I am a bit of a food fiend.
I spent my childhood playing in an industrial kitchen (my parents are restaurant owners), and I have the burned finger-pads to prove it. I love to cook. I love to feed people. And I love to talk about food, and write and read about it, and watch cooking shows, and research food chemistry, and buy cookbooks and lust after Frank Bruni’s job (hey, a girl can dream).
As part of this, I have been obsessed with the mythology of elBulli and dining there since I’ve known of the restaurant. So much so, in fact, that I recently sat at Indigo Books with this in my lap, and read from cover to cover, all 632 pages. (With a small break, because a 632-page hardcover tome on my lap eventually made me lose all sensation in my thighs.) The book spells out with military precision a minute-by-minute story of a day in the restaurant’s operations. It’s fascinating, the typography is perfect, the photos immaculate, the layout thoughtful. A really great memoir, of sorts, only the protagonist is a restaurant.
elBulli is headed by one of the world’s few living geniuses, Chef Ferran Adrià, and sits on the Costa Brava in Catalonia, Spain. Adrià is lauded as a pioneer of ‘molecular gastronomy’, a frou-frou term that makes me cringe because it conveys a fussy, overly-wrought approach to cooking. Indeed, my heart is with simple techniques and good ingredients; a no-mess kind of style.
But I can’t help but be fascinated by Adrià’s intellectual approach to ingredients, from sourcing produce to plating his tiny edible masterpieces. He says that his food “demands psychological reflection”. I won’t do justice if I try here to delve into the 35-dish tasting menu each evening comprises, having only read about it. Lucky for me, Clotilde has done a great job documenting (and photographing!) the affair, having visited elBulli back in 2006, and sweetly recounts being “whisked away on a flying carpet driven by a mad scientist”.
And this is where I am torn. Part of elBulli’s mythology is that only 8000 spots a year are reserved from over 2 million reservation requests. It’s a lottery worth a shot, in my books. I want to send that email this October, that small chance at getting a table, and put some of my savings to good use in 2010.
At the same time, it’s a bit of a hard sell. I’ve tried it with some close friends: “Would you be up to flying to Spain at a moment’s-notice, all to experience a once-in-a-lifetime dinner, but it’s kind of a crap-shoot as to when it might happen, and the bill will be hefty?” It’s a no-brainer to me, but um, also a bit unreasonable, I guess.
All this to say: if you’re willing to be my gastronomical companion, throw caution to the wind, and take a stab in the dark at dining on a bluff in Catalonia in 2010, let me know sometime before October 15, 2009. I’ll make reservations.
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