Building A Natural Foods Pantry
So you've stocked up on Warner Farm fruits and vegetables...what now? In order to fully experience the culinary delight of fresh, local produce you need to have some other basic ingredients in your pantry! Below you will find a guide to the best grains, sweeteners, oils & fats, and other foods to stock up on from natural food guru Heidi Swanson of 101Cookbooks.
There's more to life than Wonder Bread and white rice! Whole grains are a wondrous source of fiber and complex carbohydrates and are essential to a healthy diet. The following grains can be found in the bulk bin section of any Whole Foods or health food store:
Fast Cooking Grains (cooks in under 30 minutes):
Amaranth: Not a grain in the strictest sense, amaranth is actually the seeds of an herb indigenous to the Americas. The tiny seed packs a flavor punch that belies its miniature stature, and its lysine-rich, 16 percent protein profile makes it a nutritional darling to boot. Amaranth has a texture that pops in the mouth and a pronounced green spiciness that aligns it more closely in flavor to quinoa than to some of the other true grains, like wheat and oats. Many recipes can benefit from its addition, from biscuits and pancakes to tart crusts and granola bars.
Millet:: Millet is painfully underutilized. These perfect, delicately textured, butter-colored beads are as good for you as they are pretty. Easy to digest and sporting a fantastic heart-healthy magnesium content, millet is a great, quick-cooking starter grain. If you have the time for the extra step, the flavor of millet generally benefits from pre-toasting, easily done in a skillet. It brings forth a nutty flavor and tints the grains a wonderful spectrum of deep yellows and light browns. The light texture and mild flavor of millet pairs nicely with fresh alliums, such as chives, green onions, and spring garlic. Look for it in the bins at most natural food stores or try Whole Foods Markets.
Oats:The ultimate morning grain, oats are available in a few different forms. Whole oat berries (or groats) are equivalent in size to wheat berries, but they cook up to twice as fast and are naturally sweeter, lending themselves nicely to spicy, sweet, salty, and fruity preparations. Steel-cut oats are created by cutting the groat down into smaller pieces. Old-fashioned rolled oats are produced by steaming whole groats and rolling them to varying thicknesses. Instant oats are simply the thinnest or most finely cut oats. All of these variations are considered whole foods.
Quinoa: Cooking quinoa is easier than trying to figure out how to pronounce it (KEEN-wah). This small, quick-cooking grain bullied me into first purchasing it years ago with a nutritional profile I couldn’t ignore. High in easy-to-digest fiber and tops in protein, it has an encyclopedic vitamin and mineral profile and is positively brimming with properties thought to promote cardiovascular health, stave of certain cancers, tame headaches and migraines, provide antioxidant protection, and on and on. This is the grain credited with keeping Incan armies strong and resilient. Because the protein in quinoa is considered complete, it’s an ideal grain for vegetarians concerned about getting enough protein. It includes all of the essential amino acids and is a rich source of the amino acid lysine, which promotes tissue growth and repair and supports the immune system. While I initially purchased this grain for its nutritional perks, I kept buying it for its grassy taste and fluffed-up, creamy-while-crunchy texture. It grows in a spectrum of reds, browns, and pinks, but shades of ivory or deep red predominate in U.S. markets. Use quinoa in salads and stuffings or to add texture to quick breads and cookies. Always rinse it before using to remove the bitter saponin coating (which the plant produces to deter birds and insects). Technically not a true grain, it is related botanically to Swiss chard and beets, but it is grainlike in spirit when it comes to cooking.
Teff:One of the mightiest of the mini grains, teff (also spelled tef or t’ef) is the staple grain of Ethiopia. Because it’s rich in iron, it’s credited with establishing Ethiopians as the best long-distance runners in the world. How can such a small grain pack such a punch? There’s only room for the nutrient-rich bran and germ and not much else. I use teff in tart crusts and pie crusts, in place of cornmeal in polenta, and in a range of baked breads, cakes, and muffins. It is a very dignified-looking grain available in a deep, rich, reddish brown chestnut color or a classic ivory tone. For added depth of flavor when using teff, toast the raw grains for a few minutes in a dry pan—just until fragrant.
Slow Cooking Grains (worth the wait!):
Barley: I often use barley as the foundation for my risotto recipes. Whole barley takes a long time to cook, so I search out barley that has had its nutrient-rich bran coating only lightly pearled off. Pearling simply buffs off a variable amount of the outer bran coating, but certainly not as much as a fully refined grain, let’s call it semi-whole. Choose bigger grains over smaller ones that have been pearled down too far. If you have the time hulled barley (considered whole) can be used, but this will increase your cooking time significantly. Barley thickens up stews beautifully and absorbs surrounding flavors nicely.
