IntroductionThe New Convenience Cuisine
Home cooking has changed, and cookbooks hardly noticed. But supermarkets did. Look at lettuce; whole heads have been replaced with prewashed, pretorn, pretossed, and crouton-studded cellophane sacks. Salad dressings have blended into marinades, mustards have morphed toward mayonnaise, and meats are sold stuffed, filleted, roasted, and grilled.
And still most cookbook recipes call for chopping carrots, mincing garlic, and tearing heads of lettuce. They ignore the myriad of Thai sauces, Jerk seasonings, Asian dressings, Mexican condiments, and Mediterranean pestos that crowd the shelves of every supermarket in every town. Cookbooks give directions for marinades and grill sauces that are clones of bottled dressings; they call for sifting dry ingredients or for sautéing vegetables when a bottled dressing, baking mix, or jar of salsa would yield the same results in a fraction of the time and with far fewer ingredients.
There has been an explosion of convenience foods in the American marketplace, and like the condensed mushroom soup, dehydrated onions, and French dressing of generations past, these foods are not just convenient facsimiles of finished dishes. They are high-powered ingredients in their own right.
A jar of tapenade doesn't just give us something new to spread on bread. It flavors a grilled chicken breast and seasons a salad dressing. It can be plopped atop a baked potato, swirled into vegetable soup, or used to thicken a lamb stew. With time and use, tapenade changes in our mind from an esoteric condiment to a kitchen staple that has elevated the way we cook and eat to another level.
The notion of using convenience ingredients to create powerfully flavored recipes is not new. American home cooks have been modifying scratch cooking for years with manufacturers' box-top recipes, but too often these are little more than dumbed-downed versions of family favorites. They fail to take advantage of the hidden power of the new generation of convenience ingredients: the ability to cook like a chef at home.
When a chef turns out Pesto-Stuffed Grilled Chicken Breast with Sun-Dried Tomato Sauce, the pesto has already been prepared, the sun-dried tomatoes have been soaked and puréed, the garlic has been chopped, the stock has been reduced, and the spice rub has been blended. A few years ago if you wanted to duplicate this dish at home, you would be facing half an afternoon in the kitchen. Now your local supermarket provides all the prep work. Pesto is available jarred, refrigerated, or frozen. Sun-dried tomatoes come puréed into pesto, minced to a powder, or chopped in a vinaigrette. There are spice rubs ranging from ancho-garlic to lemon-basil, and chicken breasts are trimmed in every conceivable form. The preparation that once took hours now takes minutes. It is the vision of Almost from Scratch
that this is not a phenomenon confined to individual ingredients but rather is a new way of cooking that streamlines the way home cooks can prepare everything from soup to dessert.THE CONVENIENCE KITCHEN
Several years ago we attended a family reunion. We were staying with cousins in Atlanta, and the first morning I woke early to make pancakes for everyone. Rummaging through the kitchen I found most of what I needed. There were the expected necessities for a family with young children: two gallons of milk, a dozen eggs, a giant jar of peanut butter, and even a calcified tin of baking powder, but there was no flour. I was getting dressed to run to the store when my wife's cousin awoke. She knew there was flour. She had just bought some in the hope that I might bake something. And sure enough she pulled out a package that I can only describe as an envelope of flour containing just two cups, enough for one cake or a pan of muffins, about 8 ounces.
I hadn't seen it because to my eye it was invisible. As a chef and an only-from-scratch home cook, I bought my flour in large sacks and used it not only for baking but for thickening sauces, browning meat, dusting pans, and frying chicken. What did it mean about the current state of American home cooking that this well-equipped kitchen was stocked with a dozen bottles of salad dressing but only a token packet of flour? What had happened to the American pantry while I was busy cooking from scratch?
Obviously things had changed. Scratch baking had become esoteric, and salad dressing had become an all-purpose sauce. Mayonnaise, enlivened with vinegar and herbs, had become de facto salad dressing, and mustard, spiked with honey, horseradish, or watercress, had become a mini convenience industry. Relish, reinforced with sun-dried tomatoes, mangoes, and lime, had become chic. Pesto was being peddled alongside ketchup, Thai sauces came canned, and Jack Daniels was manufacturing barbecue sauce. And all of these items were instantly ready to produce the kind of flavor that I needed a laundry list of ingredients to create. The world of scratch cooking had been usurped by the very preparations it had popularized.
For decades the amount of time spent preparing dinner has decreased, while opportunities for obtaining dinner in other ways has increased. The proliferation of chain restaurants, ethnic eateries, take-out shops, and dinner delivery services has made cooking from scratch just one option for getting dinner on the table. And as our options have expanded, so has our taste for exciting flavors and foreign cuisines, leading to a revolution at the supermarket.
The array can be mind-boggling and somewhat daunting, especially if you are new to the products. The following lists are offered to help you find your way and take charge.THE CONVENIENCE PANTRY
The first task is to set up a pantry. Although I have tried to mine the depth and breadth of available ingredients in this book, it is helpful to keep a core group of items on hand. With them in your pantry you will be able to prepare a good number of the recipes in Almost from Scratch
by adding one or two fresh ingredients, such as a chicken breast or a fish fillet. To assist in setting up your pantry, I have divided the list in two: what is essential and what is nice to have on hand.
- Marinated artichoke hearts
- Tomato bruschetta
- Canned beans, white and/or black
- Instant black bean powder and/or powdered hummus
- Garlic and herb cream cheese
- Grated imported Parmesan cheese
- Shredded cheddar cheese
- Chicken broth
- Coconut milk
- Chopped or minced garlic
- Minced ginger
- Bottled organic lemon and/or lime juice
- Marinara sauce
- Spicy brown mustard
- Nonstick oil spray (regular and/or olive)
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Olive salad or muffuletta
- Selection of dried pasta
- Basil pesto
- Roasted red peppers
- Vinaigrette salad dressing and/or Caesar dressing
- Chunky salsa (any heat level)
- Curry sauce
- Soy sauce
- Sun-dried tomato pesto or purée
- Tapenade (black olive purée)
- Teriyaki or stir-fry sauce
- Canned diced tomato
- Tomato paste in a tube
- Balsamic vinegar
- Cider vinegar
- V8 vegetable juice
- Red wine and/or white wine
- Spices: chili powder or Southwest seasoning, Italian seasoning, lemon pepper, crushed rosemary, ground coriander, and ground cumin
- NICE TO HAVE ON HAND
- Ready-to-serve precooked bacon
- Nonstick oil spray with flour, such as Baker's Joy
- Barbecue sauce or steak sauce
- Bean dip
- Bouillon cubes: fish and/or vegetable
- Cornbread baking mix
- Chinese chili purée
- Mango chutney or other fruit chutney
- Cilantro pesto
- Curry paste: red and/or green
- Frozen eggplant cutlets
- Fruit preserves (such as lemon, ginger, fig, orange, and/or cherry)
- Hoisin sauce
- Hot pepper sauce
- Pickled ginger for sushi
- Mole sauce (such as La Coste?a or Goya)
- Dried wild mushrooms, such as porcini or shiitake
- Asian toasted sesame oil
- Instant potato flakes
- Peanut butter
- Creamy salad dressing
- Alternative salsas: fruit, pepper, verde, and/or corn and black bean
- Demi-glace sauce concentrate (such as Aromont or More Than Gourmet)
- Frozen shelled and cleaned shrimp
- Sesame tahini
- Thai peanut sauce
- Risotto mix
- Wasabi in a tube
The following directory will answer most of the questions you may have about unfamiliar ingredients. In general I have avoided the mention of specific brands. The recipes were tested with as many brands of a specific item as I was able to purchase at the time of testing, and although I found some differences in flavor and consistency among brands, most of the time the disparity was not great. Usually all the results were acceptable, and brand preferences were more a matter of taste than quality. When a particular brand did make a difference, I have suggested its use. When a brand name precedes the description of the product, I am making a strong suggestion and can't guarantee the proper results if another brand is used. However, when the brand is introduced with the phrase "such as" or "preferably," do not feel restricted by my recommendation. Other brands are likely to perform quite adequately, and I am only mentioning the brand to offer some guidance.
Most of the new convenience products fall into one of two groups:
- familiar ingredients that have been processed to be easier to use (such as bags of washed and torn lettuce leaves, shredded or sliced carrots, and diced or sliced potatoes);
- exotic or complex preparations that have been made more readily available (such as curry sauce, basil pesto, and Thai peanut sauce).
In regard to the first group, you probably already purchase the ingredients in a less prepared state (whole unwashed heads of lettuce, bunches of carrots, and unpeeled whole potatoes), and you may notice that the processed products seem more expensive. For example, a 10-ounce bag of washed and torn romaine leaves sells for the same price as an unwashed head of romaine that weighs twice as much. However, after you wash the head of romaine and discard its core, larger ribs, and any damaged leaves, you are left with about 12 ounces of servable lettuce -- making it not much of a price difference after all.
