22 Kitchen Staples for Busy Cooks
There have been requests for more food posts around here. And as we head back into fall and the busy season for all of you who are raising kids (or covering midterm elections), I thought it might be nice to do a post on some basic staples that busy people who like to cook can use to produce tasty meals in a hurry.
This list is obviously not exhaustive. For one thing, I'm not covering anything that I assume most cooks already have, such as olive oil, soy sauce or balsamic vinegar -- or, for that matter, potatoes, carrots and onions. Nor am I covering the staples for specialty activities, such as baking or cooking a particular cuisine. If you bake, you know that you need flour, sugar, baking soda and so forth. If you regularly cook Indian food . . . well, I'm sure you know what's involved, and I sure don't.
These are things that are useful to have around but a lot of people don't know about, look down upon, or think will be more complicated or expensive than they actually are.
So without further fanfare, here's a list of things that you might want to add to your kitchen in the interests of extra tastiness and convenience.
Boxed tomatoes: For years, like the rest of you, I kept my pantry stocked with canned tomatoes. Then I discovered boxed tomatoes, which have many advantages over canned. For one thing, they are much more space-efficient than filling your cupboards with metal cylinders. And second, they don't have that metallic taste. Pomi was the pioneering brand in this; they are the tomato arm of the giant Parmalat SpA milk operation. By now, most supermarkets carry the Pomi line, and at least one supermarket, Harris Teeter, has store-brand boxed tomatoes.
Aleppo pepper: If you've been reading my food writing over the past few years, you'll know that I am obsessed with Aleppo pepper; I order it in one-pound bags from Penzeys, and it gets used in the majority of my meals. It's a slightly smoky, moderately hot crushed pepper from the Middle East, and of course I use it in my Middle Eastern foods, but I also use it for Mexican, Asian and Italian. I like it way better than crushed red pepper flakes, and way, way better than having six kinds of specialty hot peppers in my pantry. (Though I do still have Szechuan peppers for stir-fries and chipotles in adobo for chili.)
Herbes de Provence: Herbes de Provence is an herb mix, and it's nonstandard, so you have to find one you like. (I'm in love with the one from Penzeys.) But it's extremely useful for fast weeknight cooking. Toss a tablespoon on potatoes with some olive oil before roasting them, or with sliced zucchini with olive oil and crushed garlic. Sprinkle over garlic bread or a roasting chicken. Chicken breasts with wine and lemon. Fish. I just don't have time to name all the things you can do with this incredibly versatile mixture. And if you don't cook that much, a jar or bag of this can also make a good substitute for those bottles of dried thyme, rosemary and tarragon that you rarely use.
Frozen lemon juice: Purists will sneer that you should always have fresh lemons on hand. And indeed, this is not as good as fresh squeezed lemon juice. On the other hand, you don't have to squeeze, like, 80 lemons to make lemonade or despair because you realized halfway through cooking that you forgot to pick up the lemons at the store. It's cheaper than getting the juice from fresh lemons, and it doesn't spoil, the way my bags of lemons sometimes do if I haven't been assiduous about incorporating them into my meals. While I do try to keep fresh lemons on hand, for the zest if nothing else, I always have several bottles in the freezer, which I use for everything from sauces to cocktails -- it makes very adequate hollandaise. You can defrost in the microwave in a pinch or stick the bottle in a glass and run hot water into it for five to 10 minutes.
Tube spices: As with the frozen lemon juice, the spices you buy in tubes in the refrigerated area of the produce section are not as good as mincing your own fresh lemongrass, crushing garlic cloves, grating ginger and so forth. On the other hand, they are vastly more convenient, and they keep longer than many fresh herbs would. You should never make the perfect the enemy of the quite good in the kitchen. If you're actually going to peel and grate fresh ginger any time it would make your meal better, then by all means, go ahead and do so. But if, like many of us, you will give up and decide to cook something else, then for heaven's sake, buy some tube spices. I use ginger frequently, garlic occasionally, lemongrass and cilantro; on the other hand, I think there are better ways to get basil and parsley.
