Pantry Essentials

I have a confession. I love being prepared. I love knowing that when I need something, that I have it (or that I know exactly where to get it). I think it's a skill. Being ready for the unexpected. I can't say that I'm equipped for every unforeseen circumstance, but the odds are, in most cases.....I am. I am not a hoarder, but I am resourceful, and when the situation calls for action, I make stuff happen.

We entertain frequently, but even when we didn't, my pantry was always prepared for the unexpected. I take comfort in knowing that if a friend were to spontaneously drop by, I would have the essential ingredients to pull together, if nothing else, a few small appetizers. It doesn't take much, and I am fully aware that there are several opinions on this matter, but for those "can nots"-- those who don't entertain because they don't like to, or worse yet, feel they can't (aren't good at doing it), hear me out. Truth is, entertaining should be more about enjoying the company, but when all it takes is being prepared with a handful of basic ingredients, it's completely reasonable to think that you "can."

Here are the ingredients that I think makes for a perfect entertaining pantry (in no specific order):

Extra Virgin Olive Oil is probably my most widely used ingredient. Perfect for every preparation of food other than high-heat. Sautes. Shallow fry. Vinaigrette. Extra virgin olive oil does not have to be an investment, but if a recipe calls for oil as a key ingredient, such as the finishing drizzle on a warm pasta dish, there should be some thought put into the quality of the oil.
Canola/Vegetable Oil is ideal for recipes that require high-heat preparations. Asian stir-frys. Fried foods (french fries, etc). Popcorn.
Flavored Oils such as walnut or hazelnut, truffle or pumpkinseed -- aren't essential, but heighten the flavor (and impress your guests) of many quick and easy recipes -- TRUFFLE POPCORN  and WALNUT AND BALSAMIC VINAIGRETTE, to name a few.

White Wine/Red Wine/Apple Cider are key ingredients in vinaigrette and even quick fruit compotes, such as a DRIED APRICOT AND CHERRY MOSTARDA, to accompany cheese and wine.
Balsamic is also an essential vinegar to have on hand for dressings, but when reduced to a SYRUP, it becomes the sweetest addition to crostini or roasted pears with blue cheese.

Kosher is second to extra virgin olive oil, as my favorite ingredient. I can't think of one recipe that I don't use kosher salt.
Fleur de Sel/Truffle Salt are used less frequently, but I don't know anyone who would argue with a sprinkle of fleur de sel on their homemade chocolate chip cookie.

Cranberries/Cherries/Apricots/Figs/Prunes are a wonderful addition to salads or when rolled over goat cheese balls, becomes the perfect savory truffle.

Garbanzo/Cannellini are my favorites. I love to quickly saute garbanzo beans with onions, garlic, curry and cumin for a side to toasted pita crisps. Cannellini beans are delicious blended in an instant spread of olive oil, lemon, garlic and rosemary.

Walnuts/Almonds/Hazelnuts/Pistachios (I actually store them in my freezer) are obvious additions to a salad, but when blended together in Union Square Cafe's famous UNION SQUARE BAR NUTS, they make the most delicious accompaniment to drinks.

A sweet accompaniment to roasted vegetables or simply drizzled over a pungent or nutty cheese, such as Roquefort or Aged Gruyere.

The lower half of my pantry is dedicated to the flavors of the Mediterranean. Because the foundation of most of my cooking is Italian, French, Spanish, Middle Eastern, etc, the majority of my spices and herbs follow suit.

Herbes de Provence deserves its own category because it is my most commonly used herb. A lovely combination of fennel, basil, thyme and lavender, I sprinkle it on omelettes, chicken, steak and blend it into compound butters, among many other uses.

My pantry is also well stocked with cumin, fennel, black sesame seeds, curry, cinnamon, nutmeg and  dried oregano. Because I use my spices so frequently, I purchase them in bulk, but COST PLUS/WORLD MARKET packaged herbs in the perfect 1-3oz size containers.

This last category contains the "fantastic, but not necessary" ingredients for a perfect entertaining pantry. In every entertaining episode of BAREFOOT CONTESSA, she stresses the combination of homemade and store-bought foods. As I suggested above, entertaining is less about the food and more about the company.

With that said, I generally have jars/containers of gourmet prepared food, such as oil-cured olives, artichoke hearts, sun dried tomatoes and roasted red peppers. Ideal for an easy antipasto platter, or simply served with cheese. In addition, it's always nice to keep crackers and various crisps on hand.

So, I challenge you to take stock in what your pantry holds. Would you be prepared to entertain drop-in guests? Honestly, I don't believe it takes much. A few key ingredients and you have yourself the great makings of a perfect entertaining evening.

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