Kitchen Essentials: Pantry

pantry essentialsI remember pulling out the drawers in the kitchen as a child in order to use them to climb up onto the counter so I could access the pantry cupboard. There I would sit, pondering the satiating value of crackers vs. pretzels, probably settling on whichever package appealed to me more visually because that how I (still) make most decisions.

I realize my pantry today looks very different from the pantry I remember as a child and may look very different than (or perhaps very similar to) yours. Unfortunately for my 6-year-old self, my pantry is no longer filled with quick fixes for my hunger pangs. For that, I would have more luck searching in the fridge. Rather, it is more of a treasure trove, filled with raw ingredients collected from both near and far, allowing me to both elevate the flavor of and add density to my meals.

Because the pantry is full of kitchen staples that last a long time, it can be quite valuable on those days when you don’t have time to get to the store. Between a well-stocked pantry and freezer, you should be able to survive a few days with an empty refrigerator.

Spices and Dried Herbs: I’m a fan of using spices and herbs liberally. They add so much flavor to foods without having to overdo it with cheese, butter, or salt (not that those foods are necessarily bad). Many spices and herbs contain high amounts of powerful antioxidants and phytonutrients that have been shown to support a healthy body. While fresh herbs add more flavor, dried herbs are nice to have on hand when fresh isn’t available. Just like fruits and vegetables, choose organic spices and herbs that have not been irradiated (choose organic). Spices and herbs do go bad, so write the date of purchase on the bottle and replenish as needed. Two of my favorite spices are cayenne pepper and turmeric.

Honey: Local, raw, organic honey is a wonderful, nutrient-dense way to add sweetness to dishes. Though it contains large amounts of sugar, honey also contains valuable vitamins, minerals, and enzymes that provide benefit to the body. Many people find that consuming local honey helps alleviate seasonal allergy symptoms. Look for raw, or unpasteurized honey as the pasteurization process destroys beneficial enzymes.

Vinegars and Oils: Having a variety of oils and vinegars in your pantry will take your cooking to the next level. Oils like olive, sesame, and macadamia are great for cold salads while grapeseed, peanut, and coconut oil are ideal for high heat cooking and baking. Don’t be afraid to experiment with vinegars. Rotating balsamic, sherry, champagne, apple cider, and rice vinegar in your salad dressing is an easy way to keep meals from getting boring. Oils and vinegars last a long time (especially when kept in a dark place) so don’t be afraid to stock up.

Whole, Intact Grains: Grains like quinoa, rice, and oats are useful to have on hand as they store well and provide bulk to your meals. Quinoa and oats are best soaked overnight before they are used, so they still require a little planning in advance before including them in your meal. Intact grains are far better at supporting stable blood sugar levels than processed grains, like those found in crackers, breads, and pastas. When you take the time to make a grain, make extra and store leftovers in your fridge to add to meals during the week.

Fresh Fruits and Vegetables: Alliums like onions, garlic, and shallots are must-haves for any cook’s kitchen. These vegetables have a long shelf life and can add a lot of flavor to meals even when you haven’t been to the grocery store. Many other fruits and vegetables should be kept unrefrigerated, either in the pantry or on the counter in order to ripen properly and maintain their full flavor. You can find produce storage recommendations in each month’s seasonal food guides.

Dried Beans: Beans and lentils are a wonderful way to add bulk and fiber to your meals. While canned beans are easy, many cans contain a chemical called BPA which has been shown to disrupt the endocrine system and may lead to certain cancers. Dried beans are quite easy to work with, simply soak in water overnight to soften, then heat as desired. Add a piece of kombu seaweed to the cooking liquid to neutralize the gas-causing compounds in beans and impart nourishing minerals into your dish. To make your efforts worth it, prepare a large batch of beans and freeze the extra for a quick meal another day.

Coconut Milk: A wonderful addition to smoothies, desserts, soups, cereals, and lattes, coconut milk is a useful product to have on hand. Look for traditional, full-fat coconut milk, which is often found in the ethnic foods section of the grocery store. Avoid the brands that come in cartons, often found in the milk alternatives section, as these are homogenized and contain unwanted ingredients and preservatives. Look for brands with BPA-free cans like Native Forest. (You can learn more about the benefits of coconut here.)

Tomato Sauce and Canned Tomatoes: Living with an Italian, we do a lot of tomato sauce. Tomatoes add heartiness to dishes that broth can’t. While I commend those who can their own tomatoes, store-bought brands are more realistic for those of us without gardens bursting with tomatoes. Many brands are now supplying tomato sauce in glass jars or cardboard cartons instead of BPA-lined cans. Find an organic, BPA-free brand and stock up.

