Have on Hand

In which the contents of cupboards and refrigerators are examined and suggestions are made.

What should be in the refrigerator? In the cupboard? In the freezer? What should you have all the time within reach and what should be bought only when it is required for something you plan to prepare today? What should you buy at the grocery store, at the vegetable market, at the specialty foods stores, and when?

When one does not cook frequently, when one is out of the habit, it is almost impossible to imagine what one should have for food in the house. The cupboard might be full, but for the life of you there is nothing to eat. Who bought this stuff? you inquire of yourself, and the answers fall like hail. An ex-mate or roommate, your mother, a sibling or some other good soul who thought your cupboard was bare. Perhaps you are yourself the culprit, living long months and even years with the carnage of an ill-fated trip to one of those warehouse stores. The best intentions go awry in those caverns of gross consumption. Or perhaps your shelves are truly bare, the light in the refrigerator reflecting eerily and too brightly off the unobstructed white interior walls. The cupboards like Christmas morning in Whoville. Steeling yourself to the task of making dinner, desiring to take control of your meals, you start in bravely. You imagine yourself competent and wise concerning things edible. You chop and stir. How bad can it be? Of course you know how to cook. You used to cook. Your mother knows how to cook. You worked in a restaurant once and it didn’t look that hard. And at the end of two hours you have an ugly lump of stuff that doesn’t taste good at all and you go to bed hungry.

I’m so sorry. It happens all the time. It certainly happens to me. You shouldn’t feel bad about it. You need to start from the beginning all over again. Forget everything you once thought you knew and reinvent sustenance for yourself.


First, you better go to the store.

Oh, no. You wander aimless through the supermarket for an hour, perusing the aisles for something you might want to eat. Nothing looks right, nothing looks good. Without a list of specific ingredients needed for a recipe you are planning to attempt later that same day nothing even makes much sense. Eventually you find yourself at the check out with a jar of salsa, some crackers and maybe a pint of ice cream. If you had any spine you would walk out empty-handed, and you probably should since you already have salsa, crackers and ice cream you still haven’t eaten from the last time you tried to go to the grocery store without a plan. It’s tough. And frankly, the grocery stores and their suppliers are partly to blame. They are not in the business of helping you cook well and for the purpose of courting your friends and family. They are in the business of selling you high-margin, prepared products whose main value does not rest in the quality of the ingredients nor their interesting combination but rather in how much easier you think it will make your life. How much less time you believe you will spend dealing with food and eating it. How little of your precious attention you will be required to pay to your food.

It’s a way of looking at the world. But one might as soon think one’s life would be easier if one or two or ten people came over for three hours or six or nine, spending a meal and all that surrounds it laughing and eating and talking about dangerous topics.1 Easier because when others are happy it is easy to be happy and it is easier to live one’s life when one is happy. Life might also be easier if one only cooks anything at all maybe once a week; the rest of the time snacking on leftovers, ordering pizza or Indian take-out and eating with friends at their homes or in the delicious restaurants we have the privilege to live amongst. Even if circumstances, finances or children dictate that one cooks at home with regularity, frequent evenings in which cooking is more courtship than culinary chore are not a bad idea. And if these evenings are designed to furnish leftovers for days to come, cooking as a chore might become as infrequent as replacing the shelf paper. Wouldn’t that be wild and nice?

But how to get from here to there. How to get into the grocery store and out of it again with a bag of good foods in your arms and with your humor intact. How to find yourself with a cupboard which is not so much full as frank with suggestion of things you could make for dinner tonight. How to get from feeding yourself in as quick and easy a fashion as possible according to the outline offered by ten thousand commercials which you hear and see daily and arrive at cooking Zen. How to leave the world in which food is a horrible burden, a chore, a whirling and mysterious black hole where time and energy and money are sucked away at an alarming rate and must be tamed like those ancient wild rivers by pre-prepared stuffs whisked to readiness in ever speedier heating technologies. How to find the wherewithal to wander wide-eyed into the sultry universe where Marcella and Julia and their spiritual siblings thrust strong hands into warm bowls of pasta and have to ask a friendly observer to hold the glass of wine or water to their lips. A path grown thick with brambles.

