I thought I would share with y’all some of the ingredients I reach for over and over to make my life easier in the kitchen and add big flavor to our meals. Packaged/processed foods use all kinds of spooky chemicals to trick your brain into thinking food is tasty. Making food that is really and truly delicious is simply about choosing really and truly delicious ingredients. I hope you’ll add a few of these gems to your pantry or fridge and enjoy them in your cooking. And like a mother who doesn’t play favorites with her children, I have listed these items in no particular order of “love” or frequency of use. Here are the first 5:
Dry Vermouth – I’m not sure how or why that first bottle of Vermouth found its way into my kitchen. I’m not a martini drinker, so it just sat there, taking up valuable space. And then I realized that Vermouth is just herb-infused wine. Hey, why couldn’t I cook with it? Oh, yeah, you can cook with it! A tablespoon or two added to a pan sauce brings brightness and depth. A splash adds sophistication to crisp veggies sautéed in butter with a bit of shallot. I use it in pork or chicken stews that call for white wine. Basically if a recipe calls for a cup or less of white wine I feel comfy using Vermouth.
Even though Vermouth is a fortified wine (i.e. higher alcohol) it doesn’t come off as “boozy” or overpowering. One caveat – use a high quality Vermouth that you would enjoy drinking as an aperitif. No $5 bottles from the supermarket. My favorite Vermouths are from Dolin – so well crafted! I keep opened bottles in the fridge after sealing them with a vacuum stopper, and I find the flavor is fine for at least 6 months. Bonus: whenever I break out the Vermouth to cook with, I pour myself a wee nip to enjoy while I cook. Cook’s treat!
Citrus Oils – Citrus is a favorite flavor profile of mine, but keeping oranges, lemons, limes and other seasonal citrus on hand is a pain and expensive. How to natually add citrus flavor without buying, storing and zesting citrus fruit? All-natural citrus oils! Citrus oils are distilled from citrus peels, where all the flavor is located. Instead of a teaspoon of lemon zest in a recipe, you just add a few drops of lemon oil – no fuss, no muss, no grit, and no danger of getting that nasty bitter pith in your food. Citrus oils are great in cookies, cakes, muffins, salad dressings, cocktails, smoothies, even coffee. Two drops of orange oil in a cafe au lait is sublime, as is a drop of lemon oil in an espresso.
I decant my oils into small, dark bottles and top them with droppers. The dropper is a must, because citrus oils are powerful and it’s very easy to ruin something with too much (done that!). I also store them in the fridge to prolong their freshness. As you can see mine are past their expriry, but because I refrigerate them in small, dark bottles, they taste and smell fine. I think it buys me a few extra months of use! Important: be sure you use a citrus oil that is intended for cooking – not “essences” that are meant for use as scents.
Imported Italian Tomatoes Every summer growing up we would “put up” a year’s worth of home canned tomatoes. I continued this pleasant summer ritual until a few years ago when I discovered imported Italian tomatoes. Home canned tomatoes taste great and they “function” better than American canned tomatoes because American canned tomatoes are processed with calcium chloride, a firming agent. The addition of a firming agent is great if you are using the tomatoes for chili, soup or a casserole and you want the tomatoes to remain in distinct chunks. If you want them to break down into a silky smooth pasta sauce, forget it. We always used our home canned tomatoes for pasta sauce, but home canned tomatoes also have their flaws, namely they are pretty watery and you have to cook them forever to thicken them up.
Enter Italian canned tomatoes, whether they be “true” DOP San Marzanos, or the less expensive and quite similar “San Marzano” tomatoes grown elsewhere in Italy. What’s the difference? Think of it this way – it’s the difference between a sparkling wine from California and Champagne from France. It’s basically the same thing (yeah, yeah, terroir, I know), but the California wine can’t be sold as “Champagne” because it does not originate in the registered Champagne region of France. Tomatoes labeled “DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) San Marzano” are a specific variety grown in the small San Marzano region of Italy. San Marzano tomatoes are grown elsewhere, including the US, and are quite similar in taste/texture. They are also much cheaper than the “real” thing.
There is no comparison between Amerian and Italian canned tomatoes. Italian tomatoes are packed in a thick tomato puree, not juice as they are in America. Italian tomatoes never contain calcium chloride or sugar (another common but stupid additive here in the land of diabesity), and they usually don’t contain salt or any other seasonings. They are thick, meaty, intensely flavored tomatoes in a rich sauce – a blank canvas for you the culinary artiste to use and season as you wish. Italian tomatoes can be had at good prices in warehouse clubs and some supermarkets, but I always order mine by the case from Amazon. They come in whole, diced or crushed in 28 oz or 15 oz cans. For some reason the price fluctuates a lot on Amazon, so keep your eye on them till you see a price you like – somewhere around $25-$35 per case. Buon appetito!
Nut Oils – Oh Trader Joe’s, you really have turned me on to soooo many wonderful things. Every Christmas they sell a gift set of three nut oils. I bought one and wowza. There is no better salad dressing in the world than one you make with Walnut oil, especially roasted Walnut oil if you can find it. Revelatory. A hunk of crusty bread dipped in Pistachio oil? Hide the can, because I could drink that buttery, faintly floral-sweet oil straight from it! Toasted Sesame oil – don’t even try to make anything Asian without it – what an amazing flavor bomb! And a salsa or salad made with Avocados goes from yum to “I can die happy now” with a drizzle of rich, fruity Avocado oil. These oils are not only extremely flavorful and delicious, they are healthful additions to your diet. Go nuts!
Clarified Butter – otherwise known as Ghee. Alright, so this one isn’t the most healthful fat. But since the rest of the time you are cooking with Organic coconut oil, EVOO and all those wonderful nut oils, you can afford to indulge in some good old-fashioned saturated animal fat once in awhile. I discovered this item at Trader Joe’s and bought it on a whim. I use butter all the time, and I know the cook’s trick of using half butter, half some other oil to raise the smoke point. Works, fine, right? Is it really worth the bother to have this specialty product on hand just because it doesn’t have those pesky burnable milk solids? Oh baby, yes! For some reason clarified butter tastes “more buttery” than butter. It really brings the flavah! I use it for scrambling eggs, grilling sandwiches, sautéing veggies or aromatics and making rouxs. I recently used it to griddle up a batch of Arepas, as if Arepas could get any more delicious. This one is definitely a pantry staple for me!
I hope I’ve encouraged you to try something new! I’ll be back soon to share five more things I don’t want my kitchen to ever be without. Blessings…. E.