My Top 5 Pantry Essentials

There is an old adage that cooking is mostly shopping. I am often flummoxed when I meet some of you with keen wardrobes and little cooking skill. Shopping for ingredients can be as fun for shopping for shoes; it just takes a little practice to spot the gems! Establishing a pantry is akin to building your closet; each should have staples, seasonal buys, a few artisanal or handmade items, and an occasional playful piece.

You don’t have to have your cupboards and fridges full stocked at all times to produce tasty food. Just scoop up a few of my favorite staples that you can use to build flavor in your dishes.


1. Vinegar

Sparrow Lane Vinegar is now available for purchase at the front shop at Stomping Ground.

If there is a signature of my cooking it is the complex tang of vinegar. Vinegar adds hidden depth and clean brightness to vegetables and grains. It is the secret to the Veggie Hash at Stomping Ground. We simply cook the farro in 1-part vegetable stock, 1-part water, and 1-part champagne vinegar. I add it to beans, soup, coleslaw, pasta dishes…literally everything (even baked goods).

Like shoes, vinegar is not the place to go cheap. Commercial vinegar is often too astringent and harsh. We are aiming for complexity and body. Also, don’t fall victim to the balsamic trap. Sherry vinegar is amazing with vegetables, champagne vinegar is soft and delicate, and apple cider vinegars lend faintly fruity flavor.


2. Lemons

I am also incredibly partial to lemons; they bring brightness to dishes. Don’t be afraid to add lemon juice and zest to apple cider, rice, or white wine vinegars. The sweeter vinegar flavors will help balance the ultra-tart citrus. The zest of lemons is the essential oil of the food world. Squeeze in the juice for sharpness then add the bright zest to French toast and scone batters, vinaigrettes, fresh roasted vegetables, and pasta. Don’t toss the used shells. Simply add them to soups as they are cooking or toss on your roasting pans to mellow out meats and fish.


3. Salt

Often you will hear that you should stock three types of salt: fine salt for baking, Kosher salt for everything else, and Maldon for garnishing. I believe you can really just stick with one. I use Diamond Krystal Kosher Salt in all of my cooking. What is most important when seasoning (aka using salt) is that you remain consistent. Different types and brands have different weights and thus saltiness they impart on a recipe. Salting food with an unfamiliar salt is like wearing someone else’s underwear — you can do it, but it just doesn’t feel the same.


4. Fresh Herbs


Fresh herbs are perhaps the single greatest differentiator in your cooking. Throw extra basil, mint, tarragon, and chives into your salads. Add thyme, sage, or rosemary to meat and roasted vegetables before or after cooking. Add a little bundle to lend subtle flavor or a lot to create vibrant flavors. Use the stems: blend them up with olive oil and lemons to make Green Goddess. The possibilities are endless. Herbs are also a good way to cut back on salt and fat without sacrificing flavor, if that is of importance to you.


5. Butter

Ignore the marketing campaigns against fat. It is essential for your body function and it is essential for good cooking. I use butter — unsalted, Cultured European-style as it has better flavor and higher butter fat than what you find here in the states. Vermont Creamery is easily found in supermarkets both salted (for toast and bread) and unsalted (for cooking). We use cultured-butter for our biscuits; they are softer and more tender because the acidity of the butter helps tenderize baked goods.

Swirl butter with all of the aforementioned staples and you have one of the most delicious, balanced sauced around. Spoon on fish, chicken, vegetables, bread, you name it.

Note items not on this list: black pepper and garlic. This discussion is for another day.


  • The latest from Nicole
Head Janitor, Chef, and Proprietor | Stomping Ground
Nicole’s cooking style is rooted in, but not limited to, her love of southern biscuits and her diverse culinary upbringing. A military brat, she spent her childhood in the Chicago suburbs enjoying her great-grandmother Mae’s Lithuanian cooking. As a tween, she moved to Paulding County, Ga. where she begrudgingly fell in love with the charmingly perplex small towns of the Deep South. She fondly remembers grubbing on Martin’s biscuits, late-night Waffle House debauchery and cooking with her family. After graduating from the University of Georgia, Nicole started a marketing career at an art nonprofit in Atlanta. At 25 years old, she became the youngest executive at the local Atlanta NPR affiliate. Chasing her dreams, she moved to Alexandria, Va. where she took a short post in the Whole Foods marketing department. Realizing that cooking had been her true love all along, she began night courses at L’Academie de Cuisine. She completed her apprenticeship at Blue Duck Tavern where she was promoted to a line cook after graduation. From there, Nicole worked as a private chef for busy Washington D.C. executives and their families. As grown-ups tend to do, Nicole realized something about her childhood — the best parts were enjoying small town communities, cooking with her great-grandmother and sharing meals with family and friends. She opened Stomping Ground to build a safe and welcoming community around yummy, handmade food from local sources. As her first foray running her own kitchen, she has shamelessly hired better, smarter cooks to fill her kitchen and your bellies. Her great-grandmother’s recipes often appear on the Stomping Ground menu without advertisement and, no, she won’t tell you the secret ingredients. Nicole lives in Del Ray and won’t shut up about how much she loves living there.

If you wander down Del Ray’s, “The Avenue,” you won’t miss the farm-red building with a rustic fence bordering the patio. Stomping Ground opened two years ago and quickly became popular for its made-from-scratch biscuits and its neighborhood vibe. On weekends, excited guests line up before Stomping Ground opens hoping to be the first to get a just-out-of-the-oven biscuit or a fresh salad. Stomping Ground is mostly known for its fast casual breakfast and lunch but on Thursdays and Fridays they provide a full dinner service after 5:00pm. All meals are built from local, seasonal food that is organic whenever possible.

2309 Mt Vernon Avenue
Alexandria, VA 22301


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