About two months ago a friend paid me a compliment that I keep returning to and treasuring. She was helping me pack up and rearrange things in the pantry, in anticipation of the house going on the market. At one point she told me that she really admired and envied my well-stocked pantry.
I know that many, many cookbooks are happy to tell you what you should have in your pantry, what a "well-stocked pantry" will have. But what I find is that it is more important to know what my family likes, eats, and tends to think would be tasty. Lots of tomato products. Various kinds of beans and rices and pastas. Certain produce should always be on hand, certain condiments. Certain categories of food can be completely dispensed with (any kind of fish, any canned soup product).
My friend's comment was especially nice to hear because I do take a certain secret (up until now) pride in my pantry - in the readiness of it. I like it that I can do a decent amount of baking and cook on the fly, if need be. I like being able to pull a nice lunch together on the spur of the moment, especially in the summer when Chris and I are both pretty much home for lunch together most days. It's nice to grab up a bunch of good-looking peaches at the store and come home and waffle between pie and cobbler for a while, and know that either one could be made from what is on hand. Or bringing home an awful lot of zucchini in a CSA box and knowing I have everything I need for zucchini bread.
Getting those CSA boxes has really given me some great opportunities to exercise my pantry - both the physical pantry and also what I think of as my mental pantry, which is not so much stocked with food as with ideas about food. I have loved our CSA this summer - I learned a lot last summer about how to manage the box, what to expect, and how to work in new veggies for my family. There have been many fewer incidents of throwing things away completely unused. There have been times we haven't used something up entirely, and there have been times we just couldn't bring ourselves to eat more of something (I'm looking at you, kohlrobi), but on the whole, way fewer than last year.
The other night I made a fresh corn polenta recipe from the recent Bon Appetit - the only thing I needed from the store was the mascarpone. We had it with grilled chicken with some leftover jerk marinade that Chris has made a few days before, and with green beans - all the veggies involved were from the CSA. There was leftover polenta, of course, and once refrigerated it firmed up nicely. Earlier in the week I'd made tomatillo salsa from CSA tomatillos, onions, and jalapenos, and we had that with stacked cheese enchiladas, but there was extra salsa, of course.
So, the other day, faced with lunchtime and not wanting a sandwich, I started poking around the mental pantry. Here's what we ended up with: leftover chicken (retail chicken, nothing too virtuous there), and then a pan-fried polenta slice topped with a salad of chopped tomatoes (two kinds from the farmer's market) and black-eyed peas that just happened to be in the pantry and the leftover tomatillo salsa. It was the kind of plate that I find myself looking at with great satisfaction.
It was a combination of the "luck of the box" from the CSA and a prepared pantry. And it fit in with what we are striving towards: only buying what we might call ingredients, basic building blocks, and trying to buy locally and/or responsibly. (In this last respect, that leftover chicken totally didn't fit in.) But if we can keep to these rough guidelines, we can have meals like that: Totally unplanned, totally made up, totally delicious.