Stapled

Andreae Prozesky staples your pantry.

There are foods I obsess over and then go off of. I’m pretty much done with Brussels sprouts for the time being, having made them the staff of this particular life for several seasons in a row. And I just can’t muster the same excitement over leeks that I did two years ago when I discovered them and then made them the focal point of everything I ate for a year. Sometimes I go a little ingredient-crazy.

 

It’s perfectly normal. There are food trends, just like there are trends in clothing. Remember a few years back when practically every cooking magazine had a picture of a single-serving molten chocolate cake on the cover? Okay, maybe you don’t. But it happened. Cooking is like that. You grab on to a new ingredient or a new recipe, you cook it until everyone is sick to death of it, and then you move on to the next think. The contents of your fridge and cupboards, like the contents of your dresser, change.

 

But the essentials, the oils, vinegars, seasonings, and starches that live in the cupboard and are there when you need them. They stay the same. Maybe a new kind of vinegar shows up on the shelves every twenty years or so, but that’s about it. These guys are, if you will, the well-tailored pants of the kitchen. The little black dress. Your all-purpose brown leather boots. Dress them up, dress them down, they’ll never leave you looking like an idiot at a dinner party, or anywhere else.

 

When you have a well-stocked pantry, you can throw together a decent dinner at a moment’s notice. So there are some staples that every kitchen needs.

 

I always keep olive oil around. It’s like a pair of sleek dark jeans that you can wear to the park, or to the bar, or to the office. You probably know by now that olive oil is hella good for you, with the good kind of fat that eats the bad kind of cholesterol, or whatever it is that it does (I can’t keep track any more.) Olive oil is very good when poured out into a dish and streaked through with a bit of decent balsamic vinegar, for dipping some nice bread into. I could live on that for a week, probably.

 

I buy canola oil too, mostly for frying. Olive oil starts to smoke at a pretty low temperature, so it’s not much good for shallow-frying or anything like that.

 

Most of what I cook is inspired by North African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian cooking, so I have a ton of spices but very few herbs. A packet of dried basil or tarragon will grow grey and flavourless in my care, but I go through loads of cinnamon, coriander, and turmeric.

 

(There’s no point having herbs and spices on hand if you won’t use them, since they lose their oomph quickly. No need to keep them in a spice rack for all to see, either; they should be kept in a dark cupboard or drawer in the coolest corner of your kitchen.)

 

I can’t get by without onions and garlic. Can I call them the bra and underpants of the ingredient world? Can I? Would that be going too far? They’re the flavour base for pretty much every kind of cooking in the world. But – and I insist on this because I care about you-please, please, please buy fresh garlic and don’t get into that powdered stuff. Similarly, shaky-shaky garlic salt bears no resemblance to the real thing. The crushed garlic in jars is alright in a pinch, but it’s pretty expensive and tends to have a chemical smell to it.

 

Onions, on the other hand, are cheap and last a long time. Just don’t store them near your potatoes, because whenever onions and potatoes hang out together, the onions start going bad and the potatoes start sprouting all over the place. Weird, hey? But true.

 

So you’ve got your oils, your bottle or two of vinegar (I use red wine vinegar and apple cider vinegar a fair bit), your favourite spices (or herbs), a bag of onions and a bit of garlic, now you need something to eat them with.

 

I usually have a few kinds of pasta on the go. Rice is good too. I keep basmati rice in the house because it’s practically impossible to shag up, and because you can buy it in big elephant-emblazoned burlap bags (which I appreciate in a food) and because my daughter eats great quantities of rice with yogurt on top (hey, it beats Froot Loops). I keep couscous around, too, because it goes with all those Moroccan stews I keep making, and because it only takes 5 minutes to cook.

 

I could go on: I stockpile tins of tuna and salmon, and chickpeas and black beans, and I’ve always got lentils, too. With that stuff around I can pretty much get by for a week without getting tired of it.

 

I’m never without fresh lemons; I can’t abide bottled lemon juice. It tastes like plastic. I use freshly-ground black pepper and sea salt on pretty much everything. I’ll stop now, before I accidentally end up listing everything in my kitchen cupboards. I’d be mortified if you all found out about the Food Nerd’s love of Jell-O, which I will call the hot pink knee socks of the food world. Not a staple, but some fun.

Three dinners composed of staples alone

(Add a salad and you’ve got a meal.)

1. Cooked, drained pasta tossed with fresh garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Add freshly-grated Parmesan if you have it, or flake a tin of tuna on top.

2. Rice and brown lentils cooked together with garlic and plenty of salt and pepper, with balsamic caramelised onions on top (plus a dollop of Balkan-style yogurt and some diced tomato).

3. Couscous, toasted lightly in a pan and then prepared according to package instructions, topped with some tinned chickpeas tossed in a sauce of yogurt and lemon juice with paprika, salt, and pepper. Even better: add some tinned salmon to the chickpeas. Better again: add some toasted almonds. It’s like a calcium-protein cocktail.

 

Send your questions, comments, and pantry suggestions to dreae@thescope.ca

2 comments

  1. dreae · July 15, 2011

    Ahem. So my October issue of Martha Stewart’s “Everyday Food” came today, and what’s in there? A feature on pantry staples. Result: I am feeling very fashion-forward this afternoon.

    That is all.