Farro: Trendy, health-conscious chefs have helped make the ancient grain farro quite popular over the past few years. It was one of the first domesticated grains in Mesopotamia before other cereal grains took over as preferred grain crops. Farro has been enjoying a resurgence in interest not only because of its nutritional profile, but also because it is hearty and deeply satisfying and pairs nicely with a fantastic range of seasonal ingredients year-round. Like barley, farro can be used as an alternative grain for risotto-type dishes, and is often found slightly pearled. When shopping, look for Triticum dicoccum, farro’s Latin name. If you can’t find farro for a recipe, substitute barley and cook until tender—typically taking less time than farro.
Wheat berries: This might strike some of you as obvious, but when you grind up a wheat berry, you get flour. Hard red winter wheat berries end up as higher-protein bread flours, while lower-protein soft wheat berries are ground into pastry or cake flours. Because they contain the bran and germ, all wheat berries are nutritionally intact. I typically opt for soft wheat berries at the market because they cook up into plump, chewy grains that are well suited for salads, soups, or simply seasoned on their own. Wheat berries are notorious for marathon cooking times, so if you want to save some time, soak the berries in water for a few hours or overnight prior to cooking. Cracked wheat is simply the result of cracking the wheat berries between rollers. Cracked wheat is still nutritionally intact and much quicker to cook, but completely different in terms of how you might use it. If you’ve had a side dish of tabouli, you’ve had cracked wheat, and you’ll be able to all of its other potential applications: as a rice substitute, instead of oatmeal in the morning, or to add texture and flavor to baked goods.
Wild rice: You’ve heard it before: wild rice isn’t actually rice; it’s an annual aquatic grass, and an underutilized one at that. Its distinctive nutty flavor, hearty texture, and captivating earthy colors should make it a prime candidate for frequent use beyond holiday stuffing recipes and the occasional cranberry-flecked side dish. Its nutritional benefits are legendary and a broad spectrum of wild rice is available, coming not only from its native upper Great Lakes region but from California, Washington, and Idaho as well. There are both hand-harvested and cultivated wild rices. Connoisseurs will be quick to tell you that wild rice hand-harvested from a canoe is like a fine wine. Hand-cultivated wild rice is the crème de la crème, but it isn’t within everyone’s budget. It can be surprisingly light in color and often takes much less time to cook than its cultivated cousin, the much darker, glossy, brownish black wild rice you are likely familiar with. It’s also more likely that hand-harvested wild rice hasn’t been raised with harsh agrochemicals. That being said, I’ve had delicious cultivated wild rice too; much depends on the influence of the environment in which the rice is grown (think terroir), how the rice is harvested, and how it is processed. Whether you are buying hand-harvested or cultivated wild rice, price and quality varies greatly. It is certainly worth the effort to find a good source. As with most grains, cooking time can vary greatly depending on the type of wild rice you buy, when it was harvested, and how much moisture is left in each rice grain by the time you bring it home. If you want to get even more earthy, nutty flavor out of your wild rice, it just takes a bit of extra time and tenacity. After cooking the rice, drain it and toss with a bit of clarified butter. In a wide, shallow baking dish (or on a rimmed baking sheet) pop it in a 375F degree oven until fragrant. This brings out a whole new dimension of flavor from the grains and is worth the effort if you are showcasing the rice in a salad or for simple preparations. I don’t typically make that extra effort if I’m using the wild rice in a soup or for textural backdrop.
Whether you follow a vegetarian or omnivorous diet, these pantry staples are essential to a balanced diet.
Dried Beans: Each bean has a unique flavor profile, appearance, and texture. Some beans are thin-skinned and prone to rupturing when heated to anything more than a delicate simmer. Others are sturdy and stay intact, even in the proximity of a cook with a hot-tempered stove and a less-than-watchful eye. Some dried beans start their journey to the table bold and showy, with colorful markings and beguiling patterns, while others are simple and nondescript. Sadly, their markings and colors often fade into faint whispers of their former vibrancy as they rehydrate and plump up in a pot of bubbling water.
Nutritionally, beans are a powerhouse of soluble fiber, iron, and protein. Seek out beans that have been harvested and dried within the past year or so. Dried beans that have been sitting around for years take longer to cook, are more difficult to rehydrate, and are generally more difficult to work with and prepare. They may also be less nutritious. And be sure to look for heirloom varieties. Store beans in a dark cupboard where they will retain their brightness and vitality; some of their nutrients deteriorate quickly when exposed to light.
