Alex Sanchez’ Top Picks for Stocking the Perfect Pantry

Welcome to Mise en Place, a column which takes its cue from the French tradition that literally translates to “everything in it’s place.” More than just the culinary process of prepping and assembling ingredients beforehand, Mise en Place is a state of mind. A philosophy of cooking, that will equip you will all the tips, tricks and hacks you need to embrace and elevate your inner chef!

In this edition, Alex Sanchez shares his picks for pantry essentials. The former San Francisco chef needs no introduction, having won our hearts (and stomachs), first with his breezy, ingredient-led menu at The Table, Colaba; and more recently with Americano. His contemporary neighbourhood restaurant in Kala Ghoda has become a fast favourite for elevated Californian cuisine and creative cocktails, served up in a warm and vibrant setting. 

Over to him as he shows us how to chef it up at home!


Alex Sanchez

If you’re like me, your kitchen is getting a lot more action these days.  Or maybe you’ve always been a star cook at home.  Either way, it’s a good time to have something to keep the mind and hands occupied; and the kitchen presents an infinite range of distractions.  It is the perfect pacifier.

We often regard home cooking as simpler and less fussy than its restaurant counterpart.  And while that may be true at times, it doesn’t mean that our meals at the dinner table have to be any less creative, nuanced, or delicious.

I’m frequently asked about kitchen hacks and tricks, as if what we cook in a restaurant kitchen relies on Da Vinci-like ingenuity.  The truth is, the key differences between restaurant cooking and home cooking are —get ready — salt, fat, and preparation.  It’s no secret we chefs get a little heavy-handed with the flaky salt (I love that stuff!), and, well, butter (hello!), but let’s take a second to talk preparation.

“Mise en place”.  We live and die by it.

Meaning to “put in place”, mise en place — or simply, mise — refers to everything we do to prepare for dinner service so we don’t get our asses kicked when the orders flood in.  And that’s the one thing people rarely do when they cook at home.  They don’t prepare.

The ultimate expression of preparation is a well-stocked PANTRY.  No, not a dusty cabinet peppered with those unopened Italian seasonings and that lavender salt your colleague gifted you, Christmas 2015.  I’m talking about a treasure trove of ingredients which make you excited to cook and your food exciting to eat.

For many, a pantry is nothing more than a collection of single-purpose seasoning packets and exotic flavored vinegars (hey, it sounded good when I bought it).  That couldn’t be further from the truth.  A great pantry empowers us to cook spontaneously and with the confidence of knowing that there’s a pretty good chance we’re going to serve something worth eating.

While some would argue a pantry is a bunch of dry stuff that lasts forever, I refute that!  For the purposes of my help, which you have so kindly enlisted, we shall assume that a pantry can and will include refrigerated items as well as ingredients which may not outlive your tenancy.

There are, quite literally, an infinite number of pantry items.  Here is a list of my essential pantry staples which allow me to cook freely and without interruption. Happy Cooking!


On the kitchen counter…

pantry essentials II

  • Salt – It’s important to have different salts for different purposes. I keep a nice flaky salt like Maldon for sprinkling on at the last minute before serving, and a more cost-friendly sea salt for cooking.
  • Black Pepper – There is only one type of black pepper I cook with and that is of the FRESHLY GROUND variety. For the same reason I grind my coffee beans fresh every morning, I only grind pepper the moment before I use it—aroma.  Toast the peppercorns in a pan until they become fragrant and fill them into a pepper mill.
  • Onions & Garlic – Two totally different things, but of equal importance to my cooking. Used raw, they give an assertive punch to food which we all love, whereas cooking mellows them out and accentuates their subtle sweetness.  It would be hard to think of layering flavour without these two essentials.
  • Brown Butter – One day, I made too much brown butter for my top-secret cookie recipe. I kept the rest in a container and left it on the counter, and when I came back to it the next morning, it was smooth and spreadable.  From that day on, I’ve always kept it on hand because I prefer the nutty flavour to plain butter.  Next time you buy butter, pick up two times as much as you need.  Keep one plain, and brown the other.  You’ll be happy you did.
  • Extra-Virgin Olive Oil – Keep a few types of EVOO at your disposal. A fancy one for drizzling over food at the last minute, and an affordable one for low-heat cooking.  Remember that EVOO is a cold-pressed oil that loses its nutrients and aroma when heated.  Light cooking is ok, but don’t go wild.  Also, pay attention to the flavor profile of the EVOO you have: peppery or spicy EVOO tastes great with something robust like roasted meat or vegetables; mild, buttery EVOO is great with light white fish, salad, or for dipping crusty sourdough bread.
  • Meyer Lemon – I had a Meyer lemon tree in my backyard growing up, so this is a very nostalgic flavour for me. That aside, this is my favourite citrus fruit to keep around because the zest is just as delicious, if not more so, than the juice.  My cooks will probably roll their eyes at reading this, but I think EVERYTHING needs just a few rasps of Meyer lemon zest… everything.

