What’s in your Italian pantry?
This month marks the second anniversary of Big Bites Tiny Kitchen! To celebrate the occasion, we wanted to give you something you could really use, a well-stocked pantry. We’re not actually sending groceries, but we are giving you the ultimate guide to stocking your pantry so that you can go shopping with a purpose. Although our household is half Irish, our kitchen is decidedly all Italian. If you keep these Italian pantry staples on hand, you’ll always have a meal in the making. For now, let’s assume you just returned from an amazing two-week vacation in the heart of Italy and you are returning home to an empty refrigerator just in time for cena…er dinner. The traffic at JFK was unbearable, customs was of course a nightmare and you just can’t bear the thought of standing in one more line. It’s nights like this when you have to live off the fat of the land, I mean pantry. You’ll be so glad that you followed this advice.
Stocking your pantry for the first time can be overwhelming, but over time it becomes much easier. You just have to get started. The following list isn’t in any strict order except that we purposely start with olive oil which is vital to our kitchen. Trying to operate our kitchen without olive oil would be like trying to run a car on water.
Italian Pantry Staples
If we ever ran out of olive oil there are only two things I can think of that I could possibly make for dinner, Cacio e Pepe and pasta and butter. That’s it. Then I’m out. We use olive oil for everything. I’m even inclined to bake with it. We simply didn’t cook with anything else growing up and I’ve had the health benefits engrained in my head from a young age. From simple spaghetti aglio e olio (garlic and oil) to every meat and vegetable we toss in a sauté pan, olive oil is imperative. We divide olive oil into two categories and they’re not what you think. Instead of extra virgin versus regular olive oil we distinguish between cooking and finishing oils. For one thing, almost every oil I see is labeled “extra virgin” these days. I think the reason for that is part Food Network and part fraud. Yup. There is lots of fraud in the olive oil business, but that’s another story for another post.
Finishing oils are not heated or used in the cooking process so their flavor is completely unaffected and really stands out. We use these oils for salad dressing or to drizzle over a plate of pasta before we dig into it. They are also great for pouring over crusty Italian bread which is common practice at our place. When shopping, we always check the dates before buying to make sure they are within a year, maybe two of the harvest date. And yes, we only buy oils with clear dates on the packaging. Many of the oils on store shelves right now are expired but people never realize it. For finishing oils, we also make sure that the olives come from only one country and usually seek out small batch producers so that we have some assurance that the olives were pressed shortly after picking and are high quality. These details cost more, but we really enjoy and appreciate olive oil so for us it’s worth it. We want that full rich flavor and the peppery bite at the end of each taste. Although most Mediterranean countries produce quality oil, we’ve been sticking to Italian finishing oils. We can’t say enough good things about Gourmet Cooking and Living. They are out of Brooklyn and work with only the finest extra virgin olive oil producers in Italy. Our very thoughtful friend Kirk got us a six month subscription to their olive oil of the month club. We’re really hooked!
For cooking we aren’t nearly as extravagant. Instead we settle for oils that use olives from multiple countries which brings the cost down, but we still insist on freshness. If the sell by date is 2018, you can presume the harvest date was Fall of 2016. You want to stay within two years of the harvest date. Right now most of our oils are sell by 2019 or 2020. That’s fresh!
I was probably in high school before I ever tried salad dressing from a bottle. We only ever used oil and vinegar as a dressing. Vinegar is great for adding some acidity to perk up a dish, but we mostly use it for salads. Olive Oil and vinegar is the simplest, healthiest and in my opinion the most delicious thing you can possibly put on your salad. We usually have a few different kinds of vinegar for different uses, but we always have red wine vinegar and balsamic vinegar on hand to dress our salads. The balsamic is not the authentic product that you would find in northern Italy, but we enjoy it. With vinegar as with oil, “made in Italy” or “product of Italy” is often misleading.
