Glow-Up My Pantry
February 15, 2021 6:12 AM   Subscribe

I typically get a refund each tax season, and (after doling some out to savings) I like to treat myself a little with a nice restaurant meal, a day trip somewhere, or something like that. THIS year I can't do that, so I've decided to splurge on getting really GOOD food and pantry items - artisanal flours, heirloom beans, specialty ingredients, stuff like that. Hit me with some options!

A couple things I'm already considering are beans from Rancho Gordo and some interesting grains from Bob's Red Mill. I'm also getting a couple pounds of The Officially-Recommended Bean For Red Beans And Rice, and hitting up a lovely little local tea place. I'm focusing more on food items than on condiments - I tend to sauce things minimally, and like a little flexibility in seasoning things, so most spice blends or bottled sauces or pastes tend to linger a little long in my fridge and my cupboard.

I'd also like stuff that's shelf-stable - and would GREATLY prefer something where you don't have to make the entire box in one go or anything like that, since it's just me and a roommate and we can't have dinner parties these days, so any kind of "meal for 9 in a box" kit will just end up in the freezer. (I already have the makings for an entire Irish Breakfast for 8 people on ice because of a gift from a generous friend....and I don't know what to do about using THAT much black pudding.) Individual ingredients or packaging that I can chip away at over time work better.

I'm a pretty experienced cook and I've got a pretty broad palate, and will try just about anything. I think the only cuisine I've been lukewarm on is Korean, and that's largely because kimchi didn't like me back when I tried it once.

For current-pandemic reasons, I'm focusing on online shops as opposed to brick-and-mortar options; however, I do also have "hit up some specialty food stores" on my post-Covid bucket list, so I will also take Brooklyn-area recommendations for brick and mortar stores (for after I hit up Sahadi's and some Italian butchers and Fei Long Market).

posted by EmpressCallipygos to Food & Drink (45 answers total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
A good smoked olive oil.
posted by veery at 6:22 AM on February 15, 2021

Hit up the Grow NYC Grainstand at the Greenmarket. Unfortunately they are moving warehouses right now, but they they should be back at market soon. They have an extensive selection of regionally sourced beans, grains, and flours. Sometimes booze and pasta and as well. I especially like Farmer Ground cornmeal and polenta.
posted by clockwork at 6:36 AM on February 15, 2021

Best answer: Have you cooked with mesquite flour before? I love this stuff. You've never had a chocolate chip cookie if you haven't made them with mesquite flour (which on its own has this hard to describe sweet overtone, especially in the fragrance department, which reminds me of toasted coconut, maple, vanilla, brown sugar). It's shelf stable if you keep it in an airtight container, and it's still a niche product sold by some small vendors. I get mine from my farmers market, but you can easily find non-amazon sellers with a quick search (and depending on the season you can probably find some for sale by nonprofits that support/teach indigenous foodways in the desert southwest).
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 7:09 AM on February 15, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: If I were doing this, I would do a big refresh on my spice cabinet, and I would buy these fancy single-origin ones that are always tempting me.

I would also stock up on high-quality canned seafood that I could use to elevate quick pastas, salads, etc.

Dried mushrooms are another pantry hero, and I never ate better than the year when my roommate received a costco-size cannister of dried porcini as a gift.
posted by juliapangolin at 7:24 AM on February 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

When I'm looking for a treat, I check the selection of oils and vinegars at A Taste of Olive. Their fig-infused balsamic vinegar is a particular favorite for dressing salads, but I've also enjoyed a number of their other flavored vinegars. And their Tuscan Herb EVOO, infused with rosemary, garlic, basil, and oregano, has become a pantry staple for sauteed veggies.
posted by peakcomm at 7:25 AM on February 15, 2021

Maldon sea salt is easy to find and delish on everything.
posted by lovableiago at 7:34 AM on February 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you eat grits, try some specialty grits:
Anson Mills Native Coarse Blue Corn Grits
Millers Unicorn Grits

(Living in Durham, NC, and trying grits from the local restaurants was a revelation, especially the grits from the now sadly departed Scratch Bakery in Durham - garlicky and full of corn flavor and texture.)
posted by research monkey at 7:51 AM on February 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Good tinned fish.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:52 AM on February 15, 2021

Zingerman's is a great place to look for artisanal and unusual indulgence foods.

