Small is Bountiful

Sharon Hunt reviews Urban Pantry: Tips & Recipes for a Thrifty, Sustainable & Seasonal Kitchen.

© iStockPhoto.com / FotografiaBasica / bedo

Skipstone, 2010; 176 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Book by Amy Pennington

In my thirties, I ate out more often than I ate at home. I justified this because I worked 60-hour weeks at a corporate job, where going to lunch was a given, as was returning with something for dinner at my desk. Eating out was not only a necessity, but it was also my reward for working all the time. During one particularly busy work week—from Monday morning to Saturday night—I didn’t wash any dishes. My kitchen sink held one teaspoon, two juice glasses, and three coffee mugs.

When I decided to change my life, I moved to another city and took up work in the world of food. I worked in a great restaurant and its winter cooking school, quickly falling in love with the food culture I’d become a part of. The chefs’ passion for great food became my passion too. Although I was never going to become a professional chef, I knew I would devote a lot of my life to getting back in touch with real food and its importance for the health of individuals and communities. My kitchen, once packed with processed meals requiring just the opening of a microwave oven, began filling with seasonal fruits and vegetables and local cheeses and meats, all of which required care and gratitude in the preparation.

Now I cook every day and bake a few times a week. The serenity I feel in the kitchen can’t be duplicated. Preparing food has become a meditation practice, clearing my mind of everything but the task at hand. This same meditative quality permeates Amy Pennington’s new book, Urban Pantry: Tips & Recipes for a Thrifty, Sustainable & Seasonal Kitchen.

It is clear Pennington loves food. In addition to being a food writer, she is also a gardener. Her business (GoGo Green Garden) plants and tends gardens for people living in cities, and her website (UrbanGardenShare.org) matches gardeners with gardening space. Her book’s dedication lets you know how she feels about food: “May you be playful in life, confident in the kitchen, and surrounded by friends and good food, always.”

Her confidence in the kitchen comes, in part, from a well-stocked pantry. As she writes in the first chapter, “If I were to be snowed in for weeks on end, I would not go hungry. In fact, I’d be eating pretty well (and so would my neighbors).” Such generosity in sharing food is a trait of food lovers, whether chefs in high-end restaurants or volunteers in local food kitchens. People need to share food; they nourish themselves when they nourish others.

Pennington’s devotion to sharing and growing a food community is detailed in many ways in the book. For example, she started a “canning society” with her friends that gathers weekly to preserve in-season produce for the coming winter. The Stockpilers, as they call themselves, remind me of the women’s auxiliary groups associated with churches. Both my grandmothers belonged to one of those. Having raised families during the Depression, they understood how important it was to the health of a community to gather, cook, and share the food they produced.

The book’s subtitle contains three words that have come to mean a lot in my food education: thrifty, sustainable,and seasonal. Pennington provides solid tips for each of these. Some are familiar, but worth reading again, such as buying whole food items in bulk to save money, while buying smaller amounts to ensure the food doesn’t go bad and have to be thrown out. She also gives a great tip to cut down on food waste, asking readers “to be mindful of little food scraps that are sometimes left behind and easily disposed of as waste. Ask yourself, ‘Will I be able to use this in the future?’ before throwing it out. More often than not, the answer will be yes.”

Pennington sets out a good staples list that includes flours, sugars, oils, vegetables, and herbs. Throughout Urban Pantry there are other helpful lists, like the one for spices that ensures you have a formidable range of flavor combinations at your fingertips.

The first recipe in the book is “Whole Grain Bread,” a fitting beginning since bread is the foundation of most food cultures. A nice mixture of vegetarian and meat-based dishes follows, none of them requiring great expense or too many ingredients. Pennington understands that the best cooking is often created with a few items. Her cooking instructions are easy to follow and preparation times are short, an important consideration for those who insist they can’t fit cooking into their busy lives.

Many recipes can be used in various ways, from garnishes to side dishes to main courses. My favorites include Cucumber Quick Pickles, Spiced Kibbe (a Middle Eastern meat-based dish), Vegetable Scrap Stock, and Tomato and Cinnamon Chickpeas. Each recipe has a pantry note to help you store the ingredients to elicit their maximum flavor, and additional tips to ensure that the dish turns out the best it can. The fact that there aren’t many photos is a plus, as far as I’m concerned: you’re not pitting yourself against a glossy and perfect-looking finished dish. Cooking is best when it isn’t a competition.

One of the best parts of this excellent book, and an appropriate conclusion to Pennington’s food-sharing philosophy, is the last chapter. About pantry gardens, she writes:

Small kitchen gardens are an incomparable extension to a well-stocked pantry… Equally important are the sheer economics involved in growing food at home. A cluster of fresh herbs may cost three to five dollars at the grocery store… One plant start costs about the same… Seed swapping is truly the best deal of all. Sharing a packet of seeds among friends allows you to split the cost and sort through others’ seed stocks for inspiration.

This is so familiar to me, having grown up with a father who planted a vegetable garden every spring, and spent the summer and fall months cooking, canning, and sharing the tomatoes, zucchinis, potatoes, beet, carrots, and green peas that thrived in his care. He also gathered seeds for the following year and shared them with other urban gardeners.

Urban Pantry is a small book. It fits nicely in your hands for reading, unlike some food tomes being published today. It won’t intimidate you and it doesn’t require a science degree to understand. It’s about the food many of us remember from growing up. And now that the vital connection between healthy food and healthy communities is becoming more and more clear, this book about simple, everyday food has arrived right on time.

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