The Foodie 13 – Pantry Essentials

Human beings are creatures of habit.

Ever noticed you’ve eaten the same few foods for breakfast or lunch every day for 3 weeks straight, or regularly cooked with the same flavor profiles week in, week out?

If you ask anyone who loves to cook, they’ll probably tell you they have a few favorites or secret weapons in their arsenal used to spice up everyday meals.  In this installment of The Foodie 13, we’ll take a look at the few staple ingredients I always need to keep on hand.

1 – Chili Salt - I first started grinding my own chili salt last fall, after my Chinese 5 Color Pepper plant produced so many little peppers that I didn’t know what to do with them all.  A small bite on the deck early one morning convinced me they were much too piquant to eat on their own, and by that time I’d already canned my pickled jalapenos for the year.  Not wanting to waste any of my harvest bounty, I buried the chilis in a jar full of sea salt.  Once the chilis were completely dehydrated, I dug them out, removed the stems and then pulsed them with salt in the food processor.  A tiny pinch is all you need to make any dish sing; from simply grilled grass-fed burgers, to sticky roasted pork belly, to sumptuous salted caramel, everything it touches tastes that much better.  The bit of kick it brings to the table isn’t half bad either.

2 – Tomato Powder - Several years ago while walking home from work one day, I discovered The Spice Trader, at the time a newly opened flavor emporium.  I wandered in curious and walked out with $250 worth of oils, vinegars and spices – there really are some things I have no restraint over.  While there were many more exotic spices purchased that day that I still love and use all the time, tomato powder is the one I most often come back to.  A pinch of it often turns up to season my grilled grass-fed burgers, and a few dashes works wonders in a marinade or dry rub.  It can be stirred into sauces for a quick and concentrated hit of flavor, or dusted onto bread dough before it goes into the oven.  While the texture and color may remind some of the crusty clumps that can be found at the bottom of a bag of ketchup chips, I can assure you that tomato powder is to it what olive oil is to I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter; a relative only in that they share a similar name (in the second case, that would be fat, in case you’re wondering).

3 – Coffee Olive Oil - Another one of my prized finds from that first outing to The Spice Trader was a rather expensive bottle of coffee olive oil.  It may sound strange, and it’s definitely a little extravagant, but the 500 mL bottle will last you forever (if it’s properly stored) and has a multitude of uses.  Start off slowly by using it instead of regular olive oil in an oil and balsamic bread dipper.  The roasted, nutty undertones are quite unlike anything else; except perhaps coffee (which I don’t drink, so I wouldn’t know).  It tastes divine drizzled on fresh tomatoes off the vine, sprinkled with a pinch of salt and a few basil leaves, and adds that bit of je ne sais quoi to a loaf of focaccia just before it hits the oven.  Used to dress a simple sauteed mushroom sauce for pasta, there’s almost nothing better.  The first time the Everyman tried it he said he didn’t like it all that much, but since then I’ve used it in a variety of foods that he almost always loves (and usually doesn’t even discern that this is what’s in there).

4 – Sherry Vinegar - It’s only recently that I’ve started to enjoy sherry vinegar, but it’s one of those things I can’t believe I missed out on for so long.  I first purchased some at the beginning of the year to make one of the many homemade chorizo recipes I was testing.  The chorizo recipe may not have wowed me (it was the one that turned out watery and unappetizingly grey) but the sherry vinegar came out a winner.  Its flavor marries well in pickling liquids, vinaigrettes, and especially the fresh shredded vegetable salad I make that the Everyman loves so much (beets, carrots and sunchokes or celeriac).  Now that I’ve found it, I can’t live without it, and I’m coming up with more uses for it every day.

5 – Homemade Pesto (nut-free, of course) - Pesto is an ingredient that I think a lot of people take for granted.  It’s incredibly simple to make and packs such a concentrated wallop, that I can’t fathom why more people don’t bother to make their own.  Perhaps my posting this will ignite people’s desires to test out this underappreciated paste for themselves.  In our house it’s always nut-free (as the Everyman’s allergic), but there are usually several variations available (saved in ice cube sized chunks) at any given time.  There’s classic pesto, made with basil, parmagiano, garlic and olive oil, or the sundried tomato version ground up with a few choice dried specimens.  Then there’s the roasted garlic version that’s heavier on the garlic content, but sweeter from the roasting, or my newest favorite, the lemon artichoke pesto, which is light on the basil, but a pesto nonetheless.  All are excellent for dressing plain cooked pasta, or thawed out for use as a sandwich spread, or even as a condiment with cheese and crackers.  Stir a little into a creamed vegetable soup for an amazing burst of freshness.

6 – Oven-dried Tomatoes - I chronicled the process of making oven-dried tomatoes here last year.  And all winter long, I’ve been patting myself on the back for doing it.  Whenever the weather is really getting me down, I go to the freezer and pop open my giant container of oven-dried tomatoes.  One bite and I’m instantly transported back to the sunny glow of summertime in the garden.  I made approximately 6 batches of these last year, and have already burned through a whole 7 cup container during the winter.  One of the benefits of freezing them dried is that in the thawing out process, they impart back a tiny bit of moisture, but just enough to get a concentrated, juicy burst of taste.  They’re great eaten plain, chopped up for a pasta or sauce, and make an amazing addition to an antipasto platter.  When tossed into a pot of cooked couscous not only do they tinge the whole pot a rosy red, but impart a wonderfully sweet and chewy tooth to the dish.  Once you try one, you’ll never go back to those leathery, pale-by-comparison versions found in the deli section of the supermarket again.