Eggs: I buy the best eggs I can find, and use them a thousand different ways. The difference between cheap,industrially farmed eggs and the kind I pick up at my farmers market is remarkable and if you eat eggs I encourage you to seek out farm fresh eggs that are produced by chickens that are treated well.
Lentils: The big upside to cooking with lentils is that they are substantial, filling, highly nutritious, and relatively quick to cook. They are great cooked into stews, mashed into spreads, molded into croquettes of all sizes, and mixed into grain-based salads. Plus, unlike most dried beans, they require no presoaking. Some varieties of lentils hold their shape, while others have a tendency to turn quickly to mush. I’ve found that the peppery green Le Puy lentils, from France, hold their shape nicely, as do the sexy black beluga lentils. I’m often tempted by the vibrant hues of the red and yellow varieties, but because they lose structure so quickly they are best in pureed soups or more traditional Indian preparations, such as dal. Don’t let their diminutive stature fool you; lentils have one of the richest protein profiles of any vegetable, backed up with supersized levels of iron, fiber, and folate.
Nuts & Seeds: Nuts and seeds are high in fat, but in contrast to many of the processed fats that work their way into our diets these are natural, straight-from-the-source fats with their healthful properties intact. Start by considering a whole nut, and then imagine all the directions you can go from there. Toast that nut and the flavor becomes more pronounced. Chop it and you have a crunchy, textural element to play with. Mill it into a flourlike meal and you have an ingredient that can be used to add flavor and moisture to baked goods or to deliciously thicken a pureed soup. Grind it and you have a spread or butter. Or blend it with water to make a nut milk. Start thinking about seeds similarly. They are wonderfully diverse and span a broad range of colors, shapes, flavors, textures, and origins.
Because of their naturally high fat content, nuts and seeds can quickly go rancid. For this reason, commercial walnuts are often treated with powerful chemicals to extend shelf life. Seek out good sources with fresh stock, and store them refrigerated. Nuts that are sold sliced or chopped are much more likely to be rancid upon purchase than whole nuts, and your best bet is nuts still in shell. The shells, or even the skin as on an almond or hazelnut, adds a layer of protection from light and heat, which can cause rancidity. Because of their high fat content, it’s especially important to buy organic nuts and seeds. Or buy them at a farmers’ market, where you can ask the grower about their methods.
Sprouts: Sprouting grains, legumes, and seeds boosts their already commendable nutritional profiles. There is a lot of power and aspiration in that little sprout. Sprouts are also easier for the body to digest, so if you have had trouble with certain beans, try eating them sprouted. While growing your own sprouts is certainly an option, a wide variety of sprouts are increasingly available at farmers’ markets and in produce departments. Look for bright, fresh-looking sprouts and give them a sniff to make sure there’s nothing funky going on.
Yogurt: Look for fresh organic yogurt rich in live active cultures, or if you are more ambitious, try making your own. The live cultures in yogurt help maintain an optimum balance of microorganisms in the digestive tract. This supports healthy digestion, strengthens the immune system, and provides a host of other benefits. Yogurt isn’t just for breakfast or a quick snack; it has limitless culinary possibilities. If you wrap it in cheesecloth and let it drain, you’ll end up with creamy, delicious yogurt cheese, to which you can add herbs, spices, or citrus zest for a savory spread or berries and honey if you’re after something sweeter.
If you think sweetness can only be achieved by that ubiquitous bag of bleached crystals...think again! The following sweetners offer healthier and more natural ways to satisfy your sweet tooth.
Agave nectar: Lighter, cleaner, and less cloyingly sweet than honey, but with a similar appearance, agave nectar is a fantastic mild-tasting sweetener that is gaining widespread popularity. It is renowned for having a low glycemic index, which is of particular importance to diabetics and anyone who has problems with blood sugar regulation. Look for 100 percent pure agave nectar. The darker amber variety retains more of the plant’s natural nutrients.
Blackstrap molasses is a full-bodied sweetener that runs thick and black as tar. It is made from successive boilings of sugarcane, and because many of the minerals and nutrients are preserved throughout the process, it is rich in potassium and a good source of calcium, vitamin B6, and iron. Like maple syrup, molasses is sold in grades having to do with whether it is from the first, second, third, or fourth boiling of the sugarcane, blackstrap coming from the last. Again because this sweetener is a concentrate, buying organic is important.
Brown rice syrup is beautiful syrup is a thick, slow-moving, silky slug of butterscotch-colored goodness made by cooking sprouted brown rice in water that is then evaporated. What remains is luminescent, not-too-sweet syrup that retains some of its antioxidant properties. Look for organic or sustainably produced brands.