The second group of ingredients is a different story. Not only is purchasing a jar of basil pesto cheaper than buying the ingredients needed to make it, but you are unlikely to ever prepare pesto, tapenade, curry sauce, or Thai peanut sauce outside of a specific recipe, which eliminates these preparations from your day-to-day cooking. By stocking your pantry with fully prepared sauces and condiments you give yourself the same tools used by professional chefs to create elaborate-sounding, highly flavored dishes. Just having them on hand will revolutionize the way you cook.
A word about cost: Some of the prepared ingredients can seem quite pricey. For instance, a 7-ounce container of demi-glace concentrate usually sells for about $12, which is a lot for a little jar. But since that jar yields more than sixty servings, the cost per serving is less than 20 cents. Also, the concentrate will keep for six months in the refrigerator and can be used to boost the flavor of almost any pan sauce, meat glaze, or soup.
Before buying any packaged product you should take a look at its ingredients list and nutrition label. You might be pleasantly surprised. Even though many manufacturers are more conscientious concerning the nutritional and ecological impact of their products than they used to be, you may want to use or avoid certain preparations or brands depending on your particular health concerns. The object is to determine the healthfulness or harmfulness of any food for you, whether it is manufactured or harvested. This can only be done by knowing your needs and seeing how well the qualities of that product meet them.AT THE MARKET
The ingredients given below are grouped as they would be in your supermarket: produce; sauces; condiments; ethnic foods; grains and beans; meats, poultry, and seafood; dairy; desserts; seasoning; coffee and tea; and miscellaneous. Then they are alphabetical within each grouping.Produce
The traditional image of whole heads of lettuce, bunches of beets, and ropes of garlic has been transformed. In every area of the market, produce has been cut and trimmed to fit the way you cook. The following list describes most of what you will find in a well-stocked produce area, as well as some produce options in other parts of the market. I have included only those products that I personally would use. For instance, I buy asparagus fresh and whole, because to my palate frozen and canned asparagus compromise the quality of the vegetable too much. On the other hand, I have described types of canned tomatoes in depth, because for most of the year the quality of tomatoes in the can is superior to what it is available fresh. Canned tomatoes are just cooked tomatoes, and if you are using a recipe in which your tomatoes will be cooked, the canned products give you a head start.Artichoke hearts and bottoms:
Fully trimmed and cooked artichokes (minus their leaves) are available canned and frozen. Hearts, comprising the inner core of leaves and a small piece of the bottom, are cheaper than bottoms and are more commonly available. The bottoms are creamier and slightly sweeter. When making dips, sauces, or spreads, you can use either canned or frozen, but if you are serving them as a side dish, frozen will give you fresher-tasting results.Broccoli:
Florets of fresh broccoli, loose and in bags, are ready to cook without further washing, trimming, or peeling. The stem section is sold shredded as broccoli slaw. It is both crisper and less acrid than the budding tops. Broccoli is also sold in bunches and as separate stalks, which are cheaper per pound than buying florets but require some trimming. Broccoli is also available frozen, but with the convenience of fresh trimmed broccoli stalks, there is no advantage; by the time you get it thawed and cooked, you could have fresh broccoli on the table.Canned fruit and vegetables:
Usually I don't use canned produce. The processing is too severe and destroys the color, texture, and flavor of all but the hardiest fruits and vegetables. There are some exceptions, such as tomatoes, corn, and beans. Canned yams make great pie and pudding, canned pumpkin makes better pumpkin pie than anything freshly cooked, and canned fruit in sugar syrup is ready-made for puréeing for a fruit sauce or to freeze for an instant sorbet. (See the individual entries for information on specific products.)Carrots:
Fresh carrots are available shredded, sliced, diced, cut into sticks, and trimmed into 2-inch lengths, when they are called baby carrots. Any fresh carrot product is ready to use in salads or for cooking. They are especially good for quick soups, stews, and stir-fries. Carrots in various cuts are also sold frozen and canned, but both processes compromise the texture and flavor of the vegetable.Cauliflower:
Cauliflower is related to broccoli, and the florets of both are often sold packaged together. Cauliflower florets are available loose and bagged. They usually cost about three times as much as heads of cauliflower, but when waste is considered, the cost is almost identical.Celery:
Fresh celery is sold trimmed into sticks and diced. It is fully cleaned and needs no further trimming or washing.Cilantro:
The leaf of coriander is an essential element in many cuisines. It is sold fresh by the bunch with other fresh herbs in the produce aisle but it is also available jarred in the form of pesto and chutney. Cilantro pesto is very versatile and will keep for several months in the refrigerator. The brand I buy most often is Trader Joe's; Stonewall Kitchen also produces a delicious cilantro pesto, but it costs a bit more. Cilantro chutney is an Indian relish that can be found with other ethnic ingredients in your market; it is spicy and should be used with some caution. Dried cilantro leaves are not very fragrant. Frozen leaves are hard to find but deliver more intense flavor.Corn:
Corn kernels are available canned and frozen. Both are convenient and of good quality, and I use both interchangeably. Whole hominy (soaked and skinned corn kernels), also called posole, has a unique flavor due to its processing, and it is essential for some Mexican and southwestern recipes. It is sold canned and dried. Although canned posole is softer and starchier than soaked and simmered dried posole, it is much more convenient because it reduces cooking time from several hours to a few minutes.Eggplant:
One of the most versatile vegetables, processed eggplant is available in several forms. Puréed roasted eggplant dip is the best source for eggplant purée. It is sold as baba ghanouj, eggplant dip, or eggplant caviar. I use eggplant purée to thicken and flavor soups, stews, and sauces, and I make eggplant mousse from baba ghanouj. Breaded frozen eggplant slices are also a convenient and versatile item to have on hand for throwing together a meatless entrée, topping pizzas, or tossing with pasta. They are sometimes called eggplant cutlets. Another option is jarred caponata, a marinated antipasto of eggplant, peppers, olives, and tomatoes. It is a great addition to vegetarian lasagna, makes a pungent pasta sauce, and is an inspired stuffing for leg of lamb.Fruit:
Although nothing compares to perfectly ripe fresh fruit, frozen, canned, and preserved fruit all have their place in a well-stocked kitchen.
- Frozen fruit, such as berries and peaches, are flash frozen in individual pieces when ripe. Upon thawing they lose their texture but retain their flavor and color, which makes them perfect for pies, cobblers, crisps, and sauce. Always thaw frozen fruit and drain it well before adding it to a recipe so that it doesn't leach its liquid into a batter or filling. Unless you are making a dessert sauce or sorbet that will be sweetened, try to buy frozen products unsweetened. Look for bags of frozen fruit in which you can feel that all the pieces are separate and firm. If part of the bag is a solid mass, the product was refrozen.
- Canned fruit is cooked in the can and is similar to poached fruit. For any preparation that calls for cooking fresh fruit in sugar, canned fruit can save time and effort. Canned fruit is categorized by the amount of sugar used in processing. The sweetest is packed in heavy syrup and is the best choice when making sorbet, mousse, or ice cream. Fruit in light syrup or in fruit juice concentrate has about half the sugar of heavy syrup and is good for sauces or stews. Canned pineapple is sold unsweetened, packed in juice. The least processed canned fruit is packed in jars, costs a bit more, but yields more whole unblemished pieces.
- Fruit preserves are cooked in enough sugar to permeate the fruit. They are thick, highly flavored, and very sweet, with only an occasional lump of recognizable fruit. Use preserves to make glazes or fruit fillings for cookies or pastries.
There was a time when I avoided jarred chopped garlic. The amount of citric acid used to preserve the garlic left an acrid aftertaste that I disliked. And although some jarred garlic still has that problem, I have found several brands that deliver good, fresh garlic flavor. I recommend Christopher Ranch, which is sold as whole peeled cloves, chopped and minced in water, and roasted whole cloves. They do not sell chopped roasted garlic, so what I usually do is buy whole roasted cloves and chop them with an electric mini-chopper. The chopped garlic will keep when tightly sealed for up to one month in the refrigerator or for six months in the freezer. Frozen minced garlic, which contains no preservatives, is widely used by food manufacturers and food service establishments. Occasionally it can be found in the supermarket, usually in bubble packs containing a dozen or so teaspoon-size portions. It is an excellent product and very convenient to use. There's no need to defrost it; it thaws in seconds in a hot skillet. One whole clove of garlic equals about 1?2 teaspoon of minced garlic.Gingerroot:
Fresh ginger is hard to handle. First you have to peel it (scraping it with the edge of a spoon works best), and then you have to shred it or chop it, a task complicated by tough hairy fibers that refuse to break down. Jarred minced ginger eliminates all of that and is widely available. It can be found in either the Asian foods section of your market or near the minced garlic in the produce section. Use it as you would freshly grated gingerroot, or you can substitute it for dried ginger at about three times the volume. If substituting jarred ginger in a baking recipe, it should be added with the wet ingredients.
