Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Ten Things My Pantry Wouldn't Be Caught Dead Without

If I could name ten things that my pantry always, always, always has in it, this is the list. In terms of managing the easiest and versatile cooking, I think these ten items provide a great springboard for a lot of fun in the kitchen!

First up, black beans:

Now, I realize that beans probably belong in the "Top Ten Things My Grocery List Wouldn't Be Caught Dead Without" because they're more like a staple food item instead of a cooking enhancement. However, black beans are so easily used, I thought they belonged here. Need BBQ baked beans? Whip 'em up with some peppers and onions, BBQ sauce, a little beer and bake for 45 minutes. Throw some cumin, lime, cilantro and tomatoes in with them instead of BBQ and beer and you have a mighty fine protein source for black beans and rice. Stick them in a food processor with a touch of tahini, lemon juice and garlic and you've got a great alternative hummus. See? Versatile. I always buy canned, and I always, always, always drain and rinse before cooking with them. Saves your arteries a lot of sodium-laden stress.

Next up, Tabasco Sauce:

Personally, I love the smokey taste of the Chipotle flavor, but I am a huge fan of just about any hot sauce- regular Tabasco, Verde, Tapatio, Cholula. A few dashes of this stuff on any dish adds a whole new level of flavor. Just don't tell anyone about my habit of throwing it on my Indian dishes at home, too, okay?

Honey, honey!

I might have a serious addiction to honey. This is only one of three bottles in my pantry. Honey is, by far and away, my top choice as a sweetener-topping. When baking, I always use sugar (more on that later), but for hot tea, smoothies and just general buzzing around, honey is and always will be my first love. Add it to the BBQ black beans and you can tone down that spiciness of the sauce. Drizzle it over some plain yogurt and fruit, even caramelize some roasted sweet potatoes or sautéed peaches for an entirely different experience. Oh, honey. Oh, sweet, SWEET HONEY!!

Aw, sugar-sugar (you are my candy girl)...

Since going vegan, I prefer the raw stuff, but any good sugar will do. And like a good Southern girl, I also have brown and superfine/confectioners sugar in my pantry as well. Like I said before, I mostly use sugar for baking. Occasionally, I'll dash a little on some sweet potatoes before roasting, but sugar is pretty much essential for any baked good you hope to make.

And speaking of baking:

You can't have sugar without flour. Well, unless everything you bake is flourless (that's a lesson for another day- oh, chocolate torte!). Flour is actually quite versatile in itself. You know about cakes and breads, but you can sift a little with some butter in a saucepan and make a creamy, smooth roux (base) for soup or gravy or an amazing cheese sauce. It also makes a great breading base if you want to fry things, but we won't talk about frying...

Non-Stick Cooking Spray:

Lately, I really only use olive oil in the pan, but this stuff is fabulous if you want to roast or bake something. Just whisp it across your foil-lined baking dish for a non-stick surface that easily releases and cleans up, or spray a touch on some sliced pita bread before baking to whip up some crispy, brown pita chips. It also works wonders on your hands if you have to handle gooey messes like bread dough or rolling messy cookie or cake mix for treats.

Vegetable Broth is water's big brother (and he came to play):

Any time a recipe calls for water (unless it's a sweet baked good), I dare you to use vegetable broth (or chicken broth) instead. Just see how much flavor the broth brings out in the dish. I always thought broth was really just for soups and whatnot. It's not. It's for anything that you need any significant amount of liquid for, and by significant, I mean anything over 1 tablespoon. You can get it in liquid form as above, or in a can; or you can get it in bullion form- a little dried cube that you add to water. Whatever your style, this is one item your pantry doesn't want to live without.

These last three really make up a cook's bread and butter, in my opinion-

Salt and Pepper:

I realize it probably goes without saying, but salt and pepper are really the two most important ingredients you can have. The reason they're on this list, instead of just assuming you know better is because I am a huge fan of grinders, whole peppercorns and sea salt. There is nothing like hand-grinding the salt or pepper you need for the dish. The flavor is so much more fresh and really opens any dish up. I'll probably do a blog on spices someday, and salt withstanding, you should never be afraid to throw 'em in there. That goes for pepper, too. A little extra ground pepper never hurt anyone.

Finally, a good olive oil (which you do not see here):

I don't mean to be a hypocrite. I've been traveling all summer, so my house sitter ran out of olive oil and had to use the stuff I keep in the cabinet for occasional baking. Never, ever buy anything other than Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO, thanks Rachael Ray) when you're buying olive oil. It costs a bit more, but it's totally worth it and if you use it for cooking, not baking, it'll last quite a while. Store it in your pantry- a cool, dark place- and it will make you very happy. EVOO has a fairly high smoking point, meaning you have to get it pretty hot before smoke starts coming out of the pan, so it's pretty easy to cook with. If you combine that with its rich, robust flavor and texture, you'll understand why your kitchen can't live without it. This stuff is wondrous for sautéing onions and peppers or brushing on some skewers or making a simple Greek marinade, or salad dressing, or dipping bread in, or... See? The possibilities are endless. Olive Oil is your best cooking friend...or one of your ten best.

What about you? What makes your Top Ten list? Is there something I should have added here? Anything I should have left off? Leave a comment and let me know!


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