meyer lemons


In the refrigerator…

herbs

  • Eggs – There is no ingredient more versatile than the egg. A rich runny yolk can transform even the most mundane of foods into a luxurious dish.  Learn how to make yourself a classic French omelet, it builds character and patience.
  • Fresh Herbs – In the colder months, I can’t think of cooking anything without sage or rosemary. And what would summer be without a vibrant green basil pesto?  Herbs are like punctuation: it isn’t a sentence without a period, and it isn’t a dish without herbs.
  • Hot Sauce – A fried egg is nothing but a fried egg…until you put hot sauce on it. Now you’ve got breakfast! Pick a nice vinegary hot sauce like Cholula, Tapatio, or Tabasco.  Nothing too spicy and nothing with too many other seasonings.  Go for a pure chili flavor so that it has a wide range of applications.
  • Pickled Chilies – I like to buy a few kilos of red jalapeños, slice them into ¼” rings, and pickle them in a simple vinegar/sugar/salt solution. They will last forever in the refrigerator and they go great with everything.  The pickling liquid works wonders in salad dressings.
  • Cabbage Kimchi – I make a lot of this at home and I can’t live without it. Warm white rice with homemade kimchi is insanely delicious.  You can eat it as is or turn it into a comforting stew. Oh, the possibilities.  Don’t buy it, make your own.  Check my story highlights on Instagram (@chefalexsanchez) for a detailed recipe.
  • Black Garlic – You might be rolling your eyes at this one, asking yourself “where am I going to find black garlic at a time like this?” Look no further than your kitchen.  Take a few heads of garlic, wrap them once in cling film and twice in silver foil.  Place them in your rice cooker on the “keep warm” setting and leave it on for 10 to 12 days, rotating from top to bottom every day.  It may seem like a lot of work, but the payoff is huge.

black garlic

  • Gochujang – Korean fermented chili paste is an essential ingredient in one of my favourite recipes, Kimchi Jigae. It is also the base for Korean BBQ sauce, which you should go make right now and keep in your fridge for a rainy day—it lasts FOREVER.
  • White Miso – I prefer this lighter style of miso over the more robust dark miso varieties. It can be used for anything from marinades to soups and sauces.  It is excellent with fish as we’ve seen time and time again in Nobu’s much-imitated Miso Black Cod.
  • Bacon/Pancetta – I may not agree with the assertion that bacon makes everything better, but I must admit that this world would be a very different place if bacon didn’t exist. Pancetta, bacon’s unsmoked cousin, is just as amazing though less accessible these days.  Breakfast, carbonara, brussels sprouts.  The combinations are endless.
  • Pork Fat – Next time you cook a fatty piece of pork, drain off the fat and save it. It is great for cooking eggs and vegetables.  If you want to get a little wild, spread it on toast.  When I buy large cuts like a pork shoulder, I trim off the excessively fatty pieces and slowly render them out in a pan.  I munch on the crispy fatty bits and strain of the pork fat to use whenever I wish.
  • Oyster Sauce – This is a great condiment to use in preparations that need a little sweetness. Like soy sauce and fish sauce, it is rich in umami and provides deeply satisfying savoury notes to food.

parmigiano-cheese-3693282

  • Parmesan Cheese – A nice big chunk of high-quality Parmigiano Reggiano is a great investment. Salty, umami-y, buttery, and rich.  What’s not to like?  It is, unquestionably, an essential accompaniment to a great bowl of pasta, but also wonderful when shaved into thick ribbons and tossed into a wild arugula salad.
  • Crème Fraîche – I always thought of this as an ultra-premium product (even the name sounds expensive), but then I started making it myself and I highly suggest you do too. Before you go to bed, whisk together a small scoop of fresh yogurt and 250ml of inexpensive cream in a glass bowl.  Cover tightly with cling film and poke a few holes in it with the tip of a knife.  When you wake up the next morning, the cream will have thickened—congrats, you just made crème fraiche.  Keep it in the fridge and put a lock on it, otherwise you’ll eat the whole thing.
  • Whole Grain Mustard – I love the rusticity of grain mustard as opposed to its refined cousin, Dijon. Sauces, vinaigrettes, dips, and spreads, they all benefit from a small scoop.  I can’t imagine tuna salad without it.