7 – Panko Breadcrumbs - I know I’m not the first to say it, and I definitely won’t be the last, but panko breadcrumbs are amazing.  They are leaps and bounds beyond those dry, mealy, stale-tasting tubs at the grocery bakery counter, and actually have a decent crunchy/flaky texture.  A handful tossed over baked macaroni or lasagna is a beautiful thing.  Mixed with parmagiano, parsley, wheat germ, cayenne and some salt and pepper, they make a kickass coating for oven-fried chicken tenders.  They provide pleasing texture to meatballs, and even contribute a slightly nutty, yeasty flavor.  Yum!  If you haven’t already, try substituting them for regular crumbs in your favorite recipe today, and marvel at the difference!

8 – Stone Ground Unbleached Hard Wheat Flour - I’m a bit of a flour purist (some might even go so far as to call me a flour nazi).  I like my flour to be as close to it’s natural state as possible, (because that’s when it contains the most nutrients and health benefits) and that’s why I try to ensure that it’s as local and natural as possible.  You won’t find any Robin Hood or King Arthur flour in this foodie’s house.  No, the breads that I bake are all made from organic artisanal flours from Ontario and Manitoba.  From pastries, to pastas, from loaves to coatings, flour is a supporting actor in a myriad of dishes, and considering how much flour (through bread) we (and the Bride of Frankenstein) consume on a weekly basis, it just had to be on the list.

9 – Dried Porcini Mushrooms - The Everyman is not at all a fan of mushrooms (but I am), but he never minds the flavor of porcinis.  When ground into a powder they give a subtly smoky, earthy flavor to almost any dish.  Rehydrated, they make an excellent base for a pasta topping or sauteed mushroom bruschetta.  And don’t throw out that soaking liquid either; a quick strain to remove the sediment and you’re off to the races with a deep, flavorful liquid that can enhance and sauce, stuffing or marinade.

10 – Miso Paste – My somewhat limited grasp of Japanese culture may mean I’ve gotten the concept of umami entirely wrong, but to me, miso paste exemplifies my understanding of umami (the 6th taste).  It’s salty, smoky, savoury, meaty and has that all around oomph that just makes you want to keep eating.  Swirling it into hot water with some seaweed and cubed tofu can make a western version of the sushi bar classic, miso soup.  Dissolving it in a mixture of chicken broth, sesame oil and soya sauce makes a delightful coating for a tangle of udon noodles.  Brushed on as a crust for seafood or fish, it makes a wonderful accompaniment to their briny flavors.  It’s definitely an accessible way to add a bit of Japan to your everyday meals.

11- Bulgur – It seems to be a grain that’s often ignored, but bulgur is a culinary powerhouse.  When properly flavored, it makes a convincing substitute for meat, to the point that I’ve completely substituted it into the Everyman’s stuffed peppers at times and he’s been unable to tell the difference (and probably won’t even realize until he reads this).  When hydrated it can be used in a manner similar to couscous, or cooled and combined with vegetables and vinaigrette for a cold deli-counter style salad.  Cooked with a bit of milk and cinnamon, it challenges the idea that morning breakfast need be made of oatmeal.

12 – Multigrain Pasta – Until the Everyman and I started making a (healthier) version of Tyler Florence’s ultimate spaghetti and meatballs, we never really consumed a whole lot of pasta.  Even now, when it’s the primary vehicle for clearing the freezer and using up the plethora of sausages I made, we probably only have it 2 0r 3 times a month.  But it’s one of those things that since we’ve made the switch, I find it hard to go back to eating white flour pasta.  The nuttiness and depth of flavor that you get from a whole wheat or multigrain pasta is no match for its paler cousin.  And (while it may all be in my head) it seems to have a knack for absorbing flavors and sauces better.  Healthy for you and tastier?  You bet!

13 – Parmagiano Reggiano – I mentally debated whether to include this over chilis en adobo but I decided that based on frequency of use the parm had to win.  A culinary beast, there’s really very little that isn’t improved by a grating of the stuff.  It makes pastas very happy, and creates a superb crust.  Grate onto a Silpat and blast in the oven for a minute and it becomes a frico, universally known as the ultimate cracker.  A handful tossed on a focaccia destined for the oven returns golden, salty and delicious.  It’s the epitome of a culinary staple; kept well wrapped in the refrigerator it will last indefinitely, and a very little goes a looooooooong way.  If you don’t already have a chunk, I suggest you run, not walk to get some.  It’s also a pretty amazing cheese for eating out of hand, but be careful, because once you start, it’s hard to stop.

So there you have it.  These are the 13 things that alone or in combination form the basis of my foodie flavor profile.  Some are flavors I’ve been cooking with for years, while others are relatively new to my repertoire.  It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come since my grandmother’s generation, when pantry staples might have been some Minute Rice and stock cubes.  Reading my list again started to make me feel a bit pretentious, but I prefer to think of it as being a bit more global. All of these impart something unmistakable and enjoyable to this foodie’s cuisine and I’m sure that if I wrote this column again in 5 years, my palate might have moved on from some flavors, but I’d be willing to wager that the majority would still be here.  If anything, I’d probably have to expand the story to The Foodie 26! These items combine into something uniquely me.  What flavors make your cooking uniquely your own?

Until next time…

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  2. [...] of the aforementioned pomegranate molasses, along with some argan oil (more on that later), more coffee olive oil, and some white [...]

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