Before I make some suggestions to our readership, allow me to post a disclaimer.
I would never identify myself a chef per se.
To me, a chef is someone who can innovate, who can create unique flavor combinations that brighten each of the flavors individually and can reference a book whenever tempted to do so, but could easily continue turning out edible food without it. They have a natural gift that enables them to access all of their senses while they cook, and we’re the lucky bastards who by chance get to glimpse into their artistry for a brief, glorious moment as we gorge on the fruits of their labor.
I, on the other hand, am more like a cook.
I possess a few key qualities that make me highly qualified for this role:
- I can read.
- I can follow directions.
- I can use a knife without maiming myself (or at least, most of the time)
- I have food, a stovetop and an oven at my disposal.
Note that none of the above qualities require one iota of creativity. Aaaalll I need is a brain, two hands and an Epicurious web account.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t give it the old college try. Let’s be honest – I’ve added garlic to things that were better left bland. And there have been some attempts to ad hoc sauces that resulted in things…horrible, indescribable things…the stuff of snuff films [shiver]. But these completely FUBAR meals were punctuated with moments of brilliance, and you can bet your sweet ass that I cling to those creative successes like Charlie Sheen clings to the last threads of fame (you didn’t think that we were going to get thru without a Sheen bit did you? WINNING!).
So it is in our cooking as it is in life – trial and error often makes for the best outcomes. From my rare culinary epiphanies (and admittedly, the epiphanies of my favorite cookbook chefs), I’ve come to my own conclusions about what items every person should have in their pantry and/or fridge. I use all of these things weekly in one way or another and have learned to tame my impulse to add them in inconceivable amounts. Oh, and for those of you who are asking where things like olive oil, butter and bacon are on this list, those are beyond pantry staples – those are mainstays that belong on the “why eat it if it’s not an ingredient” list.
Go forth and season with reckless abandon.
1. Garam masala – I bought this spice mix as part of a base for a homemade curry recipe I’d found. Before that, I’d never sought it out, but after my boyfriend added it to tomato-based pizza sauce, I was convinced that it should be as fundamental as garlic and onions are to…well, everything. It doesn’t take more than a half teaspoon to bring out a richer, smokier flavor in sweeter sauces.
2. Canned Tomatoes – Speaking of sweeter sauces, why buy another jar of pasta sauce when it is brutally simple to make your own? As long as you keep peeled, diced tomatoes in your pantry, you can easily throw in a mix of spices that are to your liking, let the brew simmer and pour over your favorite pasta. I’ve been forever changed by trying this myself.
3. Star anise – Another lovely spice that is everything nice, preferably purchased whole. Throw one into your sauces to add a hint of licorice but don’t forget to remove it so that your dinner guests aren’t gnawing on the shell.
4. Fresh basil – A quintessential carbohydrate compliment, mix with tomatoes for bruschetta, sprinkle over ramen or Italian pastas, blend up fresh pesto and spread on crostini. Basically, it’s my bread enabler.
5. Lemongrass – Just the smell of lemongrass makes my knees buckle with joy. I love throwing an entire stalk into my chicken stock recipes – it’s my attempt to mimic tom yum soup.
6. Sesame oil – Add a drop or two to your pan for a nuttier flavor to sautéed meats. Keep in the fridge so it doesn’t spoil. Avoid the temptation to overuse – and know that you will be tempted.
7. Chile peppers – pick your pepper to match your spice preferences. I like things that result in sniffling and crying, so I opt for thai chiles, but if you aren’t a fan of raw, molten heat, then aim for a jalapeno or Serrano. A good addition for just about anything – cornbread, soups, stir frys, sauces, even some alcoholic beverages can be surprisingly enhanced with a balance of sweet and spicy (try fresh strawberry AND a bit of jalapeno in your next margarita).
8. Feta cheese – Feta is not just for your sad lunchtime salads anymore. I keep it in the fridge and use it instead of parmesan for fresh pesto sauces. It results in a creamier version with a sharper flavor.
**What are your recommendations? Post a response and Share in Sugarberry! ***