Ginger is also sold pickled for sushi. This thinly sliced marinated ginger can be found alongside the sushi in the prepared foods section of your market, or it can be bought in any Asian market. It is slightly sweet and lightly tangy. I use it as a flavor enhancer and garnish in salads or with grilled fish. Pickled ginger should be kept in its liquid in the refrigerator tightly sealed; it will stay usable for several months.Lemon and lime juices:
Most bottled lemon and lime juices have a pronounced aftertaste that makes them unsuitable substitutes for freshly squeezed juice. The exceptions are organic 100 percent lemon and lime juices bottled by Santa Cruz Natural. They have a clean citrus flavor that is very close to fresh. Once opened, the juice should be kept refrigerated; it will retain its quality for about a month. If storing longer than that, I suggest freezing the juice in ice cube trays.Mushrooms:
White mushrooms and Portobello mushrooms are the most commonly available washed and sliced mushrooms. They are ready to cook right out of the pack and will stay fresh in the refrigerator for up to five days. A few cultivated wild mushrooms are available washed and trimmed in medley packs, which usually include sliced crimini, shiitake, oyster, and enoki mushrooms. Most markets also sell a wide selection of loose wild mushrooms by the pound; they need gentle washing and trimming before they are ready for cooking. Dried wild mushrooms are also available and will keep indefinitely in a cabinet; they need only to be hydrated in hot water before using them. Their soaking liquid is a great addition to soups and sauces.Onions:
Chopped onions can be purchased refrigerated or frozen. The refrigerated product is treated with citric acid to prevent spoilage. This can leave a slight citrusy aftertaste when the onions are tasted alone, but the aftertaste dissipates when combined with other ingredients. Frozen chopped onions have no preservatives, although they are softer and moister than fresh onions, which makes them a little harder to brown but very similar to fresh after cooking. Recently, jarred caramelized onions, which are more like a sweet onion relish than caramelized roasted onions, have started to appear. Although they are too sweet and tart to be a substitute for fresh roasted onions, they can be a delicious addition to roasted chicken or beef gravy and make a surprisingly good sauce base for pasta.Peppers:
Roasted red and yellow bell peppers are available jarred, canned, and frozen, and all are excellent products. Look for packages in which the peppers are mostly whole. Those with visible pieces of burnt skin tend to be a bit smokier. Unopened jarred roasted peppers will keep almost indefinitely, but they should be used within a week after opening and stored in the refrigerator. Sometimes pickled roasted peppers are sold; they can be delicious but have a very different flavor.Potatoes:
There has been a revolution in the realm of processed potatoes since the days when dehydrated mashed potato flakes were the only option. In the freezer case you will find a myriad of options: fried, mashed, twice-baked, souffléed, roasted, and grilled. Crispy French fries make surprisingly good croutons in a salad; roasted and grilled potato wedges can be added to a stir-fry or give you a head start on a creative side dish; and mashed potatoes can be the basis for a soup, soufflé, vegetable pie, or creamy sauce.
In the refrigerator case there are many new options: shredded hashed browns, diced and sliced white potatoes, and wedges of red-skined potatoes. These washed and sliced parcooked products have never been frozen and provide a convenient alternative that falls between fully prepared frozen potatoes and peeling and cooking from scratch. Most of the refrigerated products need some cooking.
One word about instant mashed potatoes: Although I would never use them to prepare mashed potatoes, they are very useful for thickening a watery soup or a thin sauce. Used in small amounts, they thicken liquid instantly without adding an off flavor or forming lumps the way flour and starch can.Pumpkin:
Canned pumpkin purée gives better results with less work than cooking pumpkin from scratch. This is partially because the canning process helps to break down tough fibers and concentrates the flavors of pumpkin more completely than simmering does, but it is also because canned pumpkin is made from a special breed of pumpkin that is unavailable to the average consumer. In recipes that call for pumpkin purée, do not use pumpkin pie filling, which is seasoned and sweetened.Salad bar:
The salad bar in your local supermarket is an ever-evolving source of fresh produce and condiments. There is no rule that says its contents are solely for salad. If you need only a small amount of sliced carrots, snapped green beans, or marinated artichoke hearts, the salad bar can be the most economical way to buy your vegetables.Spinach:
Frozen chopped spinach used to be one of my convenience staples, but prewashed spinach in a microwavable bag has changed my ways (although I usually keep a box or two of frozen on hand for emergencies). Years ago I switched to cooking spinach (frozen or fresh) in the microwave. It takes a few minutes and requires no additional water or pots, no stabbing at a frozen brick, and no stirring a mound of leaves to get a cup of cooked spinach. Now that fresh spinach comes fully cleaned in a package that goes right into the microwave, starting from frozen seems like backtracking.
When serving spinach in whole leaves or as a side dish, I prefer baby spinach because the stems are less noticeable, but for fillings, casseroles, and recipes that call for chopping spinach, I use less expensive mature spinach because the stems won't show after chopping. Bags of fresh spinach will keep for about five days in the refrigerator. Avoid those with wilted leaves or damp spots.Squash:
Frozen winter squash, made from a purée of acorn and butternut squashes, is a high-quality product that is helpful for thickening and sweetening vegetable sauces and soups.Tomatoes:
Tomatoes for canning are picked ripe and are usually in the can within a day or two of picking. Compared to the hothouse-grown specimens available in many markets, canned tomatoes are not only a better buy but are often of better quality. All canned tomatoes are minimally cooked in the can to sterilize the contents, and at most they are boiled down to a paste. The more cooking, the less the canned tomato will resemble fresh, and the more concentrated its flavor will be. If a recipe calls for cooking tomatoes, canned products give you a head start. The available canned tomato products from least to most cooked are as follows:
Vegetable juice (V8)
- Whole tomatoes are cooked in their own juice just long enough to kill any bacteria.
- Diced or recipe-ready tomatoes are the same as whole tomatoes but are cut up. They are much more convenient than whole tomatoes (who has ever used a canned tomato whole in a recipe?) and are sold with no salt added or seasoned with Italian herbs, jalapeños, garlic, or onion. If a recipe calls for fresh tomatoes, diced canned ones are the next best thing, and depending on the quality of the fresh tomatoes available, they may be a better choice.
- Stewed tomatoes are cut in wedges and cooked long enough so that some of the tomato pulp breaks down into the juices. Stewed tomatoes are usually seasoned with onion, garlic, and peppers. Because they are cooked more and seasoned, they can streamline the preparation of some stews and soups.
- Crushed tomatoes are pulverized and cooked until sterile. Use them when you want a smooth but lightly cooked sauce or soup.
- Crushed tomatoes in purée are cooked until the fiber of the tomato starts to break down. Use them when a thicker consistency is desired.
- Tomato purée is fully cooked until all the fiber disappears. Purée is good when you want to make a long-simmered sauce without cooking it for hours.
- Tomato paste is concentrated purée. Its flavor is so intense and its consistency so thick that it should only be used as a flavor enhancer. The best-quality tomato paste is packaged in tubes. Usually imported, these pastes are very sweet and aromatic, and are the only type of tomato paste I recommend. Best of all, the tube keeps air away from any leftover paste, allowing it to stay fresh for months in the refrigerator. No more throwing out half-used cans of tomato paste.
-- Vegetable juice is not technically a type of produce, but when streamlining a sauce, soup, or stew, it provides a balance of vegetable flavors so effortlessly that to my mind it should be given vegetable status. Although blended vegetable juices such as V8 look like tomato juice, their principal flavor profile is closer to the celery, onion, carrot, and bell pepper blend used so frequently in European and American recipes. I use sodium-reduced V8 as a base for soups, braised liquids, and gravies.SaucesAsian sauces:
See entries under Ethnic Foods for specific sauces such as Curry (page 22), Hoisin (page 23), Thai peanut (page 25), and Soy sauce (page 24).Barbecue sauce:
There are hundreds of barbecue sauces out there, each proclaiming itself the best, and it really doesn't matter which one you use. Chances are it is tomato-based, sweet, tangy, and spicy (it might be a bit smoky, too). You can use it on grilled meats and braised ribs, but barbecue sauce also makes a great base for salad dressing, a seasoning for pot roast, or a flavor boost in a stir-fry. Almost any recipe that calls for ketchup can be made with barbecue sauce.Broth:
Chicken, vegetable, and beef broths are essential for making soups, sauces, and stews, braised dishes, and are available in many forms:
- Canned and boxed broths are ready to use. They are packed in a variety of sizes and packages, and many manufacturers sell fat-free and low-salt versions. Low salt is my preference because of its versatility (you can add salt to taste) and because you can't use salty broths to make a glaze (as they thicken, their salinity concentrates into brine). The brand I rely on is Swanson. It has a good balance of vegetables and meat flavors that is close to homemade, and the salt level is moderate. Most broth companies also sell broths flavored with onion, roasted garlic, and/or herbs. Although these may be convenient for specific recipes, the additional flavors limit their usefulness. I'd rather buy straight broth and add my own flavoring.
