12 Must-Have Pantry Staples

December 10, 2012

— Lazy Susans help organize the chaos! —

I’m a glutton for overly-priced temptations at fancy food stores. I can spend hours at Dean & DeLuca contemplating tiny jars of salt from mysterious places. While $12 might be a ridiculous amount to pay for a few tablespoons of salt, it is not too much, in my mind, to pay for the tiny adventure to some far-off island where pink salt lives. I can take a trip there every time I sprinkle (or in this case, hand-grate) some atop my poached eggs.

While some items find their way onto one of my many lazy Susans because of their impressive origins, others are downright plain – the cheaper the better. I stock up on low-brow martini olives from the regular old grocery store. While I’ve been tempted into buying the jars that cost twice as much, they’re never as good as those familiar pimento-filled fatties from the Ketchup aisle.

I’m going for a utilitarian post here so I’ve linked to a source for each of these items where possible. I’ve also added a new feature: The Muddy Kitchen Store, where you can find some of my favorite cookbooks, garden books, potting shed, pantry and organizing essentials.

I add a little something to my store each week and am always happy to hear suggestions of some of your Must-Haves!



I always keep a baggie in the fridge. A few pan-toasted pine nuts tossed on top of sauteed greens or into a salad adds a Wolfgang Puck-y touch and makes the stuff instantly edible to children and fussy adults alike. It’s like my grandmother’s green beans with sauteed almond slivers…a yummy reward of fat and crunch along with your straight-up green junk. Of course there’s always pesto to be made. They keep for ages, especially in the cheese drawer.

Sauteed Broccoli Rabe with Pan-Toasted Pine Nuts
Parsley & Basil Pesto
Whole Wheat Corkscrew Pasta with Butter, Cheese and Pine Nuts
Chard Quiche with Pine Nuts


— I’d love to own an entire round! How sexy would that be?! —

Speaking of the cheese drawer (which technically isn’t the ‘pantry’ but I still sort of think of it that way), a hunk of Parmy is a Muddy Must-Have. It goes on the table in its inelegant hunk-form along with my trusty Microplane grater for grating over pasta, broccoli rabe or a creamy serving of polenta.

Orecchiette with Tomato Sauce & Fresh Parmigiano
Pan-Fried, Boneless Chicken Thighs Coated in Breadcrumbs & Fresh Parmigiano
Sauteed Spring Greens with Fresh Parmigiano at the Table


When I’m at the store, I can never remember if I already have capers (which I inevitably do but forget), so my pantry overflows with a bunch of spare bottles of ‘just-in-case’ capers. Bagels & Lox just isn’t the same without a few of these little salt bombs tucked between the layer of snowy white creamy cheese and oily smoked salmon.

Of course Pasta Puttanesca is a go-to dish when the freezer is bare. But the real reason I own capers is for one of my husband’s signature dishes: Chicken Picante from the If-You-Only-Own-One-Cookbook-in-Your-Life: Cucina Rustica.

Arriving at home with a bottle of capers and a cut-up chicken from Guido’s is always taken a hint-hint around my house. Soon the olives and capers are frying to a crunch and the house is perfumed with the smells of garlic, hot pepper, olive oil and tangy capers.

Bagels & Lox with Summer Tomatoes, Red Onion & Capers
Chicken Picante
Pasta Puttanesca
Spring Salad with Fried Capers


My first memory of toasted sesame oil is as one of the mysterious ingredients of the hot and sour soup I learned to cook in college. I think its flavor was a bit of a culinary epiphany – intensely exotic, evocative and powerful. A few drops goes a long way.

While I personally reach for a fruity bottle of olive oil more frequently to add flavor, there are some things that just scream for toasted sesame oil to complete the puzzle. My roasted maitake smoked tea soup, for example (recipe soon!) gets its nutty notes enhanced by a drizzle of sesame. Japanese-y salad dressings and whole grain dishes like quinoa and winter wheat come alive with a teaspoon or two. Anytime I’m reaching for the Tamari and scallions, I’m often finishing with toasted sesame oil, it’s flavor-buddy.

Roasted Maitake Smoked Tea Soup (mind-boggling recipe coming soon!)
New Style Sashimi
 Matsuhisa Salad Dressing
Peanut Sesame Noodles


— Yes, yes, out of focus vinegar! It’s all I got! —

My pantry overflows with Rice Wine Vinegar. I make a quick cucumber “pickle” about once a week: slivered English cuke + 1 cup seasoned rice vinegar + a few splashes of cold water + a few cardamom seeds. It’s my go-to vegetable preparation for my daughter, Tallulah, a semi-ish-vegetarian vegetable-hater (a.k.a. Mac-N-Cheese-at-All-Times). It’s the only thing that guarantees something green will pass her lips.

I always get the “Seasoned” vinegar, which seems to equate to “Sugar-added.” It’s slight sweetness gives a lift to cool, summery vegetables and salads.

Tallulah’s Quick Cucumber “Pickle”
Early Girl Tomato, Onion & Avocado Salad


I don’t use a ton of this roughly ground cornmeal but it’s still a Must-Have in my pantry. It cooks up into rich Polenta with Gorgonzola, is the base for a yummy cornbread stuffing, grills up for Polenta Squares, makes for a nice breakfast if the cupboard is bare but mostly it’s the base material for a gorgeous artisan bread that peels off the peel in no time flat.

Warm Polenta with Gorgonzola
Cornbread Stuffing
Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day
Polenta Squares for Toddlers or Griddled/Grilled up for Grown-Ups


Balsamic Vinegar is a game changer. It takes everything from salad dressing to Strawberry Jam to Lamb Osso Bucco to a different level. Whenever something is lacking a certain depth, I add a drop or two of balsamic and see what happens. If it’s working (which it usually does), I add a few drops more.

