It’s a little early to be singing ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ It’s too soon for corks a’poppin and balls a’dropping! But is ISN’T too soon to think about getting a fresh start on the new year with a fresh pantry.

When I lived in Brooklyn I had such grand delusions of hitting up the local bodega on a daily basis for the freshest produce and meats cut especially to my liking. I think at time I even imagined myself with basket in hand gliding from farmers market to farmers market. The reality though is that few of us outfit our kitchens with such freshness or cook exclusively with fresh-picked produce, recently cut meats, and vine-ripened fruit! And because it is winter it is that much more difficult! Not to mention when life is lived in more rural environments like that of Crystal and I in North Carolina. There simply isn’t the availability of much more than box stores and chain groceries. 

So if your personal goal is to cook and cook quickly, get a satisfying and somewhat enjoyable variety of real food on your family table as frequently as possible, a well-stocked and almost exclusively box store stocked pantry and fridge can sustain you. Replenished bi-weekly or so and further augmented with the occasional milk & bread stop, you can easily start this new year with a new epicuriosity.

So while you are stocking up the first payday of the year it is a good time to do some decluttering of the shelves and cabinets. Some of these products take up more space than they are actually worth. Some items are much better in their real forms that the difference is a bit comical. Unfortunately some remain in common usage even among the most proficient of cooks. But for the sake of argument let’s find out how to find a substitute for each item with even better results.

So without further ado the following is a list of items that may be better suited for the compost pile in their present form and substituted for something with a bit more class and, more importantly, taste!

OUT Packaged bread crumbs or flavored croutons.

INstead Cut bread in cubes, and either toast evenly in a low oven until dry and lightly browned, tossing occasionally; or cook in olive oil (use your skillet!) until brown and crisp, stirring frequently. The packaged crumbs keep a long time, and are multipurpose; the home-made are best used quickly, and are incomparably delicious.

OUT Bouillon cubes or canned stock.

INstead Simmer a carrot, a celery stalk and half an onion in a couple of cups of water for 10 minutes and you’re better off. If you raise chickens and have a freshly butchered chicken, a half-hour of cooking with those same vegetables will give you a product 10 times better than any canned stock.

OUT Bottled salad dressing and marinades. I honestly feel like these are not even worth the glass they are sold in.

INstead Take good oil and vinegar or lemon juice, and combine with salt, pepper, a little Dijon, in a proportion of about three parts oil to one of vinegar. Customize using more vinegar or less, a little shallot, or balsamic vinegar, or honey, or garlic, or tarragon, or soy sauce, etc.

OUT Canned peas (and most other canned vegetables, come to think of it).

INstead Frozen peas bought or picked fresh in season and then blanched. You can also purée with a little lemon juice and salt for a nice spread or dip.

In addition you should consider stocking:

  • COCONUT MILK
  • FROZEN SHRIMP
  • WALNUTS And/or other nuts, but walnuts are most basic and useful. Try a purée with garlic, oil and a little water, as a pasta sauce, or just add to salads or cooked grains.
  • FRESH HERBS AND SPICES Since we grow our own herbs it is easy for us to infuse our kitchen with fresh herbs and spices all year round. But now since a number of high end or natural food stores are stocked with bulk herbs and spices you can fill your own jars and containers with freshness and add a bit of, um, spice to your cupboard!

What about you? How do you currently or how are you planning in freshening up your kitchen? Anything you make at home that is easy and more tasty than the store bought? And as always if you like this post consider sharing it on Facebook or tweeting the link on Twitter!

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Editors note: Post inspired by Mark Bittman of NYTimes. Apologies to those who read this post before I added this footnote. I had misplaced the link and published before finding it to give proper credit.