Sunday, April 10, 2011

Shelf Life

when I close my eyes i see the contents of my refrigerator.  it is an involuntary response somewhat akin to breathing for me.   i trained myself to do this back in 1988 when i became a food professional and it has stuck with me ever since.  i know you are asking yourself "why on earth would this crazy woman train herself to visually memorize the contents of her refrigerator?!" i will tell you....most walk-in refrigerators in restaurants are located in the basement. there is a lot of running up and down if you don't prepare your station well. knowing EXACTLY where everything is really saves time.  and not just for me. there have been many times when i would know where something was that someone else needed (and they could not find).  mine was a handy skill to have and i was proud to keep my obsessive compulsion razor sharp.  at the end of my shift, after i cleaned my station, washed up, made my prep list & changed my clothes i would memorize my station low boy (fridge) like an architectural map. then i would have a stroll through the walk-in, absorbing it all and committing the location of everything to memory.  

that evening, at home in bed and ready to call it a night, i would close my eyes and go back through the walk-in, talking myself through my prep list for the next day. with my eyes closed, i would mentally place the the ingredient and it's location together with each dish on the menu as i fell asleep. some might call it an unwinding.  the next morning, well rested, confident and content, i woke ready for what was ahead of me in the kitchen that night.  As you can imagine, this is a hard habit to break and one that i am grateful to have hung onto because knowing what is on your shelves and where it is all located is an important step toward what i call a healthy shelf life or some serious pantry pride! 

efficiency and economy in the kitchen, home or professional, is a tremendous asset.  it's all about saving time, saving money and using as few steps to accomplish your goal as possible (economy of motion).  one of the most popular questions people ask me when i teach is how can i shave dollars off the grocery bill without sacrificing quality?  great question. another popular question is how can i prepare nutritious meals when i don't have a lot of time?  my answer to both of those questions involves preparation or what the restaurant industry calls  "prep."  If you know how to prep your station (your home, family fridge and pantry in this case)  a nutritious meal is usually a 20 minute pick up away (not including meats if you are roasting, stewing or braising, etc).  let's apply, shall we?


it all begins with the very satisfying task of laying in a good supply of quality staples and bringing them to a ready state for consumption.  i divide these staples into categories: grocery (dry goods), perishables (seasonal fruit, seasonal veg, dairy, meat, fish) and frozen.  after all of those are in place i (mentally) write a weekly menu and then a prep list.  prep lists are incredibly helpful (a must actually) and can be organized according to "project" and "do" (thank you anita!).  a project is something that you don't necessarily need right away or for the next meal and a do is just that, something that you need to do now for what you are about to eat (may we all be truly thankful). 

for instance, making mayo, ketchup, hummus, salmon jerky, crispy nuts and roasted tomato sauce in my house are all projects.  something i do about once or twice a month that will last for a while and a few meals.  making stock is also a project since there is usually a few quarts in the fridge and back-up in the freezer as well.  a "do" might be julienne carrots, zucchini and cabbage for pad thai. other do's for that dish would be to make an asian vinaigrette.  pick and wash cilantro, basil and mint. soak noodles. these are all jobs that can be done ahead of time. the vinaigrette is something that could potentially last up to 10 days in the fridge and dress a number of meals (soba noodles, cucumber beef salad, salmon lollipops) so making a good size batch is a great idea - a project.  washed herbs like the cilantro, basil and mint can last a few days as well and lend a hand to many tasty dishes (chicken salad, soup, summer rolls, curry, fried rice, etc).  

an example of a project and a do is to roast a whole chicken. not only is that chicken going to be dinner for that night (do) but it will also likely wind up being a few projects like chicken salad for sandwiches the next day, meat for tacos, bones to make stock for a delicious soup and fat for healthy cooking.  that one chicken has gone as far as it could and stretched the dollar value for a beautiful pastured bird raised with love and care by a local farmer.  you can prep grains ahead of time (make sure you soak them first), blanch, chop, roast and steam vegetables, braise meats, make stews, cook pasta, sauces, dips, soups and so much more! 

okay. one more example. you want to have a roasted vegetable side dish with your roast chicken so you do a big tray of beautiful caramelized seasonal veggies for that night.  delicious! the next night it goes in a pasta with lots of chopped parsley and toasted pine nuts, the day after it's a sandwich on baguette with feta cheese and basil oil, or a salad over greens,  a filling for an omelette or quiche and finally you puree the vegetables with pitted olives and anhovies to make a gorgeous tapanade (spread) for crostini or as a sauce, or a base for a soup, or a vinaigrette or a garnish for pizza! YES! good prep goes a long way my friends.

