Now the pantry is getting a makeover, thanks to some innovative chefs with fresh ideas. Take Tony Mantuano, chef and co-owner of the famed Chicago restaurant Spiaggia. Last summer Mantuano traveled around Europe, sampling regional cuisines and visiting the new generation of wine bars, such as Quimet y Quimet in Barcelona. The more he nibbled, the more inspired he became by how their chefs use high-quality canned and jarred ingredients to create intensely flavorful, easy-to-prepare dishes. Back in Chicago, Mantuano's larder shelves were soon crowded with foreign newcomers: salt-preserved capers from Italy, which add a briny kick to pasta dishes; canned Spanish or Italian tuna, which is preserved in olive oil and has far more flavor than the water-packed kind; and passato di pomodoro, a puree of sweet-and-tart Italian tomatoes.
Fortunately, these exotic ingredients are now easy to find in the United States. Stock up on them, and you'll be prepared to create endlessly varied meals all year long, whether you have an hour or just a few minutes.
Mantuano's favorite new pantry staples are sure to influence the menu at his next restaurant, which is set to open this spring in the Art Institute of Chicago. He and his wife, Cathy, a Chicago-based wine consultant, also devote a section of their new cookbook, Wine Bar Food, to dishes that incorporate these ingredients—which, in addition to the tuna, capers, and tomato puree, include Spanish piquillo peppers, chickpeas, Mediterranean olives, and the North African chili paste known as harissa. If you balk at the thought of cooking with prepared foods, rest assured that these imports are nothing like the shortcut ingredients of yore—no canned cream of mushroom soup here. "These items aren't processed or mass produced," Mantuano explains. They're from regions of the world that specialize in growing and preserving these foods using all-natural methods.
Mantuano offers eight recipes that highlight seven pantry must-haves. Be sure to clear space on your shelf for wine too.