Their sour cream coffee cake is famous, or you could pick one of their high end balsamic vinegars or olive oils. Or you could give yourself a gift that keeps on giving by choosing one of their monthly clubs.
posted by Preserver at 7:58 AM on February 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

The pandemic hobby I haven't kept up with is acquiring new and unusual condiments. Which seems silly, since they're super low effort and can be used to amp up even simple meals, but hey. We got some chili crisp and chili oil from Lao Gan Ma in the first lockdown, which was something I'd intended to try but never bought. And then some fancy jams, and then my boss made XO sauce and gifted it to us over the summer, and since then... this kind of fell off my radar. But, splurgy condiments! Worthy of consideration.
posted by deludingmyself at 8:08 AM on February 15, 2021

Likewise recommending a fancy vinegar. It will last a good long while. I posted a question not all that long ago asking for suggestions.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 8:10 AM on February 15, 2021

Response by poster: Coming in to do a couple of small redirects:

The pandemic hobby I haven't kept up with is acquiring new and unusual condiments.

Reminding that I am avoiding condiments since I tend to use them very sparingly, and so they end up taking up fridge space overly long. I have literally just come way from a discussion about a better apartment allocation of food storage with my roommate in which we both lamented that I have bottles of random crap cluttering up the fridge; for example, a big horkin' bottle of rosewater that someone gave me as a gift and which I do use once in a blue moon but the rest of the time it's just taking up space. (It is something I considered, but I know myself well enough to know that I'd use Funky Frank's Sauce like once or twice in that first month and then it would go to the fridge and sit there.)

Mind you, a small sampler pack of itty bitty bottles might work.

[Zingerman's] sour cream coffee cake is famous

A good idea, but I'm also avoiding already-made things since I like to DIY. Although, cookies and crackers would work...
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:19 AM on February 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Are you a fancy flavored tea person? I love teas from Damman Frères (my very favorite, of all my teas), Mariage Frères (I think this is the most popular from them), and Lupicia (I have too many faves to list, and they are my favorite tea merchant overall, but you might like to try some lovely, comforting caramel, or the rhubarb and strawberry, or the delicious grapefruit green tea. Ooh, I also love the biscuit gourmand, and the cherry sakurambu. and, and, and... So many great ones. I'm pretty sure that you can probably find teas by these companies from specialty tea places in NYC, but I think you can order from the sites, as well.
posted by taz at 8:30 AM on February 15, 2021

Best answer: Not a condiment, I swear, but a secret weapon for salads and things: this freeze dried corn.
posted by BibiRose at 8:31 AM on February 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

A good idea, but I'm also avoiding already-made things since I like to DIY. Although, cookies and crackers would work...

Gotcha! They do have a number of pantry/ingredient items that might work - pastas, excellent tinned fish, mustards ...and I know you said you wanted to avoid perishables but they have some truly amazing bacon and cheeses that would be long-lasting.
posted by Preserver at 8:33 AM on February 15, 2021

This time of year, you can get absolutely astonishing citrus. Poke around Etsy and see who will stuff a flat-rate box full of oranges or Meyer lemons for you.
posted by yarntheory at 8:42 AM on February 15, 2021

Response by poster: Not a condiment, I swear, but a secret weapon for salads and things: this freeze dried corn.

I was intrigued enough to follow the link - it looks like the vendor they link to is out of it, do you know where else I can get that?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:51 AM on February 15, 2021

Serious Eats had a feature on this some time ago.

Yesterday, I decided to clean up my pantry, which my family claims can feed me for a year. They exaggerate. I threw out everything that was past its best by date, thus discovering what I don't use. But I also found out what I love.

