M. Andrew Gordon

Culinary Basics

In Uncategorized on September 25, 2009 at 10:53 am

I had a request for items to keep on hand in order to throw together a dinner, which was actually a great idea because it forced me to really think what I should have lining the cabinets before I tell anyone else what to do!  I guess I’ll leave the sort of things that one commonly finds in the baking section untouched, because I think it’s fairly self-explanatory and how often do you bake when you’re making a quick dinner?*

*There is one caveat to that, more to follow.

There are also numerous items that most people have in their kitchen in the spice rack.  Most of these are commonplace, however, I find most of them to not had a lot of flavor.  I’ll highlight the things that I really like.  And beyond that, I’ll just try to mention what I keep stocked and use in my own kitchen and maybe offer a quick explanation.  This is fairly long and I know I am forgetting some things, bu with that…off to the kitchen:

The Dry Goods:

Sea salt – this is basically a must have, with just the smallest pinch lending huge flavor to whatever you’re making.  Just toss a little bit on the finished dish. If you want to get crazy, have several different kinds of sea salt on hand, i.e. red, black, etc.

While we’re talking salt, one of the greatest things to happen to my kitchen was using kosher salt for my regular salt use.  It has such a better flavor, to me, than regular table salt.  And to think it only happened because I had made pretzels and wound up buying the big box…

Black Pepper – fresh, black peppercorns in some kind of pepper mill.  Pepper is an obvious thing to keep in the kitchen, but to me, you just can’t beat the flavor of freshly cracked pepper.  I also really like my pepper in bigger pieces than the microscopic nano-particles you seem to get when you buy pre-ground pepper.

Chile powder – some will warn that most commercial chile powder is only partially real chile powder and made up of other additives.  So be it, it can still had some good flavor.  Look for something that adds some smokiness instead of just heat.

Cumin – this may be a flavor that not everyone enjoys, but I really like it and use it a lot.  Again, if you want to get crazy, you can get the seeds, toast them yourself, and then grind it, but really, the pre-ground stuff should be fine.

Curry powder – a little goes a long way but it can be pretty useful.

Jiffy Cornbread Mix – here is my caveat about baking and probably the only time I will endorse a brand name product.  Maybe I can get some advertising on here?  While I have heard from a few people who don’t like this and I can’t deny that making cornbread from scratch is really easy, for the approximately $0.45 cents you pay this, I’ll let it slide.  You need milk, eggs, and butter.  And then 20 minutes later you have cornbread.

The Canned & Bottled Goods:

Beans – you won’t hear me often advocating for things in cans, but canned beans are pretty good and you can’t beat the convenience.  98% of time I do like to rinse and drain the beans.

  • Black beans for chili, salsas, and other Latin American themed dishes
  • Pink beans work really well in stews with chicken
  • Cannelini beans can easily be made into a side dish – sauté garlic and onion in oil, add some diced pepper, a can of beans and cook.  Done.  They also make a good dip, if you puree.
  • Pinto beans are another bean often found in chili and other stews.

Chipotle peppers in Adobo sauce – these things come in a little can and one of the best tips I’ve ever gotten is to just pulse all the peppers and their juices into a puree and keep it in the refrigerator, where it keeps forever.  I think mold doesn’t even dare to touch this stuff.  Of course, if you don’t like the smoky-heat of chipotle, this isn’t a good tip for you.

Chicken, Beef, and Vegetable Stock – yeah, I get it: the homemade versions are going to be superior. But at 7pm on a Wednesday, no one wants to make a stock in order to finish make risotto.  I think the canned stocks are perfectly sufficient for most uses.

Speaking of risotto, any assortment of rice, pasta, and other grains like quinoa and couscous are good to have in the cabinets.  But no one really needed me to tell you that.

Tomatoes – yes, the real thing is better.  But you can make a really good tomato sauce really quickly using canned diced tomatoes and fresh garlic and onion.  You can add canned tomatoes to a soup or stew.  They’re pretty useful.

Peanut Butter – like bacon or beer, the title of this blog may very well have been Just Add Peanut Butter, because I think PB is extremely versatile.  It’ll be showcased here, I am sure.

The Liquid Goods:

Any good olive oil. You knew that already.  I hope.

Like the sea salt, if you want to go a little nuts and stock grapeseed oil and peanut oil, more power to you.  But it’s not necessary in the day-to-day.  You can, however, invite me over to cook anytime if this is case.

Vinegar – I would recommend getting some white, a decent red-wine vinegar, and either balsamic or rice vinegar, depending on your preferences.  Or both.

Honey – this is one of those great additions, where just a little can really help pull the flavors together.

Agave Syrup, made from the same agave plant which is used to make tequila, is a good substitute.  I’m just now experimenting with it and have had good luck so far.  I’m told it doesn’t crystallize like honey, which for me, is a strong selling point.

Maple Syrup – especially in the fall-winter.

Any of the Asian sauces like Fish Sauce, Hoisin Sauce, or Oyster Sauce.  They’re a lot more assertive than soy sauce but offer that similar distinct flavor profile.

The Perishables:

Onions keep for a week or two at room temperature – a cool room temperature.  Or at least they do wherever I’ve lived, which is mainly New England.  Regular ol’ yellow onions are fine, I generally prefer red and white (or Spanish, as they are sometimes known).  The sweeter onions like Walla Walla and Vidalia are very good as well, but I don’t believe they keep as long.

Garlic.  You can’t beat fresh garlic.  I store it room temperature and it’s never around long enough to go bad.  It’s also pretty cheap, so if it does go bad, you’re not out much money.  Unlike, say, the stock market.

Potatoes and Sweet Potatoes – like onions, they keep for a while.  Better than onions, they’re an easy side-dish all to themselves with little effort.

Butter – not sure this is really a perishable, but it goes in the refrigerator, so close enough.

Limes – I like limes more than lemons, so, more often than not, I use limes.  They add a nice flavor to many sauces, to a lot of soups, and are indispensable in a Gin & Tonic, Caipirinha, Gimlet, Margarita, and Shady Grove.  This is important.

  1. On my way to Whole Foods with a print-out of this shortly! Thanks for putting this all together.

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