Wednesday, April 30, 2008

There's nothing wrong with a full pantry. The key is knowing what's there and using it. Here are expert strategies on how to make that happen:

· Take stock. If spices have been around longer than a year, they might not have much flavor. If you have ingredients you've never used, try them or get rid of them. Cooking instructor Lydia Walshin's test of what belongs in a pantry is whether the item has been used more than once and in more than one way. "A pantry should be a staple of things you use, not things you wish you used," she says.

· Don't be a snob. Experiment with accessible ingredients. "You don't need to go to some fancy gourmet store. Supermarkets are a gold mine for pantry staples," says cookbook author Nina Simonds, who blogs about ingredients at SpicesofLife.com. Simonds uses prepared marinades, bottled teriyaki sauces and curry pastes rather than mix her own spice blends or marinades on a busy weeknight. A current favorite: Trader Joe's butternut squash soup, to which she adds spinach, a dab of curry paste and grilled chicken.

La Brea Bakery's Nancy Silverton, whose latest cookbook, "A Twist of the Wrist," shows how to make great meals from jars, cans, bags and boxes, uses Progresso lentil soup as a base for grilled fish and simple steamed vegetables, and canned beans for salads, crostini and homemade soups.

· Put new ingredients into everyday rotation. When a recipe calls for a tablespoon of green masala paste, what do you do with the rest? Silverton's answer is to use it for simple sauces and dressings rather than wait for the next Indian feast. Combine it with mayonnaise and spread on turkey sandwiches or use as a condiment for chicken or fish. Or add a touch to buttermilk dressing for a spicy Indian flavor. That also works for pestos, tapenades and chipotle peppers in adobo.

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