Tips for Rookie Cooks

Party In Your Pantry, part Four

Party In Your Pantry

  • Nuts

We never tire of our nutty little friends. Keep a variety of shelled nuts on hand to toss into salads and stir-frys, or serve them with cheese and olives for a no-fuss appetizer platter. You’ll find the recipes in this book sprinkled with delectable pistachios, almonds, walnuts, peanuts, and pecans—but one of our all-time favorite ingredients is pine nuts (which are technically not even nuts, but seeds). Try this simple experiment: whatever you’re planning to cook, add the phrase “with toasted pine nuts” to the end of the name. Doesn’t that sound great? (It doesn’t always work, but we trust you to use your best judgment.) These tiny, flavor-packed morsels are the edible seeds of several different species of pine tree—they live inside the pinecone, which is heated to facilitate the release of its delectable progeny. Most nuts are high in fat, so unless you’re planning to consume them within a couple of months, store them in the fridge or freezer to keep them from becoming rancid. Many recipes call for toasted nuts because heating brings out their flavor. You can either buy them pre-toasted or toast them yourself using one of two easy methods: spread them in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake at 375°F until they’re lightly browned (7 to 10 minutes), or stir them in a hot, dry skillet over medium heat until they’re lightly browned (5 to 7 minutes). Pine nuts can burn quickly, so dial down the heat a bit for these sensitive little guys. P.S. In the interest of full disclosure we must tell you that peanuts are not nuts but legumes, like peas and beans. Sorry if that freaks you out.

  • Olive oil

Although there are many oils acceptable for cooking, olive oil is a time-tested classic prized around the world for its versatility, health benefits, and delicious flavor. Called “liquid gold” by Homer, the oil of pressed olives was used in antiquity to anoint the heads of nobles, coat athletes’ bodies, and even honor the bones of dead saints. According to modern-day nutritionists, olive oil contains healthy monounsaturated fats, antioxidants, and even an anti-inflammatory agent—all of which may reduce the risk of a host of ills, from stroke to cancer to heart disease. As with wines, olive oils vary dramatically with the soil and climate of their growing regions as well as the variety of trees and time of harvest. Products can range from a light champagne color to bright green. In general, the deeper the color, the stronger the flavor. All olive oils are graded by their degree of acidity. At the top of the line, with an acidity of only 1 percent, are those that are both extra virgins (traditionally the result of the first pressing of the olives) and cold-pressed (a chemical-free pressing process). Virgin olive oil has an acidity level of about 2 percent. Today, the terms “first pressing” and “second pressing” are mostly anachronistic, as the vast majority of oil is made in continuous centrifugal presses—but the terms endure as an indication of acidity and quality. Fino is a blend of virgin and extra virgin. Refined oil has been treated to neutralize unpleasant tastes and acid content. Pure olive oil—or simply “olive oil”—is refined oil combined with virgin or extra virgin. Light olive oil contains the same amount of fat as traditional, but an extremely fine filtration process gives it a lighter flavor and color, making it mild enough for baking. It also has a higher smoke point, making it better for frying and other high-heat cooking, whereas regular olive oil is best for low- and medium-heat cooking. Flavorful extra virgin is the best choice for uncooked foods like salad dressings. Olive oil can be stored in a cool, dark place for months. To double its life span you can keep it in the refrigerator, where it will become thick, cloudy, and unsightly—but will return to its normal liquid state when brought back up to room temperature.

  • Olive or vegetable oil spray

This tidy, time-saving product lets you oil pans for sautéing, grease cookie sheets for baking, coat veggies for roasting, and oil crostini for broiling with a mere twitch of an index finger. This is not your mother’s nonstick mystery spray. These days, spray oils contain the same high-quality product that comes bottled but give you much more control over its application. If you prefer a pump to aerosol, purchase an oil mister at a kitchen supply store and fill it with your favorite oil.

  • Olives

A simple jar of olives can be a real lifesaver. Perhaps not, like antibiotics or the Heimlich maneuver, but if you’re dying for some deliciousness, olives are the cure. The bottled variety, cured in brine or oil, will sit patiently in your pantry until you’re ready for them. Many supermarkets now offer “olive bars” that allow you to choose as many or as few as you want of different varieties—Greek, French, Italian, garlic-stuffed, pimiento-stuffed, oil-cured, spicy, herbed, and even liquored-up. Pick and choose to make your unique olive combo to add to an antipasto platter, toss into a salad, top a pizza, or pop into swanky martinis. A staple of Mediterranean cuisine, olives are also a great way to get your heart-healthy monounsaturated fats.

  • Onions

Not only can you sauté, caramelize, roast, braise, fry, grill, or pickle these pungent little bulbs— you can also bury them with the next Pharaoh you have to entomb. Or try using them as a medicine to promote healthy digestion, vision, and heart function, as did the ancient Indians. Or consume several pounds of them before your next Olympic competition, like an ancient Greek athlete. But even if you don’t choose to use onions for spiritual, medicinal, or athletic purposes, you should always keep a couple around the kitchen for cooking—they add flavor and dimension to everything they encounter. You can even feature them solo—just peel, rub with olive oil, roast in the oven until soft, and drizzle with Balsamic Syrup (page 147) for a rustic side dish. Raw onions are hearty—they should last for a few weeks in a cool, dry, well-ventilated spot, away from direct sunlight. Chopped onions will keep in the refrigerator, in a tightly sealed container, for a couple of days.

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