Something about Stocking Your Kitchen (realistically)

I started writing this post six months ago about initially stocking your kitchen/building your pantry and stopped when I realized it was already too long. Rather than edit it, I think I’ll stand by what I wrote.  I realize I’m not following the rules of holding reader interest (don’t make the paragraphs too long) but, eh, I’ll figure it out later.

For those who do think the post is too long or don’t care about the details, here’s the TL;DR version of the minimum of what you should/could have in your kitchen:

Kitchen equipment
8-10” frying pan
1-2 qt sauce pan/pot
Cutting board (non-porous)
Chef’s knife
Paring knife
Long-handled spoon
Spatula
Manual can opener
Set of measuring cups
Set of measuring spoons
Dish towels, 2
Aluminum foil
Knife, spoon, fork (one set per person)
Cup/glass (one per person)
Bowl (one per person)

Pantry staples
Rice
Pasta, dry
Beans, dried
Salt
Pepper
Hot sauce
Canned vegetables
Canned meat
Cooking oil (vegetable/canola/safflower)

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Once again, it’s taken me a bit of time to get back to another blog post. Legitimate reasons aside (poor health), I’ve still missed even a remote semblance of being on track.

So, unless you know me personally, you don’t know that I’ve had a slew of debilitating health issues for about 1.5 years now. Having been back at work for a couple of months now (two, people, TWO!), I’ve still had to tackle rising health annoyances now and then and that includes, of course, dietary concerns. Interestingly, I also received a work e-mail from the healthy living people on some better lunches challenge. It reminded me of the frustrating lack of realism with a lot of info on how to eat better, how to save money on food, how to build your kitchen.

Wow, this is starting to read like a rant already when I don’t want to rant. Well, not really. Not too long ago on FB, I railed about yet another one of those articles on how to make inexpensive meals. For example, unrealistically quoting the cost of half a tomato or a few drops of olive oil. Seriously, on what planet is anyone able to buy just what the recipe calls for? There’s also considering the audience for such articles. If you’re like me, then you’re blessed with actually having quite a bit of space already and, likely, already have said tomato and bottle of olive oil. I’d like to read great tips for those with limited space and/or limited income and/or limited access to a grocery store – say an apartment-size refrigerator with six ravenous mouths to feed while having to take the bus, at best, to get to the grocery store. One article I just skimmed over lists as a must-have pantry staple coconut milk of all things, http://www.thekitchn.com/10-pantry-staples-not-to-be-ca-125310?li_source=LI&li_medium=in-post__bottom.

I’ll admit that most of the items listed sound like solid staples, but I found coconut milk to be really unrealistic, same with raisins, tuna in a pouch, and boxed cereal. Boxed cereal tends to be pretty expensive for how far it goes; oatmeal would’ve been a far better option (yes, in my opinion). Between how much food comes in a cereal box vs. the oatmeal container and the cost of said cereal vs. oatmeal, it’s a bit of a no-brainer isn’t it? I’ll also admit the article assumes the readers already have the “basic” staples, but, again, what audience would normally already have KOSHER salt, OLIVE oil and BALSAMIC vinegar?

Ranting again so I did go back and take a more thorough look at the article. I still don’t agree with it (and I have always have a pretty stocked kitchen), but I don’t want to possibly get skewered for not really reading it (if anyone other than Gabriel is reading, that is!).

So, back to what I actually wanted to discuss – how to stock your kitchen in a realistic fashion. Like the writers of the article above, it really is based on my opinion and experience, but my experience also involves having almost no storage space, not that much income and no car. I thought along the lines of the show “Survivor.” What’re they often given rations of? Rice – white rice, I think. I like white rice; I do. So, pantry staples would be the first consideration.

Oops, stop there. What kitchen equipment you either have on hand/have access to or will be acquiring will determine what pantry staples you want to have. If you don’t have at least a small pot, you likely won’t be able to cook rice.

