Curious Cook: A new kind of inventory story

Thanks for reading Chatham County’s leading news source! Making high quality community journalism isn’t free — please consider supporting our journalism by subscribing to the News + Record today.

Unlimited Digital Access begins at $4.67/month

Print + Digital begins at $6.58/month


“Now we season it. Where’s the salt and pepper?”

A blank look and a couple of very slow blinks. “I don’t have any.”

If the child had come to the door dressed in an Easter Bunny costume, I couldn’t have been more shocked.

“You don’t have salt and pepper? You can’t cook without salt and pepper.”

I was at the apartment of a young acquaintance, helping her, a very novice cook, make dinner.

I had a feeling we were in trouble when I looked at the recipe and asked where was the garlic.

Strike one.

We were making a one-pot Alfredo.

There were also no herbs, no cheese and no heavy cream.

You can tell dinner is less than a success when the best thing on the plate is a bagged salad with iceberg lettuce and red cabbage, topped with bottled Ranch.

The young woman had moved to town and into her own apartment back in the early spring. After all the boxes and furniture have been delivered and unpacked, then it should have been time to stock the larder. The idea of a fully stocked pantry is to have enough varied provisions on hand so that when you cook, you only need to buy fresh stuff.

These recommendations are based on what our family eats, and the way I cook, but the fundamentals are there. Of course, the list will change according to your own tastes and any dietary restrictions.

First up are shelf stable goods. Flour, both all-purpose and cake flour, if you bake. White sugar, brown sugar and powdered sugar. Cocoa and leavening agents (baking powder and baking soda). Cornmeal. Vanilla extract, almond extract, cinnamon and whole nutmeg. Some dried fruit, oats, tea bags and coffee. Liquid sweeteners, like honey and maple syrup. And of course, kosher salt and pepper corns.

White, brown and wild rice. Pastas: one long type like linguine, one large, extruded pasta like cavatappi, and one small style. Grits — long cooked, they can act as a starch for any meal of the day. A bag of dry beans, and some canned; I usually have cans of garbanzo and pigeon peas.

Beef and chicken stock. Canned tomatoes and tomato paste. Chilis and tuna. Peanut or other nut butters. You need two types of oils, an extra virgin olive oil, and a light, neutral tasting oil with a high smoke point for frying; I use grape seed, but canola or peanut works well, too.

Flavorings and spices: Worcestershire sauce, and at least two types of vinegars. Dijon and whole grain mustard. Jarred spices, like smoked paprika, Chinese 5-spice, dry mustard, and spice blends (I love Caribbean adobo). As for herbs, fresh is usually best, but there are a few exceptions. Woodier herbs are okay, like bay leaf and rosemary. I also keep dried thyme on hand in case I can’t get my hands on fresh.

Fridge staples: mayonnaise, ketchup, pickles, capers, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, and jams and jellies. Depending on your uses, whole milk, skim milk and heavy cream or half-and-half. Eggs and butter.

Your freezer’s also an important part of your pantry. Bread and cheeses will keep a long time, and you then have it when needed. A couple bags of frozen veggies and fruits. I keep peas, shoe-peg corn, and berries. Salad shrimp is also terrific to keep on hand because you can toss it into many dishes. I also keep nuts in the freezer. And don’t forget ice cream.

In the produce trade, hardware is hardy, storable items. Apples, onions, shallots and garlic. As well as boiling and baking potatoes.

If your kitchen is well-stocked, you can then cook dishes without leaving home to pick up extra ingredients.

The first and most important purchase must be salt. It is necessary to our bodies, minds, and before refrigeration, safe consumption of preserved foods. Salt is so important, the first and most far-reaching act of civil disobedience by Gandhi was his 24-day salt march to the sea, in protest of the British monopoly and taxation of Indian salt.

Below is a recipe that is a clear illustration of what salt or the lack of it, can do to a dish. Think of salt as a wind that blows away the mist that obscures and diminishes flavor.

Thanks for your time.

Contact me with questions and comments at

Syracuse Salt Potatoes

Adapted from

Salt potatoes are a regional specialty of Syracuse, New York, a.k.a. The Salt City. Salt potatoes date to the 1800s, invented by local salt mine workers who created a simple and inexpensive lunch by boiling small potatoes in brine. The potatoes are still very popular today with the Central New York crowd, making an incredibly easy and delicious side dish.


4 pounds new potatoes

1 1/2cups fine salt

8 tablespoons butter, melted

1/4 cup thinly chopped chives

1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked pepper


Wash the potatoes and set aside. Fill a large pot with water; stir in salt until it no longer dissolves and settles on the bottom. Place potatoes in the pot and bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer until potatoes are tender but firm, about 15 minutes. Drain; cover to keep hot.

While the potatoes are cooking, melt the butter in a small pan over medium high heat, or in microwave. Pour over potatoes, sprinkle on chives and pepper, and gently toss to coat.

Serve immediately.


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here