If your goal is to cook and cook quickly, to get a satisfying and enjoyable variety of real food on the table as often as possible, a well-stocked pantry and fridge can sustain you.
-Mark Bittman, New York Times food writer-
I was glad to see my kitchen was mostly up to Bittman's standards. Not all the way--though. And I definitely learned some new tricks to try. Basic rule: Go for fresh. Minimize the processed.
OUT - with the packaged stuff.
IN - with making your own crumbs. There's no comparison--& you can choose the quality of the bread. On the very rare occasions that I need bread crumbs, I toast some healthy variety in a slow oven, crumble them in the food processor & keep them in my pantry in a sealed container--but I rarely use bread crumb.
OUT - with bouillon cubes, powder or canned stock.
IN - Bittman says you're better off just making your own by simmering a carrot, celery & a half an onion in 2 cups of water for 10 minutes. Is he kidding? No way--it will be thin, drab & take too much time when you're already busy making some soup. Use the Kitchen Basics brand, especially the vegetable broth. It comes in BPA-free Tetra boxes. It's vegan, rich, all natural!
Cooking Oils & Sprays
OUT - Forget about PAM or other aerosol oils. I've also tossed out all my oils except for the ones lowest in the inflammation-causing-omega-6s. Dump the corn, peanut, vegetable, soybean, safflower oils & the Crisco. And margarine, too!
IN - Keep the canola oil & high quality extra virgin olive oil & use them sparingly. Evelyn Tribole, MS,RD says canola has twice the inflammation-causing omega-6s as olive oil, so she prefers olive oil--but after olive oil, canola is the best choice-especially for high-heat cooking. To coat your pans Bittman advises putting olive oil in a hand sprayer. Forget about it! It's hard to clean out & it could go rancid by the time you use it up. Simplest: Use your fingers.
OUT - Bottled dressings & marinades
IN - Make your own with the "good oils" (Dr. Joel Fuhrman processes nuts or tahini in place of oil- the Esselstyns use none) & vinegar or lemon juice and add-ins like fresh garlic, pepper, herbs or dijon mustard.. Try different recipes. It's really pretty easy. Bittman recommends 3 parts of oil to one of vinegar, I use a one to one ratio to cut down on oil--just keep tasting till it's good. I'm not ditching bottled dressings--I like the convenience. My favorite is Wild Thymes Meyer Lemon Salad Refresher. It's made with canola/olive oil, real ingredients & only 32 calories a TBS + 2.6 grams of fat.
OUT - Bottled lemon or lime juice.
IN - Use the real thing & use it often. I use lemon & lime juice in soups, sauces, vegetables, salad dressings & dips. I'm always juicing lemons or limes & grating their zest for added zing. Bittman says forget about reamers & squeezers, & just use your hands to squeeze out juice. I used to do this until I got this fantastic lemon squeezer. It works for lemons & limes. And get a good microplane for zesting.
Dried Herbs & Spices
OUT - Spices older than a year. Pitch them once a year since they lose punch. Dried parsely, basil, cilantro. Don't even bother!
IN - Buy fresh & try different things like fennel (both ground & seeds), cardamom, smoked paprika, dried chipoltles & garam masala. I admit to having a problem with getting stuck with half-used jars that I keep on using way past their prime. Bittman has inspired me to date them with a Sharpie & pitch after a year. Why ruin a recipe with too-old spices? My friend Les (who's an excellent cook) recommends buying small quantities at Penzey's Spices--they have both retail & online stores.
Fresh Herbs & Spices
OUT - Anything in a jar or a can--including jalapenos.
IN - Buy fresh. All grocery stores have just about any fresh herb/spice you could want year round. Mint, cilantro, Italian parsley, ginger, garlic, dill, thyme, oregano, rosemary, sage and more. The green herbs will last for about a week & you can always toss them into your salads or mix them into your tuna or beans or soups or whatever.
I never used to bother with the fresh herbs, but now I can't imagine using anything dried or in a jar if I can buy the real thing. Here's some good advice for keeping fresh herbs as long as possible.
And make use of fresh hot peppers. They add a great kick. Seems like I'm always using jalapenos, serranos & more. TIP: Buy yourself some disposable plastic gloves to use when you start chopping them--don't want to rub your eyes with jalapeno oil on your hands!
OUT - Canned bean - except in emergencies (this would be a real hard habit to break!)
IN - Dried beans.
- More economical, better tasting, space saving and available in far more varieties.
- I don't think I've ever cooked dried beans, unless you count lentils or split peas. It means you have to plan a day ahead & it always seemed like too much trouble. But I think Bittman's on to something.
- First of all, all canned food, including most beans, have the "dread BPA" in their linings, not to mention they're loaded with sodium.
- Bittman says, "If you're not sold, try this: soak and cook a pound of white beans. Take some & finish with fresh chopped sage, garlic and good olive oil. Puree another cup or so with a boiled potato and lots of garlic. Mix some with a bit of cooking liquid, and add a can of tomatoes; some chopped celery, carrots and onion; cooked pasta; and cheese and call it Pasta Fagiole or minestrone. If there are any left, mix them with a can of olive-oil-packed tuna or sardines. And that's just white beans."
- I've got some beans soaking as I write this! According to Jane Brody the soaking method is more economical, produces a better product & gets rid of sugars that can cause the "dread gas". Here's how to do it: 6-8 cups of cold water for a pound. Soak overnight at room temperature, or at least 6-8 hours. Drain & rinse and you're ready to cook them. Place soaked beans and water in a pot. Add some onion, thyme, white wine, and a little olive oil. Simmer partially covered until beans are soft. Time will vary with age of beans. Allow 1 1/2 to 2 hours for steady simmer--longer if simmer is very gentle or intermittent. For step-by-step instructions, click here.
OUT - Imitation vanilla & even real vanilla extract
IN - Vanilla beans. They're expensive, but they keep (if you look online you can find bargains in bulk & store them in the fridge. Bittman says if you slice a pod in half & simmer it with some leftover rice & milk (almond, soy, coconut, dairy) you'll never go back. This is all news to me--I thought the real extract from Mexico was IN. Wrong!
OUT - Tomato paste in a can
IN - Tomato paste in a tube. Most of my recipes call for 2 tablespoon at a time, so I'm either sticking the rest in the freezer which never gets used again, or guiltily throwing it out. The paste in the tube is "double strength" & is keeps in the fridge for a long time.
OUT - Instant rice or boil-in-a-bag grains.
IN - Real grains. There's so much variety. Short grain Rice for risotto or paella. Barley, great for Mushroom Barley soup & loaded with nutrition; Bulgur, which is ready in 10 minutes; and my all-time favorite, Quinoa, the complete & delicious protein. Eat it with fruit & nuts for breakfast, or savory with jalapenos, sun-dried tomatoes, cilantro & lime. Click here and here for recipes. TIP: I always have a box of microwaveable fully-cooked organic brown rice from Trader Joe's in my freezer. When there's really NO TIME, it's ready in 3 minutes!
Staples for the Pantry to Jazz Up Your Cooking
- Fish sauce - this is different, stronger, and less refined than ordinary soy sauce. Use just a little. Bittman suggests a little over cooked vegetables.
- Canned coconut milk - I stick to the light version for less fat. It makes vegetables, curries & rice delicious, so it's worth the occasional extra fat-which is saturated. Even Dr. Chris Gardner, the nutrition guru at Stanford uses it, and says it adds so much flavor to vegetables that it's fat content is a non-issue.
- Miso paste - Never goes bad and its flavor is incomparable, according to Bittman. Whisk into boiling water for real soup in 3 minutes; thin a bit (with sake if you have it) & smear on meat or fish that's almost done broiling; add a spoonful to vinaigrette. I've only used this once or twice for a recipe, but I like Bittman's suggestions.
- Capers, good olives (buy in bulk, not cans or jars) and good anchovies (in olive oil, please). The combination of the three makes a powerful paste, or pasta sauce, or dip. Yes, I know these are loaded with salt, but they add so much flavor to a pasta sauce or fish. They're staying in my pantry.
- Nuts - Walnuts are highest in Omega-3s, but they're all good & the latest research confirms this, especially for diabetics. NEVER buy anything roasted in oil--bad, bad. Buy raw, or dry roasted or toasted. I throw nuts in my cereal, on my berries, grind them for salad dressings & snack on raw cashews & dates.
- Dried fruit & dried tomatoes (it's a fruit) - For snacking, in salads, for braising, poaching, in cereal, whatever. I have a large drawer in my kitchen that's known as the "Fruit & Nut Drawer"
- Dried mushrooms - Whole Foods & my grocery have any variety you can think of, shitake, oyster, portabella and mushrooms I've never heard of. Don't bother to reconstitute if you're cooking with liquid-just toss them in. They really enrich & deepen the taste of Mushroom Barley Soup.
- Winter Squash & Sweet Potatoes - So much more nutritious & interesting than regular potatoes. Bittman says (& I agree) that a sweet potato roasted until the exterior is almost blackened and the interior is mush is a wonderful snack. He recommends a winter squash called Delicata with an edible skin. Beats peeling. Chunck it & roast with a little oil & real maple syrup for an amazing salad topper or snack. Here's a Bittman TIP: For butternut or acorn squash, poke holes through to the center with a skewer in a few places and roast at 400 degrees until soft. Cool, then peel & seed. Love winter squash!!
- Real maple syrup & Agave - don't even think about imitation Aunt Jemima. Trader Joe's has the real thing at a real good price. Put a little on roasting vegetables. Try organic blue agave if you need to sweeten something. It's low glycemic & won't spike blood sugar.
- 100% Buckwheat Soba Noodles - Quick cooking, high nutrition for Asian noodle dishes. Check labels carefully for the 100% variety. Eden Organic makes one. Click here and here for soba noodle recipes.
- Specialty vinegars - These are pricey but they're tasty alternatives to boring balsamic. I've added sherry, blood orange & fig vinegars to my pantry. I had to go to a specialty store to find them, or you can find them at Dr. Joel Fuhrman's website. The sherry vinegar added a unique depth to my black bean soup (recipe here) & Bittman likes it in a salad of shredded cabbage--shred cabbage then toss in a colander with a couple of tablespoons of salt for an hour or two--then drain & rinse- toss with plenty of black pepper, a little olive oil & enough sherry vinegar to make the whole thing sharp.