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Cooking with Joy

Its Time for a
Fresh Start


By Joy Rotondi

One of two articles about keeping the larder full. First, lets make space for the food items well purchase in Pantry 102.

When was the last time you purged the pantry? How about the fridge? The lazy Susan? Bet it was before your last move. Or a kitchen renovation. Somehow, despite our best intentions, these essential storage spaces evolve, over time, into culinary black holes absorbing all light and matter.

Meet Joy Rotundi

Joy Rotondi recently returned to the classroom and teaches sixth-grade language arts near Boston, Massachusetts. She was raised in an Italian-American family happily obsessed with good food. Her prowess in the kitchen was first noted when she whipped lime Jell-O to a mousse at age 7. By age 12 she'd advanced to the salmon mousse in aspic featured on the cover of Gourmet.

On Thanksgiving Day 1996, with the help of friend and culinary cohort Cindy Blandino, she launched , a playful site dedicated to serious American cooking. has been featured on CNN, Better Homes and Gardens , and in The Wall Street Journal, among other places. Her bread and butter for the last 11 years has been designing and maintaining Web sites for the culinary world, including restaurants, culinarians, and food marketers. Rotondi lives on Boston's North Shore with her 12-year-old, a Shetland sheepdog, and four hens.

Visit her Web

Few of us are happy with our pantry space unless weve had the good luck to design our own kitchen. I am no exception. I still havent forgiven the original builder, Howard. Ive got a generously-sized room with only 36 inches of working counter space and a wobbly lazy Susan for food storage. So, my two chief pantries are in the adjacent bathroom. Yes, I find that a tad embarrassing! However, its tall cupboard holds among other things canned and bottled goods, napkins, unopened boxes of crackers and cereal, and everything to do with pasta and red sauce, and (please keep this a secret) chocolate. Thats Pantry Number One.

Pantry Number Two is the bathtub. Im blessed with more bathrooms than we need, so why waste good space on the first floor? Picture cases of bottled water and bales of toilet paper hidden by a lovely toile shower curtain.

Pantry Number Three is in the basement. Ive got a big white cupboard down there at the bottom of the stairs. Thats where the stuff goes that doesnt need to be a visual reminder of what could be for dinner.

Stuff I have to put my hands on frequently and items that are opened live in the lazy Susan in the kitchen. There youll find the cracker du jour, the essential salts (Mortons, kosher, grey fleur de sel), smaller amounts of the necessary oils (olive, corn, vegetable, and peanut). Other often-used items include peanut butter, pancake mix, and tidbits of pasta. Rounding out the lazy Susan are a variety of rices, couscous, cookies, lunchbox snacks; and dried nuts, berries, and fruit.

Then theres the fridge. Sadly, its a pantry, too, in the sense that it holds long-term items rarely used but essential to creative cooking, such as an oily can of tahini, a tube of anchovy paste, sesame oil and rice vinegar, soy sauce and tamari, a glut of mustards, and too many jams.

Think of your own system. Or lack thereof. Would it save you time during every meal preparation if you gutted the whole thing? Or is some culling in order? Lets purge!

In doubt as to whether to keep an item? Practice the 2007 Golden Rule of Pantry Purging. If there isnt a Web site address on the label, throw it away! If there is no black-and-white bar code, its time to call your realtor.

Here are a few more ground rules. Have a shopping list handy as youll need to replace some of these items.

  • Partially opened packages: The six-month rule applies to any thing that can possibly go stale; that includes crackers, cookies, pasta, and croutons. You intended to put those crackers on a baking sheet and bring them back to life, but trust me, you wont. Feed them to the birds.
  • Opened food in a jar with hardly anything in it: Youll find most of these offenders in the fridge. Let me tell you right off that salsa goes bad really fast. I wish they sold it in smaller jars for small households as I throw away half a jar every time. And that tablespoon of apricot jam clinging to an otherwise empty jar? Chuck it.
  • Spices and dried herbs: Oregano should not be brown. Basil should not be brown. Turmeric is a lovely deep yellow. You should be able to smell cardamom when you open the jar. You bought that epazote for a New Millennium party in 1999 and cant even remember why. Pitch it. Use the hideously expensive -- but now cardboard-brown bay leaves -- as garden mulch. Next time buy smaller quantities of dried herbs and spices.
  • Questionable flour, flour products, and grains: Inspect them carefully. Depending on where you live, pantry weevils and flour moths can be a big problem. And though you intended, four years ago, to bake fresh bread every Sunday with that stone ground rye, with age comes wisdom. Pitch it. Thats valuable storage space.
  • Oils, nuts, and seeds: Why do I put these three things in the same category? Because they can go rancid. Keep them in cool, dark places, or even the fridge if you dont use them up fast. (I always keep my sesame oil in the fridge.) Dont mess with this. There is nothing like a rancid walnut to ruin a good brownie.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Heres what appears on my post-purge shopping list. Each item replaces one I pitched, composted, or fed to the birds.

  • Ice cream cones (so stale I could bend them and they wouldnt break)
  • Salad croutons (I have this repeating dream that Ill make my own with stale bread)
  • Popcorn (I make mine from scratch and yes, it goes stale)
  • Salsa (chucked two jars, each one-third full and moldy)
  • Dried basil (the color of dirt and about as tasty)
  • Curry powder (mine was unrecognizable to the nose)
  • Frozen vegetables (I composted the remains of freezer-burned French green beans and corn)
  • Tahini (my can pre-dated the Internet)

Next time: Restocking the larders.