Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Cupboard essentials

When I started cooking as a hobby I knew very little, and I still consider myself a beginner really. But, although I don't cook anything really complicated anyway, recipes are a lot less daunting if your kitchen is well stocked with various general supplies. Your confidence may also improve as you find yourself using and understanding these core ingredients over and over again in various recipes. The more you cook for yourself properly, the less you will rely on pre-packeted pasta and curry sauces, so don't worry, this won't work out being expensive.

  • Onions - onions are simply awesome ingredients. They have a robust flavour that goes with all kinds of dishes, whether you want to make a roast, a lasagne or a curry. They have a nice sweetness to them as well, particularly red onions (which can also be eaten raw as part of a salad, though they have a very sharp taste if eaten this way). Anyone who knows me will tell you that I have an obsession with caramelising things, and onions are particularly good for this. Shallots are very nice too but I find their use is more specific.
  • Garlic - Another very versatile ingredient, garlic adds tang to food.
  • Ginger - this is an essential ingredient for oriental cooking. Fresh ginger root has a much nicer flavour than the powdered, packeted stuff. Keep it covered in the fridge though as it can go dry or mouldy.
  • Rice - I like to keep packets of arborio (for risottos) and basmati (for curries) lying around. Thai cooking often uses Jasmine rice, although - at the risk of re-emphasising my amateurish skill level - I can't really tell the difference taste-wise.
  • Pasta - I won't insult your intelligence by explaining this! All I'll mention is that there is actually nothing wrong with dried pasta as opposed to the fresh stuff. If you're really into Italian cooking you can have a go at making your own, however.
  • Tomatoes - Plum and cherry tomatoes are nice for making salads with or for putting in sandwiches with a bit of cheese. However, for cooking, I normally use tins of Italian chopped tomatoes as the British climate isn't as conducive for growing flavoursome tomatoes. If you have plenty of these tins lying around then it really isn't much aggro to make a variety of cook-in sauces, especially basic tomato sauce for pasta which you could do in your sleep! Tomato puree is also handy to have around.
  • Potatoes - I like to use floury old potatoes like Maris Piper for roasting or mashing. In spring, new potatoes like Jersey Royals come into season, and these are good for boiling.
  • Carrots - not a lot to say here really, again they just go with quite a lot of dishes.
  • Cheese - for English dishes (and for making sandwiches) I like to use mature cheddar. Parmesan is a good subsitutute when you make shepherd's pie and is a no-brainer for authentic Italian cooking - it's more expensive than cheddar but since you only grate a little bit at a time it's not that bad.
  • Stock - a good stock is one of those ingredients that can take a dish from being "meh" to being "whoa!". As well as adding moisture to a dish, it also strengthens the flavour of the meat, which is particularly important (in my humble opinion) if you're cooking meat off the bone. In an ideal world you should make fresh stock; it takes a while but it's not actually hard, you just leave it boiling until it's done, do something else in the meantime, and refrigerate or freeze it; I will show you how to make this in another post. Failing this, you can buy packets of liquid stock in supermarkets; I recommend Knorr and Tesco Finest as they have all natural ingredients and no added preservatives. I would only use stock cubes as a last resort, and I wouldn't touch gravy granules with a barge pole; it might sound snobbish, but if you try fresh stock in a simple recipe like sausage and mash then you'll see what I mean.
  • Mushrooms - these things have such a great, mellow flavour. I'm not an expert and there are many different varieties you can get (including wild ones). Porcini, flat cap, button and chestnut mushrooms are quite versatile in my opinion.
  • Alcohol - as well as adding depth of flavour to dishes and getting you into a nicely inebriated state whilst you cook (always a good idea when you've got pans full of hot oil - try it), alcoholic drinks are used to help deglaze a pan - that is, to help dislodge the sediment at the bottom of a pan that you've fried or roasted something in. The general guide is that stout and ale go well with beef, red wine goes well with red meat and poultry, white wine goes well with white meat, poultry, fish and vegetables, and cider goes well with pork (although I've heard some people use it with chicken and turkey). You don't generally need really good wine for this so don't be afraid to just buy a cheap bottle of plonk to use for cooking.
  • Vinegars - balsamic for salads, malt for chips, rice for oriental cooking, cider/white wine/red wine/sherry for various other bits and pieces. On a related note, it's worth getting light and dark soy sauces (yes they are different!) and Worcestershire sauce.
  • Flour - the type you need varies depending on what you're making. If you want to make bread, you may be surprised to hear that the flour you need is called bread flour (I'll just let that sink in for a moment). Plain flour is good for general cooking and pastry, and it or cornflour can be used to help make things go crispy or thicken, although for the latter purpose I would be careful as you don't want to make your sauces taste too pasty. Self-raising flour will go lumpy if you put it in gravy or whatever, but it's what you use for making cakes.
  • Fat - you are actually supposed to have a little bit of fat in your diet, just don't go overboard with it! Different fats have different flavours and also different burning points. Butter has quite a low burning point so if I'm frying I often put a little bit of olive oil in the pan first to prevent it from burning. Olive oil is flavoursome and quite good for you (although this isn't a license to go overboard - calories are calories!). A lot of people buy extra virgin olive oil because they think the higher price = higher quality. However, I *believe* extra virgin has a lower burning point, and even top chefs like Gordon Ramsay will tell you to stop wasting your money and use normal olive oil for frying. You can buy more upmarket brands of normal olive oil if you're really determined to spend more for higher quality; just use extra virgin for drizzling on salads etc. For curries or stir-fries, use groundnut, vegetable or sunflower oils, as these have high burning points and no flavour.
  • Herbs - dried basil and oregano are nice to have hanging around for emergencies, but fresh herbs are where it's at; I really miss the multitudinous bunches of lovely fresh herbs in Greece. If you have a patch of soil in your garden or space for a window box, some nice parsley, basil, thyme, sage, rosemary and coriander will take care of most dishes. As long as you can keep them growing then you basically have a constant supply of fresh herbs, which is a lot cheaper than buying them in packets. You also want to get some bay leaves.
  • Spices - if you have a pestle and mortar (which I do, because I'm cool) then you can buy whole spices rather than ready-ground ones, so they will last a lot longer. Cumin, garam masala, cinnamon, turmeric, coriander, fennel, fenugreek and chilli powder are good ones to have lying around. Mustard is also great in reasonable quantities for adding flavour to meat dishes; you can buy mustard seeds, mustard powder, or pots of English, Dijon, American and wholegrain mustard, of which everyone seems to have a favourite (mine is English, maybe I'm biased!). Not everyone can handle very hot mustard; American is the mildest.

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