Tips for Rookie Cooks

Party In Your Pantry

Party In Your Pantry

A well-stocked kitchen makes Lazy Gourmet cooking a breeze. By keeping a few key ingredients on hand, you’ll be able to turn the mundane into the magical at a moment’s notice. Tired of standard salads? Toss in some roasted nuts and dried berries. Bored of bland eggs? Scramble in some capers and feta cheese. Startled by surprise guests? Whip up some Olive and Sun-Dried Tomato Tapenade made from ingredients you just happen to have to lie around and they’ll think you were expecting them all along. (Watch out—they may begin to make a habit of dropping by unannounced and hungry.) This chapter reveals our favorite pantry-, fridge-, and freezer-stocking items. Everything listed here has a reasonably long shelf life (ranging from a week or so to nearly infinite), making your well-stocked gourmet kitchen practically effortless to maintain.

  • Balsamic vinegar

This rich, sweet-tart Italian vinegar was so cherished in the olden days that it was sometimes included in the dowries of noblewomen and bequeathed in wills. It was even used, once upon a time, as a disinfectant and pain remedy. We can’t vouch for its ability to sanitize bathrooms or cure tennis elbow, but we can attest to its deliciousness. This versatile culinary treasure is used in salad dressings, sauces, marinades—even desserts and beverages. Splash it into a dish of olive oil and you’ve got a tasty dipping sauce for crusty bread. Or boil it down to a syrupy reduction and drizzle it over roasted vegetables, meat, cheese, fruit, or ice cream.

Authentic, high-quality balsamic vinegar is aged for years in a secret progression of wooden barrels, each type of wood lending a particular aroma to the finished product. While the best balsamic vinegar has been aged a hundred years or more, luxurious and somewhat more affordable 12-year-old versions are readily available in specialty food shops and high-end supermarkets. For the budget-conscious, there are plenty of less expensive though still delicious versions are available. Some may be made from red wine vinegar, aged in stainless steel tanks, or colored with caramel, but they still make for a tasty, multipurpose kitchen staple.

  • Broth or stock

Wondering what to do with that lonely head of cauliflower? Those last few carrots? If you’ve got a couple of cans of broth on hand (as well as an onion and some basic spices) you can whip up beautiful gourmet soups without having to set foot outside the house—a perfect solution for the epicurean agoraphobe. We like to keep a variety of broths around, including vegetables, chicken, beef, and fish or shellfish. Leftover broth can be stored in the refrigerator, in a tightly sealed container, for up to a week.

  • Capers

These mysterious little green balls, ranging in size from a pea to olive, are the unripened flower buds of Capparis spinosa, a prickly bush native to the Mediterranean. Preserved in wine vinegar or brine, they have a tart, tangy flavor, and add a surprising complexity to sauces, salads, fish, chicken dishes, and even sandwiches. Because capers are pickled, they’ll last in the refrigerator, even after the jar has been opened, for months. For a sophisticated crunchy garnish, try deep-frying your capers.

  • Cheese

In all its myriad glorious forms, cheese is without a doubt one of the most important staples of the lactose-tolerant Lazy Gourmet’s kitchen. Here we list a few of our favorites to keep on hand.

  • Blue cheeses

Blue cheese is the general term for cow’s milk, sheep’s milk, or goat’s milk cheeses that have had cultures added to cause the development of edible molds throughout the cheese. This delicacy was no doubt discovered by accident—a batch of cheese was left to age in a spooky French cave, grew moldy, and was eaten by some brave, hungry, unwitting culinary pioneer. These days, pungent, salty blue cheeses like Roquefort, Stilton, Maytag, Gorgonzola, and Blue Castello are created intentionally by adding mold spores to the cheese during pioneer. These days, pungent, salty blue cheeses like Roquefort, Stilton, Maytag, Gorgonzola, and Blue Castello are created intentionally by adding mold spores to the cheese during production and are prized by food connoisseurs around the world. Blue cheese is delicious in salads with fruit and nuts or as an addition to savory baked goods.

  • Chèvre

Chèvre (pronounced she, at least by Americans) is the French word for “goat” and refers to the soft, fresh goat’s milk cheese commonly found in supermarkets in the U.S. A label that reads “our chèvre” guarantees a product made entirely from goat’s milk; others may contain added cow’s milk. While the texture and consistency of chèvres vary from producer to producer, chèvre found in the U.S. is most commonly compared to slightly dry cream cheese—with a richer, tangier flavor. Chèvre is delicious in salads and sandwiches or with chicken or pasta, or simply spread on a piece of hot French bread and topped with marinated sun-dried tomatoes. Wrapped tightly in plastic, the chèvre will last in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks. Once past its prime, chèvre takes on a sour taste and should be tossed out.

  • Feta cheese

Just like Doric columns and democracy, feta cheese is a momentous Greek invention. Although it won’t hold up your roof or give the common man a voice, it will make your salads delicious. Feta—Greek for “slice”—is traditionally made of sheep’s or goat’s milk, but today some commercial brands are made with cow’s milk, creating a milder product. It ranges in texture from soft to semihard and crumbles easily. Cured and stored in salty brine, feta has a tart, tangy flavor that is irresistible in salads, on sautéed vegetables, or blended into a spread. The brine also acts as a preservative, so feta doesn’t spoil easily—precisely the point, as it was originally produced thousands of years before the era of refrigeration. A chunk of feta will keep in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks—even longer if you store it in its salty brine.

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