You’re so lucky you found this book. And so lucky you found this chapter which might eventually get around to giving you some idea of what should be in your cupboard and how it might have gotten there so you have a half a chance of ever being able to make anything at all in your kitchen without that frantic trip to the grocery store at 8 pm. Of course, you might accept that the best way to stock your kitchen is to make a few of the things you suspect you will like, suffer those mid-recipe visits to the grocery (or have someone suffer them for you), and eventually have all those things which should live at your house. Then you can get to know them and how they work. Just a few things, mind you. Not a world of foods. No Krishna you. You do not have to be lover to twenty thousand. Just one or two. Just one for the moment. Keep track of as little as possible. Do as little as possible. Be confident and comfortable with everything in your kitchen, everything in your house for that matter, even if that means you have nearly nothing.2

Meanwhile, as you slowly move toward having a kitchen in which food can be made without thought and without getting dressed to go to the store, remember this: Do not teach yourself to make anything that will not be delicious. Do not spend a moment of time nor a fraction of a dollar on anything you do not want to make, want to eat, or want to offer to others. There is no reason to. Kids will eat what you give them,3 and adults can find their own food if it comes to that.

Now, to find out what might be delicious to you and then to furnish your kitchen so you can create it without too much effort.

The rare and reluctant cook who has lost the trail can be helped along enormously by a trip to an elegant and well-stocked neighborhood market. The food in such stores is more appetizing than in regular supermarkets, partially because it is presented with more care in order to sell it at higher prices to a lazy and affluent clientele but also because the stuff is simply better. Good food that does not flash to appeal to the childish eye. Fewer bizarre pink cupcakes in cellophane, more pastries from local bakeries. Fewer frozen vegetables, more organic produce. Fewer colorful, sugary breakfast cereals, more pastas and sauces. Less Budweiser, more small vineyards and independent breweries. Less sliced bread, more round, crusty bread. And of course there is less of everything just generally which can help dismantle the cloak of confusion that often settles onto the novice shopper in supermarkets.4

But perhaps that is just me.

If you are in the mood to share and enjoy food or wish you were but can’t seem to remember what is so nifty about it and none of it seems to be in your home, trundle down to your local farmers market in the early morning and browse for an hour or two. Don’t buy anything. Keep your hands free and your shoulders weightless. Look at all the vegetables and fruit. Touch them and smell them if it seems no one will mind too much. Definitely smell the herbs. Romantic, perhaps, but who cares. You won’t run into anyone there who will think less of you for enjoying a farmers market. Ask the vendors about things you don’t recognize and then ask what one might do with them. Find the honey table and taste some. Watch what other people are buying and how much and what else. Accept samples. Drink some coffee or tea or juice or water and let the whole idea of colorful, fresh food going directly from the hands of those who grew it into the hands of those whom it is to sustain wash over you. Still, don’t buy anything. Wait awhile. Let the suspense build. Then choose and buy a piece of fruit and eat it. You can splurge on bunches of vegetables and dozens of fruits on another occasion when you have some idea of what to do with them.5

Mind you, the farmers market is not the place to find things to keep handy in the kitchen. This is where you find all the things you need immediately, whenever that might be. But not now. Perishables, you can call them. In regarding them you have an opportunity to think about what sorts of things you do like and would like to be able to make, and can be more wise when you are shopping for the surrounding items. The staples and condiments. Those things you must go to a store of some sort to acquire. For those things I suggest you try one of the afore mentioned exquisite markets which can be found in most cities. I realize these stores are fiendishly expensive, but once you know what is available in the world, you will be able to take much better advantage of the discount stores which currently abound. If you don’t know what is in the real stores, if you are not in constant conversation with things of excellent quality, you will forget what excellence is and what it feels like to be near and the discount stores, let alone capitalism itself, will have you at their mercy, will sell you scandalously inferior stuffs and you won’t even notice.

So go. Wander around one of these places just to get an idea of the possibilities. Lingering near the deli counter might give you ideas for things you could make yourself. Know what sorts of things can be found in these havens so later you can use them as cupboards. Get used to being around excellent things. Grow accustomed to places where food is appreciated and enjoyed and take part in the festivities.6

but what should be in your kitchen? I reluctantly return to the difficult and mundane problem of what should be in the kitchen all the time and as a welcoming committee for more perishable and exotic delicacies. I should think the list would be brief. For example:

Pots and pans. And bowls and knives and spoons. See The Complete Kitchen.

Stuff to eat with. See Dishes.

Salt and pepper. And perhaps garlic and crushed red pepper.

Oil. Some kind of oil. Olive oil, maybe. Or just vegetable oil. Or a nut oil.

Bread. Loaves of it in the freezer.

Dry pasta. Or rice or potatoes or cornmeal or some kind of basic, barely perishable food.