- Concentrated broth bases are often richer than canned broths and have the added advantage of allowing the cook to season a recipe to taste. If you followed only the package directions, you would think that the only thing these products provided was a way of making broth, but instead of diluting them you can use them full strength, a teaspoon at a time, to enrich a soup or turn watery pan drippings into a sauce. Bases can be found on the shelf, frozen, or refrigerated. They can vary greatly in price, and low price isn't always the best value. Look at the ingredients: If salt is high in the ingredients list, the salt may be taking the place of more expensive flavorful components such as meat and vegetables. The presence of yeast extract and/or hydrolyzed protein can mean the same thing; ingredients such as starch add bulk and thickness but no flavor.
- Powdered broth and bouillon cubes are the cheapest source of broth, but they are also the saltiest. I keep them on hand because they don't need refrigeration and have a long shelf life. I also use them for broths that aren't available canned such as fish, seafood, ham, and vegetable. The brand I use most often is Knorr.
: Marinades are all about flavor. They are saturated with herbs, spices, salt, sugar, and acid, and their intensity is both their best asset and their greatest limitation. It gives them the strength to infuse dense meats with flavor or to glaze a grilled chop right out of the bottle, but the results are caustic if you use them as a pan sauce. If you want to use a bottled marinade to make a sauce, you must temper it with some broth, juice, wine, cream, or even water. With that caveat in mind, go wild. Marinades come in every flavor and for any cuisine you can think of.Pasta sauce:
Although there are literally hundreds of pasta sauces, all you need to know is that what is on your grocer's shelf falls into two broad groups: red and non-red. The bigger group is red, and red sauces can be one of two styles: ragù and marinara. Ragù is the Italian name for a long-simmered sauce containing meat. Ragùs are thick and rich, and usually lack any fresh vegetable flavor. Marinara sauces are lighter, fresher, and thinner than ragùs. They do not contain meat and often have chunks of vegetables. You can also think of ragùs as being an older style of sauce as the popular style for red sauce has evolved from being thick and pulpy to being thin and chunky.
When cooking with red sauce, I usually find thinner is better. Added to a sauté, a thin sauce allows you to cook meat in the sauce without fear of its scorching or becoming pasty. When a recipe requires a thinner sauce, I specify marinara; otherwise the brand and style are left up to you. Most red sauces are jarred, and most jarred sauces are thick. To find a thinner sauce, tilt the jar to see how fluid the sauce is before buying or look at refrigerated sauces, which don't have to cook as long as jarred sauces and therefore tend to be fresher and lighter. You will usually find them next to the refrigerated fresh pasta in your market.
Non-red sauces are either white or green. The most commonly found white pasta sauce is Alfredo, which is a cream sauce flavored with cheese and often nutmeg. It is convenient for making lasagna or a white pizza, and it can be helpful as a creamy soup base. Pesto, a blend of ground fresh basil, garlic, cheese, oil, and nuts, is the most well known green pasta sauce. Most jarred pestos are just that, but some pesto pasta sauce is really a white creamy sauce flavored with pesto. It cannot be used in a recipe in place of pesto.Salad dressing:
Salad dressings are very similar to marinades. They are intensely flavored and often highly acidic, and for the most part they can be used interchangeably with marinades in grilling and broiling. However, you cannot simmer them in a pan. Most salad dressings are designed to be used cold and they separate as soon as they are heated. If you want the flavor of a salad dressing in a pan sauce or stew, you can add it at the end of cooking, being careful not to use too much and keeping the heat low once the dressing is incorporated. Following these rules, you might be pleasantly surprised at how effortlessly a little blue cheese dressing can enliven a potato soup, or how a garlic vinaigrette can boost the flavor of a pasta sauce.Sauce concentrates:
For years restaurant chefs have had beautifully crafted sauce bases from which they create glistening, rich, silken sauces. These products have gradually become available to all of us. They are a bit pricey, but the results are truly professional. There are many types to choose from, including bases for duck and game sauces, but I would start with a demi-glace, either poultry or veal. Demi-glace is a rich, concentrated, all-purpose brown sauce that can transform the simplest sautéed chicken breast or pork chop into a four-star entrée. All you have to do is place a spoonful of sauce concentrate in the pan, add some water, and voilá
Condensed soups have been used for sauces for more than half a century. In fact, at Campbell's Soup Company, where condensed soups were invented, they talk about their standard cooking soups (cream of mushroom, cream of chicken, and cream of tomato) as mother sauces. Because the results are well known and the recipes are already entrenched in American cooking, I have not spent a lot of time in this cookbook exploring condensed soup as sauce. But they still are a very convenient and flavorful way to prepare a silky, family-pleasing sauce base. They also make a surprisingly good risotto, the easiest cacciatore, and a better-than-average meatless moussaka.
Noncondensed, ready-to-serve soups are also useful for sauce making. Lentil soup is instant dal (beans) in a curried stew, and cream of corn, pumpkin, or onion soup can be a great base for a simple skillet sauce.Wine:
It is always helpful to have a bottle of white and a bottle of red wine on hand for sauce making. It doesn't really matter what kind. As long as it is drinkable, it will be cookable, too.CondimentsMarinated artichoke hearts:
Jars of completely trimmed artichoke hearts in a garlic and herb vinaigrette marinade are an essential convenience ingredient. They glorify vegetable lasagna, enrich a dip, enliven rice, and exalt pizza. If I had to limit my pantry to ten ingredients, this would be one of them. Marinated artichoke hearts come whole, halved, quartered, and chopped. When chopped, they are sold as artichoke spread or artichoke antipasto.Bruschetta:
Traditionally known as toast topped with a savory paste, bruschetta has become the name of the topping itself, and in particular the tomato variety. Tomato bruschetta can be found jarred, pouched, refrigerated, and fresh. It is an instant fresh pasta sauce, a sophisticated salad dressing, a topping for pizza, a garnish for rice pilaf, a pan sauce for chicken breast, a relish for broiled fish, and a base for vegetarian chili. Except for desserts, it plays a role in every aspect of cooking. Refrigerated bruschetta is totally unprocessed. It is like a finely chopped tomato salad and must be used within a few days of purchase. You will find it in the prepared foods case of your supermarket, at the deli section, with the produce, or in the dairy case. Bruschetta in a jar or pouch has been pasteurized, which means it has been cooked just long enough to destroy any pathogenic bacteria. It is similar in texture to salsa but has a different flavor profile. It is usually shelved with pasta sauces.Capers:
Capers are the unopened buds of a weedlike plant of the same name. They are native to the Mediterranean basin and have been part of Mediterranean cooking since ancient times. The buds are picked before they get a chance to open, and then are sun-dried and pickled in vinegar or salt. Capers are classified according to size. The smallest, nonpareils, are considered the best, but larger buds have a similar flavor and can be used in recipes without ill effect. Capers are quite pungent, and some recipes tell you to rinse them, although this is only necessary for capers that are packed in salt. Like olives, capers add a spark to sauces, salads, and pasta dishes. They can be scattered over grilled or sautéed meats and are traditionally paired with seafood.
