The March 2012 issue of Better Homes and Gardens has a section on “secret-weapon ingredients” that can “keep healthful recipes from tasting like health food.” While I take exception to the idea that health food even tastes bad in the first place, I enjoyed looking through their ingredients of choice. These were toasted nuts and seeds, buttermilk, balsamic vinegar, pure maple syrup, Greek yogurt, fresh herbs, roasted garlic, and panko bread crumbs.
I use all of these on a semi-regular basis, some more than others. Buttermilk I mostly use for baking, and usually fresh garlic because I don’t plan ahead enough to roast it before it’s needed! Regular yogurt instead of Greek, usually, and I make my own bread crumbs from whatever stale loaf happens to be on hand.
There are some ingredients, though, that I would have added if I’d been the one compiling the list. These are the absolute must-haves of my pantry:
2. Stock: I often make pots of chicken or vegetable stock that simmer away for a couple hours and fill the house with a delicious aroma. It’s very easy, since I usually stock up on chicken bones at the butcher shop, or else just use the veggies that are starting to go a little limp in the fridge! It freezes beautifully, thaws out quickly, and means the difference between a mediocre soup or a spectacular one. Stock can be used for risotto, too, which is one of my favourite dinners.
3. Canned tomatoes: I also make my own, in which case they’re better called “jarred” tomatoes! These are basically diced stewed tomatoes that get used in everything – soups, chili, stews, pasta sauces, curries, etc. Though I can for days in the late summer, the jars seem to disappear from the shelves at a shocking rate!
4. Heavy cream: This may sound rather decadent in today’s low-fat-obsessed world, but cream is incredibly versatile. It can create smooth mashed regular or sweet potatoes, be added to cooked vegetables to make a creamed soup (think cauliflower or broccoli), make creamy pasta sauces (especially awesome when mixed with pesto, I think), make fluffy scrambled eggs, and be used in desserts, whether added or whipped as a topping.
5. Rice: This is more of a staple ingredient than a “secret weapon” ingredient, but it still deserves mention, since I use it all the time. There’s an ongoing battle in my house about white vs. brown, because I prefer the former for its fluffy texture, and my husband insists on the latter for its whole-grain health benefits! Basmati rice is irreplaceable for accompanying curries of any kind, as well as a great side-dish for any meat. Short-grain rice is used for risotto and rice pudding, another favourite of mine. Rice can be added to soups, or made into stuffing for roast chicken, or used for a grain salad.
6. Other grains, like couscous, quinoa, and bulgur are always in my pantry. They can be cooked as a side dish, which breaks the monotony of rice or potatoes), or else mixed with chopped veggies and tossed with dressing to become a delicious salad, like tabbouleh.
7. Dried beans: I’ve been getting these fabulous paper bags filled with organic, locally-grown beans from our CSA share, and they simply beg to be used! All they require is some forethought, since texture is best if soaked overnight, but still good if you do the quick-soak method. Beans make great soups, chili, quesadilla or burrito fillings, dips, salads, curries, and more. Cooked beans can also be frozen, which makes it handy to use when you haven’t planned ahead.
8. And then there’s a whole slew of little canned goods that make a world of difference and are great to have on hand: things like marinated artichokes, smoked mussels, capers, olives, and roasted red peppers. With these few things alone, you’ve got great pasta sauces, pizza toppings, and salad additions.
So that’s an overview of what I consider my absolute necessities for kitchen survival! What do you use? Anything similar or drastically different from my choices? I’m always open to new suggestions!