So, kitchen equipment to start? A lot of what I’ve read recommends having at least one frying pan and one pot. I’d agree with that. If you’re cooking for 1-2, my feeling is an 8-10” frying pan would work (actually, probably a bit more than two, but I wouldn’t go any smaller as 8” is already small). I’d go with cast iron, like from Lodge (or Lodge Logic – I’m never really sure). It’s really durable, easy to clean (no soap as it’ll ruin the pan seasoning) and isn’t very expensive. It’s also pretty versatile as it can be used on the stove, in the oven or, even, when camping. On the Lodge Logic website, http://shop.lodgemfg.com/prodcat/skillets-and-covers.asp, they list their 8-10.25” skillets at $19.25 to $26.75 (I’m pretty sure I was able to get the 12” skillet at Smart & Final for around $20-25 so I wouldn’t buy directly from the manufacturer – just look at their website to figure out what you want first). Cast iron is pretty heavy so that would be the downside vs. getting an inexpensive Teflon-coated frying pan. I always read that cast iron should be seasoned first, but both Gabriel and I have yet to do that with any of our cast iron frying pans so who knows (we might’ve done that over time, as opposed to before using them).

I’m not sure what a great option is for a stove pot. Again, if you’re limited on space and funds, I’d go with something that can be used on the stove AND in the oven, which most pots cannot do. If I could only have one pot then, again, I’d likely get one of the Lodge Logic dutch ovens, http://shop.lodgemfg.com/prodcat/dutch-ovens.asp. The problem is they don’t have a long handle so you’d need both hands to move it around. Also, I don’t know if I’d consider them inexpensive at $37.50-$42.50. If only one pot can be had, then a 2-qt would be the smallest I would go, unless you’re only cooking enough for one meal for 1-2, then a 1-qt might work. If you want to cook something like dried beans, then I really wouldn’t go with a 1-qt pot. I don’t even know if that would be big enough, really. Googling “best inexpensive stove pot” and “best inexpensive saucepan” really didn’t provide me with good results. I guess my advice here would be buy the best stove pot/saucepan you can afford that’s no smaller than two quarts and has a lid that’s not glass (I don’t find glass lids practical, especially not if your budget is pretty limited). Also, if possible, find a pot that can also be used in the oven. Smart & Final has a 5-qt pot for $26, but it doesn’t come with a lid. However, I’ve used aluminum foil more than once to serve as a lid (and I’ve seen it done at a lunch counter). Since aluminum foil is one of those items I’d say to have on hand to start, you could buy a pot with no lid.

Wow, this can get pretty long, and I’ve really only talked about two items. Back to the pantry staples for a moment – by having a pot, then you can cook basic and inexpensive pantry staples like rice, beans and pasta. Seriously, if you can buy a pot that’s also oven-rated, do so (yes, for me, preferably cast iron). You can also use that pot and that pan to bake things like cake and bread. Just, also, keep in mind the size of your oven. The oven that was in my kitchen when we bought our house looked like it was the original oven from 50 years prior and was pretty small inside. I doubt any of my half-sheet baking pans would’ve fit in it (fortunately, we got rid of it since it didn’t work anyway and replaced it with an oven of a more “normal” size).

So, are you getting yet the importance of those first few items of kitchen equipment? The idea is when you’re limited on space and money, get something that’s super-versatile.
An inexpensive cutting board is good to have. I have several different types, but the easiest to use and store would be the flexible ones. Granted, the ones I have are really small but, again, if you’re limited on space, I’d go with those, and you really should have at least three – one for non-meat, one for meat that’s not poultry and one for poultry. Amazon has a set of five in different colors for $10, https://www.amazon.com/MIU-Flexible-Cutting-Board-Set/dp/B00011RTE8. However, I’d rather go with the ones that actually have a food picture on them or else you have to remember which color goes with which type of food. If you can only afford one, get one that is nonporous as those are easier to clean than something like wood, which is porous. I was just looking online for what material tends to be recommended and, of course, there’s a recommendation for getting a cutting board with a well/lip that’ll catch any run-off from the food. Yes, I do have one of these, and I love it for cutting juicy foods like watermelon or a freshly-cooked roast due to the run-off factor. However, it’s not a must-have, and it took me a few years to buy one once I’d heard of them and then shopping for one was a whole process in and of itself (there are a lot of these cutting boards out there that have pitifully small – read basically useless – wells or are too small overall to be practical).