Caper berries are much larger than capers and not nearly as pungent. They are the pickled fruit of the same plant and usually are sold with their stems attached. They are best used as garnish. Capers in brine will keep indefinitely unopened and will last for several months in the refrigerator after opening. Make sure they are covered with brine so that they stay moist.Chutney:
Chutney is the spicy sweet-and-sour relish used in Indian cuisine to give a lift to plain foods such as rice or dal (beans). It is usually made fresh and is largely a mixture of herbs and spices, vinegar, sugar, and fruit or coconut. A chutney made with green (under-ripe) mangoes was popular with British colonials and has become the prototype for the most well known commercial chutney, Major Grey's, which has evolved into a decidedly sweet, tangy, jamlike relish. Now you can find jarred chutneys made from onion, garlic, tomato, citrus, pineapple, apple, and pear. Just a dollop in a pan sauce or spread over a roasting meat will lend a sweet, tart, spicy tang that instantly boosts flavors. Chutney can be stirred into a stuffing or spooned over grilled meat. It can be a dip for fried foods or raw vegetables, and it is delicious paired with cheese.Cilantro chutney:
See Cilantro (page 8).Honey:
Honey ranges in flavor from mild to pungent. In general, color is a good indication of intensity; lighter honey tends to be milder, and darker honey is more robust. Honey also comes in several forms. Liquid honey is the most common, but honey is also sold in its comb, dehydrated into granules, or creamed. Although health claims for honey are common, it really has very few nutritional benefits. It is basically sugar and is best used when you want a honey flavor or when you need a liquid sweetener.Hot pepper sauce:
There are hundreds of hot pepper sauces, but all you need are three: fiery, mild, and chipotle. The fiery one I use most often is a Thai hot sauce called Sriracha Chili Sauce. It is available in Asian groceries and many supermarkets. If you can't find it, anything with flames on the label will do. You should also have a mild hot sauce such as Frank's RedHot Sauce or Crystal Hot Sauce for making Buffalo wings. A sauce containing chipotle peppers (smoked jalapeños) is also essential. Chipotle sauces are on the hot side and wondrously smoky. These three sauces will get you through a variety of recipes. Add them to taste and don't cook the dish much after the hot sauce is added. Hot sauces are meant to be eaten right out of the bottle; cooking destroys their more subtle flavors, leaving nothing but heat.Ketchup:
Sometimes an ingredient becomes so familiar that we lose track of what it actually is; this is the case with ketchup. Ketchups were originally salty fermented sauces from Asia, more akin to soy sauce or fish sauce than the sweet and tangy tomato-based condiment of today. But even though American ketchup is sweeter and thicker than the Asian original, it can have similar culinary uses. Like chutney, it adds a pleasant sweet and tangy kick to pan sauces, dressings, and marinades. A little bit of ketchup can round out flat flavors in a gravy or stew, or thicken a salad dressing without adding extra fat.Mustard:
Mustard has become its own mini-industry. Not only does it come creamy, coarse, spicy, sweet, and tangy, it ranges in color from school bus yellow to mahogany brown, hitting several shades of green and red along the way. It is flavored with fruit, molasses, honey, maple syrup, wine, horseradish, chiles, sweet peppers, smoke, forest herbs, and watercress. It comes crunchy with mustard seeds, stone-ground, and silkily seedless. Mustards are French, Bavarian, Polish, Hungarian, and good old American, and its unmistakable spark enhances bottled sauces, mayonnaise, salad dressings, barbecue sauces, relishes, stuffings, nuts, pretzels, and sardines. Any mustard can enliven your cooking.Nut butters:
Nut butters can lend their creaminess and richness to sauces and dressings without adding any dairy. I keep a good selection on hand, but the ones I use most are peanut butter, tahini (sesame butter), and almond or walnut butter. Except for hydrogenated peanut butter, opened jars of nut butter should be kept in the refrigerator to prevent them from turning rancid. Although most nut butters are sold in the same aisle as fruit preserves and jams, tahini is usually stored with Middle Eastern ingredients in the ethnic foods area of your market.Oils:
Although some oils are for cooking and others are specifically for flavoring, there are a few that can be used for both. I use pure olive oil as my all-purpose oil. When I want to emphasize the olive flavor, I switch to extra-virgin olive oil, and on rare occasions when its olive flavor doesn't go with what I'm cooking or when I'm deep-frying, I use regular vegetable oil. You will also find oils seasoned with herbs and spices. These are for adding flavor to recipes and should be used at the end of cooking and in small amounts. Heating these oils can cause their flavors to dissipate. Unusual oils such as walnut, almond, avocado, and sesame also don't respond well to heat and should be used as a flavoring or in a salad dressing that will not be cooked.
Purchase oils in an amount that you will use within a month or so. An open bottle of oil will eventually turn rancid. You can lengthen its life by storing it in the refrigerator, although it might become semi-solid when cold. To return it to a liquid state, warm it in a microwave or under warm running water.
The easiest way to coat a pan with oil for cooking is to use nonstick spray. Pam was the original oil spray, but now there are many more. Most brands include olive oil, canola oil, and vegetable oil in their product line. As far as I know, there is only one brand of oil spray with flour: Baker's Joy. It is sold for coating baking pans in recipes that call for greasing and flouring pans, but I also use it to coat meats for sautéing.Olive salad:
Also called muffuletta after the famous New Orleans sandwich in which it plays a definitive flavor role, olive salad is a mixture of chopped olives, bell peppers, garlic, olive oil, and herbs. It is usually used as a sandwich spread, but I also find it a wonderful addition to Mediterranean-style pan sauce and stews.Pesto:
A pesto is a flavorful paste that can be used to season everything from soup to bread. The most famous pesto is the one from Genoa, made with fresh basil, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts, and Parmesan cheese. It is also the most commonly available. You will find it refrigerated, frozen, and in jars. Although refrigerated pestos are the freshest, jarred is more convenient and lasts longer. I also use cilantro pesto, artichoke pesto, red pepper pesto, and sun-dried tomato pesto. You can find most pestos in your market shelved with such condiments as capers and olives, in the produce case, or next to pastas and pasta sauces.Red pepper spread:
Also called rouille and red pepper pesto, red pepper spread can be roasted or not. It has a beautiful color and gives you an unadulterated flavor of the vegetable. I use it frequently, whenever I want the sweet fragrance of red pepper without having to clean, core, and chop. Once opened, red pepper spread will last about a month in the refrigerator.Salsa:
If your image of salsa has chips dipped in it, you're missing much of its culinary potential. After all, what is salsa? Tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, and chiles chopped together. That means anytime you need those ingredients in a recipe, a jar of salsa can simplify your labors. It's an obvious head start for chili or a tortilla soup, but it can also be part of a Chinese stir-fry, Caribbean shrimp and rice or a Moroccan stew. There is nothing in salsa which dictates that it can only be southwestern or Mexican. Many salsas are marketed by their heat level, but in most recipes heat is not the main attraction, and salsa is much more versatile. Mild or medium heat levels are the most malleable in a recipe; you can always add hot sauce to taste. But if you like your food incendiary and all you ever buy is hotter-than-heck salsa, feel free to use it. Salsas are also made from other ingredients. Some of the most useful alternative salsas are roasted red pepper salsa, corn and black bean salsa, chipotle salsa, pineapple or peach salsa, and mango salsa.Sun-dried tomatoes:
For nearly three hundred years Italians dried tomatoes in the sun for use in winter when fresh tomatoes were not available. Now sun-dried tomatoes are less important in Italy than they are in America, where they have been integrated into everything from salad dressing to potato chips. Sun-dried tomatoes come in many forms. The least processed is dried halves, which are sold prepackaged or loose; they are usually found in the produce section of your market. In this state the tomatoes need to be reconstituted before use. You can soak them in warm water until they are pliable, drain them (reserve the liquid for sauces of soups), and use them in a recipe. After soaking they can be kept in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
It is more convenient to buy sun-dried tomatoes already reconstituted, packed in oil. They come as halves, quartered, sliced, chopped, and puréed. They are also available processed as salsa, pesto, relish, spread, or paste. Most forms are interchangeable, so if a recipe calls for sun-dried tomato pesto and all you have is sun-dried tomato salsa, chances are it will work fine -- a little chunky but most likely delicious. Once opened, any sun-dried tomato product will stay usable for three months if kept in the refrigerator.Tapenade:
Tapenade is a black olive paste from southern France that is seasoned with garlic, olive oil, anchovies, and capers. It is typically used as a spread on bread, a flavorful sauce for pasta, or as a seasoning for grilled fish or poultry. You will find it freshly made in the refrigerator case of your market along with other dips, or in jars shelved beside the olives, or in the pasta aisle. Use tapenade whenever and wherever you want the flavor of olives. Although not as common, green olive tapenade is also sold in some stores.Vinegar:
Next to salt, vinegar is the most important flavor enhancer in your kitchen. With its innate ability to awaken the taste buds, a touch of vinegar can enliven meat flavors in a broth, heighten fruit flavor in a sauce, or calm a cacophonous curry. Because a little vinegar goes a long way, don't worry too much about price; even an aged balsamic that is $15 a bottle costs only pennies a serving to use. If you have only one vinegar in your pantry, it should be either a good-quality red wine vinegar or an apple cider vinegar. Both of these have some sweetness balancing their tartness. A bottle of balsamic is nice for sauces, and a fruit vinegar such as raspberry or orange is helpful for desserts. After that you can branch out to rice wine vinegar, herb vinegars, chili vinegar, or vanilla, one of my favorites.Ethnic FoodsAsian noodles:
There are five types of Asian noodles:
- Rice noodles (also called rice vermicelli) are white. They can be flat or round, medium thick or angel-hair thin. They do not need to be boiled. Just cover them with very hot water and let them soak for ten to fifteen minutes, depending on their thickness, and then drain them. After soaking, they will be flexible but remain a bit leathery. When you add them to a broth, sauce, or stir-fry, they will instantly soften.
- Bean thread noodles (also called cellophane noodles) are transparent. Made from mung bean starch and water, they are very brittle when dry but become soft and slippery after soaking. Treat them the same way as rice noodles, but they need only five to ten minutes of soaking.
- Soba noodles are made from buckwheat flour and look like buff-colored spaghetti or fettuccine. They should be boiled and cooked very quickly, about five minutes.
