Based in Portland, Oregon, Harriet Fasenfest gardens, cooks, writes, teaches, and speaks on the issues of food security and justice. Her book, A Householder's Guide to the Universe, was published in fall 2010. She is currently working on a new book and curriculum guide for teaching householding and householding economics.

Pantry 101

By
January 9, 2008

It is all coming together these days. I’m beginning to understand how the world of homemaking (with an eye towards self reliance) functions, or should. Nothing I am discovering is new. It is common wisdom, but it has a new context. We are homemakers, gardeners, and urban homesteaders for a sane economy and healthy environment. We are homemakers of the revolution. How exciting.

So now that you’ve dusted off your aprons and quit your job (maybe just shortened your hours), it’s time to chart out a game plan. Lately, and for some time now, I have been considering how to go about this. Other posts have examined the whys and wherefores of the effort, but now it’s time to get down to brass tacks. I’ll call this Pantry 101: the stocking of one’s pantry for a maximum of meals and a minimum of packaging. Here are some ideas.

Buy in season and in quantity. Over the last few years, I’ve developed patterns of shopping that augment what I grow. I go to farms to buy produce, fruits, nuts, and grains in quantities large enough to get me through the year. It has cut down my trips to the store, particularly during winter when my garden is not producing as much. Having frozen nuts, berries, and beans, and canned tomatoes (among other things) in quantities sufficient for the year has both inspired me and directed meal planning. It has streamlined the repertoire of dishes I cook and, in many ways, returned me to the old-world ethic of regional cooking. When all is said and done, a few ingredients, creatively joined, can make quite a few pleasant meals.

Making cheese.

Learn the principles of food preservation and storage. Knowing how to “put foods by” certainly gives you the confidence to shop in quantity during peak season. These simple skills have been lost to decades of convenience foods and year-round, out-of-season food supplies. But neither of those inventions have really served us. Going back to the principles of food preservation offers new ways to consider your relationship to the seasons. Like all other species, you work hard during the sowing, growing, and stowing seasons and take it a bit easier when the winter rains come. Admittedly the learning curve can feel a bit daunting, but don’t be overwhelmed. There will come the great “aha” moment when the wisdom and ease of this cycle reveals itself.

Make the most of your ingredients. There are certain ingredients that take center stage in my home now. Flour is definitely one of them. Use it for making bread, pasta, cakes, cookies, crackers, etc. It can become so many things and items you would normally buy. Milk and cream in bottles are similar in their ability to transmute. With the addition of this or that culture or technique I can get yogurt, kefir, sour cream, butter, buttermilk, farmer’s cheese, and more, all without the attendant containers each tends to come in. And I get to return the bottles the milk came in. Cool.

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Cook in volume. One of the principles of time management for the homemaker (and industrialization, by the way) is that you can maximize time efficiency by cooking in volume and storing it for later use. Making four pounds of cookie dough instead of one will not take four times the effort. Cooking a large quantity of chicken stock once a week and then freezing it can take no time, particularly if you are in the kitchen working on something else while the broth is cooking. Making beans and using them in a number of meals is both time saving and economical. You do not end up with as many unplanned (and uneaten) leftovers.

Get the basic equipment. Here I must admit I’ve been collecting cookware for decades. But even so, there are still those items I always lean on. For starters, I’d get a couple of really big mixing bowls, some stainless and some ceramic. I use them for mixing bread, making sourdough, kraut, salads, granola, etc. And since I cook in large batches, really big bowls are my friends. I have lots of mixing bowls that nest together, but my big boys are the best.

Invest in a couple of large storage containers (I buy mine at restaurant-supply stores) to hold your bulk sugar, flour, and miscellaneous grains. I would also stock up on glass canning and storing jars. You can find them sometimes at garage sales. A word of caution, though: Canning jars found at garage sales are great for storing food but not necessarily for canning, as they may have tiny hairline fractures in them or have lost the temper in their glass which can compromise their ability to withstand the heat of canning or the chill of freezing.

I have lots of mixing spoons, cups (both for liquid and dry ingredients), whisks, graters, rolling pins, cake pans, cookie sheets, mixers, juicers, and grinders, as well as the required pots, pans, and griddles for serious cooking, but, like I said, I’ve been at it for a while. There are lots of books out there on stocking a basic kitchen. I recently reviewed The Art of Simple Food, by Alice Waters, and found it lovely and concise in its information for beginning cooks and/or those wanting to get back to the basics.

Create a routine. I admit that staying home and homemaking drove me a little batty at first. But slowly I’m getting the hang of it and creating a routine, or cycle of systems, that has made life as a urban homesteader more reasoned. Generally, I bake bread, churn butter, soak beans, make yogurt, and cook stock all in one day. In truth, most of the time is spent letting these things tend to themselves. I am hardly as efficient as I could be, but then I’m not sure if I ever will be or want to.

Generally speaking, if it wasn’t for my concern for the economy, the planet, and the kids who will inherit it all, I doubt I would work this hard. Which does not suggest I don’t have time for leisure and fun and just plain idleness; I do. In fact, the more I get this cycle of tasks down, the more time I seem to have. It’s just learning the rhythm of this new life that can take some time.

Note: I find The Path to Freedom website inspiring; you might too.

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