MY love for a well-stocked larder started as a small child.
My uncle had a small cottage in Wales, an old gatehouse lodge. It was rustic and charming; the tiny kitchen with its scrubbed farmhouse table up against one wall where we would eat toast and dippy eggs; French windows that led out to a garden of endless adventure, and off to one side was a skinny door with peeling paint marking the entrance to the old-fashioned larder, complete with marble counters for keeping the butter chilled.
Its pervasive aroma was one of spice. My uncle has always been a keen traveller (just this January, at 69 years of age, he took himself off for a three-week adventure to Antarctica), so the piquant waft of spices and exotic ingredients is something I have always associated with him.
From the first time I wandered into that larder, I revelled in the magic of finding something fascinating to cook with: like a mini-hunter-gatherer session in your own home.
I’m not one of those people who neatly place their larder goods in uniform-shaped jars and tubs so that everything can be easily seen in their tidy display.
Rather, opening the door of my larder requires studied concentration and analysis — it’s not unusual for my husband to find me stood staring into my larder with an inquisitive look on my face. It’s best not to disturb me, because at that moment I will be looking at the contents of the larder, but also contemplating the contents of the veg basket, the fridge, the freezer, the fruit bowl, my spice drawer and even my drinks press to decipher what to create for the evening’s dinner.
In these times, when COVID-19 has us retreated inside to stay safe and well, it is natural that we all will be cooking much more than we usually do. Even I have noticed that, despite enjoying the process of cooking at home from scratch regularly throughout the week, that the weekly restaurant visit, takeaway from my favourite pizza place or salads from my favourite deli all punctuate the week’s eating more than I gave them credit for.
So to break the monotony of having to cook seven days a week for three meals a day, plus snacks and treats, means that more than ever I am finding myself standing at the larder thinking about what to rustle up that was different from the night before.
Not everyone, though, will be as excited as I am about finding myself spending more time cooking, baking, stewing and preserving; and not everyone will be used to having a well-stocked larder to see us through these days of social distancing. Where to start can seem daunting, so maybe a sneak peek into what I keep in will help you to build a well-stocked larder of your own.
In truth, the larder is a place of magic, injecting home-cooked food with a fanciful flair that brings back a sense of normality to the heart of the home.
My larder cupboard comprises three wall-cupboards stacked on top of each other, full to bursting!
ON THE TOP SHELF...
Baking Goods: flours, sugars and improvers. Flours. All purpose plain flour for baking. Coarse stoneground ‘00’. Wheat for making fresh pasta, noodles and pizza bases Gram Flour for making Indian Breads Sugars Light, Dark:, Coconut Sugar, Icing Sugar, Caster Sugar (white and golden), Jam Sugar (with added pectin), basic White Granulated Sugar.
Improvers: Dried Yeast, Cornflour, Baking Powder, Bicarbonate of Soda; and Chocolate!
Middle shelf (probably my favourite!)
Cans, Beans, Pulses, Grains, Pasta, Noodles, Oils, Vinegars, Flavoured Waters Cans Tinned tomatoes (lots, chopped and unflavoured), Tomato paste.
Ready to Use Beans: chickpeas, cannelloni beans, black beans, butter beans, red kidney beans and baked beans.
Tinned Fish: anchovies, sardines in tomato sauce are a god send, as is Shine’s Wild Irish Tuna in Olive Oil!
Oils, Vinegars and Flavoured Waters: Extra Virgin and basic Olive Oil, Avocado, Chili, Sunflower, Coconut, Rapeseed, Sesame. Malt, Apple Cider, Red and White Wine, Balsamic, Barrel Aged Fruit Vinegars, Wildflower Shrubs. Rose Water, Orange Water.
Pulses: Red Lentils, Puy Lentils (my favourite), Split Yellow Peas (for making Indian Dal).
Grains: Polenta (versatile: serve wet, set and griddled, to make cornbread with), Semolina (for pasta, but also as a sweet pudding and creating crusts on roasted or fried foods), Cous Cous (regular and large — great for salads), Pearl Barley (great for broths and stews), Bulgar Wheat (great salad grain), Panko Breadcrumbs (for coating and frying).
