Thursday, October 25, 2007

How to Cook at Home, Part I: Pantry Raid

One of my main reasons for starting this blog was to encourage people who like food but don't really cook to get off their bum and get in their kitchen. The main thing keeping most people out of the kitchen is that they just don't know where to start, and how to keep going. If you stock up on the right items the next time you're at the grocery store, not only will you not have to buy groceries for a long time, but you'll always have enough food in the house to easily make a meal.

So, in my attempt to encourage home cookery, I have decided to launch a 3 part series dedicated to improving the quality of the three most important components of a kitchen: the pantry, the fridge/freezer, and the spice rack. This first part, The Pantry, will use a breakdown of my pantry as an example of what types of products you should always have on hand to easily make a meal on the fly. My pantry is actually two very tiny overhead cabinets, so this is great for anyone else with limited space, which is never an excuse for not cooking. So, here we go:

1. Carton stocks: Boy has store bought stock and broth gotten better over the last few years. These last forever in your pantry and come in everything from one cup to muli-quart sizes. They're great for a last minute noodle soup, a quick sauce or even gravy. I always have at least one chicken, beef and vegetable broth at all times.

2. Sugar and flour: Even though I don't bake, these ingredients are a pantry must. I mostly use flour as a coating by itself or with bread crumbs, so I can easily make a chicken or steak Milanese (talk about a 10 minute meal!), or flour alone on tofu and pan sauteed veggies. Sugar is good for more than just sweetening your coffee and tea. I often add a teaspoon of it to sauces and vegetables to aid in carmelization and to bring out the flavor in onions, shallots and brussels sprouts (to name a few).

3. Couscous, rice and pasta: Nothing has saved me from a night of takeout more often than couscous. Not only can it stand alone when made with stock and veggies, but it's a great accompaniment to any protein or main dish, and cooks up in about 10 minutes. Rice can act in a similar fashion. Stir in meat or veggies, or top white rice with two fried eggs and let it soak up the golden yolks. And don't get me started on risotto, which in it's most basic form, takes only 22 minutes to make. Pasta as we all know can be a meal unto itself. But if you're feeling lazy, it can also just be used as noodles in soup, or cooked up and sauteed with last night's leftover veggies.

4. Canned vegetables: Canned vegetables and legumes have also seen massive improvement over the years. They're great to saute as a side or main dish, puree for a quick soup, or add to pastas, rice and couscous. I always have canned chick peas, cannellini beans, corn, tomatoes, lentils and artichokes on hand. I also keep canned anchovies on hand to melt into butter and red pepper flake (great on pasta) or to mix into sauces and salads.

5. Tomato paste: This is a great ingredient as the backbone of a sauce or a soup, and it no longer has to come in a one-time use can. Buy it in paste form (I like Amore) and store it in the fridge after opening. In addition to tomato paste I also keep black olive paste and anchovy paste on hand.

6. Soy Sauce: This is one of my all-time favorite ingredients. It can be a marinade all on it's own, or a nice salty addition to any sauce or dressing. Don't be afraid to play with it, replacing traditional ingredients with soy the next time you saute some vegetables.

7. Oils and vinegars: The above photo does not do justice to the amount of oils and vinegars in my home.
Oils and vinegars are more than just condiments, they can be a quick reduced sauce, a pan gravy or a poaching liquid. I always have at least two grades of olive oil, extra virgin (I like mine nice and green) and regular (lighter in color but still at least a rich yellow). I also have vegetable oil on hand for deep fat frying and sesame oil for stir fry and fried rice. As for vinegars I always have at least three, usually distilled white, red wine and balsamic vinegars, but I also often have sherry vinegar because I'm Spanish and have grown accustomed to the smoky depth of flavor it adds to any sauce.

8. Honey: A vastly underrated ingredient, honey can also do more than sweeten your tea. Add it to a sauce or mix it with almost anything to make a quick glaze for meat and vegetables alike. Drizzle it into oil and vinegar with a dollop of mustard for a delicious dressing, or grill a honey banana sandwich for an easy sweet breakfast.

9. Breadcrumbs: More than just a coating, breadcrumbs can also be used as a filling (for pastas and baked veggies) or as a thickening agent for sauces. I usually buy the Italian spice kind, but also keep panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) on hand if I'm looking for added texture.

10. Spices: In depth spice recommendations will come in part III of the series, but I think it's important to include some not so basic spices for days when you're looking for minimal effort and maximum flavor. Paprika is a staple in my diet and certainly much of the food I make. Saute almost anything in olive oil, garlic and paprika (I use pimenton, Spanish paprika) and it'll be a hit. I also keep Sichuan peppercorns (they add a sweet musky heat), Old Bay (not really a spice) and saffron (expensive but worth it) on hand to pep up canned veg and carton stocks on a lazy day.

And there you have it, the top 10 pantry items that will encourage you to cook and cook often. Stay tuned for the next installment, when we'll go through the fridge and freezer.


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