05 March 2006

Those cooking essentials

Way back in the beginning I listed a few things I consider essential to the kitchen of a good cook.

Today as I made breakfast (vermont ham and prosciutto with sliced tomatoes on a toasted sesame seed bagel) I thought about what I consider standard fridge fare that might not be on everyone's list.

This is the stuff I try to keep stocked so that I'm ready to cook just about any kind of meal on a minute's notice.

PROSCIUTTO (italian cured ham):
Keeps a bit longer than your standard deli meat, which technically has an in-your-fridge shelf life of ten days. Salty thin-sliced prosciutto can be added to sandwiches, omelettes, pasta dishes, pizzas, even sauteed asparagus. Throw it on some crackers alone or with other stuff, and you've got an appetizer. Just remember that it's salty, and don't add salt to any dish it's in until you've tasted! Pick your prosciutto up at a deli or italian shop, and ask for it to be thinly sliced. You often get to choose between imported (read: Italian) or domestic/store brand. Go with your budget, because the imported will set you back an extra 50 cents to a dollar per 100g.

I know I should do my own, but for day-to-day use, a jar of red peppers is very handy. Added to sandwiches mid-winter, they give you a veggie boost that might otherwise be confined to yet another helping of crunchy baby carrots. The trick with red peppers in a jar is to find the brand that you like best, and stick with it [some of these can be very laden with vinegar, so I try to get one of the two or three brands I can trust to be more roasted than pickled!]. Expect to spend no more than $4 for a good jar. Get the whole peppers, they're the most versatile. As long as the peppers stay in the liquid in the jar once you've opened it, they keep for a few weeks or months.

I love to add a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime juice to a lot of dishes to perk them up. Also extremely versatile for adding to drinks (even just water!), and essential for the mighty Mojito. A touch of lemon zest can make desserts and sauces come to life in a whole new way. Keep a couple of each in the fruit drawer, or a bowl full on the counter if you've got a little Martha Stewart in you. They keep a while - lemons maybe longer than limes - and they're dirt cheap at all times of the year.

At the end of the summer I had the presence of mind to make up some fresh pesto and freeze it in small packs. But if you didn't get to do that, you're still able to stock the ever versatile basil punch of pesto, thanks to its presence on every grocery store shelf. Look for one that's almost purely basil, pine nuts, olive oil, and parmesan. You don't have to spend a bunch - there certainly are more expensive ones, but a $5 bottle with a good list of ingredients ought to do you just as well as the $8 bottle. Keep it in the fridge to add to pastas when you're sick of tomato sauces, use it for a pizza sauce. Spread it on one side of a sandwich. It's a very concentrated taste, so sample your dishes as you add it.

Keep a bottle of balsamic in the fridge to use at any point for dipping, sauces, or cooking. You don't have to keep it refrigerated, but it lasts longer if you do. We keep a cheaper bottle for this, and put a smaller bottle of ten-year old balsamic in the cupboard for finer use.

An acquired taste, sure, but these soft cheeses are worth their weight in gold. A small triangle of brie comes in handy for omelettes, stuffing a pork loin or chicken breasts, appetizers, and even some desserts. Camembert is brie's quieter cousin. Use either one when either is called for! For those not in the know, you are meant to consume the rind. If you find it revolting, trim it off. Nobody has to know.

You can't always keep up with it, since it's as likely to wilt before you finish up a bunch as it is to turn slimy. But at 99 cents for a bunch (even in Ottawa in January, when even the lowly Macintosh apple costs $1.50 a pound!) you can afford to waste some. Contrary to popular belief, parsley does add flavour and is more than a garnish. Added to soups and sauces (add it late to keep some flavour) and rice or pasta dishes, it gives colour and fresh flavour. And as a garnish, yes, it has the ability to make your blandest dish look lovely. Just use a huge bunch of it off to one side, ends tucked under that pork chop, and listen to the oohs and ahs. If you have dried parsley in your spice rack, throw it out, and never think of it again.

Stink fish sauce is sold in most large grocery stores, and in vast quantities in asian markets. A tiny bit goes a long way for stir fries and soups or marinades. With a little help, you can even use it for a dipping sauce. If you don't have a vent hood or kitchen window that you can open, you may want to avoid using it...but the concentrated flavour is worth the odor. Look for a fish sauce that does not have added MSG, if you can find it. [Oyster sauce is an alternative, but they're quite different...oyster sauce is thicker and stickier]

If you can make some up and can it, great. If you've got a friend who does it, all the better. But barring that, a store-bought jar of high quality salsa is fine. Perks up eggs and the odd barbequed dish. Makes quesadillas, burritos and fajitas an option. Packed with nutrients, it's the sorta junk food that's good for you. An opened jar of salsa keeps about a month or two. If it's homemade, don't push that!

Very different sauces, but equally versatile. Sweet chili pepper sauce is a thick, goopy red sauce with red chili flakes in it, sold for a few bucks in most grocery stores. It is usually a thai sauce, and it lends itself to asian dishes and much much more. Used in a stir fry, it gives you a soy sauce alternative. Used in chicken or beef dishes, it adds a sweet and slightly vinegary taste that you'd be hard-pressed to replicate without the sauce. This is no spicy sauce - it's a very sweet, mild flavour.

The crazy people of the Tabasco brand came out with a smoked chipotle sauce a couple of years ago, and I've had it in the fridge at all times since. It's useful for casual cooking, barbequing, tex mex or mexican dishes, and anything else you can think of that requires a good smoky punch. I even add it to [gasp] tuna for my lunches. It's a great barbeque sauce addition. We'll even add it to stir-fried peppers, onions, and mushrooms for a fajita-like topping.

Plain yogurt added to baking makes a more intense flavour than just milk (though you'll have to add a bit of water too). It also stands in for sour cream in all cooking. You can use it for caesar dressing instead of eggs and oil, or make a veggie dip with it as the base. If you went a little heavy on the spice, yogurt puts out the fire. And you can also add some low sugar jam to a cup of it, for some snack yogurt.

That's just a short list of some of the "essentials" we keep around at all times. I have to admit that I'm prone to nervous jitters if I run out of any of the above items. Leaves me a little high and dry if I've got to improvise dinner on the fly. These simple additions to the usual run of ketchup/mustard and so forth give you more options than that pile of takeout menus on top of the fridge.

Maybe later we'll get to a list of even finer things too.


Ch3rrill said...

Glad to see you back! You have such great tips. I'm definitely going to have to try that pork loin/cranberry/brie recipe from a few posts ago - sounds way too good!


Anonymous said...

How can anything be both simple and sophisticated? Meet Marshal! Great tips, truly! If I can only follow one tenth of your culinary suggestions, my eating with enjoyment will increase immeasurably. Thanks! C.