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Chef Jess’ must-haves

Creamy white chocolate and delicious pumpkin filling make this dessert a delicious treat perfect for fall gatherings. FORUM NEWS SERVICE/Jessica Karley

The holiday season is almost here, and for many that means the added stress of last-minute dinner guests, extended visits from family and impromptu parties.

To help ease the stress of the holidays, I prepare my gift list and make sure my “pantry” is properly stocked with what I consider to be kitchen basics. This might seem like a large task, but in the long run, it helps minimize the amount of time you spend in the grocery store. For most meals, you should only have to stick to the fresh departments located around the perimeter or the store, the produce section, meat department and bakery.

The term “pantry” is used loosely here. I don’t expect everyone is lucky enough to have an entire closet dedicated to food, but I do hope to offer a list of items to have on hand, so you can tackle any last-minute meals and come out looking like Martha Stewart, the ultimate party host.

Here’s my list of top pantry items divided by kitchen storage area:

Dry Goods

  1. Flours: Whole wheat and all purpose
  2. Yellow cornmeal
  3. Panko bread crumbs: Plain or Italian seasoned
  4. Graham crackers: Whole or just crumbs
  5. Dried fruits: Raisins, cherries, apricots
  6. Sugars/sweeteners: Granulated, dark brown and powdered, honey or agave nectar
  7. Cocoa powder: Good quality
  8. Extracts: Pure vanilla (I used a vanilla crush extract that has seeds in it), almond, mint
  9. Boxed cake mix and 1 or 2 brownie mixes: It’s key to saving time. The mixes can easily be doctored up and made into something special
  10. Chocolate chips: I try to always have at least 1 bag of bittersweet, semi-sweet and white chocolate
  11. Flax seeds: They’re healthy and serve as a great substitute for eggs in baked goods. Use 1 tablespoon of ground flax and 3 tablespoons water 1 large egg
  12. Nuts: Mainly walnuts, pecans, almonds and pine nuts
  13. Dry Pastas: Your personal favorites are fine. I stock spaghetti, linguini, penne and gnocchi
  14. Grains: Quinoa, wild rice, brown rice. I also like to have the 90 second pre-cooked rice packages on hand as a speedy side dish option
  15. Crackers and chips: Pita chips, multigrain crackers and tortilla chips
  16. Canned tomatoes: Diced tomatoes, tomato paste and tomato sauce
  17. Canned fruits/vegetables: I avoid most of these other than pumpkin, squash, applesauce and artichokes
  18. Pasta Sauce: Your favorite kind
  19. Pizza crust, pizza sauce, shelf-stable pepperoni: An easy way to keep the kids busy
  20. Canned or dry beans: Pinto, black, garbanzo
  21. Dried peas and lentils
  22. Oils: Olive, canola, coconut
  23. Flavored oils: Lemon, white truffle, chili
  24. Vinegars: Balsamic, red wine, apple cider, white and balsamic glaze
  25. Nut butters: Peanut, chocolate-hazelnut
  26. Oatmeal: Quick oats, regular, steel cut
  27. Jams and jellies: Can be used in pan sauces for sautéed chicken breast, pork chops or steak or used as a glaze on oven-roasted meats or fish. I like to keep a dark cherry jam, raspberry jelly and orange marmalade on hand
  28. Syrups: Maple, molasses, caramel
  29. Salts: Kosher, iodized, assorted fun sea salts as you find them
  30. Black pepper grinder: Single-use/pre-filled grinder in your spice section works just fine

Herbs and Spices

Dried spices have a shelf life of six months so, unless it’s something you’re going to use a lot of, buy smaller containers and only purchase ones you will use. Here’s my list of must-haves:

Garlic powder, dill, sage, thyme, oregano, cinnamon, cumin seeds, ground cumin, dry mustard, mustard seeds, curry powder, smoked paprika, paprika, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, red pepper flakes, cayenne pepper, dried rosemary, poultry seasoning, fennel seed.

Fridge and Freezer Basics

  1. Garlic
  2. Ginger (stores great in the freezer)
  3. Frozen berries
  4. Sour cream
  5. Cream cheese: 1 to 3 blocks
  6. Shredded parmesan cheese
  7. Shredded cheese blend: I stick to a basic Monterrey jack
  8. Eggs
  9. Milk: I drink soy, so I don’t use this in a lot of recipes, but my son and guests drink it
  10. Heavy whipping cream: Everything is better with cream
  11. Dry white wine: I prefer chardonnay because it’s not as sweet and has a bolder flavor
  12. Fruit juice concentrate: I have orange, apple and lemonade on hand
  13. Capers
  14. Ketchup
  15. Mustards: Classic yellow if you like, whole grain and Dijon
  16. Hot sauces: Sri racha, Cholula Tabasco
  17. Barbecue sauce
  18. Mayonnaise
  19. Butter: Preferably unsalted
  20. Lemons and limes
  21. Apples
  22. Oranges
  23. Baby Carrots
  24. Yellow Onion
  25. Celery
  26. Frozen Vegetables: I don’t use these very often, but for last minute meals or appetizers when fresh isn’t an option, I use chopped spinach, green beans, broccoli, and corn make great choices
  27. Parsley: It doesn’t keep as long, but it’s a quick and inexpensive way to top off a dish. It also adds great flavor to a simple pasta dish. (Try my Lemon Chili Pasta recipe.)
  28. Pie crust: It will keep for a long time and can easily be turned into a rustic tart for a 30-minute dessert. (Use apples that you already have on hand.)
  29. Boursin Cheese: A garlic and herb goat cheese. It’s great in sauces, mashed potatoes and also served on crackers as a last-minute appetizer
  30. Pre-made appetizers: 1 or 2 of these on hand won’t hurt, and it can help bide your time in the kitchen. (Store-bought, homemade and frozen.)

These recipes incorporate your well-stocked pantry items, and they never fail to impress guests. My Cherry Mustard Pork Chop is a crowd-pleaser because it’s a perfect balance between tart and sweet. It pleases me because it’s a dish that I can prepare from start to finish in less than 30 minutes. Serve this with a 90-second wild rice blend and a quick vegetable. My second recipe is for those of you with a little bit of a sweet tooth, White Chocolate Pumpkin Truffles.

Once your teeth break through the rich and creamy white chocolate shell and your taste buds hit the pumpkin pie filling, you’ll want to keep the entire tray for yourself. If you decide to share them with others, they make the perfect little nibble to have out on Turkey Day. I figure that they must be better for me than eating all of that pie, right?

Well — maybe after eating three or four of them, it doesn’t make much of a difference!

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