Thursday, November 8, 2007
For my mid-week post, I thought I'd address a question I'm asked frequently: "I want to start cooking, but I always eat out and have no basics in my kitchen. What are the bare minimum requirements to get a pro-cooking kitchen stocked?"
I figured that if I took pics of whatever happened to be in my pantry and fridge on a random day, that would be a pretty good representation of what I keep on hand at all times.
CRIBS: THE KITCHEN SPECIAL
Here's how to pimp your kitchen.
This is my trusty metal shelving unit. The crucial things here, from top to bottom, are:
A. VINEGAR. I always keep balsamic vinegar, white wine vinegar, and red wine vinegar on hand. They're great for seasoning sauces and making quick salad dressings.
B. OIL. I always cook with extra-virgin olive oil, but I also keep canola oil on hand for things like pancakes and box brownies. It's also a good idea to have cooking spray on hand (like PAM) when you just need stuff not to stick but don't want to add any calories.
C. RICE/ COUS COUS/ SEASONED RICE MIXES. I love the Near East brand. They have great whole grain side dishes that are really easy to make but also really tasty. I also like Vigo saffron rice and Vigo black beans & rice. This stuff keeps forever, so it's easy to have around.
D. ONIONS. I put them in everything, because they're delicious.
E. POTATOES. Not for the carb-phobic, they're cheap, long-lasting, and incredibly versatile. Just don't eat them everyday....
F. CRACKERS. I don't cook with them per se, but I almost always have some cheese around, which is convenient when friends come over before I'm done cooking. Presto! Cheese and crackers. Your friends will think you're uber-sophisticated.
In the fridge, I always have:
A. MILK. Does a body good. Also does an egg fluffy, a coffee creamy, and a sauce thick. And - hello! - cereal neccessitates it.
B. EGGS. Yay for breakfast! And for baked goods, some traditional sauces (like bearnaise), and stir-fries.
C. HEAVY WHIPPING CREAM. Don't overdo this stuff, because it does NOT do a body good, but if you want a cream sauce, you need, well, cream. Use it sparingly, people.
D. CHEESE. I almost always have parmesan and American around, and sometimes cheddar.
E. YOGURT. Not only is it a great snack or breakfast option, it's a nice alternative to sour cream, and it also pairs well as a cool topping to spicy ethnic food.
F. SOUR CREAM. Those of you who know me know my relationship with sour cream. It's a passionate, lifelong love affair - therfore I buy light sour cream so I can enjoy it all the more. I put it on everything, but you might enjoy it on quesadillas, taco salads, and the like.
G. MAYONNAISE. Only second to sour cream is my love of mayo - Ross likes Miracle Whip, and I prefer Hellman's, but either way you slice it (hardy har har), a sandwich without mayo is just incomplete.
H. OLIVES. I don't cook with them so much as pop a couple of them while stuff is simmering - I happen to find them delectable just as they are, but they're great sliced in a green salad.
I. CHICKEN BROTH. It's a great starter for soups and reductions, and it's nice as a replacement for water if you're cooking rice or making mashed potatoes. It has a million uses, all delicious.
J. FRUIT. It's good. Just eat it.
A. BEER. It needs no explanation. Although I will say that I have poached sausages in beer with delicious results.
B. FRESH HERBS. I usually have parsley on hand, and a rotation of oregano, basil, and cilantro coming in or out. I use them all the time. It's what turns regular old home cooking into something special.
C. LEFTOVERS. Hooray for microwaves!
D. VEGGIES. I eat them every single night. No meal is complete without something green in my book.
And in the fridge door:
A. VINAIGRETTE. I like Marie's and Annie's, and I also keep some light ranch around too (you know, for those stray pizza crusts).
B. FRUIT SPREAD/ JAM. For PBJ's! Or, as I make them now, ABP's (almond butter and natural fruit preserves).
C. LEFTOVER SAUCE. For those exhausted nights when anything more difficult than boiling noodles and microwaving spaghetti sauce is completely unthinkable.
D. KETCHUP. This IS America, after all.
E. DIJON MUSTARD. Never underestimate the tangy zing of dijon to liven up salad dressings, sauces, and fish dishes. It's great.
F. HOT SAUCE. You might get into a hot debate about which is best, but my vote goes to Cholula. It's somewhere between the tongue-scorching heat of Tabasco and the merely-chile-flavored-but-not-very-spicy flavor of Frank's.
In the FREEZER:
A. SOUP. If you make too much, freeze it. It's perfect for a hot meal on a lazy Saturday afternoon. Do what I didn't do, though, and freeze a large batch of soup into smaller containers so you don't have to unthaw the whole kit and kaboodle just for one bowlful.
B. CHICKEN. Throw it in the oven and dinner is served.
C. SAUCE. Leftover spaghetti sauce freezes beautifully. Add a splash of red wine to the pot to help rehydrate it and ladle it over some whole wheat pasta.
