Watching “Julie and Julia” has put me in the mood to cook, or at least write about cooking. I think a lot about what I’m going to make for dinner and yet I have an aversion to recipes. I find my greatest creativity occurs when I’m low on ingredients. You know the scenario – your fridge is nearly empty, your pantry is filled with the regular goodies (or not so goodies!) and you’re feeling uninspired but you still have to make dinner. The frozen pizza is looking pretty appetizing by now. But wait! Stock your pantry right and these days of quick unhealthy bites become part of your murky past in non-cooking. Instead of the frozen standbys, you start whipping up a tasty dish like Tangy Tuna Pasta or Sundried Tomato Frittata. Dinner is suddenly delicious.
So I’m all about making life easier in the kitchen and while fresh ingredients are undoubtedly the way to go, cooking straight from the pantry now and then is a refreshing change from the daily grind of take-out or healthy choice.
The Pantry Essentials
Part I: Oils
Everybody stocks olive oil nowadays, right? Its rich, goes well with fish, meat, and poultry, not to mention pasta and salads, and cooks at high heat. But sometimes its, well, common. Using one oil all the time deadens the palate so why not try something more unusual? I find that toasted sesame oil is an amazing addition to salads and pasta. I’ve blogged about it before, but La Tourangelle is amazing. TJ Maxx regularly stocks it, but you can also find it on amazon. Just be prepared to pay a higher price at the latter (TJ Maxx is usually at least half that price). Keep in mind that oils are used sparingly so the $7-$20 you spend on a container will last a very long time. Consider these:
- Roasted Hazelnut Oil – seriously yum. Use it on salads, lettuce and bean; pastas, fish. It smells exquisite.
- Grapeseed – has virtually no distinctive taste. Perfect when you don’t want to add flavor to a dish
- Also roasted walnut oil, pumpkin oil, and white truffle (awesome on pasta and not just for gourmands!).
Part II – Canned & Bottled
I reguarly buy frozen veggies for those nights when I’m running low on fresh. They work in a pinch, but there are some canned veggies that far outperform frozen. And while I’m not talking Spam, consider seafood for protein. Tuna has come up in the world.
- Black Olives
- Corn – try this in saute pan with lime juice and chili pepper. I salivate just thinking about this simple recipe.
- Tomato sauce, plain – add italian seasoning, a pinch of sugar, and red pepper flakes for super easy spaghetti sauce and pizza sauce. If you’re cooking the sauce for longer than 10-20 mins, consider carrots instead of sugar. It’s not as acidic and as such, does not leave a bitter aftertaste.
- Veggie Broth – or chicken, if that’s what you prefer.
- Canned Oysters – Oyster soup (milk, worcestershire sauce, pepper, and butter – what could be easier?)
- Tuna in Olive oil (if possible) – think outside the box here. Try googling “tuna baguette”. I’ve even convinced my husband, a staunch canned tuna hater, that tuna can be edible and delish.
- Anchovy Paste – trust me; caesar salads almost always require these, as well as certain pistous, tapenades, and some pasta sauces.
- Capers – pickled bud of the perrenial caper bush - you need to stock this. They’re handy for pasta, meat, salads, sauces. Just try it!
- Hot Sauce - I love Frank’s for pasta and as an addition to meatballs. Makes all the difference.
- Jam – not just good for toast. Mix into plain yogurt, add to baking, oatmeal, etc. Try it on a grilled cheese sandwich, especially fig jam.
Part III – Spices & Herbs
If there’s a spice regularly available at grocery stores, I’ve tried it. I’ve even been known to buy spices I couldn’t pronounce just because my curiosity is unsatiable. I want to sample everything. Despite these forays into the unusual, though, I have a few absolute staples. My general take on spices and herbs is the more the merrier. You never know what you’re gonna need.
- Basil - fabulous in scrambled eggs
- Chili Powder – heats up practically anything: soups, mexican, eggs, meat . . .
- Garlic Powder – when I’m too lazy to cut up garlic
- Lemon Pepper – I cannot say this enough, high quality or none at all. I use The Gourmet Collection. Try this on roasted veggies. It’s divine on roasted potatoes.
- Saigon Cinnamon – when you want sweetness without sugar – great for diabetics too.
- Italian Seasoning – a mix of basil, oregano, marjoram, and rosemary.
- Red Pepper Flakes – a must for pasta sauces, pizza, soup. The list is almost endless.
- Sea Salt and Grindable Pepper – the best dishes are often seasoned with the simplest of seasonings. Try chicken with salt, pepper, and garlic powder sauted in olive oil. It’s perfect!
- Herbes de Provence – savory, basil, thyme, fennel, bay leaf, marjoram, and lavender. Great if you don’t want to buy these spices seperately.
Another note about spices: cook them first instead of adding to a dish that’s already cooking. Sprinkling them in the pan with the oil before the rest of the dish really pulls out the flavor. I think it’s the only way to make indian curries with the proper flavor.
Part IV – Condiments and Vinegars
Condiments are essentially what accessories are to your wardrobe. They make it.
- Dijon Mustard
- Balsamic Vinegar
- Worcestershire Sauce – great in soups and obviously with meats. Try it on veggies too.
- Garlic Teryaki – marinade steak in this to really please your man.
- Soy Sauce
- Boxed Red or White Wine – whichever you prefer. By buying a box instead of a bottle, you have the opportunity to both drink and cook with it. Boxed wine stays fresher longer and is better for the environment. Suprisingly, some are pretty darned good!
Part V – Dry
I think some of these are pretty obvious but I’ll take a go at it!
- Whole Wheat Pasta
- Unsweetened Cocoa – a wonderful addition to breakfast oatmeals, cereals; make hot chocolate with real cocoa taste, add to smoothies. As a plus, unsweetened cocoa is super healthy due to its plentious amounts of antioxidants.
- Steel Cut Oats – retains the nutrition of whole oats. Try adding in baked goods like scones, eat for breakfast with fruit, and get a good amount of fiber to start your day.
- Agave Nectar – does not ruin the taste of coffee or tea and is also great with baking. Cane sugar and beet sugar are more acidic.
- Basmati Rice – a preference of mine for stir-fry and east indian cuisine. Could also use brown rice or jasmine and if you find it easily available, try wild rice. I love it as the base for Indian porridge for breakfast or as a substitue for wheat pasta with chicken.
- Dried Breadcrumbs – experiment with adding spices.
- Baking Soda and powder – if you bake
- Coffee and/or Tea – add tea to smoothies, add coffee to baking and desserts, or best of all, just drink it!
There are, of course, always other useful pantry essentials but I find them less essential than those above. In addition, it’s always a good idea to have the original basics: milk, eggs, and flour, or their respective substitutes.
So what about you? What are a few of your pantry essentials, or even better, super easy recipes?