Friday, June 7, 2013

Pantry Confidential

I love being organized enough to make a recipe from one of my many cookbooks or even create a new one after putting some thought into it, but unfortunately that's more of a luxury than a necessity. Who has the time to go to 7 grocery stores to find every last ingredient for every meal? If you do, then good for you - you're lucky! Sometimes the goal for me is to simply get dinner on the table quickly with as little thought or effort as possible. I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels this way - we're all busy leading hectic lives... 

I often come home from a gym session in the evenings, absolutely starving and the last thing I want to do is stare at a cookbook or prep ingredients for 30 minutes. What I really want is something I can leave on the stove or in the oven long enough to jump in the shower without worrying that it will burn and most importantly, I want to eat! Raging, plate-licking, all I can think about is food hunger takes over and in that state, it's easy to let creativity and healthy options fall by the wayside in an attempt to get anything into your stomach. The dangers of relying on ready meals are lurking... Anything that's quick and easy will suffice, but at what cost? Bloating? Weight-gain? Even worse, that horrible feeling of being unsatisfied?

In an effort to avoid the fast & easy temptation of a fatty frozen pizza on days like these, I've found that having a well-stocked pantry is the key to getting yummy, nutritious meals on the table with little effort or extravagance. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with frozen pizza - I love it, but on my terms, when I choose to have it, not as an I can't be bothered to cook something option that I end up eating every night. I have been guilty of relying on bottled sauces in the past that I've dumped into pots of chicken or fish and served messily over rice. There's nothing wrong with that - they're tasty, but the sodium content is probably a bit high in most of these sauces and having them every night is unnecessarily expensive. Never mind the panic when the sauce runs out unexpectedly and the emergency frozen pizza comes out even though you just worked your ass off quite literally at the gym.  It's a shame when that happens...

After years of experimenting, I've got a hefty arsenal at hand to prevent such problems. Having these non-perishable enhancers means that I can literally get things boiling and baking effortlessly and have a variety of meals on the table in 30 minutes or less! All I have to do is make sure I'm stocked up on my preferred basics like meat, fish, veggies and a various assortment of carbs, but as long as I have any of those, whipping something up with my pantry staples is a breeze! Here are some of my favorite essentials:

  1.  Dried Chili Flakes - I like to get these from Borough Market where there are a variety of different flavors & intensities on offer, but the grocery store options will work just fine. I first started using these when I saw my mother-in-law bake salmon in tin foil with just a splash of olive oil and dried chili flakes - it was delicious. Now I put them in everything! Sprinkle them on fish or meats, add to sauces or spritz veggies with a bit of olive oil and sprinkle chili flakes & sea salt over them for a kick. YUM! What's even better is that dried red chili flakes offer a variety of health benefits such as beta-carotine, antioxidants and more. Click here to read more about the health benefits of red chili flakes. 
  2. Filippo Berio Extra Virgin Olive Oil Spray - There's nothing new about this concept. People have been putting olive oil in spray bottles for ages, but it's handy that you can now buy it in this form. I originally bought the Filippo Berio spray on Thanksgiving when I needed to transport some Olive Oil for my dish in a way that wouldn't make a mess. Now I buy it for my husband to keep at the office for his salads and I rely on it in the kitchen spritzing vegetables, fish, meat and even pasta to get the perfect amount without over-pouring. It's also great for adding a quick non-stick spritz to pasta water!
  3. Nudo Olive Oil With Lemons - Lemon olive oil has become my new favorite thing over the past year. I have a variety on my kitchen counter ranging from cheap and cheerful to high quality for different purposes. When cooking, I tend to use a lower quality lemon olive oil, but if I'm serving it straight out of the bottle, I'll go for the best quality I can get. I love it for cooking chicken and fish! I also love drizzling it into tuna salad, chicken salad, fresh bread or even vegetables like green beans for a kick of flavor. Cook garlic in a tablespoon or two of lemon olive oil, and add a bit of chicken or veggie stock to make a lovely sauce for pasta or rice - thicken with cornstarch (aka cornflour in the UK). YUM!
  4. Birds Eye Soya Beans - Because these soya beans (aka edamame) are frozen, I can keep them forever and I literally put them into EVERYTHING. I stir them into curries and other meat dishes, use them to make bean salads, have them as a meat substitute in rice or pasta dishes, eat them salted on their own as a snack, mix them into tuna or chicken salad or throw them into soups. Edamame is my everything food and it can add a bit of attractive color to a drab looking dish too!
  5. Sliced Almonds - I never cooked with sliced almonds until I made Chicken Tetrazzini for the first time and I fell in love. They not only add an amazing flavor to food after lightly toasting them, but they also give a great, crunchy texture to soft dishes. Toast sliced almonds and add to salads, rice and pasta for a bit of flavor or crush them up to make a crispy, crunchy, gluten-free coating for fish or chicken! Sliced almonds are also great for adding to deserts for a little something extra, especially chocolate ones! Click here to see my recipe for Chicken Tetrazzini!
  6. Cashews - I started throwing cashews into teriyaki chicken & fish dishes and it works. Toast them quickly in a hot pan and use similarly sliced almonds above. My recipe for cashew crusted salmon is absolutely delicious and definitely worth trying out and for a tasty desert, try drizzling a bit of melted dark chocolate over cashews and pop them in the fridge for about 10 minutes for a healthy, tasty treat that's gluten-free, vegan and Paleo-friendly!
  7. Lemons - I use lemons for everything. When I don't have anything in the pantry or I'm short on time & energy, a lemon will save the day. When in doubt with fish or chicken, drizzle lemon  
    juice over it. I make my tuna salad with lemon juice and olive oil instead of mayonnaise. I often cut butter with lemon juice to reduce the amount I'm using and pour the two melted together over potatoes to make spuds a bit less fattening and a lot more flavorful! It's easy to whip up some lemon curd for a treat and I regularly make my favorite dessert, Lemon & Basil Sorbet to enjoy after a good dinner!
  8. Maldon Sea Salt - I started using Maldon Salt after my local grocery store ran out of my regular sea salt and I love it. It also doesn't hurt that Gwyneth Paltrow recommends it in her new cookbook It's All Good! Best salt ever and it's unrefined, so it's healthier than refined salts apparently. Also, if you live in the UK, Maldon Salt is locally sourced, so it eases the conscience a bit. For crunchy texture or cooking, I use it the way it is, but for popcorn or salting at the table, I put it in a salt grinder. It's a lifesaver! Click here to read more about the benefits of Maldon Salt.
  9. Old Bay Seasoning - Growing up I saw Old Bay everywhere, though I don't remember ever seeing it my house as a kid. This New England clambake staple is traditionally known as a compliment to fish and seafood, but it's great on so many other things too! I started using Old Bay (also recommended by Gwyneth Paltrow in It's All Good) about a year ago when I found it in  Partridge's on The Kings Road and it's made from salt, celery seed and paprika. Sprinkle it on fish, chicken, vegetables, beans, french fries, edamame - the sky is the limit. You can even add it to marinades, batters, soups, dips, dressings and it's particularly complimentary to lemony sauces. It adds a kick and a punch of flavor to just about anything. I love it most on freshly popped popcorn and I've never tried it, but I bet it would add the perfect kick to a Bloody Mary too! 
  10. Himalayan Pink Salt - Touted by health food junkies and foodies alike, I can attest that Himalayan Pink Salt is amazing. I bought some at Borough Market a while back and love to use it when I'm cooking, but do use it sparingly - it's stronger than regular table salt. I particularly love to sprinkle it over freshly grilled fillet steaks or white fish. You can usually find it at Whole Foods or big farmers markets. Click here to read about the health benefits of Himalayan Pink Salt.
  11. Parmesan Cheese - Because of its saltiness, Parmesan Cheese is typically used in Italian cooking as more of a spice than a cheese. I tend to use it a lot for thickening sauces or just to add a kick to anything. Favorite uses include putting it in tuna salad with lemon, olive oil & parsley, coating the tops of cod or salmon fillets with it before baking or grilling and sprinkling over hot popcorn or rice for a punchy flavor. My dad always used a generous heap of parmesan cheese in his famous green beans with garlic & onions - the options are endless!
  12. Chili Olive Oil - If you like a bit of spice, chili olive oil is the fastest way in the world to add flavor to your food. Drizzle it over salads, pizzas, soups, cooked vegetables, rice or pasta just before serving or use it to cook meat and vegetables with. You can usually find chili olive oil in the grocery store for next to nothing too so it definitely won't break the bank!
  13. Dried Basil - Obviously, there's nothing like fresh basil. I actually have a basil plant in my flat so I can snip fresh leaves whenever I'm making something yummy, but dried basil has its uses too and it's really flavorful. Sprinkle it on anything or add it to sauces with lemon for a lovely compliment. It also works beautifully in lemon or lime flavored desserts for a savory/sweet twist on the original.
  14. Fresh Vanilla - I only recently bought my first ever vanilla pod. Now I always have them on hand. I like to buy vanilla from a farmers market when
    I can because it's usually cheaper, but you can buy these in any grocery store and they're so much more flavorful than the bottled extracts. Add vanilla to heavy cream with a little sugar just before whipping for the perfect compliment to a dessert. I usually make this to serve on fruit or pavlova. Vanilla is also amazing when used in French Toast, pancakes and muffins. To keep it fresh, a lady at the farmers market told me to wrap them in baking or parchment paper and seal them up in a ziplock bag. Be sure to keep the used pods and stash them in your sugar to make vanilla sugar, which is amazing in coffees and baked goods! 
  15. Cayenne Pepper - I started throwing Cayenne Pepper into literally everything after I read about the benefits of spicy foods to your metabolism about 5 years ago (this was around the time everyone was doing that pepper lemonade diet). If you love a little kick, this is the spice for you, but beware - a little goes a long way! Also, this is a cheap way to add serious flavor to your food and because so little is needed, a jar of this spice will last forever. Click here to read about the health benefits of Cayenne Pepper.

Pantry Wishlist

These are a few things I've never used before, but I'm itching to try. If you've ever tried any of these things, I'd love to know your thoughts!
  1. Coconut Flour - The newest trendy food product in baking and gluten free cooking is coconut flour - I've been hearing about it from everyone and it's meant to be amazing. It's also good for anyone who's on the Paleo diet, or so I've heard.
  2. Pimenton - A special paprika from Spain, Pimenton is meant to take foods to the next level with just a sprinkle! It's also highly recommended by Gwynnie in her new cookbook.
  3. Chinese 5 Spice - Another recommendation from Gwyneth Paltrow's cookbook that I look forward to trying - I've never heard of it before a couple of weeks ago, but it sounds brilliant!
  4. Coconut Oil - The trendiest thing right now amongst beauties and foodies alike is Coconut Oil. You can cook with it, bake with it and then use it as a hair & skin mask... Love the idea of that!
  5. Nutritional Yeast - I've heard about this a lot from Vegan & dairy free friends, but recently a good friend described it as buttery, cheesy and nutty. She puts it on popcorn - sounds good enough to me!
  6. Vege-Sal - I'm sure my mother had this in the spice rack when I was growing up, but I've completely forgotten about it until reading GP's new cookbook. Now I'm on the lookout for it to add to my arsenal!
What do you keep on hand for putting meals together quickly? I'm always looking for recommendations!

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