I’m a glutton for overly-priced temptations at fancy food stores. I can spend hours at Dean & DeLuca contemplating tiny jars of salt from mysterious places. While $12 might be a ridiculous amount to pay for a few tablespoons of salt, it is not too much, in my mind, to pay for the tiny adventure to some far-off island where pink salt lives. I can take a trip there every time I sprinkle (or in this case, hand-grate) some atop my poached eggs.
While some items find their way onto one of my many lazy Susans because of their impressive origins, others are downright plain – the cheaper the better. I stock up on low-brow martini olives from the regular old grocery store. While I’ve been tempted into buying the jars that cost twice as much, they’re never as good as those familiar pimento-filled fatties from the Ketchup aisle.
I’m going for a utilitarian post here so I’ve linked to a source for each of these items where possible. I’ve also added a new feature: The Muddy Kitchen Store, where you can find some of my favorite cookbooks, garden books, potting shed, pantry and organizing essentials.
I add a little something to my store each week and am always happy to hear suggestions of some of your Must-Haves!
I always keep a baggie in the fridge. A few pan-toasted pine nuts tossed on top of sauteed greens or into a salad adds a Wolfgang Puck-y touch and makes the stuff instantly edible to children and fussy adults alike. It’s like my grandmother’s green beans with sauteed almond slivers…a yummy reward of fat and crunch along with your straight-up green junk. Of course there’s always pesto to be made. They keep for ages, especially in the cheese drawer.
Sauteed Broccoli Rabe with Pan-Toasted Pine Nuts
Parsley & Basil Pesto
Whole Wheat Corkscrew Pasta with Butter, Cheese and Pine Nuts
Chard Quiche with Pine Nuts
Speaking of the cheese drawer (which technically isn’t the ‘pantry’ but I still sort of think of it that way), a hunk of Parmy is a Muddy Must-Have. It goes on the table in its inelegant hunk-form along with my trusty Microplane grater for grating over pasta, broccoli rabe or a creamy serving of polenta.
Orecchiette with Tomato Sauce & Fresh Parmigiano
Pan-Fried, Boneless Chicken Thighs Coated in Breadcrumbs & Fresh Parmigiano
Sauteed Spring Greens with Fresh Parmigiano at the Table
When I’m at the store, I can never remember if I already have capers (which I inevitably do but forget), so my pantry overflows with a bunch of spare bottles of ‘just-in-case’ capers. Bagels & Lox just isn’t the same without a few of these little salt bombs tucked between the layer of snowy white creamy cheese and oily smoked salmon.
Of course Pasta Puttanesca is a go-to dish when the freezer is bare. But the real reason I own capers is for one of my husband’s signature dishes: Chicken Picante from the If-You-Only-Own-One-Cookbook-in-Your-Life: Cucina Rustica.
Arriving at home with a bottle of capers and a cut-up chicken from Guido’s is always taken a hint-hint around my house. Soon the olives and capers are frying to a crunch and the house is perfumed with the smells of garlic, hot pepper, olive oil and tangy capers.
Bagels & Lox with Summer Tomatoes, Red Onion & Capers
Spring Salad with Fried Capers
My first memory of toasted sesame oil is as one of the mysterious ingredients of the hot and sour soup I learned to cook in college. I think its flavor was a bit of a culinary epiphany – intensely exotic, evocative and powerful. A few drops goes a long way.
While I personally reach for a fruity bottle of olive oil more frequently to add flavor, there are some things that just scream for toasted sesame oil to complete the puzzle. My roasted maitake smoked tea soup, for example (recipe soon!) gets its nutty notes enhanced by a drizzle of sesame. Japanese-y salad dressings and whole grain dishes like quinoa and winter wheat come alive with a teaspoon or two. Anytime I’m reaching for the Tamari and scallions, I’m often finishing with toasted sesame oil, it’s flavor-buddy.
Roasted Maitake Smoked Tea Soup (mind-boggling recipe coming soon!)