- Somen noodles are like soba except they are made from wheat flour and are creamy white. They are cooked in the same way as soba, and the two are often interchangeable.
- Udon noodles are flat, wide white noodles. Like other Asian noodles they cook quickly, in about five to eight minutes.
A blend of roasted eggplant, garlic, and tahini, baba ghanouj is ubiquitous in the Middle East and nearly as common in the refrigerator cases of American markets. Similar to hummus, it is used mostly as a dip with flatbread but is also an excellent thickener for Arab-style stews or as a topping for vegetable pizza. It also makes a very easy baked eggplant mousse. Baba ghanouj is mostly sold fresh and will keep for about a week after opening.Chili oil
(also called hot pepper oil): This very fiery seasoning should be used as you would hot sauce, as a seasoning, not a cooking oil. It is made by steeping chiles in oil until the oil is permeated with their flavor. Sometimes toasted sesame oil is used, in which case the product is called hot sesame oil.Chinese chili paste
(also called chili sauce): This hot pepper paste is a mainstay of Chinese cooking. There are several different styles; it can either be made solely from hot peppers or bulked with fermented bean paste. It is frequently seasoned with garlic. All chili paste will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator.Coconut milk:
Coconut milk is made by mixing finely chopped coconut in hot water until it releases its richness and flavor. When you buy canned coconut milk, all this work has been done for you. It will keep for several years on the shelf and about a week in the refrigerator after opening. If you need to store it longer, it can be frozen. Light coconut milk is made by allowing the milk to settle into its thicker and more watery parts. The thicker "cream" has most of the fat, and when it is skimmed off, the more watery "skimmed milk" that remains is sold as light. It is lower in fat, which can cause it to separate more easily when it is heated. Both types of canned coconut milk are stored with Asian ingredients in your market. Either type can be used for sauces, soups, stir-fries, and stews.Curry sauce
(also called curry cooking sauce, masala simmer sauce, or curry simmer sauce): These Indian convenience foods simplify complex curry recipes down to browning the main ingredient and adding the sauce. They are easy to use and are of remarkably good quality. They are found in the ethnic foods section of your market or in specialty stores.Curry paste:
Red and green curry pastes are for making Thai curries. They are a blend of chiles, lemongrass, garlic, lime juice, and herbs. The only difference between the two is that one is made with red chiles and the other is made with green. Both are concentrated seasonings and need to be thinned with coconut milk, broth, or another liquid.Fish sauce
(also called nam pla): Made by fermenting salted fish, fish sauce is an ancient and important flavoring in Southeast Asian dishes. Fish sauces vary widely in quality, and lower-quality ones can have an off-putting aroma. Those made in China and Thailand are the best. The brand I use most often, called Tiparos, is from Thailand. It comes in both glass and plastic bottles, and the sauce in glass bottles holds up a bit longer. A Taste of Thai, a commonly available brand, is very good. Fish sauce should be a light amber color (the color of tea). It will darken with age. When it turns brown, discard it.Hoisin sauce
(also called plum sauce): A thick fermented soybean sauce, hoisin is dark brown, slightly sweet, and subtly spicy. It is a common seasoning in Chinese dishes and is best known as the sauce served in Chinese restaurants with Peking duck. It can be used like chutney to perk up the flavors of grilled and roasted meats or sweet vegetables, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, or winter squash. It comes jarred and canned; the jar is more convenient.Hummus:
A Middle Eastern blend of chickpeas, garlic, sesame tahini, lemon juice, and oil, hummus has broken into the mainstream. Sold in every market, you will usually find it near the produce area, although there are now so many hummus products, it might have its own mini refrigerator case. It is not unusual to find red pepper hummus, lemon hummus, herbed hummus, hot pepper hummus, kalamata olive hummus, and sun-dried tomato hummus. Hummus is typically used as a dip for crackers or vegetables. It is also a good thickener for soups, a binder for fish cakes, or a base for a creamy salad dressing.Mole:
Mole (pronounced moh-LAY) is an elaborate style of stew in Mexico that is flavored with a litany of chiles, spices, fruit, and nuts. The mole that is sold in jars is a concentrate designed to be turned into stew by adding water or broth. There are two types: brown mole, which is made from red chiles and often contains chocolate, and green mole (also called pipián), made from green chiles, herbs, and pumpkin seeds. The brown mole is usually cooked with meats and poultry. Green is for seafood. Mole is found alongside other Mexican ingredients. It keeps indefinitely in the refrigerator.Nori:
These thin seaweed sheets are best known as the wrappers for sushi. I use them as a garnish for seafood. You will find nori sheets in the Asian section of your market. Buy them toasted if you can. They keep indefinitely.Oyster sauce:
Like fish sauce, oyster sauce was originally made by fermenting oysters, but now it is a thickened, subtly sweet-salty brown sauce flavored with oyster extracts. It is not as fishy or as aromatic as fish sauce, but it is slightly more pungent than hoisin sauce, which it closely resembles. It is a traditional addition to Chinese chicken dishes, but it is equally good as a marinade or glaze for grilled meats, poultry, and seafood.Pickled ginger:
See Gingerroot (page 10).Pipián:
See Mole (page 23).Ponzu sauce:
This Japanese dipping sauce, a mixture of soy sauce and citrus juice, is used most often with seafood. It is very light and fresh, and is a good substitute for soy sauce when you want something more subtle. I prefer it to lite soy sauce, which I find bland and watery.Sesame oil:
There are two types of sesame oil. The pale yellow type, found mostly in health food stores, is made from raw sesame seeds, is very mild, and is used mostly for sautéing. It is shelved in your market with other oils. The second type, toasted or dark sesame oil, is Asian. It is made from toasted sesame seeds and is quite aromatic. It is used as a flavoring agent, usually in small amounts, and is added at the end of cooking. It is shelved with other Asian ingredients. When I call for sesame oil in my recipes, I am referring to the dark type.Soy sauce:
There are two types of soy sauce: thin and thick. Most of the soy sauces you will find are thin. They are watery, dark brown, and salty. You will find thick soy (also called dark) only in Asian markets. It is a thick paste, more fermented tasting, and less salty. I have not used it in this book. Of the thin soys, buy only those that say they are naturally brewed. They may be marked as premium, superior, or light. Do not confuse light soy
with lite soy
, which has reduced sodium. I only use lite soy for dipping and not for cooking because I find that I have to add twice as much to get enough flavor out of it. Chinese, Japanese, and Thai soy sauces taste somewhat different from one another, but for most recipes they are interchangeable. Soy sauces are generally cheap enough to experiment with different ones until you find the type you like. Tamari is Japanese soy sauce.Stir-fry sauce:
Stir-fry sauces are all-purpose, Asian-flavored sauces that are similar to teriyaki. They are combinations of soy sauce, vinegar, ginger, garlic, and sugar, which are all the ingredients one would have to assemble to make a typical stir-fry.Tahini:
A Middle Eastern sesame paste, tahini is sold in tins and jars, usually in the ethnic foods area of your market. Tahini is very creamy and can be used to thicken or enrich sauces. Be careful -- it is quite intense; a little goes a long way.Teriyaki:
A traditional Japanese marinade and dipping sauce, teriyaki is a combination of soy sauce, sugar, vinegar, ginger, and garlic. There are many brands, but the one I buy exclusively is Soy Vay Veri Veri Teriyaki. It is slightly thicker than other bottled teriyaki sauces, much more flavorful, and loaded with sesame seeds.Thai peanut Sauce:
This sauce is a blend of coconut milk, peanuts, fish sauce, and spices, and it usually includes tamarind, chiles, lemongrass, and coriander. It comes dried in packets or jarred. Both are designed to be mixed with canned coconut milk to become a sauce, but the jarred product can be used as a marinade right out of the bottle. Thai peanut sauce is a traditional dip for grilled meats and seafood, but it is also useful as a stir-fry sauce and as a base for an exotic soup.Tobiko:
Tobiko is flying fish roe. Found in the sushi case of your market, these tiny, crunchy red orange balls are used more for their texture than their flavor, which is slightly salty. I use tobiko in salads and as a garnish for fish.Wasabi:
The green horseradish paste served with sushi is wasabi. It comes in two forms: powdered and fully prepared in a tube. Powdered wasabi must be rehydrated in water, so the prepared wasabi is much easier to use. Although wasabi is most often served with fish, it is a delicious seasoning for all types of meat and a great addition to mashed potatoes. The wasabi that is generally available in the United States is not really wasabi. Real wasabi is a rhizome in the mustard family and is cultivated mostly in Japan. It has some of the properties of horseradish (in particular, sinus-clearing), which is why horseradish is used as a common replacement. The wasabi that is commonly sold is a mixture of horseradish, mustard, and food coloring.Grains and BeansCanned beans:
