So now you have your pots and pans, knives and wooden spoons, and other assorted gadgets. But what’s in your cupboards? What’s in your refrigerator? What are those basics you should have on hand so that you can put together a healthful meal without having to make extra trips to the grocery store?
I’ve run into situations where I think I’m being pretty clever whipping up an impromptu meal, only to find that I really need something like black beans or brown rice… and I have none. How do some people seem to have just the right ingredients in their pantry or cupboard? When those unexpected guests happen to stop by at dinnertime, no problem! A quick, nutritious, and tasty meal seems to appear out of nowhere.
Well, you too can have the makings of great tasting meals on hand with a little bit of effort. Of course, what and how much you have depends on your own taste — and space. But there are some “core” staples that you should think about always having around:
- Olive oil. Besides being so good for you, olive oil is a cook’s best friend. It’s low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fat, so we know it’s a heart-healthy food. Beyond that, olive oil is pretty versatile. You can use it as a dipping sauce for a crusty loaf of bread, in a vinaigrette along with some balsamic vinegar, and in cooking (over low to medium heat — it can burn at high temperatures).
There are different grades of olive oil. Generally, they’re categorized as extra virgin, virgin, and pure (your basic olive oil). Extra virgin is the most prized type of olive oil and is well suited for dips and dressings. Extra virgin and virgin olive oils contain more antioxidants than regular olive oil. But for cooking, regular olive oil will do the trick. Keep olive oil away from heat and light when storing it. You can refrigerate olive oil to extend its life but it may turn cloudy. Store your oil in dark glass, porcelain, or stainless steel (but not plastic) containers.
- Canola oil. Olive oil is delicious, but sometimes the flavor is too strong for a particular dish. (It also isn’t that well suited for baking.) So, it’s a good idea to have another healthful oil around, and canola oil is a good choice. Also high in monounsaturated fat, canola oil has a very mild flavor and can hold up to high temperatures, making it good for stir-frying. I should mention that corn, safflower, and sunflower oils are fine to use, too. It’s just that canola oil is higher in monounsaturated fat than the other vegetable oils, with the exception of olive oil. Unlike olive oil, canola oil doesn’t come in different grades, so you can pretty much choose whichever brand you prefer.
- Balsamic vinegar. Balsamic vinegar is, in some cases, prized as much as a fine wine. This fragrant vinegar is made from a type of white grape that has not been fermented. Instead, the grapes are boiled down into a dark syrup, stored in wooden casks and allowed to age (sometimes for more than 100 years!). The longer the vinegar ages, the thicker and more flavorful it becomes.
As with most items, you get what you pay for. In other words, a cheap balsamic vinegar may seem like a bargain, but it won’t have the rich flavor of a quality vinegar. Also, avoid balsamic vinegars with added ingredients, such as sugar, sulfites, or colorings. Look for the words aceto balsamico tradizionale on the container to be sure you’re getting the real deal. You may end up paying $10 or more per bottle, but a little goes a long way and it will keep pretty much indefinitely as long as you store it in a cool, dark place. Add some balsamic vinegar to soups, stews, and sauces. Whip up a fresh vinaigrette for a salad. And for a low-calorie, low-carbohydrate treat, drizzle some over freshly sliced strawberries.
- Mustard. Mustard is more than just the bright yellow stuff that you squeeze onto a hot dog. There are various types of mustard, ranging from mild to hot, depending on the type of mustard seed used. Dijon mustard is typically fairly mild; German, English, and Chinese mustards can be quite strong and spicy (and good to use if your sinuses are blocked!). Mustard is very low in calories and carbohydrate, making it a good choice for weight watchers and carb counters alike. Try it in salad dressings and sauces and as a side sauce for grilled meats and fish. Use it in place of mayonnaise for sandwiches. And stir some mustard into homemade egg salad to brighten up the flavor.
More next week!