For kitchen utensils, it’s good to start with these:
Long-handled spoon
Spatula
Manual can opener
Chef’s knife (size is according to what’s most comfortable in your hand)
Paring knife (this can double as a vegetable peeler but if you can afford one, get a vegetable peeler also)

I’d figure out what kind of cookware to buy before obtaining the spoon and spatula. If you decide to go with nonstick, you’d need to get a spoon and spatula of the appropriate material or risk scratching your nonstick cookware.

Set of measuring cups
Set of measuring spoons

For the measuring cups and measuring spoons, I’d say get any if cost is a huge concern because while the accuracy of these is rather important (because they are often inaccurate I’ve read over and over and over again), it’s better to have some than none. Really, unless you’re doing something like baking, any measuring cups and any measuring spoons will do (and, with baking, I use a food scale anyway for the sake of accuracy, as weight is far more accurate than volume – however, a food scale doesn’t even register as far as being a necessity; it’s like that coconut milk I mentioned earlier). You should also have a measuring cup for liquids, but, I’ll admit, I don’t really like having to break out yet another item that’ll have to be washed so I’ll often use the measuring cups for my liquids.

For eating utensils – really, a fork and spoon if just for one person (because the paring knife can also be used for eating, which I do all the time). For more than one person, then, minimally, per person in the household, one fork, one spoon, one knife. Same with beverage cups and dishes. Again, I’m keeping in mind cost and space. I know people will often say something like, “Oh, a set of dishes is pretty cheap; I found some at Target for $20.” I’ll agree, $20 is pretty cheap…for me. However, that $20 could go far in buying food (if used wisely) so a $20 set of dishes is an extravagance. Thrift shops are often a good place to get kitchen items, even the better stuff. I once scored in a DAV when I found some Nordic Ware pans for way below what they’d cost retail. I wasn’t familiar with the brand at the time but could tell they were good quality based on how heavy they were. I think I got 3-4 pans for around $10 when they normally would’ve cost $100-150 new. However, I had a car to get to that DAV so I could easily lug around these heavy pans. I still likely would’ve bought them if I had to take the bus but might’ve first done some serious consideration as far as how I was going to get them home before buying them.

I’d have at least two dish towels so that you can always have one at hand if the other’s being washed. More than two would be great since they, too, are versatile (see below).
A pot holder or two is good to have but, really, a dish towel can double (that’s what we used all the time in my culinary classes; I don’t recall seeing a single pot holder there, although we did have oven mitts).

While I’d like to say a colander is a must-have, it really isn’t. When you don’t have one, you learn to use other things to help strain out the liquid, like a pot lid or a can lid.
So, back to pantry staples now that we have the kitchen equipment covered (I think).

Rice (not stuff like instant, which having grown up on regular rice, I’ve never had, but I suspect you get more regular rice for your dollar than a box of processed rice). Again, with limited space, you’d probably want to go with a 5-lb bag. Type of rice is personal preference. I grew up on short-grain white rice so that was my preference for years. Nowadays, I stick with a mix of Gen-Ji-Mai brown rice and whatever’s cheapest medium-grain brown rice (Gen-Ji-Mai’s a little on the pricey side where rice is concerned but if you want something that’s close in texture to short- or medium-grain rice but healthier for you, try Gen-Ji-Mai). While brown rice is a healthier choice than white, it will not stay good as long as white because it’s not processed. Or, that’s what I’ve read as mine has been fine.

Beans, dry. What type is personal preference; I was looking at this list, http://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-stock-the-high-quality-low-budget-pantry-171057 and disagree with how specific it is regarding dry bean type. I, for one, don’t go for black beans if I can help it. Also, I don’t usually cook dry beans but often find them listed as a pantry staple since they don’t need to be refrigerated. I have eaten lots of meals of different types of rice with different bean dishes, and it is a pretty inexpensive and satisfying meal. Scratch my earlier statement about me not usually cooking dry beans. I don’t typically cook dry beans other than MUNG beans (so no lentils and, definitely, no black beans). One of my and Gabriel’s favorite Filipino comfort dishes is munggo beans over steamed rice (white or brown, doesn’t matter). Basically, it’s Filipino beans and rice.

