How to Downsize Your Pantry


My husband and I made the move from Birmingham, Ala., to Park Slope, Brooklyn, about two months ago. Beyond the vastly different location and vibe, we also were transitioning from a three-bedroom house with a huge backyard and driveway to a one-bedroom apartment in a brownstone.

When I first laid eyes on our new abode, I tried to be optimistic about downsizing. Less space meant we had to bring less stuff with us, and that felt nice and streamlined to me. But when it got down to the serious business of actually parting with items like my waffle maker (used twice) or my Moroccan tagine (never been used), I became pack-rattish and defensive. Every time Jon eyed the multiple boxes marked "Kitchen" and gave me his look that meant "not another one," I smiled and said, "I'll find a space for it—promise."

I've lived up to that promise, but fitting everything into our new kitchen, which is smack dab between our living room and dining room, has meant being very selective with the items that actually get to take up prime real estate in said kitchen. The rest have been relegated to the basement, where we're lucky enough to have shelving.

Aside from the mudroom in the old house, what I miss the most is our pantry. It's one of those butler's pantries that you see in Pottery Barn catalogs. It had beautiful glass cabinets on top—ideal for displaying mom's old china-deep drawers—and another set of bottom cabinets that were big enough for several small children to hide in. For someone who lives and breathes all things food and culinary, it was a dream come true. And yes, I was completely spoiled.

So what did I decide was absolutely essential on a day-to-day basis? Here's my list of must-haves that every cook should possess:

  • 3-in-1 pot with steamer: For making pasta and steaming veggies at the same time. Also great for soup.
  • A colander: Essential for draining pasta, and washing fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • 2 frying pans: As an alternative, sauté pans.
  • A 4-quart pot.
  • Knives, of course: At minimum you need a quality 6-inch chef's knife and a paring knife.
  • Kitchen shears: From cutting the tips off scallions, to chopping herbs without bruising them, these are the best. Also handy for trimming the fat off chicken or cutting a whole bird into pieces.
  • Several cutting boards: OK, at least two so you can avoid cross-contamination between meat and raw veggies. Go for plastic or ceramic—they can be run through the dishwasher (if you have one) and are easier to clean (and therefore safer) than wood.
  • A hand or stand mixer: For cookies, quick bread, cakes, and dough of any kind.
  • A blender: Gazpacho, smoothies, and margaritas.
  • A food processor: If you don't have room for a full-size one, invest in a mini prep for small batches of things. It's ideal for making sauces (gremolata, pesto) and dips, or for getting more creative and making your own pasta or fillings for desserts.

Another part of my 'Bama kitchen that I regretfully said good-bye to was the lazy Susan. I'm sent a ton of food products, and that space was amazing for holding all of the goodies I brought home. Now the cereal shares shelf space with the dog treats.

I used to make a trip to Whole Foods each weekend to load up the car with enough fresh produce, meat, fish, grains, wine, and other essentials to last the week. We still have a car, but we barely use it due to parking constraints. And with no Whole Foods in the vicinity, it was time to get creative. I quickly sniffed out the local gourmet store, Union Market (I spotted Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard there on my second visit), but the place is just too pricey to do all your shopping. There's also a C-Town nearby, which I had never heard of before. C-Town is not glamorous. There are no food samples or perky shop boys to lend a hand around every corner, and the lighting is quite appalling. What they do have are affordable prices and a decent selection of healthy options.

I figured out that I can go to C-Town for anything packaged, frozen, ethnic, or basic. Union Market is reserved for cheese, meat (they sell natural and organic), produce, or prepared deli items. I still try to plan for meals, but I end up making about two trips to each store per week. And since we haven't fully given in to urban living, we haven't broken down and gotten one of those collapsible metal grocery carts that my grandmother Selma used to push around in Queens. So that means I have to carefully calculate how much I can safely carry home (in a recyclable fabric tote of course) without getting a hernia.

I'm still adjusting to our new space and our new methods of doing things. I miss the pantry and the extra space, but the trade-offs are worth it. I certainly couldn't get a real New York bagel in Birmingham, not even at Whole Foods.

By Frances Largeman-Roth