If there’s any magic to pulling a meal together at the drop of a hat, it’s having a pantry stocked with some basics. I thought that sharing my “basics” might help those who often find themselves caught up in that dreaded, stressful moment: when everyone is hungry, but there are no ideas about what to eat or cook.
For my style of cooking and the recipes I share on this blog, I use simple fresh ingredients that I stock up on a few times a week, like seasonal vegetables, fruit, meat and seafood. The rest depends on minimally processed food, spices and dry goods that I keep in a pantry closet, my refrigerator or freezer.
Top 5 Pantry Staples
The following are the backbone of my cooking:
I love all citrus, but lemon lifts my spirits – and the taste of food – like nothing else. I put lemon slices in the water I drink all day, and often squeeze a hit of juice into whatever I’m cooking when I taste for seasoning.
Acidity is essential for tasty food: it helps round out the salty, spicy and sweet sensations that our taste buds feel whenever we put food into our mouth.
Like acid, I rely on heat to balance out the zesty flavors I love. I do use fresh ground peppercorns, but chile pepper adds another layer of heat, with some fruity notes. I’m not a fan of very hot spicing (that just makes everything go numb), just enough to excite my tongue. My basics are regular dried red chili flakes, ground Aleppo pepper and whole, dried red chile de arbol.
3. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
I keep more than a few cheeses around along with Parmigiano; Pecorino Romano is one, along with creamy feta, goat cheese, aged Gruyere… But my desert island cheese is Parmigiano-Reggiano. I start to panic a little when I run out. Or when it gets stolen by the dog. Recently, my little mutt found a big chunk of it waiting on the counter to be put away. And she disposed of it in good natured doggie-style. I had a sad face.
Yes, the real deal is expensive. But I buy large pieces, cut off what I need and freeze the rest. Keep it wrapped in the fridge and it will be good for months, adding one-of-a-kind umami to your cooking.
4. Olive oil
I use extra-virgin olive oil for most of my every day cooking. I buy it in gallon containers from Whole Foods and Costco, which are labelled “100 percent Italian” product. I also have a few bottles of more expensive, estate bottled oils that I use raw – never heated – to drizzle over cooked food, fresh vegetables and salads.
I highly recommend the book Extra Virginity for fascinating insight behind the history and sometimes corrupt business of olive oil.
I have a rainbow assortment of salts from all the world in so many beautiful colors – because I’m geeky that way – but there are really just three that I use on a regular basis in my kitchen: Kosher, fine and flaked sea salt.
When I develop and test recipes, if I call for “salt” I mean kosher salt, which has a larger grain than regular table salt and, I think, a cleaner taste. It’s also less salty, for lack of a better word. Because the granules are fluffier than fine salt, there’s less salt per volume in a teaspoon of kosher salt than there is fine salt. My favorite brand of kosher salt is Diamond.
Sometimes I’ll call for fine sea salt in certain dishes, usually when I need the salt to dissolve evenly, like in baking or in some sauces. I buy Celtic or French gray fine sea salts.
Flaked sea salt (like Maldon) is what I use as a finishing touch, like a garnish. It adds a crunchy spark to food, especially grilled meats and some desserts.
One last note on salt: always taste your food for seasoning during every step of your preparation and cooking. Just because a recipe calls for a certain amount or salt, or even the vague direction to “season to taste” doesn’t mean it’s a done deal. Taste, taste and taste some more.