7 Things to Have in Your Summer Pantry

Yes, we all know how important it is to have a well-stocked pantry. Those beans and grains and canned tomatoes come in quite handy during months when produce is bleak. But what about at the height of summer, when veggies are at their peak? I’d argue it’s just as important to keep your pantry strategically stocked, so you can turn those mounds of tomatoes and zucchini and eggplant (oh my!) into healthy summer meals at the drop of a hat.

summer-pantryHere are seven things I like to keep stocked in my pantry during summer:

  • Anchovies — Anchovies are amazing. They add a punch of savory umami–and good-for-you omega-3 fatty acids–to anything from tomato sauce (think pasta putanesca) to salad dressing (yep, hail, Caesar). I think their flavor pairs especially well with summery foods like zucchini, tomato and pepper. Salted anchovies have the best flavor, but can be hard to come by. I like to keep a jar of good-quality anchovies in my fridge; if you’re intimidated by whole anchovies, you could opt for a tube of anchovy paste instead.
  • White Beans — In summer, when we tend to eat lighter and focus more heavily on vegetables, a can of beans can make a main course. Toss them into a fresh garden salad, stir them into a summer stir-fry, or mix them in with your favorite vegetarian pasta. Besides adding a lovely “umph” and flavor to the dish, beans bring a healthy dose of filling fiber and protein.
  • Capers — It’s so funny. In winter, I think of capers as a quintessentially cold-weather addition, and in summer I think of them as belonging to that season. They go especially well with tomatoes, and I like them paired with squash too. They also bring a nice zing to grilled summer foods like firm white fish fillets, chicken or steak. I like them best whisked into oil with a copious amount of minced garlic and parsley.
  • Good Extra-Virgin Olive Oil — Around the stove, I reach for an average Joe bottle of extra-virgin olive oil. Those tend to be filtered, which means they stand up better to a bit of heat. But come summer, I want the cloudiest, most unctuous, tongue-tingling extra-virgin olive oil I can find because I’m drizzling it fresh over raw veggies. That cloudiness comes from impurities in the oil–little bits of olive paste that were left after the first pressing. That sediment is what makes the oil so incredibly flavorful (and so incredibly healthy … the antioxidants are what make your tongue tingle), but it’s also what burns when heated. So keep your high-quality extra-virgin olive oil away from the stove … and use it liberally during summer!
  • Whole Grain Pasta — I haven’t yet met a summer vegetable I couldn’t turn into ten or more variations of pasta. If you’ve got a garden, and you’ve got a box of whole grain pasta on the shelf, you’ve got dinner (bonus if you have these other items in your pantry too!).
  • Good Salt — Get yourself a perfectly-ripe heirloom tomato. Slice it into thin wedges. Get yourself a great bottle of extra virgin olive oil and drizzle a bit on top. Get yourself a box of Maldon Sea Salt (or another flakey sea salt) and sprinkle on a pinch. Take a bite. I rest my case.
  • White and Red Wine Vinegar — Yes, I am an advocate of having four or more types of vinegar in your pantry at any given time. But to me, summer is a time for the mellow flavors of white and red wine vinegar. A couple of lemon cucumbers from the garden sprinkled with white wine vinegar and sea salt is often my mid-afternoon snack. And red wine vinegar, to me, makes a lovely, flavorful foil for mixed greens laden with tomatoes and onion.

These are seven things I’m never without come summer. What are yours?




Fair Trade Supports the People Who Produce Our Food

I’ve been hearing the phrase, “You vote with your fork three times a day,” a lot lately. And it’s true. Whenever you choose organic fare, you’re casting a consumer vote for sustainable, organic agriculture over the petrochemical agroindustrial empire. When you buy grass-fed, certified-humane beef or pasture-raised local eggs, you’re supporting livestock that’s raised on a natural diet and under humane conditions.

That “vote” also applies to the people who produce our food, and that’s where the idea of fair trade comes in. Fair Trade USA has designated October Fair Trade Month. Fair Trade USA is a nonprofit organization and the U.S. member of Fair Trade Labelling Organizations International (FLO), which offers third-party fair-trade certification for goods produced in developing nations. The idea is to support people through trade, not aid.

Fair Trade USA licenses its Fair Trade Certified (FTC) logo for use by American companies on products that have FTC ingredients. One example is Ben & Jerry’s, which uses FTC ingredients (vanilla, cocoa, sugar and coffee) in some of its flavors; they’ve committed to becoming entirely FTC by 2013.

So what does that mean when I buy my canister of FTC, shade-grown, French roast coffee? I know:

  • The farmers have received a fair price for their goods.
  • They have safe working conditions.
  • They trade directly with importers to avoid paying extra fees to middlemen
  • Crops are cultivated sustainably. Although FLO doesn’t mandate organic practices, they encourage sustainable agriculture that’s chemical- and GMO-free. If farmers do go organic, they fetch premium prices for their certified-organic goods.
  • Farmers and workers decide democratically how to invest their profits, which typically go to community and business development.

