A well-stocked pantry allows you to cook on the fly, to turn all those fresh fruits and veggies you find at the farmers market into stunning dishes in a snap. All cooks benefit from an excellent pantry, of course, but a local foods pantry differs from a standard pantry in one big way: it considers the origins of the foods.
There are many degrees of eating locally, and plenty of pantries kept by locavores contain non-local items (mine included!). Once people start learning about where some of their food comes from, however, their curiosity about the rest of their foodstuffs peaks as well. Tips for feeling good about the "exceptions" to local eating you make in your own kitchen are included with this simple list of the things I keep in my own kitchen. No matter where you fall on the eating local spectrum you'll find steps towards stocking a rock-solid base for improvisational cooking below.
THE SUPER BASICS
These items are must-haves for making the most of your farmers market finds and CSA goodies.
Sea salt is the salt I buy. It tends to be minimally processed (simply from evaporated sea water), to have a lovely clean flavor, and to contain trace minerals. It works well for seasoning meats, salting water, sprinkling on salads, and pretty much any other use.
Olive oil for salads and drizzling on grilled or roasted vegetables and meats. Look for extra virgin olive oil, preferably "certified" if you can find it. California Olive Oil Council tests the oils it certifies for acidity levels and other factors before issuing certifications. Learn more About Olive Oil here.
Neutral-flavored oil(s) for cooking. I prefer expeller- or cold-pressed oils since they are removed from their source using physical pressure rather than excessive heat or chemical extraction, both of which destroy beneficial nutrients found in many oils. Grapeseed, safflower, and rice bran oil are my top choices, but they can be a bit more difficult to find in some areas. When I buy the more readily-available canola oil, I look for organic versions to avoid buying oil made from genetically-modified canola seeds.
BASICS FOR ADDING EASY FLAVOR
Add a range of flavors to highlight great ingredients with these pantry items.
Peppercorns and a grinder. For me, these belong up in "Super Basics," but I understand black pepper may be less central to many people's taste. As with all spices, I look for organic peppercorns from a sustainable source. Peppercorn degrade in flavor after they are ground up, so rather than ground pepper, choose peppercorns and a grinder.
Spices are key. Exactly which one you keep around depends on your cooking style and taste. I keep small amounts of many types of spices in a dark and cool cupboard to preserve as much flavor as possible. For the best flavor, look for a market that sells a lot of spices and so has a lot of turn-over to keep those spices fresh. Remember, whole seeds last longer that pre-ground spices, so consider setting aside a coffee grinder to use as a spice mill for amazing flavor.
Vinegars add quick flavor with just a splash and make homemade salad dressings a breeze to whip together. I keep good-quality red wine vinegar, champagne vinegar, malt vinegar, sherry vinegar, and cider vinegar in the cupboard.
Dried mushrooms add earthy depth of flavor after just a 15-minute soak in boiling hot water. Porcinis are popular, and I always try to dry some morel mushrooms when they're in season to keep things more on the local side.
Dried chiles add more than just spicy heat, different varieties add different flavor - from floral to earthy - along with their famous kick. When dried fully, chiles, like mushrooms, last a nice long time. As long as they don't get damp and develop mold, they seem to last almost indefinitely. I like to order a ristra of New Mexico red chiles (since I live in often-damp San Francisco I always request a ristra that's been fully "cured" with crackling dry chiles despite the fact that the softer still-drying chiles are a bit more fun to cook with), hang it in the kitchen, and pull chiles off as I need them.
Vanilla is key for many baked goods. I like to buy sustainably grown vanilla beans and make my own extract (it makes a great gift too).
BASICS FOR EASY MEALS
This section also really depends on how and what you cook, but these are things that I keep around so that when I bring produce home from the farmers market I can get cooking right away.
Beans and lentils are real favorites at my house. Along with rice (see below) they create a complete protein, making satisfying vegetarian meals easy to pull together with lots of veggies. I keep a rather staggering variety of beans (black beans, cannelli beans, chickpeas, and cranberry beans just for starters) and lentils (brown, red, yellow split peas) in the house as a matter of course. I like to buy Rancho Gordo beans - particularly their various heirloom varieties. While opening a can of beans is a quick way to go, I find the texture sacrificed not really worth it. If you do choose canned beans, be sure to look for BPA-free cans. Or, avoid such risks and just learn how to quick soak beans.
Grains like barley, quinoa, and buckwheat add texture, fiber, and flavor.
Pasta shows up on our table a lot. Sometimes I roll out my own noodles made with organic flour and pastured eggs, but I certainly turn to boxes of organic pasta from the store shelf often enough.
Rice from sustainable, organic growers like Lundberg or Masa turn beans and vegetables into a complete meal. Long-grain, short-grain, white, brown, and sweet rice are some of the players that take up space in my pantry. I also keep a few bags of lake- and river-grown wild rice I buy when I visit my parents in Minnesota on hand.
KEEP THINGS INTERESTING
Condiments, flavor-boosters, and garnishes let you change-up a familiar dish. You don't necessarily need all of these, but keep the ones you like in the house.
Anchovies can add a rich, salty essence people can't identify except as "delicious" (even those who claim they don't like anchovies) when used properly. I like to cure my own or buy the ones in glass jars packed in olive oil or salt-packed (rinse those off before using).
Nuts bring richness and crunch to sweet and savory dishes. Almonds, walnuts, and pine nuts are pretty much always in my freezer (they last longer that way).
Olives make a quick snack or bump up the flavor and mouth-feel of pasta sauces.
IN THE FRIDGE
It may seem odd to mention the fridge in a list about the pantry, but these are items that I try to keep on hand.
Eggs make protein-filled breakfasts and easy dinners. I prefer pastured eggs for their bright sunny yolks and bouncy whites.
Grating cheese for garnishing soups, pastas, salads, grilled vegetables.... Truth be told, there is often lots of cheese in my fridge, but a highly flavored hard grating cheese is something that is always in the cheese drawer. Real Parmesan is something I make a non-local exception for, as is a long-aged gouda. Dry Sonoma Jack is an excellent option, though.
Flat-leaf parsley and other herbs add fresh flavor and color with a quick chop and sprinkle. Parsley grows in my kitchen garden year-round, as does rosemary (which I use much less frequently). As long as things don't get too hot, wonderfully fragrant cilantro stays brightly flavored, and I use an awful lot of mint when it's in season too.
Bacon or pancetta keeps for awhile and a little bit adds a meaty depth of flavor to otherwise veggie-laden dishes. I'll buy a few slices to keep until I use and replace them, or large packages, divide them into small several-slice servings, and freeze them until I need them.