Alice Waters' Tips for Building the Perfect Pantry

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Yahoo Food’s Cookbook of the Week is “My Pantry: Homemade Ingredients That Make Simple Meals Your Own” by Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse Restaurant and Café in Berkeley, Calif.; founder of The Edible Schoolyard; and a bestselling cookbook author.

My Pantry by Alice Waters. (Photo: Sam Bolton/Yahoo Food)

It might seem like the least interesting part of the kitchen, but for Alice Waters, the pantry is more than just a place to store bottles of vinegar and bags of lentils. Waters fills her shelves with almond paste, za’atar, Espelette Hot Sauce, and candied citrus peel. And while she may be known for her use — and promotion — of all things local, seasonal, sustainable, and organic, Waters insists that how uses her pantry defines her personal cooking aesthetic far more than ingredients, recipes, or techniques.

“A familiar pantry is like being surrounded by friends who won’t let you down, within instant reach,” writes Waters. Return from a trip — or a long day at the office — and with the right provisions on hand, dinner is a snap. Aside from convenience, a well-stocked pantry helps you think more creatively about how to feed yourself, insists Waters. It also adds variety to your kitchen repertoire, which is especially handy if you cook with the seasons and find yourself faced with the same small assortment of fruits and vegetables week after week. Sprinkle cumin on roasted squash to suggest India, writes Waters. Or use fennel pollen to take the dish toward California.  

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Eggplant. (Illustration: Fanny Singer) 

So what’s the secret to an Alice Waters-style pantry? Hint: It doesn’t start at the supermarket. In My Pantry, Waters shares recipes for her pantry essentials. Many are staple nonperishables like red wine vinegar and vanilla extract, but Waters’ definition of pantry extends to include fresh and seasonal preparations like duck leg confit, labneh, roasted eggplant caponata, and zucchini pickles. You’ll even find a few complete dishes, such as lentil soup, multigrain porridge, and chocolate nut bark.

No one needs to be convinced that it’s a good idea to have tahini, tuna confit, and yogurt on hand, but why make your own? Homemade means you know exactly what you’re eating and can tailor it to suit your taste, argues Waters. It’s also less wasteful. Some of her recipes even help you use up scraps. Noyau extract is made with typically discarded apricot pits and can take the place of almond extract, while apple peel cider vinegar makes use of apple cores and peels and pairs perfectly with sparkling water for an all-natural soda.

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Lentil Soup (Illustration: Fanny Singer)

Most of Waters’ recipes are written in the traditional format, but some have a looser, more narrative style with Waters gently guiding the process and all the while sprinkling in bits of her culinary wisdom. She frequently offers uses and variations for her pantry items, so you know what to do with Niloufar’s Masala, Lovage Syrup, and Marinated Anchovies. And in place of photographs, My Pantry features black and white pen-and-ink illustrations by Waters’ daughter and frequent collaborator, Fanny Singer.

Visit Yahoo Food throughout the week for recipes from My Pantry.

Check out other cookbooks from Yahoo Food’s Cookbook of the Week:

Good and Cheap by Leanne Brown

Eat Mexico by Lesley Téllez

Seven Spoons by Tara O’Brady