Date sugar is made by reducing dried zahidi dates to a cooked paste, dehydrating the paste, and then breaking it into granules. I use it more as a seasoning-type sweetener, to shape the flavor of a recipe than as a foundation and volume-building sweetener, in part because it is quite expensive and temperamental (it burns at a lower temperature than white sugar.
Natural cane sugars: There is a spectrum of natural cane sugars available, the big hurdle is figuring out which ones to buy. There is no standardization when it comes to labeling and not all naturally-labeled cane sugars are of equal quality or integrity. At one end of the spectrum are products like Sucanat (pure dehydrated sugarcane juice) and Rapadura, which are the least processed. The trade-off is that they are dry, irregular, and a bit dusty
Beyond that there are the rich, delicious “raw” cane sugars like Muscovado or Barbados, Demerara, and Turbinado which unlike commercial brown sugars get their natural brown color from the local sugar cane juice. You then move on to a range of cane sugars that have gone through varying stages of processing until you come out the other end with a nearly white sugar—something like Florida Crystals or the organic cane sugar sold through Trader Joe’s.
I generally look for cane sugars that are moist and similar in appearance to brown sugar with a fine grain echoing the size of standard white sugar grains. More often than not they’ll have some combination of the following words on the packaging: natural, raw, unrefined, whole, and/or unbleached. I’m happy to report that there’s a growing variety of cane sugars on the market now, and some are organically produced and fair trade certified.
Honey:One of the things I love about honey is that is has terroir—flavor that reflects the blossoming flowers of the specific region in which it was produced. Some honeys are thick, dark, and brooding; others are light in color and bright on the tongue. Navigating your way through the vast landscape of honey varietals involves a lifetime of tasting. A honey appropriate for pairing with an artisan cheese might be very different than a honey for baking with, so taste different types, take notes, and try different pairings. Look for raw, unfiltered, unprocessed honey and be aware that darker honeys contain higher levels of antioxidants. Farmers’ markets are typically a great place to find honey producers who can talk you through the nuances of the different varietals.
Maple sugar, a dusty-textured, buff-colored sweetener, is made by evaporating the water out of maple syrup. It is on the pricey side, but has a lovely, deep, round maple flavor that helps you forget about the hole it leaves in your wallet. This is another sweetener I tend to use as an accent, sprinkled over yogurt, dusted on top of crepes, and sprinkled over scone, cookies, and muffins as they come out of a hot oven.
Maple syrup: The maple syrup market is a minefield of artificially maple-flavored syrups with little to no maple content, so be sure to read labels. Pure maple syrup is rich in important minerals like zinc and manganese and comes from boiling down the sap of maple trees. Available in various grades depending on when the sap was harvested from the tree, syrup produced from tapping early in the season yields a lighter, finer syrup designated grade A. I actually prefer grade B, which comes from sap harvested later in the season; it’s thicker and more luxurious in flavor and color. Buy pure 100 percent organic maple syrup.
Fats & Oils:
Butter: Cultured organic butter tastes unlike anything else, it melts on the back of your tongue and its nutty milky flavor dances up into your nose, comforting all your senses. This is one of the best fats for baking. As with any dairy products you buy, make sure it comes from producers using sustainable, organic practices. Butter, yogurt, and milk should be free of artificial hormones and extraneous antibiotics, and the livestock should be raised in humane conditions. These products are better for you, better for the planet, and better for the animals. Two other butter-based options, clarified butter and ghee, are made by removing milk solids and water from the butter over heat. The main difference between the two is that when preparing ghee, you leave the milk solids in to toast a bit before pouring off the clarified butter; this lends a distinctive rich, nutty flavor to recipes - it also allows for higher cooking temperatures.
Coconut oil is a luxurious naturally saturated fat that's solid at room temperature. The smell of pure, unrefined coconut oil is tropical, rich, and enveloping. Many people stay away from coconut oil due to all the bad press it got over the years for being high in saturated fat, but fragrant, unrefined, natural, virgin coconut oil fits all of the criteria I look for in a good ingredient (see opening paragraphs). Many island cultures with diets rich in coconut oil (and unprocessed foods in general), saw very few cases of "western" diseases before processed foods washed up on their shores. For vegans, or people looking to use less butter, coconut oil is often a fantastic butter substitute and one of the only unrefined vegetarian fats that isn't compromised at higher temperatures. When substituting coconut oil for butter, start by using 25 percent less coconut oil, as it is more concentrated than butter, having a lower water content.
