What’s In Your Pantry, Jessica Halfin?

What’s in Your Pantry? is a recurring feature where I ask women to tell us more about their food and eating habits by opening up their kitchen pantries to us. This week I’m featuring Jessica Halfin.  Jessica is an American-Israeli baker, food and culture writer, recipe developer, and food tour operator. She is a regular contributor to Israel21c.org, Hadassah Magazine, The Nosher, and other publications. She currently resides in Haifa, Israel with her three little boys and husband Eli, where she continues to learn, grow, and obsess about pushing the limits of the diy kitchen, and all things culinary.

Let’s get to know Jessica and learn from her.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I am currently married (we are having our 9th anniversary this month) with three little boys (ages 6, 4.5, and 2). I grew up in a small town in southern New Hampshire, studied for my first degree in Tucson, AZ, then moved to Israel immediately after college in August of 2006. I can’t go more than a day or so without cooking or baking something. My specialty is baking artisan breads, and most recently I have gotten into the art of cheese making. I love making my own Greek yogurt, and I try to make as much as possible from scratch so that my family eats as few preservatives and industrial chemicals as possible. I relish the sense of accomplishment that tearing into a loaf of amazing crusty bread gives you.

My absolute favorite meal right now is homemade fettuccine with a makeshift sauce of olive oil, a little pasta water, cottage cheese, Parmesan cheese, salt, pepper, and a topping of fresh basil. I make a big batch of fresh pasta on the weekend with my kids (my machine comes with a fettuccine setting, so it’s easy to whip up), then I freeze it and take it out as needed. This way it makes for a meal that literally only takes a few minutes to pull together, and it’s so satisfying. Fresh basil is my favorite go-to herb for sprinkling on top of fresh baked pizza or pastas. It just feels so celebratory and special. I like to read cookbooks in bed before going to sleep at night, and I am always re-rotating through my old cookbook collection depending on my mood. Reading little snippets when you are not in the kitchen frantically following a recipe allows you to soak in all the little tidbits and extra info that authors provide in cookbooks. Right now I have had Nigella Lawson’s “How to Eat” on my nightstand for a good couple of months. I don’t have access to many of the ingredients, but I admire her spirit regarding food and eating.

How do you typically feel, emotionally, when you open your kitchen pantry?
I usually feel like I’m about to start a challenge. I think to myself, “Okay, what do I have to work with,” then the next thought is “what can I come up with for dinner tonight?” This is the eternal dilemma, even for food writers!

What’s inside your pantry right now?
I can’t live without high quality, local olive oil. We buy an 18 liter jug of dark green fresh oil right after the harvest each year from a village in the Galilee, and use it all year long in literally everything. I’ll even be sharing a recipe for an olive oil sugar scrub that I use in the shower this month in a Hadassah article. If I do run out and need to buy a bottle at the store, I would probably buy an organic one like this from Meshek Achiya.

Silan. I use one from Tamar Kinneret I use silan in place of recipes that call for molasses, since it has a very similar taste and texture to molasses, but is much more affordable for me here in Israel. I can also be drizzled over yogurt, and it’s a good vegan alternative to honey.

Baking soda. I use Sugat brand but you could use any brand you like. I use baking soda not only in my baking, but also just as is for exfoliating my face/lips, and every once in awhile as a teeth scrub to get rid of any surface stains on my teeth. I also use it in my DIY deodorant recipe. It is really a wonder product that can be so useful around the house.

Vinegar. I use Heinz, but again it could be any brand. I use regular 5% white vinegar for making homemade cheeses like ricotta/cottage cheese and mascarpone, and to create my own buttermilk in just a couple of minutes. I also reach for it to top off my salt brined dill pickles. It’s another must-have in the kitchen that can also be used around the house for, say cleaning out your washing machine, and even as an all-purpose cleaner when diluted with water and scented with essential oils.

Bulgur Wheat. I use a medium grain bulgur wheat when I want to stretch a simple chopped salad, or make it more festive. It is a great pantry staple because not only is it a healthy grain, but it requires only a soak in hot water for 10-15 minutes to be ready to eat. And a little bit expands to make a lot as it cools. You can make your salad (prepare veggies, feta cheese, olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and fresh herbs) while the bulgur soaks, then just drain off the excess water and mix for an amazing and healthy side dish or main.

What is your process for organizing your food pantry?
I have to admit that my pantry is not very organized, but I know where everything is. I do have it organized by sections though. I have my baking things in drawers under my burners, Spices and beans/grains in the cabinets above, and cans of crushed tomatoes, and my canned jams under the sink, for instance.

What’s the healthiest item that you keep in stock?
One of the healthiest items I keep in stock would probably be tahini paste made from whole (unhulled) sesame seeds. I like the Baracke brand. This is a darker sesame paste which is even more nutritious because they grind the whole sesame including its outer shell that is usually removed.

What about your guilty pleasure that you always have on hand?
My biggest guilty pleasure right now is Turkish coffee that I cold brew in the fridge for iced coffee at home. I buy the Nakhleh brand that is made in a village in the Galilee, and keep it in the freezer for freshness. Once “brewed” it tastes just like an espresso coffee used in coffee shops to make different coffee drinks. It’s amazing, and what I look forward to drinking when I’m writing at home.

Compared to your mother, how is your pantry the same or different than what you grew up with?
I would say that my pantry is probably completely different from my mother’s, simply because I live in a different part of the world. For instance, I hardly ever have peanut butter on hand, and my kids have never even eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. My mom is a hard working nurse practitioner, so growing up she integrated many convenience foods into her home cooking simply because she had to get dinner on the table. As a food writer, recipe developer, and professional baker I have the complete luxury to make most of my own things, which I know is not normal for most people, but I so appreciate. Therefore you’re more likely to find staples like bags of flour, yeast, and canned tomatoes in my pantry, as opposed to bagged breads, store bought cookies, or jarred sauces.

What are your go-to cookbooks?
I always refer back to Janna Gur’s The Book of New Israeli Food when I need inspiration, or confirmation that I am making an Israeli dish correctly. Another go-to for me is Ken Forkish’s Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast. It is my bread baking bible, and a book that has made me a better artisan bread baker, for which I am most thankful. Another great one that I can’t get enough of right now is The Perfect Cake by America’s Test Kitchen. It’s a book that anyone who wants to bake cakes should have on their shelf, and it is chock full of tips and good ideas.

If you could change anything about how your pantry is now, what would it be?
I would have it be organized, labelled, and everything in its own jar. Or I would kill for it to look like Khloe Kardashian’s famously pristine one.

Your turn: How does Jessica’s pantry inspire you?

*Photo of Jessica Halfin by Robert Seger