Every cook or chef is the same. Over time, we become addicted to a more or less short set of ingredients that make their way into most every food we cook. You’ll have the long-standing favourites shared by many. The new kid in town, often borrowed from a foreign cuisine, that has jumped the shark from trendy to must-have. The odd, almost fetish ingredient that we develop a compulsion for and add to every thang, at the surprise or dismay of our family (or guinea pigs, whatever side of PC you fall on).
I’m no different. So here is, in no particular order, my own hit parade —and boy was it gut-wrenching to weasel it down and give up things like sriracha or plain eggs —, of 10 ingredients I would bring on a deserted island. If deserted islands came with a fully-equipped kitchen that is. What, they don’t? Scratch that plan, Robin.
#1 • EVOO
My pantry contains multiple oils at a time. I mean, who can make decent Chinese food without roasted sesame oil? And Monsieur’s Nigerian Vegetable Soup would lose all cred without red oil, the traditional one from Africa not to be confused with the sorry staple of so many manufactured foods. As for frying, I bow to the power of trans fat-full peanut oil. But if I HAD to chose, I can’t rightfully live without extra-virgin olive oil. Without it, my marinara would be the pits, not to mention my best breakfast of zaatar and labneh pizza. We spend obscene amounts of money for EVOO. These days, for cooking, I turn to a Greek olive oil from Kalitori, sold in 3-litre canisters. Yep, we’re heavy users…
I let EVOO shine in this Zaatar and Labneh Pizza recipe:
#2 • Vermouth
I don’t drink much. So cooking with wine tends to be an issue as opened bottles are left ignored and turn to vinegar in the fridge. Over time, I’ve come to rely on vermouth, a fortified wine, to provide that boozy, aromatic touch whenever I know I won’t be using the whole bottle during the meal. It stays in fair enough shape for 6-8 months, so we don’t lose any of it. I discovered vermouth when I made this Olive and Vermouth Roast Chicken, that was quite delicious by the way.
I discovered Vermouth thanks to this Cream & Olive Chicken recipe:
#3 • Salted Herbs
Whenever I cook, I always try to “build” flavour at every step of a recipe. Mirepoix (diced onion, carrot and celery slow cooked in fat) constitutes one of my favourite “building block” to achieve depth and layers of taste. But I don’t always have the time or even the fresh vegetables on hand to start a mirepoix on a week night. That’s when salted herbs come in. A mix of fresh herbs and fine diced vegetables combined with a lot of salt, salted herbs are great for braises, soups, omelets, etc. I even add the tip of a spoon in creamy salad dressings. You should try it.
Salted herbs add freshness to this dressing for Maple Pecan Coleslaw:
#4 • Parmesan
Kind of a no-brainer this one. You will always find aged Parmesan in my fridge, to be grated on pasta, added to meatballs and stuffings, sprinkled on toasted garlic bread, smothered on all kinds of gratin, added to my any-herb-goes pestos and even sneaked into creamy salad dressings. You get the drift. I take great joy in freezing the rinds (please tell me you never throw them out, right?) so I can slip them at will into a huge pot of vegetable soup, my next braise or faithful meat spaghetti sauce.
I swear by parmesan for this Cream of Tomato and Fennel Soup with Parmesan recipe:
#5 • Anchovies
Bet ya didn’t see that one coming! I’m a BIG fan of anchovies slowly melted in warm olive oil to start any kind of fish dish, from chowder to paella. It just adds incredible layers of taste, with no one the wiser, not even anchovy haters. Sometimes, I’ll just add some chopped parsley and olives, toss in hot pasta with a little cooking water and voila! An instant pasta dish loaded with taste and nary a sauce in sight. I know how much better whole anchovies packed in salt are, but let’s face it, this girl is so not lifting anchovy fillets on a Tuesday night. And I have no room in my fridge anyways. So I basically buy the best-quality ones I can find, packed in oil.
#6 • Maple Syrup
A true Canadian staple, maple syrup is the king of breakfast if you ask my son, who loves his French toast smothered in the stuff. For this mom and cook, maple syrup provides those layers of taste I talk about so much. I’ll add it to salad dressings like my famous coleslaw recipe, slip it into most of my stews, use it to make onion confit or enhance most cream of vegetable soups especially squash. I still don’t bake with it, although I’m told it’s the bomb, basically because… I don’t bake. Otherwise, I’ll venture a few drops of maple syrup into pretty much any preparation just to see what gives.
#7 • Feta
The other cheese that this household can’t live without, feta is almost more of an ingredient than a cheese for us. I add it to pasta the same way I do parmesan, use it in meatballs and stuffings, or sprinkle it on eggs baked in tomato sauce. It also makes a killer omelet, with a touch of dill or some roasted cauliflower added. With a picky kid at home, a Greek salad of tomatoes, cucumber and feta ensures my son gets his daily servings of vegetables too. I also love a hot bagel with feta for breakfast, but I’ll concede that’s weird.
Feta replaces queso fresco in this killer Huevos Rancheros recipe:
#8 • Rice Vinegar
Like oil, we have quite the selection of vinegars in our pantry: red wine, white wine, apple cidre, maple, champagne, sherry, even black vinegar for sichuan cooking. But my faithful go-to is rice vinegar. My spouse hates sour tastes and, if I left it up to him, all our salads would be dressed with only oil or mayonnaise. I on the other hand like a salad that slaps your mouth, like the traditional French Dijon version. Because it’s less acidic, rice vinegar allows me to add vinegar to dressing (or sushi rice) without creating an uproar. Try it in your own dressing and tell me about it!
I love the zing of rice vinegar in My 30-minute Dumpling Soup recipe:
#9 • San Marzano Canned Tomatoes
I have a lifetime behind me of cooking marinara sauce that did the job but failed to wow. Then I discovered the power of San Marzano tomatoes. Although I respect chefs a lot, their insistence on using the best ingredients both speaks to me and elicits a vague discomfort. I personally believe, like our mothers did, that a good cook should be able to make good food from most any ingredient. But for killer marinara, nothing replaces these Italian tomatoes grown on very mineral terroir and protected by an appellation of origins. They are less acidic, cook to great consistency and shine with true tomato taste.
I turn to San Marzano tomatoes for this Eggplant and Chili Pepper Tomato Sauce recipe:
#10 • Cilantro
This herb kinda divides the world in two: those who loathe it and shudder at the thought. And those who worship it to ungodly extent. I belong to the second divide. I’ll sprinkle cilantro on everything, even my morning breakfast of sunny-side-up eggs — with feta crumbled on top and a few drops of good EVOO, it’s the holy trinity of many impromptu brunches around these parts. The moment tomato season gets going, cilantro becomes an even bigger fixture because, you know, Salsa! And don’t get me started on cilantro pesto…
Cilantro is the true star of this Shrimp Curry for the Cilantro-crazy recipe:<
And you, what are YOUR ingredient staples, you know, the ones who call the shots in both the pantry and fridge?