Almost any bean you can buy dried is also available in a can. Canned beans are slightly softer than the same beans cooked from scratch, but this is a small concession considering the hours saved by not having to soak and simmer them. During canning, protein from the beans sloughs into the liquid in the can, making it slightly slimy. Although there is nothing wrong with the liquid, many people think it has an unpleasant consistency, and there is some evidence that draining and rinsing canned beans makes them less flatulent.Instant beans:
Dried instant beans are an all-natural product made by cooking beans with spices and then drying and crushing them into powder. Then all you have to do is add boiling water to bring them back to life. These powders are typically sold for making bean dip or refried beans, but stopping there ignores their hidden potential as a thickener for countless sauces and broths. They make beautiful soups and form a crunchy seasoned crust on a sautéed fish fillet. You will find pinto, black bean, and falafel (chickpea) powders most often.Cereal:
Plain cereals such as Grape-Nuts, Rice Krispies, Chex, and Kix have a slightly sweet toasted grain flavor that makes them the perfect breading for fried foods and a flavorful low-fat topping for a fruit crisp. Packaged granola adds instant sweetness, fruit, and nuts to a cookie or spice cake recipe.Couscous:
Couscous is finely ground pasta that is precooked and dried so that all you need to do is soak it in boiling water. Couscous comes flavored in countless ways, and although flavored products make very easy side dishes, their added seasoning can make them less versatile in the kitchen. For that reason I almost always use plain couscous, but if all you have is a seasoned variety, you can use it and just discard the seasoning pack.Edamame:
Edamame (pronounced "ed-ah-mommy") are fresh green soybeans. Popular in Japan for centuries, they are now grown in the United States, but because their season is short and the fresh beans are relatively perishable, most edamame are frozen. They are usually in their pods but occasionally are already shelled. Edamame cook quickly, in about five minutes in boiling water or a microwave. They can be eaten as a snack right out of the pod, or the shelled edamame can be used in salads, soups, stews, pasta dishes, and stir-fries. Edamame have all the healthful properties of other soy products, including a significant amount of calcium, iron, potassium, B vitamins, and phytoestrogens, which are being touted as cancer-fighting agents.Pasta:
There are three types of pasta. Dried pasta can be stored indefinitely, but it must hydrate as it cooks, which can take time. Refrigerated and frozen pastas are fresh so they do not take as long to cook. This is a benefit when you are in a rush, but they must be frozen for extended storage. If you know you won't be using the pasta right away, it is best to buy it frozen and cook it right from the freezer. Some baked pasta shapes, such as lasagna noodles, are sold as no-boil. This means they do not need to be precooked before baking. They work well, but so does any dried pasta. In fact, you can make everything from baked ziti to lasagna without precooking noodles. Just add a little water with the sauce, and the pasta will cook while the casserole bakes.Polenta:
Polenta is Italian cornmeal mush. You can make it from scratch with coarse-ground cornmeal, or you can use one of the many processed polenta products. They range from instant dry polenta, which still needs to be simmered in water, to fully prepared polentas that are ready to slice and heat. All forms come in a variety of flavors, including garlic, herb, mushroom, pesto, and sun-dried tomato.Rice and risotto:
I am not a fan of instant rice. I find it mushy and bland, and since regular long-grain rice takes less than twenty minutes to cook, I don't see any reason for it. Quick-cooking brown rice does reach tenderness about fifteen minutes faster than regular brown rice, but it lacks the hearty flavor and chewy texture that is the hallmark of the real thing, so I don't use that, either. Boxed risottos are not much faster than using regular arborio rice (about five minutes' difference), and even though they seem easier because they don't require constant stirring, it isn't really necessary to stir regular risotto as much as traditional recipes tell you to (every five minutes or so is fine). So there's not much advantage there, either.Seitan:
Seitan is a vegetarian protein made from wheat gluten. Of all the meatless proteins it is the one that most closely resembles meat in texture and appearance. Seitan comes fully processed in refrigerated packages ready to be grilled, sautéed, or added to a stew.Tabbouleh:
Tabbouleh is an Arab-style parsley salad made with bulgur wheat, but because it is the sole exposure that most Americans have to bulgur, the name of the salad has become synonymous with the grain itself. Tabbouleh is cracked whole wheat that is steamed and dried. To cook it, just soak the grain in boiling water for a few minutes, a process so quick and easy that it is a natural convenience ingredient for time-pressed cooks. It is also good as a stuffing or as a grain for soups.Tofu:
Fermented soybean curd formed into cakes is the most accessible of the popular vegetarian proteins. It is designated by firmness. Extra-firm or firm tofu is best used for stir-frying, soups, and baking. Soft tofu is better for desserts and sauces. You will also find marinated tofu, which is flavored, pressed, and baked into a very firm cake. It needs only to be heated.Veggie burgers:
There are two types of nonmeat burgers. Those made from TVP (textured vegetable protein) have been processed to resemble meat, either ground beef or chicken, depending on the burger's design. They typically come frozen and can be heated in a microwave or skillet. They are good for sandwiches or meatless stews. The other type doesn't attempt to imitate meat in texture, flavor, or appearance. The burgers are made from grain and vegetables, and are more fragile than patties made from TVP.Meats, Poultry, and SeafoodPrecooked bacon:
These all-natural bacon slices have been precooked and are ready to be crisped in a microwave or rendered in a skillet to start a hunter's style stew or a hearty potato salad. The quality is good, and they cost the same to use as raw bacon. The price per pound is usually four to five times the price of raw bacon, but since bacon loses about 80 percent of its weight during cooking, the usage costs are almost identical. Precooked bacon will last in the refrigerator for about two weeks after opening.Beef:
In the meat case alongside the steaks, roasts, and hamburger patties you will find packages of fully prepared beef dinners, such as pot roast and beef stew. Although these are designed to serve as is, they show their real culinary potential as a head start for more elaborate beef preparations such as goulash or a hearty soup.Chicken:
Americans' consumption of chicken continues to grow, with the latest figures hovering at 50 pounds per person per year, and manufacturers are heeding the call. It is now possible to purchase chicken in almost every conceivable form. Fresh raw chicken comes whole and cut into parts, but it also comes butchered, processed, and seasoned in ways that make it faster and easier to cook. Fully-cooked whole chicken is available rotisserie-roasted (a combination of steaming and roasting), and chicken parts are sold roasted or grilled. One word of warning: It has become common practice to pump chicken meat with salinated water to bulk up its weight and lengthen its shelf life. However, this process also toughens the meat and gives it a salty flavor. If you want your chicken unpumped (whether raw or cooked), you need to read the fine print on the label.
The following list covers the butchered and processed chicken products currently available at your local supermarket.
Boneless and Skinless Breasts
- Whole is comprised of both lobes of the breast, still attached and only partially trimmed of fat; it is usually the cheapest.
- Halves are separate lobes, usually with some fat attached; they are best for sautéing.
- I>Cutlets are halves that are cut in half horizontally; they are especially good for sandwiches.
- Tenders or tenderloins are the strips of meat that lie under the large lobe of the breast. As the name implies, they are very tender and cook quickly. You can use them for sautéing or stir-frying.
- Strips are breast meat cut into thin strips for stir-frying or fajitas.
- Seasoned chicken is marinated and is available in a variety of flavors, such as Italian, teriyaki, lemon pepper, rosemary garlic, and herb. It is designed for grilling or broiling.
- Fully-cooked chicken breast is either roasted or grilled and seasoned in a variety of ways. It is good for salads, cold sandwiches, or topping a pizza.
- Boneless and skinless chicken thigh meat is moister than breast meat, and when boned and skinned, it cooks almost as quickly. Use it for soup, chili, stews, or grilling.
- Roasted chicken thighs and drumsticks are available completely cooked. They can be reheated in an oven or a microwave, and make a very quick chicken potpie.
- Wingettes are chicken wings trimmed into sections with the tips discarded. They are designed for making Buffalo wings.
- Drumettes are the "drumstick" section of chicken wings. They are used for hors d'oeuvres or for upscale Buffalo wings.
- Many markets make their own chicken sausage with unusual flavorful additions, such as wild mushrooms, olives, cilantro, and sun-dried tomatoes. They are usually lower in fat than traditional pork sausage.
