Food Essentials

11 04 2008

I was in a spring cleaning sort of mood yesterday, which led me to clean out and reorganize my refrigerator and shelves. As I was doing this, I realized both areas were pretty much jam-packed with food – but I couldn’t bring myself to throw things away, because I felt as though I used most of the items at least once a week. I thought that, for myself and others, I should create a list of my essential food items – the things I think one should have in constant stock.

Some of these are more obvious choices than others, and some surprise even me with the amount that I actually use in everyday cooking.

Dry Goods

  • Rice – I have at least four kinds of rice in my kitchen at a time, usually brown, basmati, sticky (glutinous) and plain old white. It’s always an easy side dish to whip up, can soak up many flavors, and leftovers are easy to reheat, or add to soups to make them more filling.
  • Flour – Again, I have about four different kinds of flour stored away in my kitchen – white, rye, besan or gram (made from chickpeas), and aatta (the last two can be found in Indian groceries). Obviously, the white flour can be used for almost anything – in baking, to cover chicken, fish, meat for browning, for thickening gravies and sauces. The besan flour can be used in a similar fashion for coating meats, and is used in many Indian dishes. I have only used the rye and aatta flours for making bread and parathas, respectively, but I like having a larger selection of flours on hand. I also lump corn meal into this category, primarily for making cornbread, but I have used it in on the bottom of my homemade breads and even in cookies.
  • Pasta and Noodles – These are a relatively cheap staple that really can be used in a lot of things. For an easy meal, a handful of pasta and some canned sauce is simple and delicious. However, you can add pasta and noodles to soups, and I use noodles in my fresh spring rolls as well. I always have a box of penne on hand, and I like to stock up on noodles from the Asian market – especially pho and udon noodles. They make it easy to whip up a meal for one or twelve in little time.
  • Beans – Cans of kidney beans, chickpeas, and black beans usually frequent my shelves. These are great to put in chili, soups, on green salads and I use my chickpeas for hummus and in Indian cooking.
  • Sugar – This one is obvious, but I don’t just use my sugar for baking. It goes into my pasta sauce, in pho, and when I’m caramelizing carrots and potatoes. I always have white, brown and confectioner’s sugar on hand.
  • Bulgur wheat – This is one ingredient that is relatively new to me, but I have used quite frequently since I discovered it. I needed it to make homemade tabbouleh, but you can also use it as a side dish, cooked up with onions, apricots and spices.
  • Olive oil – I tend to use this the most when cooking, but I also use it on salads, for dipping bread, for marinades and when broiling/grilling vegetables in the oven.
  • Fish sauce – An acquired taste, fish sauce is both an ingredient and a condiment. Make sure to use this sparingly, especially on the uninitiated.

Herbs and Spices

  • Black Pepper – This is most likely my favorite spice – as long as it’s freshly ground. I basically use this in everything.
  • Salt – Again, this goes in a lot of what I cook and bake. Mostly I used regular table salt, but I like to used kosher salt when seasoning meats.
  • Cinnamon – This of course goes into a lot of my baking, but lately I’ve been cooking with it as well. It goes well with bulgur wheat and lamb. Also, one of my favorite snacks is toast with butter, cinnamon and sugar. Yum.
  • Ginger – I keep both fresh and ground ginger in my kitchen. Fresh ginger is great for marinades and sauteing, whereas I use the ground ginger to season meats quickly.
  • Garlic – My motto is, the more garlic, the better. I am never without this. This is what I usually start with when cooking anything. I always use fresh garlic that I mince myself. To paraphrase Anthony Bourdain, if you’re too lazy and use the pre-minced garlic, you don’t deserve to use garlic at all. Fresh garlic >>>>>>> pre-minced garlic. However, garlic powder is acceptable for seasoning meats.
  • Shallots – I will use these instead of garlic if I want a more delicate flavor. These are also commonly used in Southeast Asian cooking.
  • Scallions – aka green onions. These taste great both raw and cooked. I will use both the white and green parts, and a nicely chopped scallion sprinkled on top of a dish adds both color and flavor.

Refrigerator Items

  • Eggs – These are something I use as a main dish as well and something to use as an ingredient. I usually get large eggs – anything bigger I find to be too much.
  • Limes and Lemons – I try to use fresh lime and lemon juice whenever I can. Plus, I like how you can use these citrus fruits in different ways – just the juice, cut them into wedges, or use the zest. I find the cheapest places to buy these are farmer’s markets, and ethnic markets, as opposed to your regular supermarket.
  • Soy sauce – I cook with this a lot, and will substitute it for salt. It goes with everything – chicken, fish, pork, beef, vegetables.
  • Oyster sauce – I like using this when grilling meats. It’s a thick sauce, so you don’t need to much when using it. This will also add flavor and depth to your stir fries.
  • Sriacha chili sauce – aka Rooster sauce. This is on my condiment shelf, right next to the ketchup and mustard. It will add not only spice to any dish, but a yummy chili flavor as well. I enjoy things with a bit of heat to them, but I won’t sacrifice flavor for spiciness. This sauce allows for both.

These ingredients are good investments and something you will definitely use. On days I don’t feel like going out and shopping, I will defrost some chicken breasts, mix up a marinade, broil it, and serve with rice and whatever vegetable I have lying around. It’s simple and healthier than many alternatives. Plus, it’s really impressive when someone tastes your food, and asks what recipe you used, and you can answer truthfully, “Oh, it’s just something I threw together.”

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