Tuesday, 3 January 2012

It's 2012, So Re-Stock: Twelve Foods to Make Sure You Have on Hand throughout the Year

As the end of each year approaches, I'm reminded of all the things we must prepare before the clock strikes midnight and the new year begins (or shortly thereafter). I doubt this is only the case with my family: buy a new calendar; take out the trash from all the rooms; make sure we have (however little) some flour, sugar and rice. Okay, maybe not exactly as I've illustrated but hopefully you get the gist of this sentiment. Indeed, over the past 48 hours or so, I've been thinking about those items in my pantry, refrigerator, freezer and the like that should always be on stock. If you've read my other posts throughout the past year, you may take note of those rather successful meals that seemed to cost very little; in large part, this is due to the fact I have many of the basic ingredients already on hand, saving not only money but time in the process. This leads me then to the focus of this post-- what are the top 12 foods you should always keep replenishing? Whether it's for a late night meal or to create a component of a dish that would cost more to buy than to make yourself or to be able to say, "Yes, I can lend you that cup of sugar or random half cup of milk" (actually, it's been more of the reverse in my case), I'm convinced I have figured out a proper list. And they all exist somewhere on my small dining table pictured above.

Though I'm basing much of my top 12 list on previous experiences and my general cooking trends, I would like to share the following links to lists that others have created-- [1], [2] and [3]. In a very similar style and approach to my own blog recipes of posts past, the lists of this post envelop others' lists with (unsurprisingly) a fair amount of similarities. As I waded through the suggestions folks had (even those suggested to me on Facebook and especially as I spent quite some time in the supermarket), I realised very quickly that generating a list of 12 everyday, must-have ingredients would be a rather difficult task. To that end, and as I shall present here, I first gathered the food already in my apartment and added it to the groceries I brought home earlier this evening, arranging as much as I could on my dining table. From there, I chose four categories (refrigerator, freezer, produce and pantry) into which I needed to divide my food and create top lists (6 or 12 items per list). The final twelve were whittled down from those items I had deemed worthy to be on any of these aforementioned lists. I would like to preface the following lists by saying that in deciding what exactly would go on my lists, my most important consideration was concluding whether or not it is a "basic ingredient," i.e., could I replicate this (pseudo-easily) at home.

First up were my top six refrigerated must-haves, a group I refer to as the cholesterol team (i.e., based on the fact they're all animal-based products). Of the group, one of the most important and arguably "controversial" is unsalted butter. I slightly hesitate including this as a basic ingredient as it's actual basic element is heavy cream which I have also added to the list (great with some powdered sugar to dollop with dessert or as a base for ganache). However, and especially for reasons of frequency of use and convenience, and relative cost and time to make butter from scratch, I have no issue including it on the top of this particular list. (During my grocery run, I did pick up some cheese cloth, so expect a homemade butter post in the near future.) As you can see, also on this list are eggs and milk; key to crêpes and a host of baked goods, these two items are more often than not a deciding factor in terms of what I want to vs can make at any given random time. In addition, shredded cheese (really, cheese of any kind) should be in your fridge, as well as "every chef's guilty pleasure"... bacon! Yeah, don't expect to not get any page hits when you type "bacon" in the search finder toward the top of this blog. Especially with a relatively long refrigerated unopened shelf life, stock up on bacon when it's on sale and save any and all rendered bacon fat in a glass jar in your fridge.

Onto the freezer, the top six photo is actually missing its most important ingredient (and missing because I thought I actually still had some): frozen puff pastry. The freezer is also the best home for shelled nuts, and frozen veg (my favourite are Parisian Style which includes carrots, green beans and mushrooms) and fruit. These keep extremely well for a long time, so stock up especially when they're on sale! To round off this list are ice cream (though I love chocolate, vanilla serves as a better base ingredient) and frozen chicken (here, actual pieces of broken down chicken, as opposed to the flash frozen stuff in bag). Also in my freezer, you'd find pizza rolls, bagged meals, seafood (though I try to stock these in the freezer as rarely as possible-- always the fresher the better) and leftovers, especially excess sauces and soups.

My produce list begins to transition us away from the first top twelve set that live in the typically unified fridge-freezer combo. I begin with two items that automatically belong on the list of the final twelve: garlic and onions. I'm still learning to taste the difference between onions, so I typically go with whatever's on sale (they store quite well in a cool, dry environment). The small, yellow onions are great because they provide enough flavour for making smaller portions; white, larger onions have their place in the kitchen, too, but I usually by them as needed since I'm not all too keen on having to plastic wrap half/pieces of it because it yields too much as an ingredient. Just like with bacon, you'd be hard-pressed to not find a post in which I didn't use any garlic; the real big difference between the two is that bacon is super important for me as a carnivore. Garlic, though sometimes off-putting, is a friend to every kitchen. Along with this lot are potatoes (with any variety, you can find at least one recipe that utilises them and other basic ingredients, e.g., gnocchi) and carrots (cue the thought of mirepoix). For colour and brightness, I end this list with flat leaf parsley and citrus (here, Meyer lemons recently given to me as a gift).

