I tend to wax poetic about vegetables, much to the laughter of my family and friends. I can’t help it – vegetables excite me. Most of the time people understand well enough: it’s easy to get excited over a ripe summer tomato, or a silky roasted squash, or some snappy green beans.
Then there are Brussels sprouts.
Many people shudder and recoil – ‘but they stink!’ my little sister tells me emphatically. What is it about these knobby, bulbous little things that scare people so? Perhaps the ill preparation of Thanksgiving dinners past, where they sat, sad and overcooked, playing second fiddle to the sweet potato casserole? Or maybe it’s the scary out-of-season specimens that sit untouched in the grocery store, the size of children’s fists and tasting of murky water. Such misrepresentation.
Boy, do I ever love Brussels sprouts. Part of the brassica family, they first were recorded in Europe in the late 1500s. The humble little orb is one of the few vegetables that endures through the cold winter months, gracing our plates with green in the cold of December, when lettuce is hydroponic and spinach is imported from far away. They taste of health – both sweet and savoury, full of fibre, vitamins C and D and folate.
When buying them, look for sprouts no larger than a small walnut, which are sweeter and younger, and remove any yellowed or bruised leaves (I usually just pluck off the first layer). They are pretty hardy, so can be stored in the crisper for a week or so before they turn.
My favourite preparation renders delicious, slightly nutty sprouts. Any unpleasant smell is due to overcooking the sprouts, which releases sulphur compounds, so I shy away from boiling. Instead, I slice the trimmed, clean sprouts in half, toss with sea salt, coarse black pepper, and enough olive oil to coat. I grate over a little fresh nutmeg (not too much, but it does something magical to them!) and roast on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper for about 12 minutes at 350 degrees F, tossing halfway. The finished sprouts should be crisped golden at the edges, tender in the middle, and smell toasty and savoury. They’re great right out of the oven, at room temperature, or straight from the fridge for lunch the next day.
Tell me, do you love ‘em or hate ‘em? How do you prepare your little cabbages? If you aren’t a fan, please roast some up fresh from the market for me … and say they aren’t heavenly.
If you haven’t heard it in queue at your local Starbucks yet, skinny is the word. Responding to increased customer demand for nonfat, sugar-free, no-whip versions of their drinks, this new label is set to become the hippest lingo in Barista-speak.
How do I feel about the skinny move? When I first heard, I was very torn over this big change Starbucks has implemented for “our health”. I think it’s fantastic to get more folks drinking skim milk, versus whole or 2 percent. At the same time, my reservations outweigh this small benefit. First, the consumer Starbucks is targeting already believes she makes ‘health-conscious’ decisions when she orders her mouthful-of-a-drink, they’re just streamlining the process. Second, what happens when a girl like me, who would otherwise order a ‘tall nonfat 2-pump caramel latte’ for a treat succumbs to the easier-on-the-tongue ‘skinny caramel latte’ and in doing so inadverdently becomes an artificial sweetener consumer?
The press release states: “Just in time for the New Year, Starbucks helps customers keep their resolutions without sacrificing flavor with the introduction of the ‘Skinny’ platform, a nonfat Latte made with sugar-free syrup … The Skinny Latte will be featured on menu boards starting in January 2008 and available at participating Starbucks as a core beverage offering in North America, so customers can enjoy this lower calorie, sweet tasting espresso beverage all year long.” (emphasis added)
This leads to my third reservation about the Skinny platform: it perpetrates a ‘more is better’ approach to eating and drinking. I would guess that the same consumer who chooses the skinny option may also upgrade her order from a Tall to Grande, or Grande to Venti beverage. The rationale: since her beverage is lower-calorie, she can consume more for the same ‘nutritional price’. To me, the smaller size (and really, at 12oz, is a Tall really all that small?) provides plenty of hot deliciousness, healthy protein and calcium, and keeps the pocketbook from becoming too skinny.
Fourth, let’s unpack the subconscious tale behind this new Skinny moniker. Starbucks is sending a message to an already-weight-obsessed demographic – your drink is skinny, and you should be, too! You might counter that I am blowing a drink name out of proportion, but it’s not a healthy latte, or a nourishing latte, or a better choice latte. Skinny is a claim that a company doesn’t have to explain, or qualify. While healthy conjures a particular meaning in one’s mind, skinny is ambiguously appealing.
Fifth, and finally, by marketing these drinks as a food for the health-conscious, an occasional treat becomes a daily necessity. From where I stand, no one should be making a sweet, dessert-like breakfast a staple item on the walk to school or commute to the office – whether it’s made with aspartame or sugar and a mountain of whipping cream. These beverages are best enjoyed sitting in the cafe, coat off, from a real mug, conversing with friends or people-watching or reading a book. When a sweet treat is rare indulgence, I am inclined to do the anti-skinny; top off my dessert with a blob of delicious full-fat real whipping cream – and lick my spoon, to boot!
Everyone needs a well-stocked pantry.
Easier said than done, Martha. This sentence, followed by a laundry list of essential items that “everyone needs” to make delicious, healthy meals from day-to-day, is daunting. A well-stocked pantry, which requires 50 or so key items, is costly and time-consuming to acquire – and most of its benefits are not reaped immediately. If like me, you travel by foot or public transit, carrying home half of the local supermarket on your shoulders is a bit impractical. Even more, once stocked, items have to be replenished as they’re used. It’s a never-ending saga, this well-stocked pantry. So we avoid it.
