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Keeping an always-fresh supply of certain essentials on hand can elevate your meals so you don’t have to run to the grocery store every day.
Here we are after a fantastic restaurant week with dieting on our minds. Thank you to all of the participants. Everyone I’ve spoken to was really impressed with the prices and quality. So far I’ve heard nothing negative. That brings me to this thought: Will this year’s Nappies’ food categories be the most heavily contested?
Our food scene is running hot right now, probably better than it has since I’ve lived here. I don’t vote, so good luck making up your minds. Let’s hope the city can support this many options.
But with all the eating out we did last week, it’s time to spend some time in our own kitchen. While we’re at it, how about we give the fridge and pantry an upgrade?
If the apocalypse happened tomorrow and we still had a grill, fire and a gas range, then we’d hope to be able to eat well, right? And just because it’s the apocalypse or the aftermath of a hurricane, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be great, right?
It’s disturbing to be in someone’s house and see that if such a scenario were to occur you’d be eating junk food for weeks, all because their freezer is full of frozen pot pies, the fridge full of ketchup and beer, and the pantry a collection of canned beans and chips. That’s my living nightmare.
It’s really simple to keep a few things around to elevate your meals so you don’t have to run to the grocery store every day.
I think most people who cook at home usually have basics such as flour, sugar, oil, spices, condiments, a freezer of meat and maybe some veggies. But if they were competing in an episode of “Chopped,” they may come up short if their opponent has a slightly better grade of the basics. I want to be able to cook something fairly elegant at the drop of a hat. These are the things I keep around to make that an easier goal.
Make certain you have cornstarch. This is a great thickening agent that’s often overlooked. With about four times as much thickening power as flour, cornstarch is a must when you need your pan sauce tightened up without that flour taste.
Herbs. Herbs are something I buy weekly. It’s better if you grow your own basil, mint, thyme, dill, rosemary and others, but if you can’t grow them you should always have access to fresh herbs. It makes a huge difference. Dried herbs are more powerful and can get you through the winter if you’re avoiding the store, but there’s nothing like fresh.
Oil. It’s time to upgrade your oil. I always have canola oil for gumbo roux and frying and olive oil for sautéing. Upgrade your olive oil. The Italians made a name for themselves with the extra virgin stuff but give the Spaniards a try. Grab a more expensive bottle for important recipes. With butter, you should look for higher fat content. With margarine, you should throw it in the trash.
Jarred items. We usually have pickles and olives in the fridge, as we do a lot of charcuterie. But to broaden your options for sauces and recipes, also keep jars of capers and anchovies. Yes, anchovies. They keep well and can give that glum sauce some sparkle.
Stock. This is important. Any time we peel shrimp, I make a stock from the head and shells. I freeze it in bigger sizes for soup or gumbo and smaller for seafood sauces. If you have the space you should do it with chicken, turkey and beef, too. Experience tells me to label them with tape and marker. They all look the same frozen.
Condiments. I’m guessing you have ketchup, mayonnaise and mustard. We could fight over the best mayo and whatnot but I’ll take any of the top three: Duke’s, Hellman’s or Blue Plate. I don’t particularly have a favorite ketchup. But mustard is the overlooked most important one. You must have different kinds of mustard for any situation. Yellow is great on hot dogs and super important for making honey mustard. Dijon mustard has its place. Use it to coat a pork chop or serve with pretzels, but that fancy mustard is great as a dressing with a little balsamic vinegar, which brings me to …
Wine and vinegar. Even a teetotaler like my mom needs wine in the kitchen. The rule for wine is if you wouldn’t drink it, you shouldn’t use it to cook. I’m not deglazing a pan with a $30 bottle, but on the same hand two-buck-Chuck has no reason to cross my threshold. Get him out of here.
For vinegar I always have cheap white and apple cider vinegar, but a really good balsamic is a must. When you’ve had the good stuff it’s tough to go back to cheap. It’s a must for vinaigrettes or grilled veggies.
Meats. You either hunt or know someone who hunts. I always have some kind of game in my freezer. I’m no hunter but I have venison and moose on the ready. Wild game aside, I keep common proteins such as chicken, pork and sausage in case of emergency. For beef I may have something ground, but I don’t keep a bunch of steaks unless gifted.
Though I eat it too quickly to keep, I am not ashamed of frozen Gulf shrimp. Frozen right off the boat is the best way to keep them, as every hour is crucial from their time of death.
Lemons. Always buy lemons and limes. My fruit bowl normally has limes for my gin so I’m covered if I have an emergency Mexican meal or seared tuna, but lemons do more for sauce. Lemon juice is versatile in barbecue shrimp, lemon butter pasta or fish. Halved they can find themselves brightening up a pot of nine bean soup with ham or a crawfish boil. Don’t get caught without them.
Change your pantry and fridge and you will change your cooking for the better. As Bubble says, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”