Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Pantry Essentials

Some day, I'll get back to posting recipes. And for that matter, there is an abundance of great music I've been meaning to write about, too (Ah, nothing like starting a fresh new year with a smattering of procrastination.). For now, I've been in a mode of strictly cooking from cookbooks, namely, my most recent purchase: 5 Spices, 50 Dishes: Simple Indian Recipes Using Five Common Spices by Ruta Kahate. There are some real winners in this book, and a couple that didn't win me over so well, but overall, I've been digging it.

I came across this article the other day on one of my favorite blogs, Gluten Free Girl. It's all about essential pantry items, and it was inspired by this article by Mark Bittman at the New York Times. So I thought I'd post my own list of pantry essentials. And on this note, Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food has a whole section dedicated to this very subject. The premise is simple: with a few basic staples in your pantry, sometimes supplemented with some fresh produce or whatever you like, you are always ready to create a delicious meal. And that is a very comforting feeling.

So here are some of my pantry staples:
  • Dried beans - usually of 3 or 4 varieties at any given time:  black beans, chic peas, red lentils, french green lentils, cannellini  beans, kidney beans are a few of my favorite.  I generally cook them in larger batches, and freeze them in smaller batches so that I always have some ready to use.
  • Rice - basmati and brown rice
  • Quinoa - highly nutritious alternative to rice.  Delicious when prepared in the manner of risotto!
  • Pasta - I agree with Alice Waters and others who use only imported dried pasta
  • Canned tomatoes - I like to use Muir Glenn organic tomatoes, and especially the fire roasted ones.  Many people recommend San Marzano tomatoes from Italy, but I  haven't been able to find them organic.
  • Coconut Milk
  • Rice noodles for use in Asian stir fries and soups
  • Spices - well lately, I've been really into mustard seeds, cumin, coriander, turmeric and cayenne.  But also, I couldn't live without bay leaves, Mexican oregano, crushed red pepper & kosher salt.  And it's very handy to have paprika and saffron on hand. 
  • Oils:  I use a lot of olive oil - I don't generally buy anything too fancy; I just like the organic extra virgin first cold pressed stuff.  I also keep canola oil around, and sometimes I make my own clarified butter, or ghee.  Although not as essential, I do like to keep sesame oil around, and a little peanut oil can't hurt either.
  • Vinegars: my perennial favorite is good old red wine vinegar, but we also always have balsamic and rice wine vinegars too, as well as distilled white wine vinegar.  Did you know that last one is good for removing odors?  When I smash anchovies in my mortar & pestle, I soak it with water and vinegar to make the fishy smell go away!
  • Garlic and onions - the world would not be the same without them! I like to use yellow onions for every day cooking, red onions for use in salads (and for pickled red onions, of course!) and white onions for Mexican cuisine. And shallots are nice to have too.
  • And we can't forget:  flour, sugar, brown sugar, vanilla extract, and baking powder and baking soda so you bake something any time you are stricken with the whim.
And in the fridge and freezer, it's good to have:
  • Panko bread crumbs - I know Mark Bittman isn't a fan, and it's true, you *can* make your own bread crumbs without too much fuss, but I love me some Panko!
  • Lemons - a little juice, a little zest, there is no end to the ways you can make your lemons feel useful.
  • Butter - I like to use organic, unsalted.
  • Nuts - usually I have pine nuts, walnuts and sliced almonds, and sometimes cashews or pecans.  I use them in stir-fries and pasta dishes and salads and baking, and nuts are an essential ingredient in my homemade white bean & quinoa burgers. Yay for nuts!
  • Tomato paste in a tube - I love this because you can just squeeze out the amount you need
  • Anchovies and/or anchovy paste - some wouldn't consider this essential but I sure like to have it.  Great for caesar salads of course, and the anchovies in their whole form are great for adding to pasta or pizza.
  • Parmesan - many recommend a nice hunk of imported Parmigiano-Reggiano, and I don't blame them.  But don't blame me if sometimes I'm low on funds and lazy, cause I say grated parmesan from Trader Joe's or the Berkeley Bowl is better than no parmesan at all!
  • Capers - mmmmm salty goodness.  I love to add them to tuna salad, pasta or pizza.
  • Olives - again, many recommend you buy fancy fresh ones, and sometimes I do, but it's nice to have an old stand-by jar of kalamata olives for adding to pasta or salads, or for making olive paste.  In fact, you could take some of the above staples - olive oil, garlic, anchovies, capers, olives, and pasta, and put it all together for a nice little meal, even adding some canned tomatoes if you feel so inspired.
  • Fish sauce, soy sauce, hot sauce, miso, red chile paste - great for Asian-inspired stir-fries, soups, curries, etc. Miso also makes a nice addition to marinades or salad dressings.
  • Vegetable stock - I make my own using scraps of carrots, celery, onions, garlic, shallots, and sometimes greens.  Saute in olive oil, add some water and fresh or dried herbs and a squeeze of tomato paste (or not!), a healthy dose of salt, and cook anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour.  Always good to have a stash of this in the freezer, and it's a great way to use those leftover vegetable bits!
  • Frozen peas - oh, how I love them in stews and stir-fries and risotto. 
  • Sherry or white wine for deglazing the pan after frying onions/garlic/etc.
  • Chipotles in adobo sauce - they come in a can, and then I store them in a jar in my fridge upon opening - love that hot smokey, goodness.  It's great for spiking your chili, and good with soup, squash, and of course, black beans!
  • Curry paste - there are several good brands that have no preservatives, and it's a great thing to have on hand for whipping up a quick curry or stew.  Saute some onions & garlic, add some diced potatoes and other veggies to the pot, add a couple of splashes of coconut milk and some curry paste, and cook until the veggies are tender. 
  • Worcestershire sauce - mostly I use it in Steve Lucky's Lemon Caesar dressing, but it's also good to add a couple dashes to your homemade veggie burgers or salmon burgers, or, if you're the meatloaf sort, it's good for that too.
Well there you have it.   Damn, I'm getting hungry!

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