Expensive ventresca tuna. This is the best for a spontaneous festive salad. I have normal (sustainably farmed) tuna as well, for everyday needs
Good dried artisanal pasta from Italy. I have a lot, and I use a lot. Also organic soba noodles.
Bonduelle brand chickpeas, lentils, black beans and sweet corn. They are in a league of their own
Dried mushrooms - right now porcini and shiitake
Safran (and other spices, but safran is the luxury)
Several teas
Vialone nano risotto rice from a small producer which are supposed to be extra good
Very good olive oil and sesame oil
Honey from a small local beekeeper
Artisanal dried chilis
Olives -- many olives -- in brine. I drain them and put them in olive oil with whatever herb suits a day before serving
Also, I don't have any now, because of corona, but if you can get the Spanish chickpeas in glass jars, they are almost as good as if you make them from scratch

In the fridge, I have a salami from a local salumeria, last time I had one it lasted a month, so it is worth the exuberant cost. This one is made from beef. My favorite is actually the fennel salami, but it was sold out

In the freezer, I have langoustines, they are a local speciality, maybe there are some other shellfish near you?
posted by mumimor at 8:55 AM on February 15, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I can recommend Purcell Mountain Farms for this- I’ve gotten beans, grains, dried mushrooms and sun dried tomatoes from them, along with my favorite, blue corn posole. Looks like they also have the freeze dried corn there too....
posted by actionpact at 8:57 AM on February 15, 2021

Above, I made the wrong Serious Eats link. Here is the one I was thinking of: Treat Your Shelf: Pricey Pantry Ingredients We Think Are Worth It
posted by mumimor at 9:02 AM on February 15, 2021

Nicer spices and/or fancy salts? (Side note: I've been SO DELIGHTED to find bay leaves that actually smell and taste like something). Maybe high quality tinned fish and conservas? King Oscar sardines are OK, but really nice tinned mackerel does feel luxurious, as does good tuna.
posted by fedward at 9:05 AM on February 15, 2021

Response by poster: Another redirect - if you know of the stores where I can get things, can you link to them, please? Thanks.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:13 AM on February 15, 2021

Best answer: Not sure where he got it, but my in-pod chef has been having a lot of fun with an upgrade from Hershey’s to Valrhona cocoa powder.
posted by gnomeloaf at 9:30 AM on February 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

I would certainly include some locally-roasted coffee beans on that list, but that will vary by person. Or if you're already getting good coffee, maybe step up your coffee-making toolkit? To me, that's an everyday luxury that's well worth the price.
posted by hydra77 at 9:51 AM on February 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Oh shoot I have only ever seen the freeze-dried corn at the Spice House. It's a staple with them so hopefully that is one of those pandemic supply chain things for now.

Mostly echoing other people: in your shoes I would definitely identify canned or jarred goods like caponata, anchovies for puttanesca, artichoke hearts and stuff like that. I regularly buy cases of Cento brand caponata but you could probably do better.
posted by BibiRose at 9:59 AM on February 15, 2021

Best answer: Have a look around the Snuk Foods website. They even have a recipe section where you can add specialty ingredients to your cart as you browse. You can also shop by world region, or by food type. They have some great specialty flours, beans, rice etc. sold in reasonably small amounts.
posted by catrae at 10:09 AM on February 15, 2021 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Snuk Foods is gonna be DAAAAAAAAAAANgerous for me, holy crap thank you! (I took one look at one of their recipes and within seconds I was hollering out to the living room to my roommate to "go take a look at this web site RIGHT NOW, seriously".)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:53 AM on February 15, 2021

Zingerman's carries many pantry items along with their baked goods. E.g., their marash red pepper flakes are good for adding to most any tomato dish you're making. (I sprinkle it on top of, um, Stouffer's french bread pizza, but I also throw it into the pan after the garlic when sauteeing broccoli rabe.)

They do have a dried sweet corn available now that seems to be similar to what's mentioned above.

Kalustyan's also has a huge range of useful pantry items. Their primary focus has always seemed to me to be south Asia, but they go way beyond that.
posted by praemunire at 12:09 PM on February 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

If you like balsamic vinegar, Middle Eastern pomegranate molasses is another tart-sweet drizzle. I’ve used it on winter squash recipes.
posted by childofTethys at 3:45 PM on February 15, 2021

The best flour I know of comes direct from Bluebird Grain Farms. They have heirloom and ancient grains in grain and flour form, and the flours are usually shipped within a week of milling. The einkorn in particular has totally changed my baking - it has a beautiful texture and flavour.
posted by sizeable beetle at 4:33 PM on February 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Some of my mail-order pantry heroes have been:

Bob’s Red Mill, which is already on your list
King Mushrooms for great-quality dried mushrooms, buying by the pound (!) for economy
Wild Planet for canned sardines, mackerel, and anchovies in olive oil
Shiloh Farms for beans, lentils, and grains, including heirloom varieties, and for dried fruits and nuts
Penzeys spices
posted by musicinmybrain at 3:51 AM on February 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

So the corn on Zingerman's website is Cope's; I have used that brand for creamed corn and it is an excellent product but it's different. I could definitely not add it uncooked to anything.

I love this thread.
posted by BibiRose at 5:23 AM on February 16, 2021

I'd upgrade your salt & pepper. Even if you don't use a ton of spices, really baller salt & pepper is a game changer.

Burlap & Barrel: I am fully addicted to their fermented white pepper and I am not afraid to admit it

Slo Food Group: hello Greek flake salt, I use you to finish everything now

(They also have amazing whole vanilla beans with which I am currently making some vanilla extract. And also dried mushrooms as mentioned above!)

For Brooklyn local, Frankies Spuntino Group now has Frankies Pantry, where you can get pizza ingredients, really good olive oil, their house made pasta and pesto and marinara sauces, their house made sausages (which are SO GOOD OMG) and other pantry items. They will do curbside pickup and local delivery.
posted by bedhead at 10:30 AM on February 16, 2021

They say you eat with your eyes, so definitely pasta in all the shapes!

If you like raisins, flame raisins are heaven.

I'm obsessed with these sweet olive oil tortas. I eat them with cheeses, crumble them on salads, and try not to scarf the whole box in one sitting.

I also love sugar infused with fruit. Raspberry is my favorite. You can easily DIY this, but the pre-made blends are super delicious and they keep well.
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 1:37 PM on February 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Smoked shrimp is a delicious ingredient in West African food. I don't know how to make any of the dishes in which it's traditionally used, but I've found a lot of other uses for it. (You won't need much; 1/4 teaspoon in powdered form is enough to lend an unsubtle note to most anything.)
posted by aws17576 at 2:50 PM on February 16, 2021

Fennel Pollen and Dill Pollen from pollen ranch changed my sausage pizza and grilled fish life respectively.
posted by lalochezia at 5:23 PM on February 16, 2021

Best answer: Real wild rice, manoomin, rather than paddy-grown, is totally different stuff, and worth it if you can. For example, harvested and sold by the White Earth Nation. (Many other Anishinaabe sellers online, but some are only on Amazon.)

A (white) Minnesota chef's guide to real wild rice.
posted by away for regrooving at 8:44 PM on February 16, 2021

Can I perhaps interest you in eating some bugs?

I cannot vouch for this particular site (other Americans may have better suggestions), but I can vouch for eating and cooking with bugs! You might start with something as simple and undetectable as cricket flour.

Note that insects are not recommended for people with shellfish allergies.
posted by turbid dahlia at 2:15 PM on February 17, 2021

Response by poster: Just adding the one redirect that while the suggestion to include insect matter in my pantry is utterly fascinating, independent of anything else, it is likely a bit too exotic for me at this specific juncture. But....I'm fascinated that it was suggested and grateful for the spirit in which it was offered.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:24 PM on February 17, 2021

When we hit the "can't find flour or yeast in the grocery stores" stage of the pandemic last year, a friend sent me a gift of fresh-milled, organic flour (both all-purpose and bread) from One Mighty Mill in Lynn, MA. Both were fantastic.
posted by Majorita at 6:25 AM on February 18, 2021

Seconding the Penzey's spices recommendation - I don't cook a whole lot but it's surprising how much difference some really good thyme or cinnamon can make. Plus they have a bunch of spice mixes, if you're interested.
posted by kristi at 9:30 PM on February 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: for large bags of both kinds of vanilla pods. If you make your own vanilla with both types of beans it elevates a simple vanilla cake into a fragrant luxurious treat.
posted by benzenedream at 2:53 AM on February 19, 2021

Response by poster: Just stopping back in to say that I have not forgotten about this, I'm just waiting until I actually have the tax refund in hand before I go on my spending spree. :-) I will report back with the final verdict once that happens.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:28 PM on March 1, 2021

Response by poster: Welp - unfortunately it looks like having to take Lyft cars back and forth to physical therapy has eaten into my savings to the point that my refund (which STILL isn't here) is going to have to go to building that back up, and to being a wedding guest for my cousin this summer. But I will definitely dip into these suggestions at a slower pace as my need for Lyft eases.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:55 AM on May 13, 2021

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