Monday, September 05, 2011

The Happy Pantry - How a good stock of staples will make your life easier.

Like my Mommy before me, I like having a fully stocked larder. I don't have many prepared foods on hand. I won't keep a frozen Asian dinner in the freezer, but I will keep most everything on hand to make my own sesame noodles. Most weeks, I can make anything on my menu plan by just picking up a fresh ingredient or two because I keep a pretty well stocked pantry. What do I keep in that pantry?

 Canned tomatoes in all forms play an important part in my pantry. Up until maybe 10 years ago, the only tomato product I had in my pantry was tomato sauce. Now canned tomatoes are a main staple. I use them for dozens of dishes and sauces. I find these three varieties to be the most useful:

Fire roasted dice tomatoes, Italian diced and Mexican. The fire roasted tomatoes have a nice depth that plays well in chili, Indian dishes and other savory dishes. The Italian seasoned tomatoes are great for pastsa sauces, lasagna, soups and anything where a hint of basil is appreciated. The Mexican tomatoes have jalepenos included and are great for Indian & Mexican food or anything you want to make spicy.

I am also crazy about tomato paste in a tube. You can easily use just a tablespoon or so at a time and reseal! Just a little tomato paste can make a big difference in a sauce or a stew. I also like anchovy paste in a tube. You can use just a bit for its wonderful salty (and decidedly non-fishy) flavor boost.

There's still room for tomato sauce in the cupboard and Ro-Tel's tomatoes with green chilies. They're a classic, just a little bit of spice.

I also keep salsa around. Not just for dipping with chips, but it's an important ingredient in my chili and my Mexican rice. Any time I want a shortcut to adding tomatoes, chilies and onions, there it is. I also keep liquid smoke around. It's nothing artificial, just water that's been passed through the smoke from a smoker. Used sparingly, it can give a great flavor to many dishes. I've used it to turn regular oil into smoked oil, regular shredded cheese into smoky cheese & to fake a pretty decent BBQ when the weather is not right to go low and slow on the grill.

Broth: I live and die by it. I always keep Swanson chicken and Kitchen Basics veal stock on hand. The veal stock has replaced beef broth in my pantry. It's no more expensive and absolutely delicious. I also keep seafood stock on hand as well. Not expensive and you're always halfway to a seafood soup, if seafood is something you enjoy. I've lately taken to replacing the water in taco meat and chili with the veal stock for a cooking liquid. It's absolutely delicious.

Vinegars, I absolutely love them. I keep cider, basic white, white wine, balsamic, red wine and rice vinegar on hand. I'm not suggesting going out to buy six bottles of vinegar. Start with a good basic like white vinegar (which is amazing for cleaning as well) and cider vinegar. Then add a bottle every couple of weeks. I'm fond of balsamic, though it is probably one of the most abused flavors in restaurants. It's tasty, but it doesn't go with everything. The rice vinegar is espcially nice to have to get into cooking Asian flavors.

Speaking of Asian cooking. These three things will get you closer to being able to season almost anything: Soy sauce, mirin (sweetened sake) and fish sauce. Don't get freaked out by the name. It gives an earthy saltiness to dishes.

Speaking of sauces, these two classic British flavors will do you a world of service. Worstershire is crazy versatile and dry mustard gives color, flavor and a different kind of heat to dishes.

Did I mention that I love mustard? Basic yellow, Dijon and stone ground will give you a good foundation to cook most anything. I also have honey mustard, hot mustard, brown mustard, cranberry mustard, bleu cheese mustard... I have too much mustard. I accept that. I mean, if I want honey mustard, I could just add this to regular mustard.

Keep some in stock. It works in so many dishes.

I also like to keep hot sauce in the house. I stick with the basics Tabasco, Franks Red Hot and Sirachia. My only deviation is the chipotle tabasco, I do like the smoke flavor. Frank's Red Hot is a milder hot sauce and the original hot sauce used in Buffalo wings. All a true Buffalo sauce contains is Frank's and butter. Sirachia is the classic asian zinger. Very hot for my taste. I add a couple of drops to Tabasco to my mac and cheese. Just a drop helps bring out the flavors.

These kitchen workhorses will get you halfway to some delicious sauces. Note that it's straight mayo and not Miracle Whip. That's fine for sandwiches, but too sweet for anything that calls for mayo. Hint: Mayo, garlic, a dash or two of Worstershire sauce and a drop or two of lemon make an almost instant and delicious Casesar salad dressing containing all the ingredients that go in a classic Caesar dressing. 

Booze for cooking. I like to keep a red, a white, Marsala and vermouth in the house. Use an actual bottle of wine, not cooking wine. It's often salted and you can pick up a decent bottle of wine for cooking for five bucks.

My beautiful friend olive oil. I use it most for cooking, unless I need flavorless oil and then I go for canola. For frying, I love peanut oil. Sesame oil is great if you are into Asian cooking. Store it in the fridge though, it goes rancid fast.

I like to keep cans of these basic beans on hand: cannellini, kidney, garbonzo and black. I also have recently started using lentils quite a bit. Obviously, you'll stock your shelves with whatever kind of beans you like.

One thing I absolutely love to keep in stock is onion jam. I don't spread it on toast, but it's a great quick subsitute when something needs carmelized onion flavor. You can put a tablespoon in a sauce or on a burger. I like the roasted garlic kind because it saves you two steps.

My friend Cocoa. This is pricey Dutch Droste straight from the Netherlands. Hershey's works great, too. This is shortcut to a great chocoalte cake or a fantastic sauce. Try a tablespoon in chili.