Ghee: Common in Indian cuisine, ghee is clarified butter. In the clarification process, the milk proteins and sugars are removed, making it suitable for even those sensitive to casein and lactose. While ghee is often stored in the refrigerated section of the grocery store, I like to keep mine in the pantry so it remains soft and spreadable. Ghee is delicious when spread on bread and pancakes and is a perfect choice for high-heat cooking.

Coconut Oil: Another highly stable cooking fat, coconut oil is solid at room temperature and liquid when heated. It is ideal for sautéing, frying, and baking. It can also be used as a spread for toast, or delicious as a simple spoonful added to a cup of tea. (You can learn more about the benefits of coconut here.)

Salt and Pepper: I’m sure most of you already have these two in your kitchen as they are called for in pretty much every recipe. In the case of taste, quality matters. You don’t need to be afraid of adding salt to your dishes is you’re using the right kind and freshly ground black pepper elevates your meal to the next level. When you buy a pepper grinder, look for one that allows you to adjust the size of the cracked pepper flakes – don’t be afraid to get advanced like this and find your preferred pepper-flake-size. Attending to the smallest details during cooking connects us more intimately with our food and heightens our senses. (You can learn more about my favorite brands of salt here.)

Maple Syrup: Another whole-food sweetener, maple syrup is a great substitution for sugar in baking recipes or to sweeten a dressing or sauce. If you ever have the opportunity to travel to a syrup-producing area, pick up a few bottles of local, raw maple syrup. While “Light” or “Grade A” syrup is most popular, choose “Grade B” or “Very Dark” syrup as it has a higher concentration of nutrients and a more intense flavor.

Extra Provisions: If you have enough room in your pantry, stock up on all those flavor-rich goodies that don’t need to be refrigerated until they’re opened. I love keeping extra jars of capers, sun dried tomatoes, anchovies, Dijon mustard, roasted peppers, and olives in my cupboard so I can easily dress up a rather sparse meal. A simple chicken breast can turn into a gourmet meal with the addition of lemon, parsley (from your freezer!), and capers.

Protein Powder: While I fully support a whole-foods based diet, sometimes protein powder saves the day. A high-quality protein powder combined with frozen fruits or vegetables from the freezer can provide a quick meal when there’s nothing else available. You can also add protein powder to yogurt or oatmeal to provide a little protein boost. Not all protein powders are created equal, so look for one made from non-denatured whey or pea protein and is free of sugar, artificial sweeteners, allergens, or other additives. (You can find my favorite brand here.)

What else is in your pantry?

Want more kitchen essentials? Read about my freezer tips here.

Kitchen Essentials: Freezer

Freezer EssentialsI’ve come to realize that, for a busy woman like myself, the heart of the Well-Nourished Kitchen is really in the freezer. While it does take time and planning to regularly produce nutrient-dense meals, you can make up for lost time by taking full advantage of your freezer.

When you’ve gone through all the trouble of simmering stock on your stove for the past 12 hours (or 2, if you’re impatient), you gain that time back by storing 1-cup servings in your freezer for quick use in the future. Your enjoyment of certain types of produce isn’t relegated to its growing season anymore. You can freeze berries, chopped fruits, and vegetables and enjoy them all year long. You want a peach smoothie in January? Why not? When you’ve had a busy week and don’t have time to get to the market, you can still enjoy the home-cooked meal that you, in a moment of sheer brilliance, stashed away in your freezer weeks ago.

Dismiss your notions about pre-packaged, freezer-to-microwave foods and fill your valuable freezer space with nutrient-rich ingredients and home-cooked meals. While frozen TV dinners are easy, they are expensive and full of sodium, sugar, and lacking in life-giving nutrition. When you feel inspired and energized to cook a meal from scratch, simply double the recipe and freeze half for that day in the (near) future that you just don’t have the time or energy to tackle dinner.

Here are my freezer essentials:

Homemade Stocks and Broths: After you’ve allowed your stock to settle and skimmed off the fat, store it immediately in the freezer in 1-cup servings. While I have the best intentions of using my stock right away, I often find myself wasting the portion in the fridge because I let it sit too long. Freeze stock in plastic freezer bags and write the date, type of stock, and amount on the bag with a marker. Lay them flat on a shelf in the freezer so they maintain an easily stackable shape. These defrost in a pinch and are the perfect addition to soups, grains, and braised vegetables and meats. Most broths and stocks will stay fresh in your freezer for up to 1 year.

Bones: Bones are a valuable resource in the well-nourished kitchen, but sometimes you don’t have the quantity (or the time) to make broth right away. Save the bone scraps from the carcass of a chicken or turkey, the leg or shoulder from a lamb, the bones from stack or ribs, and the ham bone. Keep a large freezer bag for each type of meat, and add bones to the appropriate bag whenever you have them. When the bag is full, it’s time to make broth. These will keep in your fridge for up to 1 year so be sure to mark the date of the first bones you add on the outside of the bag.