It’s taken me a while to find a Go-To, Not-Too-Expensive Balsamic that I consistently love. I can personally recommend 2: The Olive Crush and Hudson Valley. They both have a slight syrupy quality and the essence of Balsamic without too much acidy flavor.

Balsamic Salad Dressing
Foie Gras on Toast with Balsamic & Red Currant Jam Reduction
Strawberry Jam


Lentils, especially these rich green/black Puy-dudes, are essential when the fridge and freezer are bare or when a vegetarian promises to cross your path and all you originally had in mind was serving pork, pork and pork. With just a few ingredients and a few pennies to your name, Puy Lentils become a majestic soup, a salad or an entree.

Lentil Soup
Lentil Salad with Dijon Vinaigrette
Warm Lentil and Arugula Salad ala Lucky Strike Restaurant


I don’t understand why suddenly half of the word is gluten-free, but so be it. I love these crackers myself so I always keep the house stocked. And when your gluten-free friends make sad faces when you slice up a steamy loaf of homemade bread and butter, then you can put these is a super-pretty bowl and *sigh*.

Mary’s Gone Crackers with My Big Fat Homemade Butter
Mary’s Gone Crackers with Old Chatham Sheepherding Cheese



I keep gobs of Kosher Salt around the kitchen because 1. It’s a decent, inexpensive salt for pickly-type things and 2. It cleans my cutting boards.

Basic recipe for cleaning cutting boards: make a paste of 1 cup Kosher Salt + 2 tbsps bleach. Massage paste all over wood cutting board and let it sit with it’s little salt mask on all night. In the morning, rinse well.

Cutting Board Cleaner
Jew Pickles (I use sea salt because I’m weird that way…but Kosher Salt is fine.)


— Every summer I make a Ristra of my hot peppers because it’s cute and useful. —

Dried hot peppers go into half of everything I make. They remind me of summer and add heat where there is none. I toss one into the brine I use for my chicken, pork and turkey. I add one to my basic sauce for something a little more wild. I add to my tomato jam for a smoky, more complex flavor.

When you grow (or even just dry) your own peppers, you come to appreciate the real flavor. They taste more like the fruit they are and less like a dusty grocery shelf.

Early Girl Tomato Jam (I add a few inches of seeded, dried hot pepper)
Sicilian Sauce Gone Wild (add a hot pepper, seeds and all!)
Pepper Vinegar (use dried or fresh for different flavors)


I am insanely jealous of my friends at Putney Farm who have a seemingly endless bounty of strange citrus trees from which to yank a plethora (I paid $1.25 to use that word!) of exotic flavors for their cocktails and ceviches.

Me, I buy Yuzu juice from Japantown if I’m lucky. If not, I order it up on Amazon. You can’t grow everything. Urgh!!

Yuzu is hopping-great stuff and once you try it you’ll wonder where it’s been all your life. My other extra husband (besides gardener, Eliot Coleman), Nobu Matsuhisa taught me everything I need to know about making raw (and nearly-raw) fish divine. That ‘everything’ can be summed up in one word: Yuzu. You will not be disappointed with a bottle.

Cape Cod Ceviche
New Style Sashimi
Lemon Drop Made with Yuzu Juice Instead of Lemon


13. OLIVES (extra bonus Must-Have)

No fancy store olives for me! You’ll find my favs in the aisle across from the string cheese, past the mustard, but before you get to the canned asparagus. The Muddy Kitchen is a somber place when I run out, so I never do.

Gin Martini Straight Up with Extra Olives
Vodka Martini Straight Up with Extra Olives


Take your shoes off before you come in here!


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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Stewart Putney

We match on 11 of 13….miss on the crackers and Yuzu…but now we may have to get a Yuzu tree (that’s your fault!)


Jennifer Solow

Hey, I will happily take the blame for your Yuzu tree! Be quick about it though, Putney – there are cocktails to shake, ceviche to slice up.

If you need more enticement for your future orchard: http://whiteonricecouple.com/recipes/yuzu-cocktail-recipe/


John Beach

Can I just say that I adore your blog? And can I just say that I want to come eat at your house, any day of the week? I always devour your posts with my eyes until I am drooling. Ok? Happy now?? Look what you’ve done to me.


Jennifer Solow




Jennifer………re: entire Parmigiano Reggiano in an Italian restaurant in Germany. The steaming hot olive oiled fettucini was wheeled to the table on a cart holding what remained inside an entire round of the cheese. Brandy was poured inside, set aflame to soften the cheese. Then the hot, hot fettucini was added and stirred while the waiter continually scraped the interior of the huge round of cheese. Great presentation of a simple dish. And delicious! The owners told me that the dish is extremely popular using one approx 22″ diameter cheese every 2 months. i will see if i can find a decent picture of the event.


Jennifer Solow

Wow! Now that’s a presentation! Not sure that the wait staff at Pasta Pomodoro would be up for it. I see singeing.



Perfect little list to which I would add pre-cooked and dehydrated mixed grains, like Pedone (an Italian brand we get in the UK). Huge time saver and a great way of getting chewy, lusty five grains into so many dishes, not just breads. A revelation for me. I hope you have such things in the US (Bob’s Red Mill?)



Thank you for imparting your pantry wisdom. My pantry staple is also coconut milk and coconut cream as a creamy base for soups, stews and sauces. You cannot detect any coconutty taste. Dried kombu and wakami, Korean chili flakes, and curry pastes. You helped me decide to also stock up on the capers and cheap green olives, and I’ll see if I can break the bank and get some good quality reggiano.


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