Guest post and photo by Peter in Brazil, chef and co-owner of Pousada do Capão
All this talk about the perfect pantry and peeking in other people's pantries makes me wish I had taken a few photos of the mobile pantry I put together while working as a personal chef in Rhode Island, before I moved to Brazil.
My traveling pantry was a work of art.
I really didn’t want to mix business with pleasure in my new personal chef venture, so I decided to buy everything new for my traveling pantry, except for exotic or expensive or rarely-used herbs and spices that I already had on hand in my kitchen. The same philosophy applied to utensils and tools; I did buy new pots and pans for preparing clients' meals onsite in their kitchens, but I used my own blender and Cuisinart.
I found a sturdy cardboard flip-top shoe box perfect for my condiment kit -- deep enough so the standard size Penzeys bottles and supermarket tins would be able to stand upright.
Then, I exhumed an old purple plastic milk crate that had once held my LPs (okay, not just old... antique!) for the staples. And everything else I packed into assortment of plastic restaurant bus tubs (the kind used for carrying dirty dishes from the table to the kitchen), Rubbermaid storage bins, and thermal bags, carefully selected to fit in the back of my Subaru.
In building my traveling pantry, I planned to start with just the basics, and then add as new client menus called for additional items. I cleaned out my kitchen cupboards to see whether I already had any duplicates in the far recesses. I found doubles of thyme leaves, sea salt, oregano, cinnamon, whole cloves, and a grinder with a four-pepper blend.
I began by shopping for the basics: bay leaves, basil, savory, marjoram, crushed red pepper, sweet paprika. Herbs and spices would be color-coded for ease of access. I bought round stickers –- neon green for herbs, hot pink for spices, bright yellow for anything else -- wrote the names of the items on the stickers, and stuck the proper color sticker on top of each jar or tin. Then the staples were organized in the purple milk crate: olive oil, vegetable oil, red wine vinegar, balsamic, Dijon mustard, honey, white sugar, flour, cornstarch, tomato paste, bread crumbs, garlic.
It was amazing how fast my traveling pantry grew as the jobs came.
My first personal chef gig was a 12-meal plan, four servings each of: Venetian scallops with a jardinière; Greek chicken pie with spinach in onion cups; and slow-roasted pork loin with lime mojo and oven-roasted root vegetables. So I added nutmeg, dill seed, chili powder, ground cumin to the shoe box, and sherry vinegar to the milk crate.
The second menu offered green shrimp curry over rice with tamatar bhurta, pastizzada (Venetian pot roast with polenta), and turkey meatloaf with twice-baked sweet potatoes. Turmeric, mustard seeds, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cinnamon stick went into the shoe box and coconut milk, ginger root, lemon, beef bouillon, white wine, cornmeal, corn flour, and San Marzano tomatoes went into the milk crate.
Before I knew it, the number of ingredients was outgrowing the confines of my traveling pantry. But did I cut back? No!
Instead, I opted for a swing pantry –- a bus tub in the closet where I kept traveling pantry items that didn’t need to travel to a client today, but might be swapped in tomorrow. I could also stockpile sale items that I knew I would eventually use. This worked like a charm; before a new job I would simply move the things I wouldn’t be using from shoe box and milk crate to bus tub, and move things I would need from bus tub to shoe box and milk crate.
Imagine my friends’ and family’s delight when I had to give away the contents of both my kitchen and traveling pantries as part of my big move to Brazil. Doubles of almost everything made everybody happy!
Green shrimp or fish curry
Adapted from The Complete Oriental Cookbook (Marshall Cavendish Ltd., London, 1978), this recipe pays tribute to Lydia’s recent ginger, turmeric, and lemon posts and to the early days of my traveling pantry. Serves 4.
1-1/2 inch piece ginger root, peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic
4 green chiles, seeded
6 Tbsp coriander leaves, chopped
1 Tbsp coriander seeds
Juice of 1 lemon
2 cups unsweetened coconut milk
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1-2/3 pounds shrimp (or firm white fish, cut into portions or 2” pieces)
2 medium onions, chopped
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp salt
Put ginger, garlic, chiles, coriander leaves and seeds into a blender with the lemon juice and enough coconut milk (4 oz) to blend to a smooth paste. Heat 1/4 cup of the oil in a large skillet. When hot, add the shrimp (or fish) and fry, turning occasionally, for 5 minutes; shrimp should be just pink, fish should be just opaque. Set aside. Skim off a bit of excess oil from the pan juices.
Add the remaining oil to the pan and fry the onions until golden. Stir in turmeric, mustard seeds and salt and fry for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add the spice paste and fry for 5 minutes,
stirring constantly. Return the shrimp (or fish) and juices to the pan and coat thoroughly in the paste. Pour in the remaining coconut milk and bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer over low heat for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally and very gently. Serve over basmati rice.
More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:
Pineapple shrimp curry
Green chicken curry with eggplant
Curried squash, apple and pear soup
Avocado coconut milk ice cream
Vietnamese rice stick noodle salad with caramelized shrimp
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