The problem with a well-stocked pantry is not knowing where to start. Martha forgot to mention that she didn’t achieve her gleaming rows of preserves and spices and condiments overnight. Nor did she drop $300 in one shopping trip on canned tuna, and jarred anchovies, 6 kinds of mustard and 13 bean varieties, plus tinned tomatoes – whole, diced, pureed, in paste. She did it in increments.
Having helped many friends figure out how to stock a pantry and use it to make menu staples, I figured a guide might be useful. Below I provide a step-by-step process to create (and maintain) a well-stocked pantry. In spite of my moans and protestations as I lug cans of beans home from the grocer, I really believe it’s one of the best tools for cooking more often and enjoying the process. Add lemons, chickpeas, stock, and some chili flakes to fresh spinach and you have a beautiful soup. Olives and capers turn market tomatoes into a bubbling putanesca sauce. I really can’t exalt the virtues of a well-stocked pantry enough.
The list and instructions below were created based on pantry staples that real cooks use. It’s costly and inefficient space-wise to use an item once and dump it a year later, when it’s rancid. Cooking well doesn’t require a wall of special vinegars, really. (But if you have a thing for fancy vinegar, I forgive you.)
Stocking a Pantry: How-to
1. Inventory: Print out the below list and take inventory of your current stores. The bracketed numbers next to some items indicate what I store for one or two, but can be modified to any size family, and around your space constraints. Other items I generally only store in ones, or keep an extra in the cupboard if I find it on sale. When you’re done taking stock, you should have a good idea of what’s in (or not in) your cupboards. Now is also a good time to throw out that mango-hot pepper chutney that’s been sitting in the fridge for two years.
2. Read flyers: Rest assured, I do not want to make a coupon-clipper of you if you already aren’t, or think you should spend hours each week comparison shopping, which is very time-consuming.
Flyers, however, are key to stocking a pantry relatively cheaply. To begin, find the flyer dates for 2 to 3 grocery stores you frequent – almost every chain offers an electronic version of their weekly online. I read flyers from a budget grocery down the street, a middle-range store close to my subway stop, and a fancy grocer where I splurge on the occasional treat. Get in the habit of checking the flyers against your pantry list … the key is not stocking the whole pantry all at once, but in pieces.
To illustrate: let’s pretend that this week, Grocer A has lentils on sale for $0.59 per can – a steal; Grocer B has a clearance on good baking chocolate; and Grocer C advertises cheap lemons, organic eggs, and capers. Buy these things now – if you need 4 cans of lentils, buy 4 – repeat this principle for each item. Pretty soon, you won’t have to purchase as many staples at once, because your pantry will be partially stocked already (unless you happen to consume lentils every day, in which case you should modify your pantry list to reflect this). When you add new items, rotate the older items to the front so they get used first.
Shopping this way, I have started and maintained a pantry for a few dollars a week – and wish I had kept track of the money I saved along the way! When I think of the chickpeas I go through, saving $0.40 a can adds up big time! All for a little planning.
3. Decide where to splurge: I love salt. I love tea. So I spend a bit more on these items, when necessary. The same flyer sleuthing applies here, too, though. For instance, I just found my favourite $15 tea for 75 per cent off in a post-Christmas blow-out and bought three tins. Find what you love – be it amazing fair-trade coffee or weird mustards – and spend a little extra, because eating what you love is so worth it.
4. Make the list work for you: I use tons of canned tomatoes in the winter, not so much in the summer. The good thing is, tomatoes keep for a long time in cans. Likewise, you might eat more kidney beans for my black beans, or hate capers. No sense stocking a pantry you aren’t going to use! If other items not listed are must-haves in your home, add them (and please suggest them below)! This is my well-stocked pantry. Yours will probably look different.
5. Storage: Once you’re stocking a pantry, where to keep it all can be a daunting task. For apartment dwellers without actual pantries it works well to designate one large cupboard for all the dry and canned goods – this is plenty space. If your kitchen lacks the storage, converting part of a hall closet to a pantry also works well. Basements are also a great area to set up shelves, if you’re lucky to have one that isn’t damp or susceptible to water damage. That being said, if you never venture down to your basement, keeping a pantry there isn’t conducive to using it, so plan accordingly. You want to avoid areas near bathrooms, or bedroom closets, where foods can take on the smell of cleaning supplies or laundry detergent.
4. Keep two copies: I keep one pantry list taped to an inside cupboard, and one in my purse. I reconcile the two (like a bank statement) after each grocery shop. It takes seconds, and makes for major peace of mind.
Most importantly, look at the well-stocked pantry as an exciting part of cooking delicious, healthy made-from-scratch food while saving money. This is reward enough!
Spices and seasonings
herbes de Provence
pure vanilla extract
salt – kosher, fleur de sel, sea
all-purpose unbleached flour
whole wheat flour
nuts (sliced almonds, pecans, pine nuts, etc.)
dry pasta – such as spaghetti, vermicelli, penne, angel hair, rigatoni (4)
cannellini beans (2)
navy beans (2)
kidney beans (2)
black beans (3)
tomatoes – diced are sweeter than whole (5)
tomato paste (2)
good stock, either vegetable- or meat-based (2)
real Modena balsamic vinegar
red or white wine vinegar
real maple syrup
olive oil (for cooking)
extra-virgin olive oil (for garnish)
plain Greek-style yogurt
roasted red peppers
nut butters (peanut, almond, cashew, etc.)
hunk of good-quality dry cheese (Parmesan, Asiago, Romano, etc.)
jarred hot peppers
frozen fruit (e.g. bananas, berries, mango)
post updated: January 2010