Rice: Basmati, Wild, Brown, Sushi, Risotto, Jasmine and Pudding Rice.
Noodles: Egg (wheat-based), Udon (rice-based), Soba (Buckwheat-based), Vermicelli and Glass Noodles.
Pasta: Different pasta shapes aren’t just for fun, each has a different purpose and works better with some sauces than others. For example, Conchiglie are great with meat ragu as they catch little bits of meat and tomato sauce in their shell; Spaghetti is great for sauces that coat — like Bolognese, etc. I have about 10 types of pasta in at any one time. My favourites are Orzo (look like little grains of rice and are brilliant in salads), Spaghetti (who doesn’t love a well-made Bolognese?), and Orecchiette —known as “ear pasta” because of their shape.
Although fresh pasta is nice, unless you are making your own at home, dried pasta is best. Opt for a quality brand for better flavour, and experiment with some different shapes and textures. Don’t be stuck in a rut of Penne and Fusilli!
Condiments, Seeds, Nuts and Dried Fruits Condiments. Here is where I keep my different soy sauces (thick, thin, flavoured and not), chili condiments, honey, treacle, molasses, sweet syrups (maple and pomegranate), nut and tahini butters, fish sauces, Worcestershire sauce, dried seaweeds and of course red and brown sauce!
Seeds, Nuts, Fruits: Keeping a great store of different nuts, seeds and dried fruits will really help to bring texture, crunch and tartness to dishes.
Nuts: Pecans, Walnuts, Hazelnuts, Brazil, Almond, Cashew and Pistachio nuts: all are great in sweet and savoury foods. I also keep stores of ground almonds and hazelnuts for baking.
Seeds: Pumpkin, Sunflower, Sesame, Poppy, Pine Nuts. I’m not a fan of Linseeds, they must be finely ground to be properly digestible.
Dried Fruits: Raisins, Currants, Blueberries, Cranberries, Apricots, Barberries, Sour Cherries — all adaptable for sweet and savoury dishes.
THE SPICE DRAWER
This is my second favourite kitchen store! I cook with spices every day. I adore them, their aromatics as well as flavour.
I keep a range of whole and ground spices, dried chillies, spice mixes and rubs, ready to use stock cubes (mainly fish and vegetable — I make my own chicken stock), salts, peppers and dried aromatic leaves.
I rarely keep dried herbs, I prefer fresh and pick what I need from the garden; although I do collect, dry and store some wild herbs that grow in secret spots I know!
If you cook infrequently with spices, buy whole spices, toast and grind them (in a pestle and mortar) as needed so they taste fresh. Ground spices lose their organic volatile oils quickly, and that’s where all the flavour and aroma lie.
I could never be without my freezer! Meats, vegetables, fruits even some breads (I keep corn tortillas, dumpling and gyoza sleeves in there too). Some days, making my own pastry is beyond me so I keep some ready to use short and puff pastry in the freezer.
You can also freeze fresh chopped herbs; butter, milk and hard cheese, (grate it before bagging and freezing), and roux in blocks. Cream can also freeze, but if you intend to whip it after defrosting, be aware it will have a higher water content and may take longer to whip. I tend to avoid freezing fish.
THE FRUIT BOWL
Fruit isn’t just for snacking! I love cooking with fruit: peaches with ham, apples with sausages, gooseberries with trout, plums with duck, apricots with pork or the endless way to cook with lemons and limes: never overlook your fruit bowl as a potential source of inspiration again!
Finally, hands up if you have a wine rack, a few bottles of beer or cider, maybe some whiskey, gin or port hanging around since Christmas? The good news is you can use that too!
I love slow braising cuts of meat like cheeks and oxtail in beer; pork in cider, beef braised in red wine, a white wine sauce to go with a lovely piece of fish or a fiery liqueur back note to a sweet pudding. Once you start looking at your collection of odd bits of drink as ingredients, you’ll uncover a new dimension of flavours.