Beyond that you are in an arena of personal taste.7

For example, when younger, immortal and shopping for a house of six mostly male twenty-somethings our grocery list was this: Minute Maid frozen orange juice, whipped butter, milk, light cream, French roast coffee beans, boneless skinless breast of chicken, Bonne Maman preserves, Thomas’ English muffins, Adam’s peanut butter, Philadelphia whipped cream cheese, sharpest cheddar cheese, plain yogurt, carrots, onions, green onions, lettuce and garlic, eggs, Raisin Bran, Ramen noodles, fresh pasta, frozen peas and other vegetables, Beck’s beer, parmesan cheese, graham crackers. Lots of all of it. Rice, mustard, soy sauce, olive oil, rice or other vinegars, herbs and spices favoring parsley and basil and oregano, Bisquick, flour, sugar, and unsweetened chocolate as needed. We ate very well and only visited the whole foods store around the corner for fresh vegetables and ginger, exotic cheeses and very cheap French wines.

But now, that grocery list is wrong for me. Too much meat and milk. Too much food.8

For sustenance, a store of dry or frozen pasta along with a small selection of bottled pasta sauces. Or rice. Mom loves potatoes. Cornmeal for polenta is a warm change of pace. Bread. A loaf or two in the freezer is wise, and they help keep the cold steady if your freezer is not otherwise well-stocked. Toast is always an excellent thing to eat, and a wonderful thing to offer. Butter and preserves for toast purposes. Breakfast cereal, for house guests if not for you. Some crackers you like, but not so much so you gobble them up the minute they get into the house. Animal crackers if you know children who visit. Juice, for both the children and the house guests. Graham crackers if you are a friend of mine. Whatever anyone might need for coffee or tea.

In the cupboard, in bottles and jars and cans: Tomato sauce and other sorts of canned tomatoes. Olive and other oils. Sugar and honey. Vinegars. Marsala wine. Vermouth. Soy sauce. Bottled herbs and spices. Peanut butter. There are people whose cupboard might as well be empty if there are no tins of sardines or jars of herring in sauce. Popcorn that is less than a year old. An extra can or two of things you find you actually use. Beans or vegetables or canned crab. Tuna. Sugar and brown sugar, flour, baking soda. Vanilla extract. Walnuts or pecans, or some kind of nut that can be nibbled or thrown into a salad or sauce or sautéed with butter and brown sugar. Caviar. Chopped chilis. Raisins or other dried fruit. Sundried tomatoes. Bittersweet chocolate. Who could know what you might like to have around?

For spices and herbs9 you might want to have parsley, rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil, maybe cilantro, maybe sage, marjoram, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, dry mustard, crushed red pepper, maybe nutmeg, maybe coriander, maybe even the very extravagant cardamom if you cook in an exotic fashion and like to serve Indian spice tea or coffee.10 Rifle through cookbooks at the bookstore for sections describing the uses of various herbs and spices. Ask people whose cooking you admire what flavors they use and for what. They will enjoy telling you and you might learn something.

In the refrigerator, a good mustard or two, ketchup if you are that sort of person, and mayonnaise if you like that. Capers, if you are me. Salsa. Parmesan cheese. Worcestershire Sauce, maybe fish sauce, certainly Tabasco sauce, lemon juice in a bottle in addition to lemons. Depends what you have decided to cook when you cook.11 You don’t have to be able to cook very many things, and they don’t have to be wildly different in character, so your kitchen needn’t look like the condiment aisle at the market.12

In the freezer, coffee and ice creams. Ice. The loaves of bread. Extra butter. A bag of bagels. Cranberries. Leftover soups and sauces.

Please be careful when you go to the store. Most of the stuff you find in the supermarket you won’t ever have occasion to use. It might seem like a good idea, the label claims it will be endlessly nourishing and delicious and convenient, but rarely rarely is it. Wait until you want something for more than a day, or wait until you find yourself in need of it, and then go get it. You don’t need much and probably shouldn’t have too much food in your kitchen. It makes people nervous if it looks like you’re set up for the possibility of siege warfare.13 Or they might expect that you will be an excellent cook since your kitchen is so well-stocked and then won’t be impressed by anything you do.

Still, I haven’t answered the question, have not fulfilled the promise of the chapter: What absolutely must be in the kitchen so you can prepare a meal for another?

Nothing, really. Nothing at all. Just you and someone you want to feed.


