Each week I find myself engaging in a bit of insanity. We go to the grocery store, we buy food for the week, then we come home and I attempt to stuff new canned items and basics into an already overflowing pantry. Why do I do this?
The food in the pantry is good stuff. I bought it all with recipes in mind. There's only one or two items that are "experimental" in there.
The problem is, I simply forget to start my menu plans for the week from what I already have on hand. I always plan menus around seasonal produce, but I forget about the remaining grains and staples I bought for all of those meals. Now that it is winter, and seasonal produce is all but absent, it's time to focus on the pantry — and save a lot of money. Just by doing an inventory of what you have on hand, planning meals to incorporate the stuff you have already bought, you can limit your grocery cart contents to the few fresh items, meats and dairy for the week.
You'd be surprised at what you can build from you staples. This morning, I found a half cup of oat flakes and a half cup of spelt flakes. Neither quantity was enough for cooked breakfast cereal for the whole family, but both together, ground in the food processor, plus some brown bananas made great wholegrain waffles.
Various kinds of rice, couscous, pasta, quinoa clutter my shelves. All of these ingredients can stretch a small amount of protein and some vegetables, especially canned beans, into a whole meal — with leftovers for my brown bag lunches.
Over the next few weeks (five weeks until the first farmers market to be exact). I need to save up for fresh, local goodness and use up what I have on hand. Look for some recipes that use a lot of grains and pantry staples.
Mark Bitten recently published his list of "must haves" for the pantry. It's an okay list, but there are a few points where I differ. For example, he recommends making your own fresh bread crumbs over the purchased kind, and your own stock. Both of these recommendations are great — if you have time. I don't always have enough of that. Some of the ingredients will be new turf unless you regularly cook out of Gourmet magazine.
The best tip (from me) is to try and avoid buying any ingredient you will only use in one dish, and will only use part of.
Bittman also recommends a healthy list of spices to grind fresh — and that you should toss them out once a year. Spices can be pretty pricey, though you can save money on a lot of them by shopping at Indian food markets. Buy in small quantities if it is a spice you will not use much.
Bittman also recommends using dried beans over canned. I would say fresh shelled is the best, but it's rare to find those even in season, and a lot of work. By all means, try them fresh if you can. If you cook beans often, a pressure cooker can reduce your cooking time for dried beans quite a bit.
The points I most agree with on his list of pantry staples; forget about bottled salad dressings. It's easier and far healthier to make your own, stock a variety of grains and nuts, and keep winter squash and sweet potatoes around. I do that last one really well. Really. Well.