I keep all purpose flour, white sugar and brown sugar in large glass canisters. It's easier to get a cup in there to measure, you can see how much you have and I always like to keep an eye on flour to make sure it hasn't taken a turn for the buggy.

And don't forget the basics. I keep Kosher salt in a large container so I can dip in there an get it. And I keep a grinder of sea salt for the table. Of course all salt is sea salt. Some of it just came from seas that dried up eons ago and now they dig it out of the ground.  I keep peppercorns on hand.

I bought an extra coffe grinder reduced to five dollars and I use it to grind pepper freshly. It makes an amazing difference in the flavor.
I used a paint marker to write SPICE GRINDER on the side, so I don't accidentally grind my coffee beans in my pepper grinder.

I have not even broached the subject of my spice collection. That's an entirely different post. One where you can laugh at me because I alphabetize.  Happy cooking!

Sunday, September 04, 2011

My freezer full of meat - or why vegetarians should avert their eyes.

This weekend I spent $196 dollars on meat. That sounds like a lot, but that is my meat budget through the end of the year (excluding Thanksgiving & Christmas dinners).  As I wrote in a previous blog, I know what I'm having for dinner until the end of the year. One of the ways I make menu planning work for me, is my massive meat shops. I did one in January and the meat lasted through April.  Here's what I ended up getting for my $196 bucks:

3lbs of meatloaf Mix
4 lamb shanks
1 pork loin
2 1 lb packages of mussels
1 bag fish sticks
1 bag of raw shrimp
3 chuck roasts
3 lbs of country style ribs
6 pork chops
2 sirlon steaks
4 lbs of ground beef
3 lbs of bacon
6 whole boneless chicken breasts
3 packages of boneless chicken thighs
1 package of lump crab meat

I'm planning on getting around 115 meals out of this. Probably more. I portion out everything before I freeze it, so all I have to do is pull out the desired portion to thaw and I've got the protein for supper all ready to go.  The necessary ingredients for filling my freezer are as follows:

Olive oil, quart freezer bags, kosher salt and a super-sharp kitchen knife.

Be careful with the knife. You don't want to do this.

I cut myself while sharpening the knife. Fortunately I had a registered nurse on hand to apply the bandage. But nothing stops me! I could be on Chopped.

I use quart freezer bags. Since there are only two of us, it works out perfectly. Obviously, if you have more people to feed, gallon bags may be the way to go. Make sure to get the freezer bags and not the storage bags. Freezer bags are thicker plastic and do a better job of protecting the food.

Put your salt out in a separate container. You don't want to be touching salt with meat hands or handling your salt shaker.

You probably should label and date each package. I don't always do that, though with ground meats and things that could easily be confused in the freezer, it's a good idea. Actually, it's always a good idea. I have no clue why I don't do it every single time.

Let's start with the meatloaf mix. This is a mixture of beef, pork and veal. Some places sell it as a mix of pork and beef. It's great not only for meatloaf, but also for meatballs, any kind of meat sauce, lasagna and a variety of other uses.  For the two of us, I tend to use it 8 ounces at a time. Before packaging it, I salt it. This helps tenderize and flavor the meat. You'll also use less salt in your cooking if you do it now.

I press it a little flat for easier storage. I'm into flat. You'll see why later.

The lamb shanks are also salted and packed two at a time.You can toss them frozen into a slow cooker in the morning along with some potatoes, rosemary and a little broth and have dinner when you get home that night.

One pork loin works as two meals for us. For pork I usually both salt and sprinkle a little sugar on the meat. It helps give it a nice sear when you brown it. Pork loin makes a great braise with apples and sweet potatoes.

Boneless, skinless chicken thighs are perhaps the most useful meat on earth. They don't dry out in stews or braises and they have so much flavor. So I salt them and pack them.

I cut my chuck roasts in half as half a roast does pretty well for the two of us. Salt is especially important to the flavor of beef.

They fit nicely into quart bags.

Boneless country ribs are a great ingredient in sauces and you can also fake a pretty decent BBQ in a Dutch oven. They get the salt and sugar treatment.

Pork chops benefit greatly from salt & sugar.

Two good-sized sirloins yielded four servings of steak. Besides salt, I also put in some olive oil. That way you can get the pan searing hot and add the already oiled and salted meat. Delicious.  I also had enough steak over to marinate in soy for a stir fry

The meat is stacking up.

Time to slice up the thick cut bacon.  I cut the slices in half. Bacon, of course, does not need any salt. I not only use it for delicious breakfast meat and sandwiches, but also as a flavoring agent in a lot of sauces. Look at how many servings you get from one big package.

Bacon freezes wonderfully.

Ground chuck time. Mommy always said it was the best choice, so that's what I use.

I work some salt in, being careful not to overwork the meat. Then I flatten it out.

I flatten it out, cut it into eight portions and bag it up.

Now for the chicken breasts.

I spread out plastic wrap. Then I drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with kosher salt.

Place your chicken breasts on the plastic wrap. then drizzle with oil, sprinkle with salt and place more plastic wrap on top.

Now time to pound. Use the flat side of a meat tenderizer or just a big heavy pan like a cast iron skillet. Pound on the thickest parts of your breast. You'll want to make all of the breast relatively the same thickness.

Each breast should about fill up a quart bag. If you're using larger size freezer bags, wrap the portions in plastic wrap before placing in the bag.

This is why I like things flat. I use plastic storage containers and file the little quart bags upright to store in the freezer. It's easier to find things and avoid avalanches falling out of your freezer.

My full freezer makes me happy. :)  I bought my meats from my wonderful butcher Meats & More and from Walt Churchill's market. Now time to make bunches and bunches of tasty meals.