Every kitchen has its quirks. In mine growing up, mom refused to buy Fruit Rollups and made baby food from scratch and packed lunches each weekday. But amidst the dry goods in our homemade pantry, she kept a curious side-dish staple: Betty Crocker Instant Scalloped Potatoes.
Was it hypocrisy that my only-from-scratch mom made boxed potatoes – with a Wonderbread crouton topping, no less? It might have been. I wasn’t complaining. It was one of my favourite things to eat, though the dehydrated science-project potatoes were off-putting in theory.
Scalloped potatoes have their own kind of deliciousness that only comes in thin layers of starch, sauce and melted cheese with a crunchy lid. Some recipes call for dubious additions: canned cream of cheddar soup, American cheese slices or a tub of Philly. Others elevate these layered potatoes to an elegant side, adding leeks, blue cheese, fennel or even coconut milk. The French combine cream and garlic and forgo the cheese to create Gratin Dauphinois.
But where potatoes are concerned, my heart belongs to the simplest of recipes – just milk, flour, butter, old cheddar and starchy potatoes slouching together in a baking dish. My heretic spin is the addition of mom’s bread-cube topping to finish the dish, as opposed to a traditional crumb crust.
It’s not quite what I ate as a kid – lacking bright orange cheese powder and reconstituted potatoes, after all. But come fall, when the sky darkens before dinner and my creaky old house gets a chill, it’s delicious.
Simple scalloped potatoes
(makes one 11×7-inch baking dish, with about 5 layers of potato)
I was always reluctant to make scalloped potatoes without a mandolin. But as long as the slices are relatively even, and you cook this thoroughly, slicing with a knife works well. And the age-old debate of nutmeg-or-no-nutmeg rages on. The Greek inside of me says a little never hurts in milk-based sauces. But if you prefer, leave it out. Also – this dish is fantastic with sweet potatoes in lieu of white. It gives the dish a sweet-savoury contrast, with pretty orange layers. Sweet potatoes take less time to cook – check after 60 minutes for doneness.
4 large russet potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/8 inch thick
5 Tbsp butter
1/4 cup white unbleached flour
2 cups 2% or whole milk
7 oz old white cheddar, grated
2 cups soft white bread, cubed
nutmeg, salt to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Farenheit.
In a heavy saucepan, melt butter over low heat. Whisk in flour and cook for about 4-5 minutes, continually whisking. Once golden and giving a toasty scent, slowly add milk. Bring to a boil and whisk over medium heat for about 5 minutes, until thickened (the sauce should coat your finger).
Remove saucepan from heat, and add three-fourths of the cheese, whisking into sauce. If using nutmeg, add a few good grates at this point. Taste sauce for salt and adjust. Because the potatoes are bland, the sauce should be slightly saltier than your ideal seasoning.
In a metal or glass 11×7-inch baking dish, alternate slightly-overlapping layers of potato and sauce, starting with potatoes. You will likely get about 5 layers. Spread remaining cheese over the final layer and cover with foil.
Bake covered for approximately 90 minutes. Test for doneness by inserting a bread knife into the centre of the casserole. It should slide through with ease. If resistant, continue to bake covered for 10 minute intervals until cooked through. A little overdone is okay, but nothing is worse than raw potatoes!
Top evenly with bread cubes and place uncovered under broiler until crust is toasted and golden, about 3-4 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes, slice, and serve. This refrigerates and freezes very well. If freezing the whole pan, leave the bread topping off until you intend to reheat and serve.
According to Sameer, whenever I’m making a decision or weighing options in my head, I twitch my nose from side to side. This nose twitching doesn’t accompany particularly life-altering decisions, I should mention. Mostly, it’s as I’m fussing over what wine to order with dinner or whether to roast an eggplant whole or sliced. As it goes, I must not make decisions – life-changing or otherwise – in front of the mirror, since I’ve never seen said nose wiggle. But I’ll trust Sameer on this one.
Quickly: name three decisions you’ve made lately.
You listed three great big decisions, right? Changing jobs, or moving to a new city, or taking in a dachshund as a pet (that last decision is mine, and I’m still working on it, for the record). But every day is a heap of decisions, mostly unconscious. For me, it starts as I clumsily jump from bed to push 20 more minutes on my alarm – one consistent decision on weekdays.
