As promised in Tuesday’s episode, here is a list of things I like to have on hand at all times in both fridge, freezer and pantry. If I’m out of several of these, I know it’s time to get my butt to the store, pronto. See the list:
- Homemade Chicken Stock: Use washed takeout containers to freeze your stock in different sizes. Most takeout containers come in either quart or pint sizes, so you’ll have a good idea of how much liquid is in each (remember: a quart is 4 cups; a pint is 2). You can also freeze stock in ice cube trays, then store the cubes in a ziptop bag. Cubes of stock come in handy when making up quick pan sauces.
- Pine nuts — or any kind of nut for that matter. Walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans. They can all make yummy additions to salads or pastas. Pine nuts are terrific to keep around to add to herb pestos, or frittatas. Buy raw nuts when they’re on sale, then keep them in the freezer. They’ll last longer that way. (Store ’em in whatever leftover takeout containers you still have after stock making!)
- Bacon — I like to buy a pound or two of good quality applewood smoked bacon at a time. Then, I lay the strips out next to one another on parchment, fold the whole thing up, and stick it in a gallon size zip top bag. Whenever I need a bit of bacon (for breakfasts, for pasta carbonara, or just to snack on), I’ll put out as many slices as I need and cook them up. Easy.
- Chicken stock makings — If you have old carrots or celery or onions that you’re about to throw out, consider putting them in a plastic bag in the freezer. I’ll even add old parsley stems to my “stock bags.” If you roast a chicken, you can store the carcass in the same bag until you’re ready to make stock. Never roast chicken at home? You can still do this with any number of vegetable scraps, then simmer up a fresh vegetable stock on some lazy Saturday afternoon.
- Frozen peas — They’re perfect for pastas, in salads, or even cooked and pureed with potato and parmesan for a quick side dish.
- Pesto — In the summer, when basil is abundant, buy as much of it as you can on the cheap and whip up batches of pesto. You can freeze it in ice cube trays, or half pint or pint containers for use throughout the winter.
- Jarred olives — Keep a jar of kalamata (or your favorite olive blend) on hand. You can put them out in a small bowl to snack on, throw them into salads, or chop them up if you’re making a puttanesca. They’re essential for many Italian and Provencal dishes, so if you’re like me and love these flavors, these are essential.
- Jarred roasted red peppers — Sure, it’s easy to roast your own peppers at home, but even the best cooks get home late from work sometimes, hungry and tired. What AREN’T roasted red peppers good for? Salads, sandwiches, pastas, sauces, dips. They’re good with everything.
- Parmigiano Reggiano — It can be pricey, but it’s worth every penny. A wedge of parmesan is worth it’s weight in gold. You can snack on it, and top pretty much anything with it. Once you’re down to the rind, don’t throw it out! Save these in the freezer, then toss them in to homemade soups or sauces. They add an incredible depth of flavor, and let you squeeze every last dollar out of each wedge of cheese.
- Tomato paste — I like to buy the kind in the tube, that way, it never spoils. Completely essential for making tomato sauces, it also adds great depth to tomato based soups. I even like to stir it in with sauteed garlic when I make polenta. It gives a faux “sun-dried tomato” taste to things.
- Butter — Isn’t this one obvious?
- Dijon mustard — As necessary for a good sandwich as it is for the perfect vinaigrette, the natural lecithin in mustard helps to emulsify your homemade dressings, as well as giving them a good kick of pungency. Dijon is also a great condiment for pork — make a quick roux, add in some frozen stock, white wine, dijon mustard, and capers, and you’ve created a really easy sauce.
- Flat leaf parsley — The king of herbs, it brightens up any dish, and adds a pretty flash of green to otherwise monotone plates.
- Fresh thyme — Again, if you like French or ProvenÃ§al cooking, it’s indispensable. Totally delicious with chicken, pork, lots of seafood, and a necessity for making stock. With all my herbs, I like to keep them in little jars with water in the refrigerator, so they last longer (the exception here is basil — basil hates cold!).
- Pastas — of all shapes and sizes. As a general rule, it’s good to keep a box of long pasta (fettuccine, spaghetti, linguine, bucatini), a box of short and/or tube pasta (rigatoni, penne, gemelli, cavatappi), and a box of pastina (orzo, ditalini, stars) around. This way, you’re always ready to make any type of pasta dish — with sauce, baked, salad, or even to be added to soups (pastina is best for that last one).
- Jarred sauce — If you don’t get around to making your own and freezing it, jarred sauce is great for a lazy night. Try a few different brands and see which you like. My current favorite is Muir Glen.
- Grains & legumes — A good selection of rices (brown, white, long grain, short grain), lentils, bulgar, polenta, quinoa, et al are never bad to keep on hand. They can be added to soups, used as side dishes, or even in salads.
- The Basics — All-purpose flour, brown sugar, granulated sugar, baking soda, baking powder, kosher salt — these should be givens. Countless recipes will require them, so might as well stock up now.
- Canned beans — Garbanzos, cannelinis, black beans. All have saved the day for me. The two former are good marinated in a quick vinaigrette, then poured over salads; they can also be pureed with many other kitchen staples to make a fast dip for crudites.
- Canned tomatoes — Good quality canned tomatoes allow you to make your own tomato sauce whenever you want. You can also mix canned tomatoes into rice, or soup.
- Vinegars and oils — I almost forgot this one! Come visit me right now and you’d see two different types of olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, Champagne vinegar, and moscatel vinegar on the top shelf of my pantry. Build up a great collection of of vinegars, and whatever flavor of vinaigrette you might be in the mood for will magically appear.
These are just some of the staples I always try to keep around. Of course, if you preferred to cook with mostly Asian flavors, your pantry might look different, with staples like fish sauce, sesame oil and different flavors of vinegar.
So, if you always kept at least SOME of these items on hand, imagine all the things you could make with a bit of fresh produce and protein supplemented in. All of a sudden, it’s completely simple to throw together pasta dishes (like spaghetti with chopped olives, herbs, garlic, parmesan and maybe some grilled chicken and fresh spinach), or a quick tapenade (with kalamatas, herbs, roasted red pepper, and olive oil), or a warm lentil salad, frittata, or soup…you get the idea.
You don’t have to run out today and buy all these ingredients at once — that could get pricey! What might work better is buying a can of beans here, a jar of tomato sauce there — until you have a well-stocked pantry. Cooking well at home isn’t difficult to do — but you need the right tools to get started!