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[Photographs: Michael Harlan Turkell]

Whether it's a repurposed closet, a jumbled drawer, or an elegantly organized shelf, a well-stocked kitchen pantry can offer up one of the greatest tricks in a home cook's deck of cards—dinner from nothing. Pasta, anchovies, olive oil, and red pepper flakes? Dinner is done. Got canned beans, an onion, and perhaps some tortillas in the freezer? Taco night. Have rice noodles and soy sauce? Stir-fried noodles are in your future.

It is with this purposeful pantry ethos that cooking apps like Sara Jenkins' New Italian Pantry seek to engage. Designed exclusively for the iPad by the founder of Tasting Table, this is the first in a new series of ingredient-driven, technique-based cooking apps with the aim of getting folks comfortable with spontaneous cooking. Jenkins, the chef and owner of Porsena and Porcetta, was a solid choice to host the Italian version.

The app is based around Jenkins' selection of 16 key pantry ingredients like pasta, preserved fish, garlic, and Parmesan cheese. Most of her staples are obvious choices, but she does include some wild cards in the mix such as aleppo pepper and bottarga. Not all on the list are cheap (cough, bottarga, cough), but they are each multi-purpose and versatile. Toggling through the home screen leads to informational videos on each ingredient; if you know anything about Italian food, you won't learn much from the videos, but it is still entertaining to listen to Jenkins rant about store-bought chicken broth.

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You can search for recipes (there are an impressive 75 or so included) by selecting any number of pantry items from the home screen to find recipes that include each of them. About half of these recipes will call for a fresh ingredient or two, so they're not all completely last-minute. The app also has a search bar, so you could also pick up a vegetable or cut of meat from the store and go from there. Each recipe page opens with a quick summary of ingredients—good for grocery shopping.

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The recipes themselves are relatively simple and easy to follow. I had a lovely pantry-based dinner of spaghetti with anchovies and bread crumbs with a side of roasted cauliflower with lemon straight made entirely with food from my pantry and fridge. Neither dish was mind-blowing, but they were recipes I'd certainly make again late on a Wednesday night.

Most recipes include a timer feature as well as (gorgeous) photographs of any complicated prep work needed. Be warned, though, if you set a timer for one recipe and then move to another page, the timer shuts off. For many recipes, this quirk isn't an issue, but for a few with recipes-within-recipes, you'll need to flip back and forth and will lose track of the timer.

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My only other gripe with the app is that neither bread nor polenta are included in the main pantry list; both seem pretty fundamental to a well-stocked Italian pantry. Bread shows up in a couple of forms throughout the recipes, but polenta is nowhere to be found.

Still, for $3.99 The New Italian Pantry app is a great deal. Its photography and extensive recipe list alone place it more in the category of "short cookbook" than a "how to" app, making it a good buy for novices and experienced home cooks alike.

About the author: Kate Williams is a freelance writer out of Berkeley, CA. She is a contributor to The Oxford American, Berkeleyside NOSH, and blogs at cookingwolves.wordpress.com.

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