Dried mint: This is not a very common spice, but it should be if you make Middle Eastern or Greek food. Dried mint is especially excellent on lamb, but it's also surprisingly good on chicken and fish. And in my humble opinion, it's a must-have for pastitsio, one of my favorite winter casseroles. Use it instead of dried basil for a subtle and interesting difference in your meat dishes. You can order it online if you can't find it at your local supermarket. Do not, however, attempt to use it in desserts that call for fresh mint; the results will be disgusting.
Frozen homemade pesto: In the winter months, pesto is a nice, fresh addition to salads, sandwiches and, of course, pasta dishes. But supermarket pesto isn't very good. Luckily, pesto freezes well. In the summer, when basil is fresh and plentiful, make a double or triple batch of Marcella Hazan's pesto recipe, which is widely recognized by all right-thinking people as the best ever. This will take you 20 minutes, including buying the ingredients. Then freeze it in a silicone ice cube tray and drop the cubes in a plastic bag. All winter, you can drop a cube or two into soup or pasta, or thaw it for sandwiches and salads. You need never fear having "no food in the house" as long as you have your pesto baggie.
If you just want the fresh basil flavor without the cheesy "pesto" flavor, just chop the basil in the food processor or blender with roughly a tablespoon of olive oil per half cup of leaves; deploy wherever you would use fresh basil.
Boxed chicken broth: I buy it by the case from Costco, because unless you're a vegetarian, it's one of the most versatile basic staples. I'm always shocked when meat eaters don't have it in the house. Use it as a liquid for any sort of pan sauce, from stir-fries to tacos. Replace half the water in making rice for a more savory side. It's the base for almost all my soups, even beef ones (add 1/3 cup of soy sauce to punch up that "meaty flavor"). A must for anyone with a slow cooker.
Dried beans: Let me say what so many of you have been thinking: Canned beans are gross. They sure are convenient, but they're also slimy. And they take up a lot of room in the cupboard. Dried beans are cheaper, tastier and, I promise, they're easy to cook. Soak them in salted water overnight (2 tablespoons salt to every 4 quarts water). In a pinch, you can also quick-soak. Drain off the water, which removes many of the indigestible sugars that can cause . . . er, well, you know all the jokes. Then, if you have a pressure cooker, just cook them at pressure for five to 10 minutes with 4 quarts water, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon vegetable or olive oil. (You can find the exact time for your type of beans online.) If you don't have a pressure cooker, cover with two inches of water, add oil and salt, and simmer on the stovetop for one to two hours until they're tender. Does all this sound like a lot of work? Active time is approximately five minutes; most of the time is spent reading a magazine in a comfy chair until they're done. And you will be rewarded with deliciously cheap, nonslimy beans.
Tomato paste: A surprising number of people are weirdly afraid of tomato paste, and to be fair, it does look kind of gross. Yet a tablespoon of the stuff has so many uses. I like to use it for a pan sauce with sauteed chicken or shrimp: tomato paste, white wine, lemon juice, garlic, Aleppo pepper, and a tablespoon or two of cream. (You will cleverly note that most of these ingredients are featured on this list.) A little tomato paste also punches up the flavor of your beef and lamb braises without making them taste like pasta sauce. It is also, obviously, very useful for pasta sauce. And because a little goes a long way, it doesn't take up much space in the cupboard.
Frozen artichoke hearts: These are now ubiquitous, and thank heaven. A lot of people seem to associate them with oily, soggy marinated artichoke hearts, but these are nothing like that; they're just artichoke hearts, without the work. Roast them crispy at 400 degrees with a little rosemary, olive oil and lemon zest. Saute them with chicken. Put them in the bottom of your pan when you roast a leg of lamb. Deep-fry them for crispy, melting bites of heaven. Add them to dips. Cover them with hollandaise sauce for a decadent dinner party side. I'm sure you can think of other uses.