I’m convinced the big decisions matter much less than we think. Indulge me with a (really long but really good) quote from Stephen Jay Gould:
…with contingency, we are drawn in; we become involved; we share the pain of triumph or tragedy. When we realize that the actual outcome did not have to be, that any alteration in any step along the way would have unleashed a cascade down a different channel, we grasp the causal power of individual events. We can argue, lament or exult over each detail—because each holds the power of transformation. Contingency is the affirmation of the control by immediate events over destiny, the kingdom lost for want of a horseshoe nail.
No matter that Gould was actually an evolutionary biologist and I stumbled on the quote doing some “fun reading” in university. Tiny decisions drive kingdoms lost and also many terrible romantic dramas. Heather and I became housemates and friends because I liked the colour blue she used in her flyer. I studied politics at Queen’s instead of life sciences because I hated McMaster’s drab monolith of a student centre. I’m not being glib or devaluing these “big” events. The tiny details – whether cerulean or concrete – compound to create any number of life-altering decisions.
Cooking is the most tangible reminder of how little decisions add up. Take tomato sauce. Easy stuff, right? But the difference between a bang-on and ho-hum sauce is in the little decisions. The tomatoes, to start. Do you peel them and seed them? Blanch them first? At how high of heat should you cook the onions? (Nice and low, we don’t want them to brown.) Butter or olive oil for fat, or both? Dried basil or fresh? Do the tomatoes need some sugar to balance their acidity? (If it’s winter, most likely.) And what about salt? Should I fling the spaghetti at my wall to test its doneness? Spoon the sauce over top the strands or stir the lot together? Phew. It’s enough to make a girl throw down her apron and order in.
Luckily, with a four-ingredient tomato sauce this easy and delicious, your decision is actually pretty simple. Pour a glass of wine, pull out the cutting board, call up some people you love for dinner … and begin.
Originally from the Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, by Marcella Hazan
Makes 4 servings
This sauce is so simple, you’ll read the recipe and be convinced it can’t possibly be so darn wonderful. I did. But when two great food writers (Molly Wizenberg of Orangette and Adam Roberts of The Amateur Gourmet) gush this hard about a sauce, I listen. It’s been a staple in my kitchen since.
Some help with decisions: out of season, I use a jar of good tomatoes like San Marzano or Muir Glen. In the summer, whatever mixture I find at the market works. While using butter in tomato sauce sounds strange, trust me that it’s the star ingredient – softening all the acidic edges often found in homemade sauce. Resist the urge to chop the onion: halved will work magic. Finally, though it’s a tomato sauce staple, don’t add garlic here.
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes with their juice, roughly chopped (or 2c fresh tomatoes, blanched and peeled)
5 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 medium onion, peeled and halved
salt, to taste, as you go
1lb cooked pasta, to serve (I like good ol’ spaghetti with this, but anything that holds a medium-body sauce works well)
To a heavy saucepan, add tomatoes, onion halves and butter over medium heat. Taste your tomatoes for saltiness and adjust accordingly. Bring to a low simmer and cook uncovered until everything melds and deepens, about 45 minutes (you’ll see some fat come to the surface). A couple times in the cooking process, stir and test for salt. Discard the onion.
Boil your pasta in well-salted water (be generous – pasta water should taste like the sea). Drain and toss with the sauce. Ladle into deep bowls and dig in.
Via the Epi-Log on Epicurious – what ten food items do we require, most days, to really enjoy life?
And what a difficult list to compile!
This isn’t recipes, or favourite foods, or whole food groups (one person said “cheese”, another “fruit” — not so easy!) but single items that you turn to most days … the building blocks of your meals, the items that are dropped most often in your grocery basket, eaten or imbibed most frequently. An honest list of habits, if you will.
Here are mine:
- earl grey tea
- black Americanos
- fleur de sel
- fresh-ground black pepper
- fruity olive oil (usually Greek or Spanish)
- crusty bread with a good chew
- extra-firm tofu
- apples (my go-to crisper fruit)
- greens (perhaps I’m cheating here, but spinach, lettuces, kale, chards)
- crunchy almond butter (Nuts to You Nut Butter out of Paris, Ontario makes my go-to jar)
And some that were begrudgingly cut from the final list, for sake of ten, and because they are either seasonal, or not used every day:
- unsalted butter
- grainy mustard (I haven’t met a Kozliks Mustard I didn’t want to eat by the spoonful, and they’re Toronto-based)
- cooking onions
- the ubiquitous hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano in my cheese drawer
- plain Greek yogurt
- squash of all kinds in the fall/winter
- asparagus in the late-spring
- tomatoes, peaches and green beans by the mound in the summer
It’s a good list, I think – or representative of how I like to cook, at least. Simple, uncomplicated, pared down food.
What does your list include?
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