D. WHOLE WHEAT WAFFLES. They're great with a spreading of peanut or almond butter in the morning. I also like to make "waffles benedict," where I pile on ham, eggs, and some hollandaise if I'm feeling ambitious. It's a weekend treat.
E. EDY'S FRUIT BARS. They are not cooking staples per se, but they are a staple of my after-dinner ritual. They're the perfect nonfat dessert.
SPICES AND STAPLES.
And, finally, in the cabinet:
A. SPICES. Everyone always asks me, "What spices do I really need?" Well, that depends on what you cook most often. I'd say your best bet is to just go buy one of those rotating spice racks that have all the dried spices on there, simply because it's most economical. In my cabinet, I have oregano, basil, cumin, turmeric, chili powder, red pepper flakes, parsely, thyme, rosemary, curry powder, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, and probably some other ones I can't remember. In short, spices are what make food have flavor and taste good, so as you follow recipes that call for certain ones, even if they don't seem important, buy them and begin to build your collection. They really do take regular old home cooking to the next level.
B. FLOUR. I have organic whole wheat baking flour and organic white all-purpose flour, which I use for baking (duh), and breading, respectively.
C. SUGAR. I have white sugar and brown sugar. Staples.
D. BAKING STUFF. But only if you bake. You'll need baking soda, baking powder, and flour to make just about anything in the baked goods category.
E. DRIED PASTA. I keep whole wheat spaghetti on hand at all times, as well as a rotation of egg noodles, spiral pasta, and macaroni. If you're not a whole wheat convert like me, try Barilla Pasta Plus - it has more iron, protein, and fiber than a plain pasta, but still has that regular pasta taste and texture.
F. TUNA. It's the perfect meat in a can. I like to make toaster-oven dinner bagels: halve a bagel, spread some drained tuna on it, cover it with a big slice of tomato and a slice of provolone and a little salt and pepper, and toast it till it's crisp and melty. It's college gourmet.
G. HONEY. Like sugar, only unprocessed. I put in my plain yogurt and in my hot tea.
F. OATMEAL. So good for you. Stir in some brown sugar and a little butter for the yummiest, most comforting winter breakfast known to man.
I've also compiled a list of what I feel are the bare bones equipment requirements. I don't have any fancy equipment except for my circa-1972 Crockpot and an equally aged electric hand-mixer (both work perfectly, thank you very much).
1. A LARGE NON-STICK SKILLET. Preferably with a lid. I got a great one at Target that's about 14 inches in diameter and 3 inches deep for $20.
2. A LARGE COOKING POT. These are sometimes called "Dutch Ovens," although technically I think that Dutch ovens are cast iron, or some equally durable material, and a good one'll set you back about $100. Thank goodness I'm shopping savvy! I got a really nice red one with a clear lid that holds a LOT of liquid for about $25.
3. A COLANDER. So you can drain stuff! Get a big one.
4. A FEW BIG SERVING/MIXING BOWLS. They're handy. Splurge for the ones that have rubber grippers on the bottom to minimize spillage.
5. SMALL NON-STICK FRYING PAN. For omelettes, scrambled eggs, grilled cheese, etc.
6. MEDIUM SAUCEPAN. Otherwise known as a garden-variety pot (well, not, like, a garden pot - you know what I mean). Good for sauces, small soup batches, etc.
7. A GREAT CHEF'S KNIFE. I have a $4 IKEA one that still works fine. So when I say "great," I use that term loosely. It just needs to be wide with a slightly curved sharp edge, so you can chop things like fresh herbs.
8. BREAD KNIFE. The long, serrated kind. French bread, mmmmmm.
9. SMALL PARING KNIFE. I use mine to cut fruit and trim fresh veggies. Also good for cutting up chicken.
10. TONGS. I was never a tong beliver until I got some. They are AWESOME. They're like hands, only made of metal and impervious to burns and grease splatters! They're perfect for turning non-flat things like chicken breasts and scallops.
11. LARGE, WIDE SPATULA. Not the cake-frosting kind, the grilled-cheese-grilling kind. I like 'em huge, so I can make huge pancakes.
12. A FEW STIRRING SPOONS. A slotted one is nice, one with no holes is good too. Because stirring is a frequent kitchen activity.
13. A WHISK. You could always use a fork, but nothing compares to the power of a whisk.
14. LADLE. Unless you don't eat soup. Which would make you crazy.
15. BLENDER. I put this on there as more of a splurge, which is why it's last on the list (although I have had an $8 Sunbeam blender I bought in college for about 5 years and it still works great). I will say, though, that it's nice to be able to make things like purees for soup, a quick vinaigrette, smoothies, and - let's just say it - margaritas!
Thanks for reading, guys! Look for a new fearless post sometime next week.