Good truffle oil: If you don't like truffles, don't bother. As it happens, my husband loves truffles. Because, sadly, neither of us has inherited either a vast fortune or a truffle farm, we use truffle oil instead. The price of good truffle oil can be high, but cheap truffle oil is sometimes disgusting. And the stuff I've linked to goes a long, long way; 1/4 teaspoon or less suffices for most uses. It's a fantastic addition to salad dressing (do not use it as the primary oil, obviously, just for a little extra flavor). It's lovely drizzled on chicken, especially in a cream sauce, or tossed with white beans and Herbes de Provence. I really like it for rescuing elderly ears of corn: Just cut the corn off the cob, boil in salted water for a minute, saute in a bit of brown butter and toss with truffle oil. It's like a cross between fresh corn and the truffle popcorn they serve in fancy bars. And did I mention truffle popcorn? Drizzle on fresh popcorn for an amazing treat, without having to buy a $15 cocktail.
Tahini: Lots of cultures have sesame pastes, but rather than accumulate nine different kinds, I just use tahini for everything from hummus to sesame noodles. But it's not just for hummus anymore. With a bit of chicken broth/wine/cream, it makes a nice pan sauce for chicken, and added to mayonnaise and Aleppo pepper, it makes a delicious potato salad. Toss it with green beans, along with soy sauce and sesame seeds, or with chickpeas or white beans along with lemon juice and a healthy spoonful of cumin. Once you have it, you'll find all sorts of great uses for it.
Heavy cream: It's time for American cooks to stop being afraid of heavy cream. Anti-cream paranoia belongs on the trash heap with huge shoulder pads, stirrup pants, kinky perms and all the other wretched excesses of the 1980s. A tablespoon of cream has fewer calories than a tablespoon of olive oil; using a little bit will not make you fat. It makes a great salad dressing, and just a tablespoon or two will add richness and smoothness to pan sauces without causing you to blow up like a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. And it keeps longer than milk, so there's no reason not to have a little container of it in the fridge at all times.
Passion fruit nectar: Too few people in this country use passion fruit in their cooking. This represents a huge drag on Gross Domestic Deliciousness. You can make passion fruit curd with the same basic recipe you use for lemon curd, except that it's passion fruit! Mix it with champagne for brunch cocktails instead of orange juice, or use rum and club soda for summer evenings. Make passion fruit cake. Basically, use the stuff anywhere you'd use fruit juice. If you can't get through a whole bottle, pour it into ice cube trays and freeze.
Frozen baguettes: Not as good as fresh bread. However, they don't require a trip to the grocery store. Easy-as-heck garlic bread can be made by brushing with olive oil and crushed or tube garlic before baking. But I'm not going to elaborate; y'all know what bread is for.
Frozen boneless, skinless chicken thighs: The American obsession with boneless, skinless chicken breasts is another risible relic from the '80s. Yes, breasts are lower in fat, but the overall caloric difference is trivial: 119 calories per 100 grams of boneless, skinless chicken thigh versus 110 for breast meat. And, unlike breast meat, it's easy to cook chicken thighs without turning them disgustingly dry and tasteless. So buy some boneless skinless chicken thighs when they're on special, pop them in the freezer and use them wherever you'd deploy a similarly denuded chicken breast.
Bacon fat: "Dripping," as my grandmother used to call it, is cheaper than butter, and for many applications, it's better, because it adds flavor and has a slightly higher smoke point. If you're having trouble getting a picky eater to eat green vegetables, see if you can't make some headway by starting them in bacon fat rather than butter or olive oil. Eggs, obviously, are ridiculously delicious when fried in bacon fat. I like to start my mirepoix in bacon fat for hearty winter stews, and I'm not above using a bit in stir-fries, no matter how hard that makes purists shudder. Just buy a mason jar and pour off the pan into it every time you cook bacon. Pop in the fridge and scoop out a bit every time you want a little bacon flavor in your dish.