Pasta, dry. If you like the different strand thicknesses and shapes, then, maybe, have a box/package of each available. However, otherwise, I’d go with 1-2 boxes/packages of spaghetti and of shells or macaroni. I’d go with whatever’s on sale or least expensive (unless you’re a pasta connoisseur). I don’t really taste the difference with regular dry pasta while I can with the whole grain pasta so I can’t really recommend a brand. Trader Joe’s, while pretty expensive to do all of your grocery shopping, has good prices on dry pasta – better than the grocery store. Theirs is about $1 for a pound of regular dry pasta and tastes fine (to me and Gabriel, anyway). Of course, if you have to take five buses over three hours to get there, it’s not really worth it.

Salt. None of the fancy stuff but not the iodized stuff either (which the latest talk is that iodized salt is bad for you). I’d go with store-brand, non-iodized or whatever’s cheapest.

Black pepper. I’m amazed at how expensive this is. I keep a big container of finely-ground black pepper close at hand and use it often, like for sandwiches and salads.

Hot sauce. Yes, whatever is your preference (if I were limited to one, I’d probably pick either Tabasco or Sriracha). While hot sauce isn’t normally something I’d consider a staple, it is an inexpensive, normally shelf-stable item to have on hand to add flavor to your food when you can’t afford much by way of food variety and seasonings. Well, on second thought, Sriracha is the one that tends to be inexpensive; Tabasco is more on the high end as far as everyday hot sauces are concerned.

Cooking oil. It’s really a toss-up between olive oil and other regular cooking oils (vegetable, canola, safflower). It depends on how you’re going to use it. If just for cooking, non-olive regular cooking oil is the least expensive. If you’re going to use it as an eating oil as well, then olive oil is the better choice because, for one, it can also be used on pasta as a simple “sauce” but, from what I read, that’s often in conjunction with fresh garlic fried in the olive oil and red pepper flakes. It can also be used with vinegar for a simple salad dressing. The problem is then you’d need these additional ingredients (fresh garlic, red pepper flakes, vinegar) so it doesn’t work as far as trying to stay within a tight budget. Also, if you’re far from a grocery store and really just have mini-marts close by, I have a feeling non-olive cooking oil could be found while olive oil likely would not be.

Cans of vegetables. While I realize that the order of best quality goes fresh, frozen, canned (or something like that), freezer space would more be at a premium than, well, anywhere else in the home. So, with that in mind, I’d include cans of vegetables as a necessary staple so, at least, you have vegetables!

Canned meat. Don’t knock it just yet. I grew up eating a Filipino dish using canned corned beef. In fact, I think I was an adult before I learned that, no, not all corned beef comes in a can.
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I wrote quite a bit six months ago before I took another look at my post and felt it was way too long. Perhaps. If I were looking for info on stocking my kitchen, I’d like all the info I provided. I’m sure there’s a lot more I didn’t cover.

I think I would change one suggestion I made higher up on the post. Ground spices will age must faster than whole (lose their potency over time). Unless you know you’re going to use something a lot (such as black pepper), it might be better to go with the smaller (yet more expensive) container or get a jar of black whole peppercorns with a built-in pepper grinder (but whole peppercorns do fall under “luxury item” as far as pantry staples are concerned).

Bottom line is there’s no one true answer for what to select. I’d like to think there’s lots of advice out there that considers the equipment you need to have in order to cook/bake these stock items you should endeavor to keep on hand and that I just haven’t found any of it yet. Looking back at the “Survivor” analogy – get what will be most versatile and affordable for you for both kitchen equipment and pantry staples (which is why I suggest just having a bowl from which to eat is a necessity but not a plate – you can’t really eat soup on a plate). For the “special” items, start out small – maybe a bottle of soy sauce here and that can of coconut milk there every now and then. It goes back, also, to how much storage space you have, including in your freezer, how you’ll be transporting these purchases from store to home and what equipment you’d need to have to make that particular dish.

#kakainna #pantrystaples #kitchenequipment #socalval

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