1 Life might also be easier if you refrain from poisoning yourself and your friends with things you cannot pronounce and some things you can pronounce just fine but which probably don’t count as food but which are listed on most labels of most things in the supermarket. Think of all the time you might not have to spend in the hospital later. I also imagine everyone’s life would be easier, particularly those lives currently in childhood, if we stop eating things that arrive at the house in a package or several layers of packages, all of which must be somehow disposed of. And millions of lives will be made first more difficult and then perhaps less so if a lot of the energy and resource-intensive manufacturing of food ground to a slow halt. It’s just an idea. One I ponder as I drink toxin-riddled coffee with hormone-heavy cream. It doesn’t ever stop, does it?

2 One memorable dinner served by one to another was fresh gnocchi tossed with salt and butter and grated parmesan, eaten while lounging on a very old kilim covering the sloping floor of a small living room just up the hill from the Abbesses metro. A salad of no complexity. Darkness banished with a candle. You see, you barely need a kitchen at all.

3 Having no children of my own, I am stripped of credibility on the topic. I was a child, though, and hung with children and still do. And I have noticed that if you give them cucumber sandwiches and tomato soup, they will live and very well. If you want to serve them pancakes for dinner, go ahead. If you are making something fabulous and strange, let them eat that, or be happy with some bland element of the meal. That they like hot dogs is no reason to feed them such things. Plenty of children grow to strong gorgeous adulthood without eating any of the stuffs recommended by the food councils. Consider that tribes in Africa which have no access to milk or meat have the lowest incidence of osteoporosis in the world and they keep their very white teeth until they die. Consider that millions of children in this country are so far below the poverty level they never eat anything we would consider a meal in their whole lives, and yet they manage nonetheless to arrive at adulthood with sufficiently large and healthy bodies to bear children of their own. You can plow through this very large can of worms yourself. Meanwhile, try to be compassionate to their young tastes without pandering.

4 It is only when I have been abroad or in Manhattan for any length of time that I miss these temples of food. I walk into them with awe and relief, and leave with things I am glad to have found. On other occasions, it is too often an exercise in remembering how far my whole culture has strayed from respecting food for what it is and from feeding people what they need to eat rather than what is convenient and profitable for the food industry to sell. And I can’t find what I want.

5 If you do give into the temptation to buy a week’s worth of stuff on your first trip out, you will be unhappy two weeks later when you find it all rotting in the crisper.

6 Besides, when such stores have promotions it is likely to be a sampling of goose liver pate or sundried tomato puree on an herbed crostini, and not some new version of cheez wiz on a trisquit.

7 Will suggestions even help? Will it be of assistance to know what is in the kitchens of people who do cook? Or will it simply destroy what small confidence you have built up to know how many little things are going to clutter your kitchen if you succumb to the idea of cooking in such a way that people want to eat? Would you believe me if I assured you that there is no absolute need for distracting and irritating clutter? Are you already halfway back to the frozen food section of the supermarket? Are you only offering me polite attention, all the time thinking to yourself that anyone who lists oil among the critical items to have in a kitchen is not going to espouse a sufficiently low-fat form of cooking to suit your sick little obsession with what you consider health? Please be patient. If you cook well and in a distracting fashion, you will be able to afford a few extra calories.

8 Unless, of course, I happen to be shopping for a warehouse full of mostly male twenty-something-close-to thirties, in which case nothing is too much. Still, it doesn’t seem right any longer to subsist on meat. The odd barbecue, but other than that an easy vegetarian existence and no one seems to mind or notice. Mind you, I throw a lot of cookies into this equation.

9 Say, do you know the difference between spices and herbs? Spices are the berries or bark of an aromatic plant. Herbs are the stems and leaves. Ginger and garlic are neither. The first is a rhizome and the second a bulb.

10 Who, you? But if you want to try: Regular tea or coffee, milk, sugar and ground cardamom simmered together. A friend throws in a small amount of ground black pepper. Maybe some other stuff as well. I think he picked up that trick in Nepal. A good and not too shocking alternative to hot chocolate, which familiar drink can provoke the wrong sort of childlike mood in many people. You do what seems best. Risking rejection, or risking regression. Hmm ... Perhaps just some regular old spiked coffee and to bed.

11 There is an appendix of shopping lists for different styles of cooking. For reference. In case you are concerned about their usefulness, I assure you they were compiled by real cooks and not by me.

12 All the recipes in this book, for example, can be attempted and with some success with barely a fifth of the things I’ve just mentioned as important.

13 On the other hand, you will be very popular in the event of an earthquake or whatever regional disaster might keep you from the market for a few days.

No comments: