The Pantry

It seems I may have mastered the art of making of a list, but completing a list…well, that’s a whole different skill set. Here I am at Summer’s end, already preparing for a new school year to begin. I had grand plans for my Summer To-Do’s, but looking back I can’t say I accomplished much on my list. I did manage to take a vacation. It was wonderful, luxurious and actually felt like a genuine vacation. When I stop to think about it, I guess that’s actually a rather significant accomplishment in itself. However, after a week of indulging and imbibing with complete and total abandon of our healthy eating habits, it became clear that a certain household project was in dire need of completion. Health and wellness are important priorities in this household and you are probably aware of my special affection for food, but with my healthy ways in disarray I was feeling a slight disconnection. So, I decided it was time to stock up, make space and seek a little solace in The Pantry.

I was raised in a “health food” household. We ate mostly whole foods and always had natural ingredients on hand. We had a beautiful and bountiful garden in the backyard where the children munched on veggies right off the vine and ate fresh fruit straight from the trees. In the basement of our family home, there was a little room dedicated to food storage (and other assorted things). In my child’s mind, it was a proper pantry and every home should have such a room. In our household, the pantry was affectionately called “The Fruit Room”. The shelves were always stocked with jars of preserved food, whole grains and dried fruit. Every summer my mom would fill a few jars with dried fruit from our apricot and cherry trees and that always excited me. I’m pretty sure we all believed it to be candy! The dried fruit jars would be devoured in an instant if the children were allowed access to the Fruit Room, so my mom tried diligently to keep it locked. She didn’t stand a chance. There were nine children in the house and I think we all learned how to jimmy the lock, at some point. I personally adored the dried cherries and secretly burgled that room any time my mom dried a new batch, as though the empty jars would go unnoticed. My grown-up self has gained a certain appreciation for the time and effort required to fill a quart-sized mason jar with cherries that have been picked and pitted by hand, then air-dried for days, minus the convenience of an electric dehydrator (sorry, Mom).

At times, “The Fruit Room” was also called “The Dark Room” because there was a tiny corner tucked in the back where my dad kept his photography equipment. That’s where he taught me how to develop my own black and white photographs when I began to express an interest in photography. I was never very good at it, but I loved the process of watching the negative images mysteriously appear on a black strip of film. I was never certain that my images would actually appear because I couldn’t see what I was doing, relying solely on my tactile sense. Hence the term “dark room”, I guess. I was fascinated with the photo enlarger. Watching the black and white spaces of the negative reverse position and suddenly project a discernible image onto a piece of white paper that was just a piece of white paper until you bathed it in just the right chemical combo and voila! Just like that, a photograph magically appeared right before your very eyes. Not to mention the fact that it’s a pretty special experience for a young girl to be invited to share in her daddy’s hobby. Yes, I have some very fond memories of that room and I can’t help but wonder if there’s a connection between those childhood memories of the family pantry and my affinity for jars of food and photographs.

Once upon a time, I did have my kitchen cupboards all neat, tidy and organized to serve as a fairly decent healthy food pantry. But somehow, over time, the cupboards seemed to rearrange themselves to accommodate someone else’s sense of order. My husband is very active in the kitchen these days and keeps his own supply of healthy ingredients stocked and conveniently arranged to suit his needs. Not that I mind. Admittedly, I am not at all fond of those kitchen cupboards. I don’t find them functional at all and they just don’t meet my food storage needs. I seem to have permanent bruises on my shins from climbing the granite countertops in order to fetch a jar of something-or-other. I am unable to see what I have on the shelves because they’re so darn high and I’m not that tall. I find it quite bothersome having to haul a step-stool to and fro throughout the process of making a meal. I can’t tell you how often I have opened multiple packages of the same ingredient simply because I didn’t see the already full jar of said ingredient hidden behind that long-expired jar of rice. [enter the Laundry Room]

Yes, this is where I do the laundry. It is also the doggie dining room. But with a couple of inexpensive shelf units from Walmart, I was able to transform a little corner into a pantry of sorts where I can keep my nerdy food stuff easily accessible and organized. Just the way I like it.  The bottom shelves are used to store practical items: jars + lids, dog food, small appliances (like the dehydrator) and the random assortment of dishes I use for food photos. The middle shelves are dedicated to my jars and the supplies that fuel and inspire my kitchen adventures. Recently, I discovered some glass containers with bamboo lids at our local Marshall’s store (the only place to shop in this small desert town, aside from Walmart). They were attractive, affordable and I ventured back three times to buy more. I have this certain aesthetic sense, a gene I think I inherited from both sides of the family. I enjoy pretty things and I need my environment to be visually appealing to me. Even in the storage room. However, I am a busy girl (a teacher’s life is demanding), I have a very practical nature and I don’t tend to indulge my aesthetic sensibilities too often. But I couldn’t help it, I just had to have those pretty jars! They look so lovely sitting on the shelves and they are quite practical, too. I also had to have the little wooden stool, which required yet another seemingly unnecessary trip to the department store. It does make for a perfect little thinking spot. When I said that out loud, my husband chuckled, quizzically questioning the need for a thinking spot in the Laundry Room. First of all, it’s The Pantry! And I need a spot where I can sit and gaze at my pretty jars and browse my beautiful books and be inspired to cook healthy food and seek a little solace in the adventure of it all! Oh…a thinking spot…of course you need one of those…in the laundry…I mean The Pantry. [insert eye-roll] I truly believe it is important to surround yourself with the things in life that inspire you and you should never discount the little things that delight you. Every time I walk past the room formerly known as the Laundry Room, I see the pretty jars arranged just so and it makes me want to cook a healthy meal. When I see my favorite cookbooks on display I am compelled to reach out, pull one off the shelf and thumb through all the beautiful photographs that inspire me to create something beautiful, too. When the colors and the textures contained within those jars capture my childlike sense of wonder, it stirs up the desire to connect with nature through food. Of course, there is a practical side, too. Having the ingredients I need, clearly in sight and readily at my fingertips, makes maintaining my healthy habits all the more convenient.

On one shelf I keep my kombucha brewing and food fermenting supplies (loose green and black tea, oolong tea bags, cane sugar, tea filters and the salt I use for fermenting vegetables). A large, wooden basket below holds empty kombucha bottles, ready and waiting to be filled. I make a batch of kombucha on a weekly basis, so I love having the ingredients so easily accessible. I wouldn’t normally indulge my frivolous desire for jars with bamboo lids, but in hindsight, I’m so glad I did! They are perfect. The wide opening and cylindricle shape make them well-suited for measuring cups, spoons and large, manly hands (his, not mine). The lids are so easy to remove and they look nice, too.

On another shelf, I am stocking up on the sparkly water that provides a delightful little pick-me-up and helps encourage hydration. I have discovered that a teacher’s life is not very conducive to a healthy lifestyle and proper hydration is a very tricky thing. You can’t just pee whenever you need. Potty breaks are carefully calculated and you fill your bladder on a certain schedule. A little sparkle in your water discourages a desperate guzzle and encourages you to take it slow, savoring just a sip at a time. Next to that, I keep my grains, legumes and a few other superfoods. With the Mister on a restrictive diet (SCD), grains and legumes are a naughty no-no, so I haven’t been using many in my cooking lately. However, I am still rather attached and I insist on keeping a small stock in my pantry. It amazes me that something as simple as rice can come in so many different colors and I am fascinated by the variety! Quite frankly, I can’t even fathom why some folks insist on limiting themselves to the plain ‘ole white version with so many choices available. Mind-boggling. I am currently stocking a red rice blend, a wild rice mix, red quinoa, rainbow quinoa, red lentils, french green lentils, the cutest little brown lentils and amaranth. Most of our superfood powders, nuts, seeds and dried berries are kept in the kitchen cupboards or the freezer where my husband can easily grasp them to whip up one of his many creative concoctions. Although, I have learned that if I don’t keep a secret stash of certain items out of a certain someone’s eyesight, it’s likely I won’t have said items when I need them. When that boy opens a package of something, it’s gone before I even get a chance to dip into the bag! Plus, I can’t stand all those plastic, ziploc packages. You know the kind that don’t actually zip, so you end up putting it inside yet another plastic, ziploc bag where the contents inevitably spill out of the original non-zipping, ziploc bag, making a big mess on the counter every time you use it? Yeah, I hate those. I prefer to store my food in glass jars whenever possible. I have learned to stick a little a piece of washi tape on the bottom of the jars to help identify the contents and keep track of expiration dates. At one point, I had organized the kitchen cupboards and replaced all the plastic packaging with glass jars. Somehow, the plastic bags keep creeping back into the cupboard. It’s very mysterious, but now I have my own space where I can keep things in glass jars, just the way I like it.

Next to the grains, I have the nut butters and sweeteners. I like to have a jar of tahini, cashew butter and almond butter on hand for sauces and salad dressings (along with a few other staples, such as apple cider vinegar, plus miso and coconut aminos, who live in the fridge). I am definitely a dipper, a dresser and a drencher and I find that having a few different, healthy salad dressings and sauces ready and available in the fridge helps encourage veggie-ful choices. I love fresh veggies, but when it comes to salad, I am all about the dressing. I’m much more apt to take the time to prep the produce for a salad, when I know there’s a creamy dressing with which to drench it. A basic tahini dressing is a classic stand-by and sauces up all sorts of dishes nicely (there are so many recipes out there!). But my current favorite is this Creamy Garlic Dressing. It’s perfectly creamy, slightly tangy, dairy-free and quick to whip up. I think it’s the cashew butter that makes this dressing so perfect. Unfortunately, it’s a bit pricey and once a jar is opened, it’s gone before you know it. This is one of those things I tend to keep an extra jar of in my secret stash, out of a certain someone’s eyesight. Now, the chocolate almond butter…well, that’s simply an indulgence! Local, raw honey, maple syrup (and occasionally agave) are my sweeteners of choice. I use them in dressings, chia pudding, homemade granola and my favorite cashew cream. My husband prefers to sweeten with liquid stevia or monk fruit, which are markedly lower in sugar and reside in the fridge.