Along with cocoa, sugar and bananas, coffee is the most common fair-trade certified product. That’s a good thing, since coffee is the No. 2 import into the U.S., behind petrol (sorry, there’s no fair-grade gas). But there are many other fair-trade items to look for: quinoa from Bolivia, olive oil from Palestine, wine from South America, plus spices, tea, whole fruits and vegetables, rice and nuts.

These items turn up in a number of familiar FTC products, including gourmet chocolate, of course. You can find FTC coffee at Starbucks and Wal-Mart, or buy fair-trade spirits made with  FTC quinoa, Goji berries and coffee.

You might pay a small premium for fair-trade food. For instance, a 12-ounce container of fair-trade coffee might cost 50 cents to $1 more than its conventional cousin. But I’ve also found gourmet fair-trade chocolate that costs less than its competitors.

While Fair Trade USA’s FTC logo is the most ubiquitous, there are other fair-trade labels out there. Whole Foods has its own Whole Trade program and label, for which they partner with Fair Trade USA, as well as the Swiss-based Fair for Life IMO Social Responsibility & Fair Trade and the Rainforest Alliance, which focuses on improving the lives of the world’s rain-forest residents through sustainable agriculture, tourism, forestry and other programs.

And other third-party-certified fair trade programs are being developed. One is the Certified Fair Labor Practices & Community Benefits program. It offers fee-based certification for small family farmers to large-scale producers and applies throughout the supply chain. Applicants will also have to be certified organic.

“It can be done anywhere in the world, including the U.S.,” says Neil Blomquist, of the consulting firm Sustainable Solutions. There certainly are North American agricultural workers who need fair-labor support as much as farm workers in developing nations.

Ultimately, Blomquist notes, all the organizations that support fair trade share the same goal: to make fair food widely available and affordable so it’s a smart everyday choice for all consumers.

Change Your Oil

One of the most frequent questions I get is, “Which oil am I supposed to use for what?” My answer is a combination of unwavering advice and “it depends.” Here are three questions to ask for choosing wisely in all circumstances—from grocery store shelf to pan on stove.

How was it extracted?

The first thing you want to ask—no matter what you’re going to use it for—is how was the oil extracted? I like to steer clear of any that are not expeller pressed.

  • Expeller Pressed — Expeller pressed means it was literally squeezed from the nut, seed or olive paste using pressure. Oils that are not expeller pressed are extracted by soaking the grounds in a chemical solvent (usually hexane) and then boiling it off, which removes any flavor or aroma. If an oil does not expressly state that it is expeller pressed, it is probably hexane extracted.
  • Cold Pressed – All extraction methods create friction and, consequently, heat—even expeller pressing. Yet heat is the bane of an oil. For especially delicate oils, cold-pressing (technically defined as expeller pressing below 120 degrees Fahrenheit) keeps both flavor and nutritional compounds in tact.

How was it refined?

The next thing you’re looking at is how it was refined and to what state. I keep a combination of refined and unrefined oils in my cupboard for different uses, although for refined oils, I opt for brands that use natural methods.

  • Refined — Refined oils have had impurities filtered out; in many cases through chemical processes. Look for oils that have been naturally refined to steer clear of unwanted chemicals. The upside to refined oils is that they’re more shelf-stable and have a higher smoke point.* The downside is that much of the flavor and nutritional content—like antioxidants—are removed during refining. Use refined oils when stir-frying or high-heat sautéing.
  • Unrefined and Unfiltered – Unrefined oils are unprocessed, although they may have been filtered of particulate matter. Unfiltered oils are essentially crude oils left in their virgin state after pressing. The solids in them make them flavorful, healthy (powerful polyphenols are what make your lips tingle when you taste a cloudy, unfiltered extra-virgin olive oil) . . . and unstable—all of which means they’ll spoil quickly and will smoke over even moderate heat. For this reason, unfiltered oils are best kept refrigerated and used only as finishing oils. If an oil solidifies when refrigerated (a function of a higher level of saturated fat), simply set it out on the counter to soften before using.

How are you going to use it?

In general, the more flavor an oil has, the lower its smoke point will be. The higher an oil’s smoke point, the more neutral its flavor will be. If you’re looking for a full-flavored oil to use in a vinaigrette, break out your best bottle of unfiltered extra-virgin olive oil or toasted nut oil. But if you’re making a high-heat stir-fry, reach for an oil that may have a milder flavor but can take the heat, like peanut or canola oil.

Oils can add enormous dimension and variety to your cooking—whether in the pan or on the plate. Now that you know how to choose wisely, buy a few and experiment with different uses.

* The smoke point is the temperature at which an oil begins to emit fumes (the flash point is the temperature at which it will ignite). While not an exact science, each type of oil will generally begin to smoke within a given temperature range due to its fatty acid makeup (some fats are more stable than others), but particulate matter in unfiltered and unrefined oils will also cause an oil to smoke at lower temperatures. When an oil smokes, it’s releasing unhealthy compounds into both the air and the oil and should be (carefully) discarded.