Meat, Poultry, & Seafood: When you find a good source of sustainably-raised meat, don’t be afraid to stock up! These proteins will stay fresh up to 3 months in your freezer, as long as you store them correctly. The most important thing is to protect them from exposure to the air. Wrap meats very tightly in either plastic wrap or freezer paper, pressing the wrapping right up against the surface of the meat. Wrap with aluminum foil and place in a freezer bag. The vacuum-sealed plastic bags some meats come in are fine too. The best way to defrost meats is to place them in the fridge a day or two before you plan to eat them. This takes a little advanced planning, but it’s easier than going to the grocery store! I recommend always keeping a pound or two of ground beef, bison, turkey, or lam in your freezer for a quick meal.

Frozen Fruits & Vegetables: Frozen fruits and vegetables are the perfect, quick, nutrient-rich addition to smoothies, soups, and stews. When fruits and vegetables are frozen, they retain their nutrients and will keep for about 6 months. It’s fine to buy pre-frozen, organic produce from the store, but it’s cheaper to purchase fresh produce during its season and to wash, chop, and freeze it yourself.

Herbs: If you’re like me, you’re constantly throwing out old herbs you find in the back of your fridge after using 1 tablespoon in a recipe. While fresh herbs add vitality to a dish, frozen herbs reduce waste and allow you to cook up delicious meals without having to go to the grocery store. My favorite method of freezing herbs is to freeze 1 Tbsp. servings (washed and chopped) with water in ice cube trays, then transfer to a plastic bag once frozen. They’ll keep this way for 6 months.

Nuts & Seeds: Though nuts are most commonly stored at room temperature, nuts actually contain very fragile oils and remain fresher if kept cool. Store nuts in the refrigerator for daily use for up to 3 months and keep your stock of extra nuts in the freezer for up to 1 year.

Pre-Made Dishes: This is the real time saver, folks. Any time you make a dish that stores well, double the recipe and freeze it for a later date. Be sure to freeze it in single or family-sized servings so it’s easy to defrost. My favorite freezer items are bolognese and other sauces, soups, and stews. I also store single-serving bags of pesto in the freezer to add quick flavor to eggs, chicken, and spaghetti squash.

Frozen Purees: I learned this trick from the “flavor cubes” in Charlie Ayers’ cookbook, Food 2.0. The idea is that you puree a mixture of bold flavors and freeze them in ice cube trays to add a quick burst of flavor to soups, sauces, casseroles, or meats. My favorite combination is tomato, garlic, basil, and red wine vinegar – add to a pan with a little oil and heat up a piece of chicken or fish for a quick meal!

Am I missing anything?

What Does a Well Nourished Body Feel Like?

How do you feel during the day? Some of you don’t feel well and you’re probably looking for ways to feel better, but I’m sure there are a lot of you that would tell me you feel fine. You may wish you were a few pounds lighter, or had a little more perk in your mornings or afternoons, didn’t get that pesky cold every winter, or could avoid taking that prescription for this or that, but those things are normal and you feel fine.

Have you ever considered what GREAT feels like?

We’ve become used to comparing ourselves with a rather unhealthy average which leads us to believe that conditions like fatigue, overweight, poor sleep, PMS, stomachaches, headaches, regular colds and flu, allergies, asthma, etc. are normal and as long as we only have a few of these things, we’re fine.

When I hear symptoms like these, I don’t see them as normal, I see them as your body’s signal to look deeper into its chemistry and work out the kinks. Our bodies are strong and incredibly resilient, but give us subtle signals when things are out of balance that can turn into the loud cries of chronic disease when left unattended.

Many of you have goals of your own – you’re using diet, exercise and lifestyle strategies to help you feel better, to help you feel fine. My goal for you is to feel better than fine. Through nourishing your body with foods that specifically support you, I want you to feel great.