A block of Parmesan (and Parmesan rinds!): Kraft Parmesan is to freshly grated Parmesan as Bubble Yum is to a fresh strawberry. The pre-grated stuff in the supermarket is better, but not that much better. Yet many people shy away from Parmesan for a simple reason: Grating Parmesan is a pain in the butt. Yet it doesn't have to be. You can chop it just fine in a food processor or a good blender (think Ninja grade or above) -- just cut off a piece about the size you want to grate, then pulverize. Want grated Parmesan for the table and don't have a fancy blender? Buy a couple of Microplane graters and hand them around along with the Parmesan; everyone can grate their own. Microplane graters also make a beautiful, fast cloud of Parmesan to top salads or vegetables. And the best part is Parmesan rinds, which are amazing for soups: Cut into one-inch pieces and freeze, then toss an inch or two in your minestrone or other bean soup for absolutely amazing flavor for virtually zero work.
Puff pastry dough: Puff pastry is one of the things where I draw the line at making homemade. Even my mother, who used to make her own croissants, has stopped making it, because there are very good commercial versions at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. For that matter, Pepperidge Farm puff pastry sheets are very serviceable. These are instant dinner party salvation: Make a quick appetizer by wrapping a wheel of brie with almonds, honey, dried cranberries and pumpkin pie spice and bake until the pastry is brown. Or make a quick dessert with frozen fruit, spices and a puff pastry shell. Brush with melted butter and sprinkle with grated cheese, then cut into squares or slices -- hello, cheese straws. Fold around seasoned meat for an easy meat pie. Fill a ramekin with creamed chicken and vegetables, and top with puff pastry: chicken pot pie! Bake, then layer with whipped cream and sweetened fruit: instant napoleon. But you get the idea. It's an endlessly versatile way to produce something dinner-party-ready at short notice.
Frozen fruit: If you're trekking to the grocery store in March and carefully selecting fresh peaches to peel and make into a tart, I have bad news for you: You're wasting your time. I'm not saying that frozen fruit is as good as fresh for baking: I'm saying it's much better. Unless the fruit you're using is local and in season, you're carefully preparing something that has been picked green so that it can survive the journey to your refrigerator. Frozen fruit, on the other hand, was picked ripe, made a short trip to a nearby food processing plant, and then peeled for you and flash-frozen at the peak of its flavor. On top of its flavor virtues, frozen fruit is more convenient, keeps for a year and it's cheaper. You should always use it in cooking unless you're getting something absolutely fresh from a nearby field. Don't just use it for smoothies or frozen cocktails; think of it as your Emergency Dessert Reserve. It takes about 10 minutes of cooking with a little sugar, water and lemon juice to make to-die-for raspberry puree, or you can thaw berries with 1/4 cup of sugar for a very tasty shortcake topping. Bake it in pies and tarts and cobblers, simmer and strain for custards. Anyway, you get the idea: Unless it's absolutely fresh, an apple or you're planning to eat it straight, buy frozen whenever you can.
Frozen onions: If you cook intermittently, frozen chopped onions are a great shortcut; they're always there when you need them. And if we're talking pearl onions, then I have to admit I prefer them. Yes, yes, I've stood there peeling my little onions, cutting the tiny X's in the bottoms and gently poaching them . . . and the result, in a braise or a cream sauce, is maybe 5 to 10 percent better than buying them frozen in the bag. The problem is that when I consider the effort required to get that 5 to 10 percent, I'm tempted to just not make them at all, especially if it's a weeknight. So go ahead -- buy frozen onions that you'll actually use, rather than fresh onions that you'll let rot before you start fiddling with the paring knife. They're a handy, delicious addition to almost anything you might want to roast, and delicious in their own right roasted with herbs or slathered with bechamel.
Of course, I haven't exhausted the list of handy shortcuts, flavorings and bases; I've just named a few of my favorites. Readers are invited -- indeed, requested -- to add their own in the comments.
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