Salt and Seasonings
We mainly use kosher salt or coarse sea salt. There is no discernible difference between the two if you ask me, but kosher salt seems to be everywhere thanks to our favorite celebrity chefs. The real difference is between either of these two salts and regular table salt which most people use. The larger crystals in kosher and coarse sea salt dissolve more slowly and are crunchy. This means if you are tasting your food as you cook, you might think it needs more salt in the beginning because the crystals haven’t dissolved fully into your food. This was my experience anyway when I first started using kosher salt, and I suffered a few overly salty dishes until I got the hang of it. Also, if you are following a recipe (say our recipes) you will need to use a bit less table salt that you would kosher salt due to the size of the crystals. Like the oils above, these rough crystals can be used as a finishing salt because of the texture. I love a crunchy salt. The flavor is the same. Salt is salt, but the texture is a game changer. It’s also great for keeping in a salt cellar on your counter to easily grab with your fingers and quickly add to food as you cook.
We use dried spices and even dried herbs. Although we have a pretty good apartment herb garden, if we do not have a fresh herb on hand, we’ll settle for dried instead. We keep dried thyme, rosemary, oregano and dill on hand to use in a pinch. We’re also never ever without dried bay leaf and it goes in most of our dishes. Sadly our bay leaf tree died. As for spices we swear by our pepper mill and fresh pepper corns. If you’ve never used your own fresh ground pepper, give it a try especially for a recipe like Cacio e Pepe which relies on the quality of very few ingredients to carry the whole dish. There are a million spices and you could certainly try them all, but the heavy hitters for us are pepperoncino (crushed red), cayenne pepper, chili powder, garlic powder, onion powder and saffron. If you caught our recent post on Dorito Chicken you’ll notice a few spices missing from this list, but feel free to go back to our recipe and check them out. For most cooking needs, the list above should serve you well.
We love making homemade pasta and it really is a whole different experience, but it’s just not practical for every day. There are so many good boxed pastas out there. We tend to stick with Barilla because it’s reliable, goes on sale often and is readily available. One of these days we’ll take the time to taste-test all of the higher end Italian dried pasta. I promise to report back. In the meantime, the key to pasta is to make sure you do not over-cook it. I always check my pasta at least a minute or two before the box instructions. This produces a chewy but firm al dente (literal translation – to the tooth) pasta. Perhaps we should be a bit more carb-conscious, but with pasta in the house, we are never without a meal.
We have no less than a half dozen flour types on hand at all times, but you really only need all-purpose flour. We dredge meats in flour before sautéing to create a moderately think juice. We also use flour for coating various vegetables to help create a crust when deep frying or sauteing, and it’s a must for making our arancini. We mostly use it for making homemade bread, pasta and pizza and if you’re game, we highly recommend you try out one of our recipes!
There are so many options – white, brown, black, jasmine, basmati! You probably have a favorite and like pasta if you keep it on hand you will never be without a meal. My favorite, both to cook and to eat is Arborio (we also use Carnaroli and Vialone Nano) rice for making risotto. Risotto gets a rap because so many people insist it is difficult to make, but I wholeheartedly disagree. Yes, you need to constantly stir it as you make it, but in 19 minutes your rice is done and perfect every time. On that note, my cousin Elizabeth cooks it much like regular rice and swears by that easy method. I’ll investigate further and report back. Also, I promise to post my favorite recipe soon. In the meantime, make sure you have this rice in your pantry. There are even simple instructions on the box!
We use it to keep our homemade pasta, pizza and bread from sticking to the trays, but it’s best use is for polenta! If you’re up for the challenge, we have this great polenta recipe that you can try. When you see how cheap cornmeal is, you’ll start doing the math at fancy restaurants!
Two words – barley soup. Sure you can put it in salads and add it to your vegetables, but I can’t think of a better way to enjoy this healthy, high fiber grain than in soup. I know. I owe you a lot of recipes. Just stock your pantry. I’ll get writing!
Beans and Legumes
In my fantasy world we live six months out of the year in a modest villa in central Italy. We grow all our own food and never ever keep a can in the house. In reality we live in a small one-bedroom apartment in New York City all year round and if we didn’t keep at least a few cans on hand, we’d starve. Stock up on cans of your favorite beans. We love white beans, red beans and chick peas. You can eat them as a side dish with sliced onions or in soups, chili and pasta! This might sound rogue, but I use the liquid from the can to thicken my sauce when making pasta e fagiole (beans) and pasta e ceci (chick peas). It is delicious and no one has to know that you didn’t soak dried beans overnight. As for lentils, we opt for red or brown and putting them in soup is my favorite! I’ve been experimenting with a few other recipes so I’ll report back when I have one perfected. Just know that lentils are a must.
