John D. Ivanko
May 21, 2014
4 Ways to Organize Your Pantry for Growing Season - Photo courtesy Susy Morris/Flickr (HobbyFarms.com)
Courtesy Susy Morris/Flickr

After what will go down as the longest, coldest winter in recent memory, spring officially sprung this week here in Wisconsin. With everything in the garden blooming late this year, farm life finally felt on track with our first rhubarb harvest yesterday, prompting Lisa to crank our favorite Warm Rhubarb Caramel Cake and Rhubarb Fritters.

Wait, scratch that. She didn’t make the fritters because we didn’t have enough oil for the fryer and the kitchen didn’t waft with aromas of rhubarb cake because our brown sugar supply ran low. As we indulge in the seasonal flavors of spring, we forgot one key vernal farmstead ritual: Organizing the pantry for the garden season.

Stocking the pantry saves time and money—two non-renewable resources—and brings those impromptu fritter cravings to life. When we moved from our Chicago apartment to our Wisconsin farm eighteen years ago, we traded convenience for countryside. No more runs to the store for a missing ingredient. We’ve learned to keep staples on hand to do anything from feeding a round of B&B guests to whipping up crust for an impromptu pizza night. But a well-stocked pantry is an important element wherever you may call home, whether it’s in the city, suburbs or at the end of a country lane.

The spring season shines the spotlight on keeping a stocked pantry because we’re heading into the busy garden months. We’ll (happily!) be more out in the fields than running into town for paprika or processing pounds of beets into our favorite Beet Burgers (featured in our Farmstead Chef cookbook), a recipe that uses several pounds of sunflower and sesame seeds when we go into bulk production.

That lack of fritter and cake incident reminded Lisa that it’s time to do her annual spring pantry organization, a process that doesn’t take much time but reaps huge benefits for the next five months as we head into the busy summer mode. Here are her four key steps for getting the pantry fully stocked and loaded for the garden season.

1. Clear Things Out
Our kitchen “pantry” consists of three large cabinets. Lisa’s first task is to take everything out of each cabinet and look at what’s there. This is an important step to see what’s lurking in the corners, especially as we wrap up our winter season when we make a concerted effort to eat through the bits and bobs in the pantry.

Still, Lisa always seems to find some more surprises when she clears things out again in May, from some leftover Halloween candy to a box of opened crackers that need to be eaten sooner than later.

2. Take Inventory
Time to then make that list of what’s missing and needed. Years ago, we created a master pantry list that cover all our family’s key basics. Writing out such a list (feel free to use ours and adapt it for your needs) helps to tremendously save time, as we can easily double-check stock.

In spring, we particularly make sure we have the “back-up” inventory as we head into high busy season. We may have some lemon juice in the refrigerator, but we know we need several back-up bottles in the pantry when we start craving lemonade next month.

3. Write a Shopping Plan
As you fellow rural dwellers know, we can’t just go to our corner store and stock up on three-liter tins of olive oil. No corner store and probably not a significant influx of Greek cuisine. We instead write out a detailed list of what we need and do a major stock up when we’re next in a larger city, mainly Chicago or Madison, Wis.

For ethnic items, like that big tin of olive oil, we’ve found the international grocery stores in urban areas a good source with lots of options and decent pricing. Olive oil is one of those items we’ll buy five tins at once. It’s non-perishable and that’s the last thing we want to run out of when John’s in pesto-making mode during peak basil season.

4. Keep Track
Easy to overlook, this step keeps things managed throughout the season. Lisa keeps a piece of paper on her master clipboard and adds to this list whenever something runs low. It’s simple but easy to forget: Write things down right away when it’s first on your mind and when you notice something is low. When it’s time to go to the grocery, all we need to do is add these items to the shopping list and we’re good to go.

A tip for managing spice inventory: We keep our spices and herbs alphabetical on two lazy Susans. We buy dried spices and herbs in the bulk aisle at our food co-op in Madison, and then fill the jars as needed. We usually have some leftover spice in the bulk bag after filling the jar, so we store the bag in the pantry and refill the jar as needed.

When we use up the bulk bag and fill up the jar for the last time, we put a rubber band around the spice jar as a reminder that this is last of the cumin, basil or whatever it is we need to restock. Cumin then goes on the stock-up shopping list, but the rubber band serves as visual reminder that this item may be running low and to double-check before starting a mega Indian curry batch.

Yes, we can get a little pantry-management nerdy when it comes to organizational details, but as the rhubarb dessert void reminded us this week, it’s all in the details … and brown sugar and oil.

Clean up your pantry with these tips:

Savoring the good life,

John and Lisa's Signatures

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