Imported meats such as prosciutto and chorizo are more commonly available than they once were. Prosciutto comes prepackaged, and chicken and turkey low-fat chorizos are increasingly available.Pork:
In the meat case you will find marinated pork loins, spareribs, and pork tenderloins that are ready to be grilled or roasted. The same meats also come fully cooked, so all you have to do is warm them in a microwave or oven. You will find tubs of fully-prepared pork braised in gravy and pulled pork in barbecue sauce; they are designed to serve as is but are better used to speed up a stir-fry, assemble an enchilada, or jump-start a curry.Seafood:
The economics of commercial fishing dictates that all fish caught during a week's expedition are frozen on board, which means that unless you are buying your fish off the docks from small fishing companies who come into shore daily, you are buying seafood that has been frozen. With that in mind, if your market carries high-quality frozen seafood (not breaded fish fillets or sticks), you are likely to get a fresher product by buying it, especially if you are not going to serve it that day. Shrimp, in particular, are of better quality when purchased still frozen.Smoked meat and fish:
Small amounts of smoked meat and fish are an easy way to get a smoky nuance into a sauce, soup, or stew. There are many options: pork, turkey breast, smoked sausage, and many types of smoked fish, including salmon, trout, tuna, bluefish, sturgeon, carp, and whitefish. Smoked foods are better preserved than the fresh forms. If you keep them tightly wrapped in the refrigerator, the meat should last several weeks, and seafood about a week. If you freeze smoked products, they will lose their texture but keep their flavor, which is fine if you are using them finely chopped as a flavoring agent.Turkey breast:
The popularity of fresh turkey continues to rise. To both fuel and meet that demand, turkey producers keep finding new ways to divvy up the bird. In addition to whole turkeys and turkey parts, here is what you're likely to find:
DairyChèvre or goat cheese:
- Boneless and skinless turkey breasts are available in lobes, sliced into cutlets (also called scalloppine), and butterflied into London broil. Turkey tenders (also called tenderloins) are the long cylindrical pieces of meat that run on the underside of the breast. They are very tender and can be broiled or grilled whole, or sliced for stir-frying or sautéing.
- Ground turkey is considered by many to be a low-fat alternative to ground beef. It is very lean and because of that can be dry when cooked thoroughly. It is best combined with condiments and bread crumbs to help boost flavor and maintain moisture, as when making burgers, meatballs, or meatloaf, or in a chili where it is surrounded by liquid. I also use it as a substitute for ground pork in a Thai meat salad.
- Many companies sell turkey sausage flavored like traditional pork sausage, such as Italian, chorizo, and breakfast links.
The subtle tang and dairy sweetness of fresh goat cheese can add instant sophistication to a plate of spaghetti, a plain pizza, or a savory cheesecake. There are many types to choose from. Start with a nonaged fresh goat cheese. You will see several in your local market, and they are easy to spot. Creamy white and semisoft, they are usually made in the shape of small logs or disks and often have a goat on the label. Fresh chevre will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator.Flavored cream cheeses:
Flavored cream cheeses can be savory or sweet. Savory flavors include garlic and herb, pesto, cracked pepper, horseradish, roasted garlic, jalapeño, garden vegetable, onion, and chive. Melt them over pasta, swirl them into risotto, whisk them into a sauce, blend them into spinach, or stuff them into a chicken breast for instant flavor and a creamy richness. Sweet cheeses include a variety of fruit flavors, cheesecake, honey-nut, and cinnamon. Whip them into a quick mousse, ice cream, or cheesecake.Grated and shredded cheese:
Almost any cheese that is used in cooking is available grated or shredded. If you have a choice between the two, choose grated or finely shredded (also called fancy
) for making sauces or for recipes where you need the cheese to disperse quickly and evenly, as when making whipped potatoes or risotto. Use regular shredded cheese when the dish will be cooked for any length of time. Cheese has a tendency to separate if it is heated too much, and the finer the cheese is shredded, the greater the chance that that will happen. When adding finely shredded cheese to a sauce, heat the sauce to simmering and remove it from the heat as soon as you add the cheese. Stir until the cheese is incorporated, allowing the residual heat in the sauce to melt it gently.Ricotta cheese:
Ricotta cheese makes instant mousse and delicious ice cream. All you have to do is purée it in a food processor with fruit, chocolate, maple syrup, or rum, and refrigerate or freeze the resulting cream until thick. On the savory side, there is ricotta cheese enriched with Parmesan, mozzarella, and Romano, which is designed to be used as an easy lasagna filling. It is equally good in stuffed shells and cannelloni, or tossed with pasta and vegetables.DessertsBaker's Joy No Stick Spray with Flour:
See Oils (page 19).Baking mixes:
Baking mixes, whether for cookies, cakes, muffins, or breads, are nothing more than dry ingredients sifted together. Each one is designed to simplify the preparation of a specific baked good, but in actuality most mixes are fairly generic and more versatile than you might think. Brownie mix, given the right additions, makes a high-flying dessert soufflé, and bran muffin mix makes excellent biscotti. The crumble mix for apple crisp is both pastry and topping for a bar cookie, and cornbread mix is just waiting to be a crunchy, creamy whole grain coffee cake.Pastry:
Although preparing pastry dough is simple, it is not easy. Doing it well takes practice, and those who don't practice, purchase. Fortunately there are lots of options: frozen pie shells in pans, both baked and unbaked; refrigerated pie dough rolled into rounds; paper-thin layers of filo (phyllo); boxes of piecrust mix; and frozen puff pastry sheets that are of such high quality and so easy to use that only a culinary masochist would choose to make them from scratch. There are cookie, cracker, and cereal crumbs for making nonpastry crusts, and even bean powders and potato flakes for alternative savory crusts.Pie filling:
The quality of frozen fruit is so good that I see little reason to use products sold as pie filling. For my taste they are overly starchy and overly sweet.Pudding mix:
Like baking mixes, pudding mix is nothing more than the dry ingredients for a pudding sifted together. Use stove-top pudding mixes to streamline bread puddings, custard pies, or mousse. Do not use instant pudding mix in a recipe that calls for heating.Seasoning
The biggest change in the spice aisle has been the growth of seasoning blends designed to provide you with the flavors of a cuisine or a specific preparation in a single jar. The selection of blends is varied, and you should choose those that best suit your palate and the kind of cooking you like to do. I recommend the following as a start:
- A Mexican-style blend such as fajita seasoning, Southwest seasoning, or chili powder;
- A Mediterranean herb blend such as Italian, pesto, Greek, or herbes de Provence;
- A curry blend such as curry powder, garam masala, red curry, or madras powder;
- An Asian blend, such as Thai or Szechwan;
- A pepper blend, such as lemon pepper or pepper medley.
Another evolution in seasonings has been the emergence of more convenient ways of purchasing gourmet seasonings. For instance, Saigon (or Vietnamese) cinnamon, which was once so esoteric you had to order it from Asia, is now available in your supermarket in a shaker bottle. Rosemary leaves only came whole and ground, but recipes usually asked for them crushed. Now McCormick sells crushed rosemary, and OXO sells rosemary in its own adjustable grinder.
Inevitably your inventory of seasonings will expand as you use more recipes. When your spice shelf grows, try to purchase spices in as small a package size as you can. In general, a little spice goes a long way, and if you have excess, it can go bad. You can tell if a seasoning is over the hill by smelling it. If it smells like sawdust, it probably tastes like sawdust and should be discarded. Whole-leaf dried herbs will last about six months; whole dried spices will last about a year. After grinding, the flavor of both herbs and spices diminishes rapidly.Coffee and TeaInstant espresso:
Instant espresso crystals are the easiest way to get a pronounced coffee flavor in desserts and sauces without adding additional liquid. Buy a small jar because only a small amount is usually needed and the crystals can become stale after several months.Tea bags:
Teas provide a kaleidoscope of flavors for dessert sauces, poaching liquids, and glazes. I use tea for simmering shrimp and fish, for flavoring sorbets, and for poaching fruit. Try green tea for seafood, spice teas for hydrating dried figs, and hibiscus tea for simmering poultry.Tea concentrates:
Liquid iced tea concentrates come flavored with a variety of fruit and honey. They are intensely flavored and quite sweet, perfect for chilling into a sophisticated sorbet or mousse. With the addition of a drop of vinegar they can be a glaze for a roasting chicken or duck.MiscellaneousSmoker bags:
A smoky nuance improves the flavor of almost any roasted or grilled meat. To get it in the past you either had to build a campfire or sprinkle on some Liquid Smoke. Now there is another alternative. Savu smoker bags are a Finnish product sold in many gourmet grocery stores (Whole Foods Markets and Trader Joe's, for example), cookware stores, and on the Internet at www.thestoreforcooks.com. They leave no bad odor in your house, there is no mess, and they work in the same time it would take to cook the ingredient by any other method. Just layer your ingredients in a standard baking dish, slip the whole thing in the smoker bag, close the top, and bake. While the food cooks, wood dust trapped in the interior of the walls of the bag starts to smoke. The smoke is channeled through tiny holes in the inner wall inside the bag where it permeates the ingredients. When cooking is done, you just slit open the bag, remove the dinner, and throw away the remnants.Tube food:
It started with anchovy paste. Now garlic, mushrooms, sweet peppers, hot peppers, tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, pesto, and wasabi are all packaged in tubes. Why? The products are high quality, and tubes keep them that way. By reducing the amount of air that touches the ingredient, the surface doesn't dry out, grow mold, or go bad. Tubed foods will stay fresh in the refrigerator for several months after opening.
Copyright © 2003 by Andrew Schloss