Space Invaders

You invited that mysterious substance into your pantry for just one meal -- and it stayed. What do you do with it now?

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 30, 2008; Page F01

Once upon a time, pantries were a collection of staples: salt, pepper, butter, sugar and eggs. But spurred by intrepid chefs, travel and a seemingly endless array of specialty products, many food lovers find their collections are spiraling out of control. It all starts innocently enough: Cooks pick up asafoetida, a garlicky onion spice, to make that potato curry -- once. Before long, they have aji powder, elderflower vinegar, figs in malbec syrup, ras el hanout and sumac.

Modern pantries have become the Blob.

Lydia Walshin knows the problem well. When she counted, the cooking instructor and food writer in Gloucester, R.I., had more than 200 items in stock: oils, vinegars, spices, jams, sauces, chutneys, grains and six kinds of salt. Some had been there, unused, for years.

Walshin had decided to take stock as an intellectual exercise. A pantry, she had told students time and again, was an essential foundation of good cooking, a way to create a variety of meals with whatever was seasonal and fresh. So what should go in the perfect pantry? And, more important, what should be left out?

After nearly 18 months, Walshin is still trying to answer the question. In 2006 she launched a blog,, that highlights less-familiar ingredients, such as agave nectar, and some neglected favorites, such as arrowroot, then offers suggestions on how to use them.

True, Walshin hasn't managed to cut back on her total pantry items -- the current count is 226 -- but she has outlined clear rules about what belongs there. "I have to have used the ingredient more than once. And I have to use it in more than one way. Otherwise, it's not part of my perfect pantry."

In a way, the pantry problem is a reflection of our frenetic food culture. Thousands of cookbooks are published each year, providing ambitious kitchen warriors with recipes for Laotian beef salad, Italian grape and hazelnut tart, and the like. Americans also eat out more than ever and, with the help of the Internet, they can try to re-create restaurant dishes at home. If it's Tuesday, it's Belgian mussels. The catch: What do you do with the rest of the sour Flemish ale?

It's ironic. Storing foods we don't use is the antithesis of the pantry concept, not to mention uneconomical. Early Americans built pantries (originally called butteries because the ingredients were stored in the butts of barrels) as a place to store everyday items away from the heat of the kitchen. The term has since developed to refer to the staples cooks have on hand, whether they are in cabinets, canisters, freezer or fridge, says Catherine Seiberling Pond, author of "The Pantry: Its History and Modern Uses." It's no surprise, Pond says, that pantries have transformed and become so cluttered: "The evolution of pantries very much echoes trends in cooking and household domestic economy."

As Walshin has discovered, there is no one perfect pantry. But there is a baseline. Most serious cooks now stock sea salt (not iodized), peppercorns (not ground pepper), good commercial broth (not bouillon), extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic and wine vinegars and several flours.

From there, it depends on what you like to cook and eat. This month, Walshin posted her "desert island" list -- 23 staples with which she says she could make most of her favorite dishes -- including Parmesan cheese, lemons, cinnamon, cumin and Dijon-style mustard. A reader poll of their must-haves added crushed red pepper flakes, coconut milk, herbs de Provence and fish sauce. "I'd much rather have 226 things than 23," Walshin says. "But it's nice to know that I could survive."

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