The natural dangers of a well-stocked pantry are to take certain products for granted or forget what's hiding in the back rows. That is, until you need them. Then you find out gnats have taken up residence in the oatmeal or "someone" left the lid off the corn syrup. And what cook hasn't discovered in the middle of their fanciest meal preparation that the bottle of cooking sherry or vanilla is more "fumes" than liquid?
The beginning months of the year are ideal for taking stock of your pantry, then replenishing missing components or refreshing outdated products. The good news is that most staple items have long shelf lives and, when well cared for in a cool, dry space, can usually outlive your need for them. To avoid overstocking and clutter, purchase specialty items - saffron, oyster sauce, wild rice - only as needed and in the smallest quantity possible; then consider disposing of them after making that once-in-a-blue-moon recipe.
I'm offering tips for keeping your pantry in tip-top shape and a suggested list of what every good cook should have in a well stocked pantry. Conduct a re-stocking assessment of your pantry to see what's there, what's missing, what needs to be replaced in fresh supply. Then set a date - e.g., your birthday, your busiest cooking holiday, when you change your clocks back - for an annual pantry check. A well stocked pantry will make your kitchen hum like a well-oiled machine.
* At least once a year, wipe down your pantry containers with a clean, hot cloth to remove dust, oils, etc.
* Whenever returning bottled containers to their pantry spot, clean off built-up ingredients from the lid and bottle top and screw top back tightly.
* When you replenish a pantry item, mark the date of purchase on the container with a waterproof marker.
* To counter the "out of sight, out of mind" habit, re-arrange your pantry items occasionally to rotate items to the front.
* If you don't cook regularly, minimize your pantry supplies only with items you use frequently.
Pantry checklist ***DO YOU HAVE A CUTE CHECKED BOX TO USE INSTEAD OF BULLETS ON THE FOLLOWING?***
* Oils: Rachel Ray's favorite mantra is EVOO! Extra-Virgin Olive Oil is a must-have staple. (Note: Olive oil is a fruit juice that can go bad. If yours has a musty odor or none at all, replace it.) Also consider: non-fat cooking spray for general use; vegetable, peanut and/or sesame oil for other recipes.
* Vinegars: Balsamic, red wine or rice wine (lighter than regular) is essential; others are extra.
* Cooking Wines: Sherry, sake, marsala, etc. -- you know what you use most.
* Sauces: Soy sauce (low-sodium or "lite"), Tabasco or another hot pepper sauce, Worcestershire sauce, mustard and honey are basics; all else is extra.
* Seasonings: My basics: allspice, basil, cilantro, rosemary, cinnamon, nutmeg, curry, cumin, bay leaves, cayenne and crushed peppers. Determine the 8-10 spices you use most and refresh them regularly; purchase/replace others as needed.
* Salts & Peppers: Sea salt for cooking, finer versions for accent; Whole peppercorns and ground peppers.
* Flour & Powders: White/whole wheat flour; baking soda, baking powder, cornstarch; consider cake flour if you bake a lot.
* Sugars: Cane and brown sugars are minimal; consider confectioner's and fine sugars if you bake a lot.
* Grains: Your preferred brown or white rice is minimal; oats, polenta and couscous, depending on your cooking preferences.
* Pasta & Noodles: Your favorite spaghetti and other pastas; Asian noodles if you use them regularly.
* Soups & Broths: Chicken and beef broth (preferably low-sodium) is a must; bouillon cubes are a good backup. A couple cans of your favorite soup for comfort food and flu days.
* Canned Beans & Vegetables: My favs (to perk up soups, casseroles and salads): Baby corn-on-the-cob, cannelloni or chickpeas, kidney beans, artichoke hearts. Stock your favorites.
* Tomatoes & Tomato Paste: My basics: Whole, peeled tomatoes with Italian seasoning, small cans of tomato paste. Both can be used in almost any recipe or to spice up any dish. Stock your favorites.
* Frozen Vegetables: Frozen corn, beans and peas are good additions to most casseroles or as side dishes. Buy re-sealable family bags and remove portions as needed.
* Garlic, Ginger, Onions: Can't cook without them! Purchase in pre-cut jars or store them fresh in cool, dry spots.
* Nice-to-have Extras: Peanut butter/jelly (who doesn't crave the occasional sandwich?), parmesan cheese (whole or grated), baking chocolate, bread crumbs, frequently-used ethnic ingredients, canned tuna, lemon juice.
Jacqui Love Marshall lives in Danville with her vintage-car-loving husband, two pugs and binders of recipes. Her column runs every other week. E-mail her at email@example.com.