Eating & Drinking: The bare necessities

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Indy Lifestyle Online

We start with nothing, and we end with nothing. But in the meantime, we have to surround ourselves with an awful lot of funny little jars, cans and bottles to keep ourselves going.

We start with nothing, and we end with nothing. But in the meantime, we have to surround ourselves with an awful lot of funny little jars, cans and bottles to keep ourselves going.

Even in the 21st century, we still need something as quaint and as old fashioned as a pantry. One of the most logical reasons for having a well-stocked pantry is that you don't have to go down to the corner shop and pay a fortune for something with an expired use-by date when you suddenly find you need it.

So you stock up on bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, soy sauce, dried chillies, dried mushrooms, noodles, oyster sauce, Sichuan peppercorns, Thai fish sauce, and sesame oil. You make sure you have plenty of pasta, tomato puree, anchovy fillets, olives, olive oil, arborio rice, canned beans and couscous.

And so on, until you have a cupboard bulging with packets and tins and jars and bottles. Security at last. But no, there are so many damned packets and tins and jars and bottles that you can't find anything, so you have to go down to the corner store and pay a fortune for something with an expired use-by date.

The true measure of good cooks isn't in cupboards bulging with gourmet packets, shelves lined with pricey cook books, or counters displaying gleaming espresso machines. It's what they don't have.

They have acquired something more precious than saffron threads or truffle oil: the knowledge of what they don't need. They know the things that are important, and they stick to them. It's very admirable. But can it be done?

If you're having trouble shutting the kitchen doors, or you've just left the oldies to start out on your own, or you're suddenly single and starving, it's time you too, took stock of the vexing question of stocking up.

First, let's assume that, like most of us, you live on a happy mix of Mediterranean and Asian with a few old favourites thrown in. Next, pretend you are going to a holiday house. Whatever you would pack to take with you is really all you will ever need. Tea, coffee, eggs, milk, bread, butter. Sugar, salt, pepper, vodka. The rest is up to you and your particular desires, but if you don't need it during a three-week holiday, you're not going to need it for 12 months at home.

Here, for the record, are the bare essentials as I see them: you only need two oils (extra virgin olive and peanut) and two vinegars (red wine and balsamic). Sauces are another matter. Paring it right down, you can get away with soy sauce, Thai fish sauce, chilli sauce, ketchup and a good mango chutney. Add mustard and mayonnaise if you're a sandwich-maker.

Anchovy fillets are critical, as are salted capers and dried mushrooms. You can't have too many cans of tomatoes, along with canned tuna and beans (borlotti, cannellini, whateveri). Then there is pasta and rice (arborio and Jasmine), couscous and stock.

Add the essential packet(s) of chocolate biscuits, and you're done, ready to handle any emergency from a late-night snack attack to dinner for six. From that one intelligently stocked pantry you can put together literally hundreds of different meals.

There is inspiration as well as sustenance, pleasure as well as mere provision. Now, if only we could do the same with our wardrobes, life would be perfect.

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