Of course, in the villa we’d grow and jar our own tomatoes, but here in New York City with that tradition long behind me, I’ve been reduced to canned tomatoes. The sad truth is, except for a few weeks in July and August they are better than fresh tomatoes. Not all cans are created equally though so shop wisely. They’re not paying us, but we’re big fans of Cento whole peeled tomatoes, specifically the San Marzano variety. If I stopped the list right here you could live on this pantry pretty happily for a while before you started craving meat…or is that just me?
I know you think you don’t like them, but I think you do! You don’t have to eat a whole one right out of the can, but if you sauté them into sauces for pasta or as a secret ingredient in a savory dish, it’s going to be the thing that makes your guests rack their brains trying to identify that subtle flavor that makes all the difference. Please try them. I’ll provide recipes. Even in this Green Pepper Salad where they are added in whole (leave them in your plate of you must), the flavor they impart is unmatched. I recommend the kind that come in a little glass jar instead of the tins. If you don’t use the whole jar which is likely, you can keep them in the fridge for weeks and they also freeze well. I tried it by accident. Either way just be sure they are completely covered in oil before storing.
I tend to forget about capers, but kind of like anchovies, they completely transform a dish when used properly. My favorite use for them is in bacala (salted cod) which we make on Christmas Eve, but they are perfect in pasta and of course this Chicken Piccata. They have a salty, briny quality that will add a zing to an otherwise plain dish. I promise now that your pantry is stocked, I will add more recipes to the blog to use up all your ingredients
Marinated Artichoke Hearts
These little jars keep forever when sealed and just when you think you have nothing interesting in the pantry, you spot one. They are perfect with a meat and cheese board (tagliere) and great in salads. Keep them around to add a little excitement to your anti pasto!
It seems like no self-respecting Italian should like canned olives, but they are just so good. Toss them in our pepper salad, chop them up for taco night or just sit on the sofa eating them right out of the can. We won’t tell. Of course fresh olives are a must, but they fall under ‘stocking your fridge’ not your pantry.
We get them from a bread bakery. You might think you wouldn’t know the difference, but if you get used to them, you won’t be able to go back to the boxed kind. They’re cheaper and infinitely tastier particularly if you are making chicken cutlets. If your nearest bread bakery sells them, pick up a bag. I think you’ll be glad you did. You can store them in the fridge or the freezer (they don’t require thawing) to extend their shelf life. Use them in meatballs and let us know of you see a difference.
Your favorite nuts are great to sprinkle into a salad or to add to a cheese board, but have you tried them roasted in olive oil and your favorite combination of seasonings from your newly stocked pantry? I hope I’m putting ideas into your head. Whatever you do don’t forget about pine nuts. Toast them up on a skillet and use them to make pesto or to add crunch to just about any meal. They are a little pricey so space out your splurge purchases as needed. A little goes a long way and you can store them in the freezer for months…maybe longer.
I feel like this one is self-explanatory. You can pour yourself a glass while you cook. You can even use it to make sauces and juices for many dishes. We drink mostly red, but we keep both on hand for cooking. Wine is a staple in our home and it really does improve a meal whether in the dish or in your glass.
I grew up with two options: Italian or American. I promise no offense was intended by this distinction, but espresso wasn’t all that common when I was a kid so we referred to it as Italian coffee. Personally, I can’t live without “American” coffee first thing in the morning, but I acquired a taste for espresso from my dad. I used to drink it with him after dinner. It’s possible that I enjoyed the experience more than the coffee. I like having both on hand to serve depending on who stops by. Both are also useful in baking and will really elevate your chocolate cake game. It’s another ingredient guests might not be able to place even though they enjoy the results.
I must have sweets in the house or else Mike gets cranky. I prefer keeping a bar or two of dark chocolate on hand much more than candies or cookies. Sometimes you just need a little boost in the day.
Thanks for reading our guide to stocking your pantry and for coming back each week. If we left any of your favorites off this list, please tell us in the comments. We’d love to learn something new and hear what you’re eating. Stay tuned for future recipes that use up all your new Italian pantry staples. I know I owe you a few. Keep cooking!