means that if I don't feel like cooking, there is something homemade to thaw and heat in the microwave.

jabblog said...

H'mm, I'm inspired by cookery programmes and books, acquire the necessary ingredients - or improvise - and then lose the thread through being distracted by something else. Fortunately, our children and grandchildren have taken after my husband in being inventive, capable providers of delicious food. Mine can be wonderful or - often - disastrous!
I envy you your pantry though . . .