When you have a well-nourished body, you…

  1. Are in control. This means that you choose foods based on their quality and function in your body – foods that will nourish you and leave you feeling your best. You’ll conquer your cravings; not by sheer determination, but by regularly giving your body the nutrition it desires so you’ll stop craving “quick fixes” like fried foods and sweets. Making food choices based on cravings or convenience is a thing of the past.
  2. Maintain good energy throughout the day without the use of stimulants like caffeine or sugar. My hope for you is to supply your body with the mood and energy-boosting qualities of real foods in order to reduce fatigue, improve sleep, and keep you in good spirits all day. I’m not against the occasional cup of coffee, but when you can’t get out of bed in the morning or get through the afternoon without it, that coffee or sugar is controlling you. See #1; coffee isn’t in control – you are.
  3. Experience Smooth Digestion. A nourishing meal should leave you feeling satisfied, yet light and energetic. The idea of needing to unbutton your pants or take a nap after a meal doesn’t exist in your day. You don’t have to suffer from gas, bloating, indigestion, reflux, constipation, diarrhea or fatigue after your meals. Meals should be life-giving, not energy-draining.
  4. Maintain a healthy body composition without counting calories or feeling deprived. Diets that are too restrictive or remove food groups completely aren’t sustainable over the long term. They’ll leave you with strong cravings, your body’s cry for vital nutrients. Yes, your meals and snacks will look different than they used to, but they will be constructed to maintain a healthy body over your lifetime rather than achieve a certain number on the scale. Your meals should satisfy you.
  5. Love food and enjoy eating. Understand that food is sacred; it sustains life. You may find yourself spending more time planning and preparing meals. That’s okay. When you understand the far-reaching effects of nourishing yourself well, you’re happy to give a little extra love and attention to what goes into your body. You have a healthy appetite and find meals that are satisfying and delicious to you. You don’t have to sacrifice taste for health. In fact, you may find healthy foods to be even more delightful!

Nourishing yourself well is a process of education and experimentation in which you answer your body’s subtle signals with real nourishment. Many of you may be eating all the “right” foods, but still don’t feel great. Each individual is unique and what works for one person may not work for another. Learning what’s best for you takes time. In fact, it’s a lifelong process where we become increasingly aware of how to achieve balance in our body. I’ve heard from many older men and women who tell me they continue to feel better and better every year – even better than they felt in their twenties!

I encourage you to remember these 5 markers of a well nourished body and challenge yourself to find ways to achieve each goal. These are goals I have for myself as well, so I look forward to partnering with you on this journey!

This post can be seen at the following blog carnivals: Fresh Bites Friday, Fat Tuesday, Strut Your Stuff Saturdays, Monday Mania, Better Mom Mondays, Inspire Me Monday and Traditional Tuesdays. Hop on over to check out some other posts you might enjoy!

Lacto-Fermentation

Though colder, snuggle-up weather appears to have arrived, we are still appreciating the bounty of the year’s harvest here in California. Now’s our chance to stock up our freezer, fridge and pantry with local, organic produce before the farmer’s markets run slim or the grocery store gives way to less nutritious produce, picked too early and shipped too far.

One of my favorite ways to preserve food is through the artistic process of lacto-fermentation. This practice maintains the flavor of vegetables and fruits beautifully, while improving their nutritional worth with lovely, life-giving beneficial bacteria.

Lacto-Fermented foods can:

  • Encourage healthy digestion
  • Optimize gut flora (in the same manner as yogurt or probiotics)
  • Assist in detoxification
  • Lengthen the shelf life of foods without the use of harmful preservatives

The basic process of fermentation goes like this: take shredded or chopped veggies (like cabbage for sauerkraut), and submerge them under liquid or the vegetables’ own juices, always with added salt. Salt helps draw out the liquid from the vegetables as well as inhibits the growth of unwanted bacteria. Whey can be added to speed up the process and ensure a consistently successful ferment. The mixture is sealed in an airtight container (like a glass Mason jar) where the naturally present bacteria work their magic at room temperature for 3-5 days. The final result will be tangy, soft and delicious. Once fermented to your liking, the veggies are ready to be eaten or stored in the refrigerator, slowing down the fermentation process and aging your ferment to perfection for up to 8 months. (Source: Weston A. Price Foundation)

Ferments take time, but little effort. Trading some common condiments for a homemade, lacto-fermented version is a great first step in upgrading your daily routine. Consider switching from store-bought ketchup or mayonnaise to a fermented version. It takes a little preparation, but once it’s done, you’ll have a nourishing item to add to each meal in your fridge for up to 8 months.

Recipes:

Sauerkraut

Salsa Verde

Ketchup

Apricot Butter

Mayonnaise

A Recipe for Quick Salsa

Ingredients:

Method:

  1. Transfer salsa into the Mason jar.
  2. Stir in whey with a spoon. You will need 1Tbsp. whey per cup of salsa.
  3. Cover jar with lid and let ferment on the counter for 2-3 days.
  4. The salsa is ready to eat after 2-3 days and can be kept in the fridge for up to 6 months.
  • If you need some instant gratification, Bay-Area locals can find raw, lacto-fermented sauerkraut at their local farmer’s market from Farmhouse Culture.
  • Have favorite ferments of your own? Know of a local source for raw sauerkraut? Let us know on Facebook!

“God made yeast, as well as dough, and loves fermentation just as dearly as he loves vegetation.”

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

This post can be seen at the following blog carnivals: Traditional Tuesdays and Tuesday Time-Out. Hop on over to check out some other posts you might enjoy!