Kitchen 101: Modern Pantry

By now, hopefully your noticing that this blog is in part about my kitchen, the foods that come out of it, and how they fuel our lives. It’s all about me, expresses my opinion – and that is all. My opinion, my point of view.

I am certain, however, that it is not only my opinion that fresh starts are a great and welcome thing. And, at the risk of sounding preachy, for me, one of the best ways of starting anew was shifting away from typical all-American eating styles to one that is focused on minimally-processed, natural foods.

My greatest realizations about the All-American Pantry came while living in rural Japan. I had access to a military commissary 30 minutes away and so, in the first months of life there – while I was still building up the courage to use my basic Japanese skills- I would drive onto base to buy groceries. Having grown accustomed to my large, bright natural foods stores in the U.S, the options on offer seemed to be designed for bomb shelters – bright packages whose contents never went bad. The circumference of the store housed the usual produce, meat, cheese and bakery sections – produce that had been showered with industrial chemicals, treated with solvents, robbed of their valuable vitamins, fiber and exquisite taste, and flown from thousands of miles away along with commercially processed cold cuts and chunks of cheese, baguettes baked weeks ago and sent over on the boat as well. In the center of the store, quick items that could be tossed into lunch boxes with little thought resided – juice boxes, granola bars, and prepared crackers, cookies, cans of fruit in syrup, sugar cereals, soda cans and bags of chips. And, of course cans of soup, boxes of taco shells, macaroni and cheese, and brownie mix too. When it came to baking, only refined sugars, nutritionally-barren flours, and oils made in industrial sized batches were my only options.

I was heart-broken. And hungry. But few of my peers seemed to share my sentiments for this nutritional, culinary wasteland that was and is a snapshot of the average American pantry. We can eat/do/be better than this.

So, I studied my Japanese, bought a Japanese cookbook in English, and shyly started perusing the local farmers’ markets and vegetable stands. I was bringing home vegetables that I had never seen before and trying to figure out ways to cook them. Almost everything was being made from scratch. We were saving money, saving our health, and eating well (except for those few times when I made atrocious stir-fry with the bitter melons.) I learned what we liked, and what I could put together quickly, as well as what didn’t seem to fit our lifestyle or taste buds.

Slowly, our all-American pantry trends changed to become natural, mindful, modern ones and yours can too – this “processed-pantry” can be replaced by foods that are as delicious as they are nutritious.

Today, in this house, the pantry contains tried and true, all-natural, user friendly staples. The canisters and baskets that fill our cupboards are not several layers thick; I just keep on hand items that are easy to pull, pair with the produce of the season, and are nutrient rich – so that we won’t bonk out on a run, or at 3pm on a Wednesday at work. What does this mean? We buy quinoa, rice, flours, nuts and legumes in bulk, but most of our weekly grocery bill goes to fresh fruits and vegetables grown in the valleys beyond. Only whole foods make it in – those straight from the plant or animal that produced them or those made from ingredients that have been produced with as little processing as possible. Occasionally, we bring in a box or jar of something and forfeit homemade, but not without reading the label and verifying we can read all the ingredients and count them on our fingers. If I am not going to grind my own almond butter, the brand I buy will be made with almonds alone….and nothing more or less. No flavorings, stabilizers or preservatives. (Which means that the pantry is not actually a time capsule, dedicated to lazy nights or last minute hunger saves – it actually contains foods that have their nutrients intact, taste as they were intended to, and can’t stay in the pantry until the sky falls.) It goes without saying, then, that we also try to avoid genetically modified foods, dairy products from animals treated with growth hormones or rGBH.

So really, the empowerment of choice defines this Modern Pantry; we have more amazing, natural, super foods available to us now than we ever have before. And they aren’t only in the expensive natural foods stores, but becoming mainstream. Gradually awareness is growing. And rightfully so – the decision to be more aware about how we fuel and feed our bodies has been a gradual one as well, a shift that we have made as we strive to make the wisest selection possible in picking what is brought into our kitchen. And, ultimately, what has the privledge of fueling our little bodies with life. The pantry is less of a black hole and a whole new way of living.

So, you say you want to build a modern pantry too?

First steps – One of the first steps for me was discarding all of the processed “quick foods” from our pantry along with the “un-recognizables.” This forced me to simply cut them out of my cooking palette. But it also made room for whole grains, legumes, nuts, flours made from heirloom grains….the list went on. Shopping for food became an adventure rather than a list. With so many different whole ingredients to play with, there was really no missing the boxed/bagged/bleached stuff.

And, the best part is – once you become closely acquainted with a few favorite foods, you’ll find shopping naturally to be a breeze, and other natural recipes and variations of your favorites will come easily.

A couple of ideas for modernizing your pantry: