A version of this post was originally sent to our email subscribers on April 25th. To sign up for our weekly email (not daily as the box indicates) sign up in the column to the left or click here.
In the Kitchn Cure, where we had 300 people working on getting their kitchens and their cooking skills in shape, I'm starting to try to impart some techniques for cooking more by instinct than by recipe. This is hard for many people, but it was one of the most common goals Cure-takers indicated when surveyed at the beginning of these eight weeks. Cooking instinctually. Easy for me to say, right?
Don't be intimidated. The ability to cook by instinct is not something you either have or don't have. It's more like riding a bike than being tone-deaf. With practice, and the right set-up, you can do it.
The best time to try free-hand cooking rather than recipe cooking is in the spring when the availability of inspiring produce starts to be more bountiful. And, ironically, the best place to start is not at the farmers' market, but at the grocery store. Sure, those fiddlehead ferns you see at your friendly farmer's stand are sure pretty, but what are you going to do with them?
You need to stock your pantry.
Here is my list of the top six items you must always have in your pantry in order to ensure that when you bring something inspiring home from the market, you'll be able to turn your inspiration into an edible dish. We'll be talking more about this subject on The Kitchn tomorrow when I post my full list, but these six are a great starting point. You may already have them.
- Good Sea Salt. Maldon Sea Salt is a nice flakey salt from England that many chefs prefer. It costs about $7 for a box that will last you a long time. When thinking about salt, don't compare prices to the less-than-a-dollar container of Morton's many people are used to. This stuff is different and it will make a noticeable difference if you salt your food with it. Trust me. If you'd rather not spend $7, at least try using kosher salt instead of fine granular salt. The texture of the kosher salt is better.
- Black Peppercorns and a Good Peppermill. You can buy peppercorns in a container that also grinds them, but usually this is a big waste of plastic since you cannot refill the container. There are a range of peppermills to choose from: we've written about the beautiful (and pricey) Perfex mill. This is also a good item to scavenge for on eBay.
- Dried Mushrooms. I like dried porcini mushrooms best, but buy what you can afford. Check out FungusAmongUs.com, where you can get a pound of bulk organic dried porcini for $25, which may sound expensive, but that is a lot of dried mushrooms, and they keep well in a sealed container (I use a canning jar.) Those in Trader Joe's areas can pick up their inexpensive bag of dried wild mushrooms ($1.99 for an ounce, enough to get you through a couple of meals so buy a few packets), a mix of porcini, shiitake, cremini, and oyster mushrooms.
- Good Quality Olive Oil. We've covered this topic a lot on the site (see Emma's piece on How Much To Pay For Olive Oil) My rule of thumb is to get the best you can afford, and don't buy more than you can use in a few months because it will go rancid.
- A bottle or two of white and red wine for cooking. There is a lot of chatter out there about how to select wines for cooking. I tend to use wines for cooking that I would drink. So leave the Blue Nun out of your pantry, but also don't worry about finding the best Barolo for that risotto. Even Mario Batali has been known to dump some cheap California Merlot into his the beef with Barolo dish served at Babbo. You can too! The short answer is try Sauvignon Blanc and Chiati. Madeira and Marsala are other reds that go nicely with foods, especially desserts like simmered fruits. We can get into specific flavors for specific dishes, but if you're just starting out, don't fuss too much about it.
- Chicken (or Vegetable) Stock. Have a few cartons of stock around for risottos, simmering vegetables, and just giving extra flavor to your stove-top and oven-prepared dishes. Shelf-stable, packaged stock (or broth) comes in 32oz (4 cup) cartons, and handy 8oz (1 cup) containers. Imagine and Pacific are two brands that offer organic free range broth.
With these six items in your arsenal, you will be ready to create magic the next time you come home with a bundle of fresh produce and maybe even some fish or meat. Watch for tomorrow's post where we expand this list to include dry goods like rice and pasta, plus a separate list for bakers.
Related: Pantry Basics: Five Essential Ingredients for Baking