Before my Pantry Project was even in full-swing, someone managed to claim some territory on the top shelf, along with the wire baskets that I’m quite fond of. At first I was reluctant, but then happily acquiesced. He does have quite an impressive collection of tea and drinking tea is certainly a healthy habit that I will gladly support (although I do enjoy giving him a hard time about it). He likes all his fancy-pants teas arranged just so and I can certainly relate to that, so I bequeathed him the top shelf. In the baskets he keeps his surplus of superfood powders, amaranth, low-carb cereals, nuts and berries. He also makes sure his particular coconut milk (sans gums of all types) is well-stocked at all times. He’s very organized, actually, when it comes to food. I quite admire that. My favorite health-nut keeps a supply of matcha green tea powder in the fridge and has been strongly encouraging me to develop my own green tea habit. My little-less-young body has been a little less tolerant of caffeine lately, responding with a daily case of the jitters. While I love the idea of incorporating an antioxidant-rich matcha latte into my sacred coffee hour, the strong attachment to my morning coffee has me firmly in its grip and reluctant to make the switch. Perhaps having the ingredients attractively displayed just might be aesthetically pleasing enough to entice me to bravely make the swap? So, I bought my own package of pretty green matcha powder to fill one of my pretty new jars. I pulled the pretty bamboo whisk out of the kitchen cupboard and located the pretty matcha bowl. I can’t help stopping to admire the display, though I have to say I have yet to imbibe. Some habits are hard to break, even when you know there’s a better choice.

On a lower shelf I intend to keep a small supply of assorted, healthy, grab-n-go snacks that I can easily fetch on the way out the door. The Larabars are a must and a lifesaver for long, busy work days. Those crackers, however, were not a great idea. They are far too accessible and seem to encourage continuous, unnecessary, carb-loaded snacking (I am currently brainstorming other healthy options for that jar and totally open to suggestions). Behind the snack jars there is a basket for the coconut and almond flours that we use for Evan’s homemade, low-carb bread recipe. Then we have a reappearance of the pretty jars. This set is currently housing a variety of seeds used for sprouting. He loves the broccoli sprouts, which are packed with nutrients. I enjoy the mung beans and alfalfa sprouts. The other jar is a new mix I wanted to try with various lentils, adzuki and mung beans (plus a few samplings of various mixes on a wooden tray, down below). Sprouting seeds and beans really is an easy task to maintain in a busy household. Not to mention the health benefits. I realized that when my seeds are tucked away where I cannot see them every day, I have a tendency to forget about them. I am enjoying the daily visual contact and the Mister and I are both enjoying the presence of fresh sprouts in the fridge. Next, we have the cookbooks. Some of them, at least. My favorite and most frequently used books reside in a spot a little closer to the kitchen. These are the ones I tucked away in the Laundry Room cupboard. As I said before, when you tuck things away and you don’t see them every day, you tend to forget about them. I realized this when I was clearing out a cupboard in order to create a small space for some emergency/long-term food storage (current project in progress). I needed to find a new home for the books and it suddenly occurred to me that these books contain many of the words and the photographs that continue to inspire my healthy food journey and it’s a shame not to be reminded every day. So, I put them on display. On the shelf below we keep a bin, in which we store the “hiking food”, a very important pantry item. These are the portable, grabable, packable items that lend themselves well to spontaneous day hikes and overnights in the backcountry.

Now, I mentioned my aesthetic sense and my appreciation for the simple beauty in everyday things. Which brings me to the last little corner of The Pantry shelf. I seem to have this affection for wooden things. Wooden spoons, wooden bowls, cutting boards and salad forks. I have a small collection of wooden props that I like to use in my food photos. It is not a very notable collection, but I enjoy the feeling it brings to the environment and it definitely belongs in The Pantry. On the wall, I hung a few of my favorite food photos that I had enlarged and inexpensively framed. I really enjoy coming to this cyberspace of mine to share my little adventures with people like you, but it’s not something a have a lot of free time to do. I often set it aside to prioritize the more practical tasks on my list. You know what happens to a thing when you tuck it away where it’s outta sight…you tend to forget about them. These things really serve no practical purpose, other than to remind me to surround myself with the things in life that inspire me and never discount the little things that delight me. These are some of the things that, when they catch my eye in passing, cause me to pause, gaze and daze just long enough to create a little spark of inspiration. Not everything needs to be so practical all the time.

So what exactly warrants the long-winded story about a simple food storage room? (Yes, I heard you think that.) A child’s mind is an impressionable thing. Whenever I hear the word “pantry”, I immediately envision a quart-sized mason jar filled with the sweetest, most perfect, dried cherries. I think of all the love and all the work my mom must have invested in filling those jars. I see a black and white image of a father developing photographs with his child and I imagine the sacrifices he must have made to support his family. I am extremely grateful for my idyllic childhood memories and the foundation for pursuing a healthy and happy life. Some things in life take time to fully appreciate. Today, I feel so pleased to have created a little Pantry of my own. And perhaps one day, I’ll make myself a Dark Room, too.

Go on now. Stock up, make some space and seek your own inspiration.

 

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