Post #673 Staplers in the Kitchen

September 29, 2019 at 12:12 PM | Posted in Basics | Leave a comment

Today, we’re going back to basics and I’m going to talk about kitchen staples.

But first!  Last weekend, we were in a secondhand shop looking around for those hidden treasures.  We had a couple of things in mind that we wanted to add snap to the house décor.  We didn’t find them, but I did find Fannie Farmer’s Cookbook which was originally titled The Boston Cooking School Cook Book.  This is one of those iconic “must haves” the rival in popularity all the standards of our age.  I even have the 1896 edition on my Kindle.  But as busy as we both get, although I have the cookbook, today was the first time I’ve opened it up since we got it.  I found this on the first blank inside page.

It’s an inscription from Christmas in 1981.  It reads:

“Dear Kilty, I know you don’t really like to cook, but maybe this good “new” book will inspire you.  Merry Christmas to all of you – the whole family will benefit from this book.  Love, Laura.”

I found this endearing for so many reason.  First, I can’t imagine anyone not liking to cook.  You have to cook if you want to eat.  Even tossing a Lean Cuisine into the microwave and following the instructions is cooking, because that’s what cooking is all about.  But the gentle nudging of Laura to Kilty says so much about how roles were viewed even at that late date.  The woman was supposed to cook and provide meals for the family who were also going to benefit from the book, nudge nudge.  And the word “new” in quotes tells me that Laura knew exactly how old this cookbook is and knew its value.

So much fun.  I haven’t seen any hand written notes inside it, so I’m guessing it didn’t have the desired impact.  Poor family.

So, today’s basic topic is staples.  I’m not talking office supplies here.  Staples just refers to those items that you keep in your kitchen at all times.  Staples are different for each household.  If you’re a baker, like I am, the staples tend to focus more on flour, sugar, eggs, vanilla, etc.  If you’re a griller, your staples are going to focus more on things like meats, condiments, charcoal and the like.

I read a great description about staples one time from Shirley Jackson, the author of the short story “The Lottery” and the novel “The Haunting of Hill House” among others.  She wrote “The lowest common denominators in our house were bread and peanut butter.”  She also writes of buying culinary magazines for inspiration and found a recipe which looked enticing.  “However, it inevitably had ingredients unappealing to my little family.  After removing all the items we wouldn’t eat, I was left with a meatloaf studded with cashew nuts, undeniably a novelty.  When I served it that night, I watched as everyone picked out the nuts and my son complained why did we always have to have hamburger?”

Every cookbook I’ve ever read has one section on the important things every cook needs in the kitchen and the lists are extensive.  I prefer Alton Brown’s take on it:  If it has a single use, and you don’t use it once a week, get rid of it.  We once got into the extensive list and filling it out.  It was expensive, and we had a space issue for the things that were “required”.

I’ve always though of staples as the magic ingredients.  With the staples in the cupboards, you can always make dinner.  Here’s the things we keep in stock all the time:

  • eggs
  • butter (two types, one for me-one for him)
  • bacon
  • bread (various types)
  • pasta
  • rice
  • lemon juice
  • lime juice
  • tea
  • salad kits
  • seasonal vegetables and fruit
  • potatoes
  • onions
  • garlic
  • tortillas
  • cheese (various types)
  • beef, chicken, pork (whatever is on sale)
  • peanut butter
  • grape jam
  • raspberry jam
  • local honey
  • flour
  • yeast
  • sugar (caster, brown, powdered)
  • chocolate chips
  • cocoa
  • vanilla
  • salt
  • canned tomatoes
  • tomato sauce
  • tomato paste
  • pico de gallo
  • canned chiles and peppers
  • jarred salsa
  • stock (chicken, beef, and vegetable)
  • great norther white beans
  • lentils
  • spices and spice blends

And probably two dozen other things I’ve forgotten.  But you can see from this list that we can put together dozens of meals of various types.  If we’re thinking of something light but filling, it could be lemon pasta and chicken.  If it’s a cold day, it might be a hearty beef stew.  If the day is nice, if we want to barbecue, we got all the stuff for it.  If the day isn’t nice, but we still want to grill, we can do that because we have the cast iron grill pan.  And with fresh vegetables, a salad is usually ten minutes away to go with the grilled protein.

That’s what staples are all about.  It’s keeping the “lowest common denominators” in stock all the time.  For my mom, it was potatoes, meat, and canned veggies.  Plus onions.  For my sister, it’s tortillas, and whatever taco fillings they want.  For some people, it’s frozen dinners.  For some people, it’s a drawer full of menus from restaurants that deliver.  It doesn’t matter what the staples are.  What matters is that they are the things you use all the time.  But here’s another part of the magic of staples.  If it’s something you like and use, you’re going to keep them in stock and over time, they will become a part of your pantry.  And if something else wants to be included, it will be.

So the easiest way to figure out what your staples are is to look at your weekly menu and what it takes to make those things.  Write ’em down and take that list with you when you shop.  Keep them in the same place in your cupboard or pantry.  Over time you’ll be able to see at a glance what you have and what you need.  If you notice something is gathering dust because you haven’t used it in a while, donate it (if it’s not beyond it’s sell-by date) or toss it.  Or -gasp!- use it.

I’m going to close with a recipe for a Mexican soup I saw on television yesterday.  It sounded wonderful and I can’t wait to try it.

  • two onion chopped, hold back half a cup
  • four celery ribs chopped, hold back half a cup
  • two large carrots chopped, hold back half a cup
  • two medium or one large leek cleaned and chopped, hold back half a cup
  • 6 very ripe tomatoes, roasted in the oven and chopped
  • two chipotle chilies in adobo sauce, chopped
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 1 pound of either: cleaned shrimp, lean chicken breast chopped, lean pork loin chopped
  • cilantro and lime juice for garnish

In a large heavy pot, heat two tablespoons vegetable oil until shimmering but not smoking.  Add onions, celery, carrots, and leeks.  Stir to coat, reduce heat to medium low, and allow to cook until onion is transparent, stirring occasionally.  Add tomatoes and juice along with any charred bits, and stir until combined.  Add the chilies and sauce and stir again.  Cook until bubbling, then add the chicken stock.  Bring to a boil, then lower heat to simmer and allow to cook for fifteen minutes.  Remove from heat and cool for 30 minutes.  Puree the soup in a blender or with a handheld stick blender to a smooth consistency.  Sieve the soup into the pot getting as much of the liquid as possible using a rubber spatula to press the mixture into the sieve.  Alternatively, if you like a chunkier soup, do not sieve.  Bring the soup back to a good simmer.  Add the shrimp/chicken/pork and cook until protein is cooked through.  Serve in bowls with chopped cilantro and lime juice on top.  (You can use precooked, shredded beef if you like.)

So, what are your staples in the kitchen?  Dish and let us all know!  Feel free to share this far and wide.

As always,

 

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