In the cupboard…

fresh pasta

  • Semolina Flour – Pasta is one of the greatest food pleasures I know, and my favourite pasta to make at home is with a semolina dough. Instead of reaching for a packet of spaghetti, make pici by hand.  You can thank me later.
  • Sherry Vinegar – If I could live with only one vinegar for the rest of my life (something I refuse to do) this would be the one. It is super versatile and adds brightness to everything and anything.  It can be quite pungent so use a few drops at a time until you like what you’re tasting.  Balance it out with a little honey if using it in a vinaigrette.
  • Toasted Sesame Oil – This is a great oil for cooking or using as a seasoning, depending on the desired result. Either way, it is a distinct flavour that, when used sparingly, adds depth and an interesting dimension to food.
  • Fish Sauce – I can’t live without fish sauce. I use it for funky Thai vinaigrettes with lots of chili, garlic, and lime juice, and I put a couple drops of it in my pasta aglio e olio to give a subtle hit of depth and umami.  Don’t get turned off by its aggressive smell, just go with it.
  • Soy Sauce – I like to think of soy sauce as salt with umami. I love the rich, caramel notes it lends to food, and I like challenging myself to use it in less obvious preparations.  Everyone should know how to make a simple ponzu sauce (equal parts soy + acid), it’s a game-changer.
  • Dried Herbs – We often buy more herbs than we need for one recipe. The rest goes into the veggie bin at the bottom of the fridge where it sits and rots until you dig it out a month later and throw it away.  DO NOT put the herbs back in the fridge. Instead, pick all of the leaves off the stems, put them on a baking tray, and place them on top of your kitchen cabinets where you will forget about them. Only this time, when you remember them a week later, you’ll have fancy dried herbs… and they’ll taste a whole lot better than rotten ones.
  • Smoked Sweet Paprika – I use this to add depth and a smoky punch to my food. It is amazing in vinaigrettes.  Citrus ponzu sauce with smoked paprika will blow your mind.  Mix equal parts soy sauce and your favourite citrus juice with a few pinches of smoked paprika… dipping sauce for royalty.
  • Canned Chipotle Chilies in Adobo Sauce – This is one of the few canned products I swear by. There isn’t anything else like it that tastes quite the same.  Make a puree out of it and mix it into mayonnaise for an addictive accompaniment or dipping sauce.
  • Canned Whole Peeled Tomatoes – I’ve said this 100 times, and I’ll say it again: there’s no shame in a canned tomato. I may not put it on my BLT, but it is a well-accepted fact that the tomatoes used for canning actually get better IN THE CAN.  The advantage of purchasing whole tomatoes, as opposed to crushed or pureed, is that you know what you’re getting and can control the texture of the final product.
  • Canned Tuna – For reasons unbeknownst to me, canned tuna has a bad rep. When I want to clean out the veggie drawer, I make tuna salad.  I pull out all of the limp carrots, wilted celery, radish, herbs, anything that looks a little sad.  I chop it all up and fold it into my drained canned tuna.  I add some whole grain mustard, sherry vinegar, and extra-virgin olive oil. Served with some nice salad leaves and crusty bread, I’m in heaven.
  • Hon Dashi Powder – My love for dashi, an aromatic Japanese stock, dates back to my days in the kitchen of Manresa in California, where we made it from scratch every day. Unfortunately, those ingredients aren’t regularly available, so I use the next best thing: powdered dashi.  It is pure umami with some extra fun thrown in for good measure.  You can add it to hot water to make dashi broth or you can use it as a seasoning (as I often do) and just sprinkle it right in.
  • Sesame Seeds – The first thing I do when I buy sesame seeds is roast them in a pan until they are dark and nutty. They serve no purpose to me in any other form.  Then I just start sprinkling away when I need them.
  • Pine Nuts – Hey, you never know when you want to make pesto. Am I right? Toast them and sprinkle over mango for a simple but “clever” dessert!

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