i think you get the idea. (if you don't please email me and i will explain further) prep ahead of time, label the containers, date them and know where they are.  when your pantry and fridge are set up this way you can't loose.  meals come together easily and everything is fresh and ready to go. being organized equals no stress. economy of motion, economy of time and ultimately economy of dollars because everything is being used. no waste. no kidding.  i find the weekend is the best time to whack up the prep in my fridge and my pantry.  then i usually have to fill in with one light day during the week.  all in all it's a lovely meditation that will leave you feeling cool, calm and prepared and what is better than that? 

below is a list of my staples. items i could not live without.  as a matter of fact i sometimes feel a bit shaky until i do lay in a good supply.  my confidence in the kitchen has a lot to do with my love and respect for ingredients as well as my need to have them around me at all times.  i look to them for inspiration but i do not hoard. i take as much as i know i will use and go back to see my beautiful friends the local farmers, growers, sellers and neighborhood merchants who help nourish my family when we need them.  i also use many online resources when ordering in bulk which saves a few fazools and who doesn't love that?! May your pantry pride swell till it has its own parade and your shelf life be a happy life, ready at a moments notice to feed and feed well when you bring your lovely self and Family2Table.

* please assume that the following are all local, organic, wild, pastured and raw (like me). do not in any way feel that you need to run out and have all of these in your home.  over time you will determine what works best for you. 

grocery staples
extra virgin olive oil
extra virgin coconut oil
sesame oil
raw apple cider vinegar
balsamic vinegar
rice wine vinegar
raw unpasteurized soy sauce
celtic sea salt
himalayan sea salt
tellicherry peppercorns
white peppercorns
raw spring honey
orange blossom honey
grade b maple syrup
vital choice canned fish
blanched almond flour
coconut flour
sprouted wheat flour
palm sugar
dried fruit (raisins, apricots, turkish figs, mango)
crispy almonds
jasmine rice
gluten free oats
brown rice pasta
soba noodles
french green lentils
navy beans
canned tomatoes
sea vegetables (arame, dulse, kelp, nori)
bee pollen
chia seeds
flax seeds
nutritional yeast
coconut flake
mineral water
dried herbs
vanilla extract
vanilla bean
aluminum free baking powder
baking soda
coconut milk

seasonal fruits (always lemons, limes)
seasonal vegetables (always onions, garlic, shallots, carrots, celery, potatoes)
raw milk
milk kefir
beef tallow
chicken fat (schmaltz)
bacon grease
sour cream
cream cheese
fresh herbs
fermented vegetables
greens powder
fermented cod liver oil
meat & fish stock
condiments (ketchup, mayo, mustard, relish, salsa)
curry paste

vital choice seafood (alaskan sockeye salmon & halibut)
meats (chicken legs & thighs, bones for stock, shanks, hot dogs, stew meat, liver)
berries and bananas for baking and smoothies
sprouted bread


  1. Great tips and ideas, Emily! and I love your pantry lists. I agree that economy in the kitchen is key. People are often surprised that as a professional cook my home kitchen is so tiny. I have cooked for up to 100 people in it, every single square inch of space is thought out and makes my work an easy seamless activity.

  2. love the list! I am printing it off and using it to start off our new kitchen in London are one smart woman....and kind to share

  3. you are incredibly inspirational and I hope to at least follow a smidge of this, thanks for posting!

  4. Love your list. I cook the same, sans the menu plan at the beginning of the week because I find it is just so easy to throw a meal together when things are prepped and I have so many things ready and in the fridge.

    I want to venture into the land of sardines, but don't know a thing about them. Any advice?

    One thing I prep is arugula pistachio pesto and keep it in my fridge to grill with fish, add as a sauce to any meal and even use as a dip or spread mixed with home made mayo (thanks to you for you!). It's easy to make and a bunch of arugula makes a lot which works for my large quantity eating family.

  5. You are an inspirational prepping machine. Wow...

  6. You are a goddess! When I grow up, I want to be just like you. I'm on my way, but taking baby steps. This week I ordered a bunch of good grocery staples from Green Pasture and Wildness Family Naturals, so I feel like that will take me far in having more of what I need to be calm in the face of the question I used to hate: "what's for dinner?" Thank you!

  7. Great idea. I am getting there. One thing I just started doing was making a list of standard items for some stores I go to every so often - so when I go to Trader Joe's (for example), I can run down my whole list and check if there I'm getting everything I need for a stock-up when I go.

  8. Thanks for this. I am stumbling my way in this direction. As I get more & more familiar & comfortable & regular with scratch cooking, I am astonished to find how easy it is to throw things together from what I now have on hand. When you don't do it regularly, cooking just one dish is time consuming. When things are regularly in motion (and there are prior "projects" to support you!) eating well is relatively simple & addictive. I never could have understood this.

    Love your roasted veggie example.

    Would love to know more about how you store things, which dry goods you get in in large quantities & which you feel are more perishable and buy more often.

    And what do you do with the bee pollen?

  9. This is a really great post! I am new to your blog and am so glad that I found it! I have enjoyed reading over your posts!