New Style Sashimi
Matsuhisa Salad Dressing
Peanut Sesame Noodles
My pantry overflows with Rice Wine Vinegar. I make a quick cucumber “pickle” about once a week: slivered English cuke + 1 cup seasoned rice vinegar + a few splashes of cold water + a few cardamom seeds. It’s my go-to vegetable preparation for my daughter, Tallulah, a semi-ish-vegetarian vegetable-hater (a.k.a. Mac-N-Cheese-at-All-Times). It’s the only thing that guarantees something green will pass her lips.
I always get the “Seasoned” vinegar, which seems to equate to “Sugar-added.” It’s slight sweetness gives a lift to cool, summery vegetables and salads.
Tallulah’s Quick Cucumber “Pickle”
Early Girl Tomato, Onion & Avocado Salad
I don’t use a ton of this roughly ground cornmeal but it’s still a Must-Have in my pantry. It cooks up into rich Polenta with Gorgonzola, is the base for a yummy cornbread stuffing, grills up for Polenta Squares, makes for a nice breakfast if the cupboard is bare but mostly it’s the base material for a gorgeous artisan bread that peels off the peel in no time flat.
Balsamic Vinegar is a game changer. It takes everything from salad dressing to Strawberry Jam to Lamb Osso Bucco to a different level. Whenever something is lacking a certain depth, I add a drop or two of balsamic and see what happens. If it’s working (which it usually does), I add a few drops more.
It’s taken me a while to find a Go-To, Not-Too-Expensive Balsamic that I consistently love. I can personally recommend 2: The Olive Crush and Hudson Valley. They both have a slight syrupy quality and the essence of Balsamic without too much acidy flavor.
Balsamic Salad Dressing
Foie Gras on Toast with Balsamic & Red Currant Jam Reduction
Lentils, especially these rich green/black Puy-dudes, are essential when the fridge and freezer are bare or when a vegetarian promises to cross your path and all you originally had in mind was serving pork, pork and pork. With just a few ingredients and a few pennies to your name, Puy Lentils become a majestic soup, a salad or an entree.
I don’t understand why suddenly half of the word is gluten-free, but so be it. I love these crackers myself so I always keep the house stocked. And when your gluten-free friends make sad faces when you slice up a steamy loaf of homemade bread and butter, then you can put these is a super-pretty bowl and *sigh*.
I keep gobs of Kosher Salt around the kitchen because 1. It’s a decent, inexpensive salt for pickly-type things and 2. It cleans my cutting boards.
Basic recipe for cleaning cutting boards: make a paste of 1 cup Kosher Salt + 2 tbsps bleach. Massage paste all over wood cutting board and let it sit with it’s little salt mask on all night. In the morning, rinse well.
Cutting Board Cleaner
Jew Pickles (I use sea salt because I’m weird that way…but Kosher Salt is fine.)
11. DRIED HOT PEPPERS
Dried hot peppers go into half of everything I make. They remind me of summer and add heat where there is none. I toss one into the brine I use for my chicken, pork and turkey. I add one to my basic sauce for something a little more wild. I add to my tomato jam for a smoky, more complex flavor.
When you grow (or even just dry) your own peppers, you come to appreciate the real flavor. They taste more like the fruit they are and less like a dusty grocery shelf.
I am insanely jealous of my friends at Putney Farm who have a seemingly endless bounty of strange citrus trees from which to yank a plethora (I paid $1.25 to use that word!) of exotic flavors for their cocktails and ceviches.
Me, I buy Yuzu juice from Japantown if I’m lucky. If not, I order it up on Amazon. You can’t grow everything. Urgh!!
Yuzu is hopping-great stuff and once you try it you’ll wonder where it’s been all your life. My other extra husband (besides gardener, Eliot Coleman), Nobu Matsuhisa taught me everything I need to know about making raw (and nearly-raw) fish divine. That ‘everything’ can be summed up in one word: Yuzu. You will not be disappointed with a bottle.
13. OLIVES (extra bonus Must-Have)
No fancy store olives for me! You’ll find my favs in the aisle across from the string cheese, past the mustard, but before you get to the canned asparagus. The Muddy Kitchen is a somber place when I run out, so I never do.
Gin Martini Straight Up with Extra Olives
Vodka Martini Straight Up with Extra Olives
Take your shoes off before you come in here!