There's nothing quite as much fun as heading to the farmers market on a weekend morning, roaming the stalls to see what looks best, sparking a few ideas for dinner and then heading home to cook.
But who ever told you life would be nothing but fun? Most of the time, we're cooking dinner between doing a half dozen other things. The mark of a real cook is being able to fix a good meal in the midst of real life.
Let's face it: Given perfect ingredients, any fool can turn out a decent dish. It's when there's no time to find the perfect ripe tomatoes or the piece of fish that smells just like the sea that good cooking becomes a challenge.
And at times like that, the best cook is not the one with a shelf full of recipe books, but the one who can come up with something delicious from what is in the refrigerator and on the cupboard shelves. From the pantry, in other words.
Everyone's pantry is different, just as everyone's taste is. Over many dinners, we learn which ingredients to rely on. Ideally, a pantry is the result of years of adding things to fit your taste and then subtracting to fit your space. What's left is what you've found to be truly necessary.
There are some universals. Everyone's got dried pasta, right? But in other ways, every pantry is different. For example, in mine, I always have beans--dried and canned. You may have something else to use as the base for a meal: barley for example, or another kind of grain.
Everyone should have rice, too, but which kind? I keep Arborio for risotto and regular long-grain for everything else. Someone else may stock up on short-grain Japanese, Jasmine or Basmati.
What else is in my pantry? This is a partial and, remember, emphatically personal list:
* Black and green olives and capers.
* Oils. Here's where I get a little nuts. I always try to have a couple of good olive oils--one for cooking, a peppery one to serve as a condiment and a light one for dressing salads.
* Salt. This may sound like an odd choice, but since doing a story on fleur de sel a couple of years ago, I'm hooked. I keep at least one coarse salt and one sea salt. Although salt improves almost everything, some kinds do more than others.
* Canned whole tomatoes and tomato puree. I like Progresso.
* Tuna fish in oil. The stuff packed in water tastes like sawdust.
* Vinegars. Since I started making my own red wine vinegar at home, my selection of other types has narrowed. I always have rice vinegar on hand because I like its gentle sweetness. I like Champagne vinegar for the same reason. I also have a bottle of real aceto balsamico that I dole out with an eyedropper. It's amazing stuff, but admittedly a real splurge.
The refrigerator is really just an artificially cooled extension of the pantry. There I keep:
* Grating cheeses: Vella Sonoma Jack, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino Romano. I always try to have at least two of the three.
* Fresh cheeses: In summer, mozzarella, always goat.
* Bacon. I guess I'm just a country boy. There's almost nothing a little bacon won't improve. And then there's that jar in the back of the refrigerator for the grease.
I always keep some plain yogurt in the refrigerator too, and carrots, celery and Italian parsley in the vegetable drawer.
It's not that much, but just scanning the list, I can see a dozen or so dishes that I could fix when I get home tonight.
It's a comfort factor, really. Having this stuff on hand assures me that no matter how difficult life gets, I always know where dinner is coming from.
White Bean and Swiss Chard Stew
Active Work Time: 15 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 2 hours
This is one of those dishes that came together on a harried Sunday when home projects overlapped with friends coming to dinner. Every ingredient had been in my house at least a week, including the chard, which was left uncooked from the weekend before. The final blessing of olive oil is what makes this dish. Do not neglect it--and the fruitier and more peppery the oil, the better.
1 pound dried Great Northern beans
2 strips bacon, cut in 1-inch squares
1 carrot, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch Swiss chard
2 sprigs thyme
* Combine beans and 1 teaspoon salt in large saucepan. Add enough water to cover amply and set over medium heat. When water starts to boil, cover and reduce heat to low. Cook until beans are just soft, about 1 1/2 hours. From time to time, check beans and add more water if necessary. Older and drier beans will take much more water than fresh ones.
* When beans are almost done, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in bottom of large stew pot. Add bacon and cook until light brown, about 5 minutes. Add carrot and cook until soft, another 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes.
* While bacon is cooking, cut up chard. Separate leaves from stems and cut stems in 1-inch pieces. Cut leaves in thin strips.
* Add chard stems and thyme to bacon mixture, and add beans plus enough water to make light stew consistency. Cook, covered, over medium heat until stems have softened, about 20 minutes, stirring from time to time. About 5 minutes before serving, stir in thinly sliced leaves and cook just until soft. Serve with good olive oil and coarse salt to taste on the side.
6 servings. Each serving: 316 calories; 258 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 2 grams fat; 41 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 1.92 grams fiber.