Since You Asked: Keep these pantry items on hand

Your recent story about holiday entertaining on a budget mentioned some pantry items, mainly preserves, that can be used to dress up simple dishes. What else would you consider essential in a well-stocked pantry, particularly for last-minute entertaining?

— Jennifer J., Grants Pass

'Tis often the season for drop-in guests and foul weather that can prevent last-minute trips to the grocery store. A thoughtfully supplied pantry indeed can be a lifesaver.

Almost every cook worth his or her salt agrees that good extra-virgin olive oil and wine or balsamic vinegar can elevate almost any dish. So do onions, lemons and garlic, none of which requires refrigeration, all of which boasts singular flavor.

From there, savvy food sources recommend:

  • Parmesan cheese — Cheese is milk's shelf life extended. Many types — particularly hard Parmesan, Manchego and pecorino — keep for a very long time. While Americans tend to refrigerate them, such cheeses don't go bad at room temperature. (If mold appears, slice it away.) We hardly need to tout cheese in meals or sliced for snacks.
  • Nuts — Nutritious, delicious, filling and versatile, nuts also make for effortless party nibbles. Toss them with some olive oil and spices and roast for a few minutes in the oven to elevate them even more.
  • Crackers — While bread lasts for a few days, crackers last much longer. If you have crackers for cheese, you're pretty much ready for a few guests, too.
  • Canned beans — Keep an assortment — chickpeas, cannellini and black beans — on hand to beef up salads or soups or to blend into a quick dip or spread. Depending on the type of bean, season with Middle Eastern, Italian or Latin-American spices.

Send questions to "Since You Asked, A la carte" Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; e-mail to

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