Finally, the biggest--and arguably most important--category of them all is the pantry. Due to limited photographing space, I took the liberty of further dividing these into the top six dry and top six liquid ingredients that should be stored in every pantry. In the left-most side of the photo, we begin with sugar. Of the three currently in my pantry, I would have to go with plain, cited-often granulated sugar. If you have a good chopper/spice grinder, running granulated sugar through the blades will yield confectioner's/powdered sugar. And light brown sugar (as well as dark brown sugar) is not much more than refined sugar mixed with molasses (the result of the sugar refining process). Also on the table is flour, aka the ingredient found in nearly every dessert recipe. In savoury dishes, it's the important first step of the dredging process so eggs have something to stick to, as well as a thickener for sauces, especially if you don't have cornstarch lying around. Paired very well with flour are leavening agents yeast (I use fast rise) and baking powder (double active) which can easily lead to bread and cake respectively. Number five on this list belongs to rice, a clear staple in my family growing up. For the gluten-free among you, I offer as alternatives Maseca (a corn flour) and quinoa; as you can see, I have them in stock, so I should be able to make something for you, too! And finally number six was so large I lumped them as the last item on this list and decided to create a sub-list for them, too.

Of all the seasonings and spices, salt and ground black pepper are perhaps two of the most important seasonings to have on hand, and quite naturally also made it to my final list below. But as there are many a seasoning and spice in the world, I also a present a list of these top 12: salt, ground black pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, paprika, garlic powder, crushed red pepper flakes and cream of tartar (once you have this last one in your pantry, you can never quite see egg whites the same way again). And for those of you who really are counting, the last four can be found here-- basil, oregano, rosemary and thyme. Getting these individually would be a worthwhile investment, easily affecting future projected budget constraints.

From the dry to the liquid, my top six liquid pantry ingredients begin with oil. Of the ones I keep in regular stock--canola, vegetable and extra virgin olive oil--it is this third one I find to be the most often used. If you haven't been able to tell by now, I have no issue purchasing store brands of these top ingredients and so for me Meijer reigns. We (should) spend quite a bit of time and energy preparing food; though high quality (i.e., oftentimes more expensive) ingredients can play off the palate extremely well, it doesn't mean the ingredients we use on a regular basis have to be wicked expensive. This being said, what I particularly like about Meijer (and stores similar to it) is the fact that most of their grocery items are broken down into unit prices, making it much easier to compare quantitative values and savings. If the per unit price of a name brand is equivalent to or better than the store brand (especially during a sale), I'll always go with the name brand. Canola oil is great to have on hand, especially for marinades and shallow or deep frying, and vegetable oil is a great substitute and sometimes called for randomly for some recipes. Of the three, though, I primarily stick with extra virgin olive oil for its health benefits and taste when it comes to dips and dressings. A clear liquid staple is pure vanilla extract used in nearly every dessert I make, both savoury and sweet. Easy to store and with a relatively long shelf life for the amount of money you actually spend is vinegar. In my pantry, I have red wine, apple cider and white vinegars, as well as my most often used one: balsamic (mainly as a reduction sauce). Two of my top six are ones I also hesitated to include, as these are great to have for a moment's notice in the kitchen but are by no means "basic" ingredients, and I will always prefer anyone storing their own homemade version: chicken and/or beef broth and jarred pasta sauce. However, whenever you get a chance, make/store stock over a broth, and store canned tomatoes to make your own sauce later (if your kitchen is stocked well, many common flavours can be infused into the sauce and sometimes can be cheaper than that bottled sauce sitting on your shelf). Finishing off this list is the newest and frankly unexpected must-have: honey, used most often as a natural sugar alternative.

To the pantry ingredients, I also offer the following list of the honorary six which I also have on stock but which aren't exactly "basic" or should necessarily belong in every kitchen pantry. The first is dried pasta; but with practice, fresh pasta is easy to put together and tastes better (it's got that love and attention kneaded into it). A must, especially for my hosted multi-course meals, is Nesquik, the foundation for my chocolat chaud. Marshmallows are great to have on hand, especially for those times you randomly want to make some fondant; to this point, vegetable shortening is especially helpful to have and can also be used for frying chicken and a whole host of household fixes (remember that scene in The Help?). Bread crumbs (or gluten free alternatives such as corn flake crumbs) are useful but can also be easily homemade, especially from leftover, stale bread.

"But M.A.," you may be thinking, "the honorary six is only five. Where's the sixth ingredient?" Alas, the sixth and arguably one of the most important to me (as opposed to an essential to every kitchen, though even that's debatable) is chocolate! From already processed to infused specialty bars to baking cocoa to hot cocoa, chocolate products needed their own dedicated photo space. And even this isn't my entire stored collection.

With all of these lists now complete, have you figured out what I think are truly the basic must-haves for every kitchen? From non-vegan and non-gluten-free standpoints, my top twelve are (in order of importance): salt, flour, sugar, butter, garlic, onions, vanilla extract, eggs, milk, extra virgin olive oil, ground black pepper and baking powder. And my top six runner up stock ingredients include: frozen puff pastry, bacon, chocolate, canned tomatoes (whole peeled and/or petite diced), balsamic vinegar and vegetable shortening. Finally, my top six homemade items which can be stored and/or should serve as replacements to pre-made items are: chicken stock, pasta, tortillas, pasta sauce, bread crumbs and crêpe batter. Whew, and with this all said and done, I leave you with these many lists to ponder. I'm very interested in knowing whether I you think my list is as correct as could be. Have I missed something altogether with any of my lists or even my list of the top twelve? How would/does your list compare? Feel free to comment below! For the entire photo album of my top food items to keep on hand this year and every year, click here.

Oh yes, and let me leave you with a bit of a teaser for an upcoming post. Somewhere on my mini demo station in the background are some of the pieces of equipment I consider to be among the top twelve must-have non-food kitchen items. Perhaps there'll be some deviation between our lists then? Happy food prep!

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