Olive oil: If you live in region where olives are grown, you may be lucky enough to find fresh, local extra-virgin olive oil at your local farmers' market. Look for small producers who cold-press their olives. The oil can ranging from golden and buttery to grassy and green, so be sure to sample the range of flavors available. Use olive oil as soon as possible or purchase smaller bottles to start with; unlike wine, you don't want to age your olive oil. Use your best, most fragrant and flavorful extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling and seasoning recipes, not for cooking. I keep a separate bottle on hand for cooking, typically a milder-flavored extra-virgin oil, and use this for most applications that require heating the oil. Because olive oil is rich in omega-9 fatty acids, it can tolerate moderate heat. It is fine for sautéing over medium to medium-high heat, or you can pair it with a bit of water for a steam-sauté.
Sesame oil: People have long valued this oil for its distinctive flavor and rich nutritional profile. This popular oil is typically available in two varieties: plain and toasted. I use plain sesame oil to cook with when clarified butter or olive oil aren't a fit. Toasted sesame oil plays a pivotal role in many Asian recipes, and it has a special place in my kitchen as well. It sends out an immediately recognizable nutty, sultry aroma and is perfect as a seasoning on anything from noodle bowls to salads.
Miso:There are many uses for miso beyond the traditional soup you’re probably familiar with. This healthful, fermented soybean paste can be used as a seasoning, as a rich base for a stock, and in sauces, dressings, and marinades. Look for unpasteurized, naturally fermented miso in the refrigerator section of natural foods stares and start exploring the wide range available. The lighter, creamy-colored misos are more delicate in flavor than the darker, brown versions.
Sea Vegetables: A rich palette of sea vegetables awaits your discovery. They range in flavor from mild to strong and can be used to infuse a tempered saltiness and a spectrum of hard-to-get trace minerals into many recipes. They typically contain up to twenty times the minerals of land-grown vegetables. Sea vegetables are primarily available in dried form, which can be used as is in soups and broths. Rehydrated, they can be added to endless dishes; just soak until tender, which only takes about 5 minutes. Some types expand quite dramatically in liquid, so use a light hand until you get a feel for how much expansion to expect with each. Toasted and crumbled, they can be used as a seasoning. If you aren’t used to eating sea vegetables, start with milder types, such as arame, nori, and wakame, and work your way up to hijiki, which is much stronger and actually a bit overpowering for my tastes.I believe it is Wakame that is the variety you often find in the bottom of your miso soup, and kombu is a natural flavor enhancer that can be used as an alternative to MSG. For a real treat, keep your eyes peeled for fresh sea beans, or samphire. Though not technically a sea vegetable, it grows in salt marshes and coastal estuaries and along rocky ocean shorelines, so in my book it qualifies. Their quirky shape, vibrant color, and surprise saltiness make them delightful to bite into raw. They are also wonderful sautéed for just a minute or two in just a touch of good-quality olive oil.
Agar is a sea vegetable that you’re probably already eating without knowing it. An effective thickener that can be used in place of gelatin, it often makes an appearance in yogurt. Unlike gelatin and other thickeners, agar will set up at room temperature, making it more versatile. I go into this ingredient in more depth in Super Natural Cooking, I use it in a gelatin-free panna cotta.
Soy Sauce:One of the building blocks of Asian cuisine, soy sauce is a salty sweet condiment adds rich, complex depth to almost any food. The key is buying naturally fermented soy sauce made from whole ingredients using traditional methods. Chemically processed, fast-tracked soy sauce, often produced in a single day, is a harsh-tasting distant relative to the real thing. I prefer all-natural, organic, unpasteurized shoyu, which is available in most natural foods stores.
Tea: Up until recently, green tea has received the lion’s share of accolades on the health front, primarily because it was the tea studied most extensively, but all teas are brimming with beneficial antioxidants, so enjoy exploring the spectrum. There are many ways to enjoy tea beyond just drinking it. For example, I often grind up tea leaves with a mortar and pestle and use them as a seasoning, opening up a whole new world of flavors. Rehydrated and chopped, you can use tea leaves in stir-fries, omelets, stuffings, and anything else you can dream up. Start with judicious amounts and build from there. Use too much and the tea’s flavor can easily overpower other ingredients.
Vinegar:The word vinegar stems from the French for “sour wine”— vin aigre. Unfortunately, much of the vinegar you encounter on supermarket shelves is a speed-aged imposter of their naturally fermented cousins . Look for naturally fermented vinegars that are unpasteurized, unfiltered, and traditionally crafted. You want vinegar with a taste reminiscent of the source it came from and anything that can be made into alcohol can conceivable be turned into vinegar. Good choices include apple cider vinegar made from fermented fresh-pressed apple juice and wine vinegar aged traditionally.