Tips for Rookie Cooks

Party In Your Pantry, Part V

Party In Your Pantry

  • Pasta, dried

While fresh pasta is a delicacy that we wholeheartedly recommend you consume whenever you can, dried pasta has been a vital feature of the Italian diet for centuries. Old prints and drawings show workshops draped with miles of spaghetti drying in the hot Mediterranean sun. It’s hearty and nutritious, and its exceptionally long shelf life makes it a model member of any modern pantry. To crank your gourmet status up a level, try some of the lesser-known types in place of the typical penne, linguine, and spaghetti. Black pasta, flavored and colored with squid ink, is delicious (not to mention beautiful) with seafood dishes. Pastas colored with carrot, spinach, beet, tomato, or squash also add a considerable dazzle factor to ordinary pasta dishes. Fregola, from the island of Sardinia, consists of tiny chewy balls made from coarsely ground semolina. It’s delicious with sauces or in soups. Orzo and risi are tiny, smooth-textured, rice-shaped pastas that are wonderful in soups or served as a substitute for rice. Star-shaped stelle and square-shaped chilopitta both provide a nice visual break from the usual tubes and strands. Couscous is a delightful North African micropasta that resembles very large grains of sand. Store your favorites pastas in an airtight container in a cool, dry place and they’ll last a good long time.

  • Peppers, roasted and jarred

Roasted, jarred peppers (usually red) are a pantry must. An unopened jar of roasted peppers has a very long shelf life, waiting patiently in your cupboard until you’re ready to enhance sandwiches, stews, sauces, and cheese platters with its delicious contents. And even once you’ve opened the jar, the peppers will stay fresh and usable in the fridge for another week or so. Roasting your own peppers isn’t the world’s most difficult task, but popping open a little glass jar is far easier.

  • Puff pastry, frozen

The process of making puff pastry from scratch is complex and time-consuming, to say the least, and should not be attempted by a Lazy Gourmet for any reason. So how are you going to dazzle your friends by making extraordinary Apple, Blue Cheese, and Walnut Tarts (page 94)? Luckily, you can buy premade, frozen puff pastry sheets that are easy to use and result in a perfectly delightful finished product. If you can find it, shell out a few extra bucks for a top-quality brand that uses real butter; otherwise the standard supermarket brands will do just fine. Here are a few tips for working with frozen puff pastry. To thaw, let the box sit at room temperature for 45 minutes. You can also thaw it in the fridge overnight and then let it sit out at room temperature for 10 minutes before using. When it is thawed and ready to use, gently unfold pastry sheet on a lightly floured surface. If there is any moisture on the dough from the thawing, blot it dry with a paper towel. If it tears or cracks along the fold lines, just pinch it together with your fingers and patch with a drop of water, if necessary. Prick the dough with a fork, at ½-inch intervals, before baking to prevent it from puffing up in the middle. But don’t prick the areas that you do want to puff up, for example around the edge of a tart. And finally, if you want the exposed parts of the pastry to have a nice brown glaze, brush them with lightly beaten egg before baking.

  • Rice

We know what you’re thinking: rice is rice, an utterly forgettable side dish, right? But did you know there are actually more than 40,000 different types of rice? If you haven’t been down the rice aisle in your supermarket for a while, you may be surprised by the rainbow of grains you’ll find there: green and black from China, red from France and the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, black Italian, purple Thai, and countless other hues. Indeed, the world of rice is as complex as that of fine wines, right down to the terroir—the unique combination of soil, climate, and altitude that gives each rice its own distinctive flavor and texture. Bhutanese red rice, for instance, is irrigated by mineral-heavy glacier water that gives it an earthy flavor. Another red rice, from France’s marshy Camargue area, is mildly sweet. China’s iron-rich “forbidden” black rice is nutty, smoky, and low in starch. Italian venere Piemontese combines the high starch content and large size of arborio (commonly used for risotto) with the ebony color and nuttiness of the Chinese black. Many of these rices are “heirloom” grains, meaning they’re grown from seeds passed down for hundreds of years without being cross-bred or altered in any way. Keep a few of these exotic rices on hand and you’ll be able to impress guests not only with their deliciousness, but also with tales of their ancient histories.

  • Salt

These days, you’ll find a salt shaker on just about every table in America, and many other countries, too, but back in ancient times this mineral—a seasoning, a preservative, and a vital nutrient all at once—was a prized commodity, even used in some societies as currency. Today, copious amounts of salt are mined from large deposits left in long-dried lakes. Don’t let salt’s ubiquity fool you, though. Not all salt is created equal.

  • Kosher salt

Kosher salt isn’t just for rabbis anymore—food connoisseurs swear by it. Because it’s made without additives, it provides a clean, pure flavor chefs love. It’s coarser than common table salt, so there’s less of it in any given volume, giving the cook more control and making it harder to inadvertently oversalt food. Its coarseness also makes it very easy to pick up by the pinch. We specify kosher salt in most of our recipes. You’ll find it in just about any supermarket, alongside the table salt. When using kosher salt, remember that because of its large grains, it delivers less salt in any given volume than fine-grained table or sea salt. To complicate matters further, there are two common brands of kosher salt—Morton’s and Diamond—and due to different manufacturing processes, wouldn’t you know, they deliver surprisingly different amounts of salt by volume. Morton’s is denser and more intensely salty than the lighter, flakier Diamond. We use Morton’s kosher salt in our testing kitchens, so if you’ve got a different brand or type of salt in your kitchen, your dishes may end up underseasoned, but that’s easily fixed by tasting and adjusting the seasoning as necessary—a whole lot easier than trying to take salt out of an overseasoned dish. As a general rule of thumb:

  • 1 teaspoon table salt
  • = 1¼ teaspoons Morton’s kosher salt
  • = 1¾ teaspoons Diamond kosher salt

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