Tips for Rookie Cooks

Party In Your Pantry, the third part

Party In Your Pantry

  • Dijon mustard

Excuse me, do you have any Grey Poupon? Well, you should. Dijon mustard is frequently used to add flavor to vinaigrettes, sauces, chicken, fish, cooked vegetables—and of course, hot dogs. Made from the seeds of a plant related to cabbages and radishes, mustard is one of the world’s oldest flavorings, dating back at least 3,000 years. While the ancient Chinese, Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians all enjoyed the “condiment of kings” in one way or another, it was the city of Dijon, France, that rose to global mustard supremacy beginning in the 13th century. The strictly controlled Dijon recipe always uses brown or black seeds ground and mixed with wine or vinegar, which reacts with the seeds’ oils to create that trademark sharp-tangy flavor. An exemplary fridge stocking item, it’ll last for ages, even after the jar is opened.

  • Dried fruit

Our pantries are like miniature desiccated orchards, packed with all kinds of dehydrated fruits just waiting to be tossed into stews and baked into scones. Sweet dried fruits, like dates or apricots, are a perfect match for salty cheeses and dress up a cheese platter nicely. Tart-dried cherries and blueberries add color and flair to a simple salad. Because of the high concentration of sugars and lack of water, dried fruits can last for ages without refrigeration—making them an ideal pantry-stuffer. They’re delicious as is, or they can be rehydrated in hot water to fill in for fresh fruit in recipes like our Fig and Onion Jam.

  • Dried mushrooms

Fresh wild mushrooms, while undeniably scrumptious, can break the bank. Some wild mushrooms lose their appeal when dried (chanterelles, for instance, really don’t hold up), but fortunately, many retain their delicious flavors—and some are even improved by the process. Dried porcinis, morels, and shiitakes can be found in most supermarkets. The price of the tiny packages may seem steep, but remember, the dehydration process concentrates the flavors, so a little goes a long way—a few ounces of dried mushrooms, once rehydrated, is usually enough to replace a pound of the fresh ones. To rehydrate dried mushrooms, soak them in hot, but not boiling, water for 30 minutes. The soaking liquid will retain a good deal of rich mushroom flavor, so reserve it for use in sauces or risotto, or to use a soup stock.

  • Flavored oils and vinegars

These days oil and vinegar come infused with a dizzying array of flavors: Meyer lemon, raspberry, fig, red pepper, basil, roasted garlic, black truffle, and the list goes on. These bottled wonders are the ultimate secret weapon for Lazy Gourmets. Toss them with salad greens, marinate meat in them, or drizzle them over pasta. They offer intense, concentrated flavor right out of the bottle. Drizzle Meyer lemon oil over seared scallops. Toss pasta with chunks of smoked chicken, crushed red pepper, and basil oil. Baste potatoes with roasted garlic oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and roast until crispy. With almost no added effort, mundane dishes are completely transformed. To fancify a dish, drizzle a bit of black or white truffle oil over it—just make sure to purchase a bottle with an ingredient list that includes truffles. The tiny bottles are expensive, but a little goes a long way and few things thrill foodies more than the word “truffled” preceding a dish. Flavored vinegar offers countless variations on the green salad. For an elegant take on an old standby, dress mixed greens with a mixture of sherry or black fig vinegar, chopped shallots, olive oil, and salt and pepper, and sprinkle with crumbled blue cheese and toasted walnuts. Champagne vinegar, olive oil, and salt are all that’s needed to dress a salad of mixed greens, avocado, and pink grapefruit sections.

The combinations are endless. Stock your cabinets with a wide variety of flavored oils and vinegar and you’ll never run short of menu ideas.

  • Garlic

In ancient Greece and Rome, garlic was used for medicinal purposes, believed to cure such diverse ailments as leprosy, asthma, and dog bites. Ancient Egyptians fed garlic to their slaves to increase their pyramid-building stamina. And in the Middle Ages, the omnipotent little bulb was thought to prevent the Black Death. While modern science is revisiting the idea of garlic’s curative properties—the possibility that it might be able to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, prevent cancer, and treat certain infections—we use it mostly to flavor our food and ward off vampires. It’s even delicious all by itself, roasted until soft and spread on good crusty bread. Garlic should be stored in a cool, dark, dry place—don’t put it in the refrigerator or it will get soft and moldy. Unbroken bulbs will last for a couple of months; individual cloves, separated from the bulb, will last about a week.

  • Herbs, fresh

While fresh herbs can’t compete with pasta or vinegar for the Pantry Longevity Awards, they make up for it with their invaluable contributions in the categories of incomparable flavor, visual aesthetics, and all-around gourmet cachet. Meat, poultry, fish, soups, pasta, salads, bread, and even desserts can be enhanced by one fresh herb or another. Add dill or chives to salads; bake chicken with rosemary or sage; sauté mushrooms with thyme or tarragon; sprinkle cilantro leaves on a bowl of soup; garnish a dish of chocolate ice cream with a sprig of mint. You get the idea. Fresh herbs rock. Don’t get us wrong—dried herbs are indispensable to the gourmet pantry, but they don’t look as beautiful, and they simply taste different from their freshly picked former selves. While the drying process concentrates flavors and makes dried herbs taste stronger in some ways, it also causes some of the herbs’ subtle flavors to be lost altogether. Because of this concentration, if you need to use a dried herb in place of fresh, use one-third the amount the recipe calls for. (So, for instance, one tablespoon of chopped fresh basil is equivalent to one teaspoon of dried basil.) And keep in mind that new dried herbs taste much stronger and better than those that have been sitting in your cupboard since college. So if you’re using an older jar, bump up the quantity a bit. If you don’t have your herb garden, effective storage is a matter of some concern, especially since you’re almost always obliged to buy more of a fresh herb than you need for any one dish. One good storage method is to wrap the cut ends of the herbs in a moist paper towel and refrigerate them in a perforated or partially open plastic bag. Another is to put the herbs in a jar of water, like a bouquet, and cover their tops loosely with a plastic bag. Sometimes herbs will last a good long time with no special attention—just bagged and refrigerated. Keep in mind that the finer you chop fresh herbs, the more you release their flavor. And prolonged cooking causes fresh herbs to lose their fragrance and their flavor, so if possible (if you’re not rubbing a roast, for example) add them in near the end of the cooking time.

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