I've been thinking about doing a blog for a long time. I now have a catalyst: none other than my lovely step-daughter Elinor. One day recently I noticed on her Facebook page a status saying she used a boxed "helper" for her ground meat, commenting that it "wasn't bad." I'm pretty sure my heart stopped for 2 seconds. After some deliberation and discussion with the best sounding board I know - my husband Larry - I decided that there is an untapped market of young people just getting into apartment life and not having a clue about how to buy and prepare simple, inexpensive and healthy food. Enter Bella Cucina Maria!
I am inspired to get rolling on this new project for her and others out there in cyber-land but where do I start? Should I jump in with a simple recipe? Expound on the virtues of simple food preparations? Pontificate on the ills of pre-packaged salt-laden mixes? No, I think the best place to start, is at the beginning: setting up your kitchen for success! A couple of things to note up front: First, these ideas are mine. Ask any three people where they would start and you will get three different answers. Generally speaking there will be cross over on the lists. Second, there is going to be a little cost associated with this set up, but it can be done over a couple of trips to the supermarket, so don’t despair. Building your pantry is like adding clothes to your closet. You have a basic pair of jeans with a shirt, then a sweater and then maybe adding a jacket. It’s kind of the same thing with cooking: adding layers to make the food become more interesting.
Today I’m going to start with the non-perishable dry goods that reside in your kitchen cabinets and I'm going to break that down into three sections: Spices & Herbs, Liquids and Other Basics.
Let me honest and say that many parts of my life are not organized, but my kitchen is – methodically. When I’m cooking I get focused and into a “zone.” I need to be able to reach for things instinctively. If something is not where it should be, it totally throws me off. Just observe my systematic Spice & Herb shelves! (Sadly my husband cannot appreciate this.) Top row are the blends, then seeds, next are leaves and last salt and peppers. Admittedly a scary amount of spices and herb, but in the course of a month I use every single one of them at one point or another. You will only need a few to get started:
· Kosher Salt, Fine Sea Salt (table salt), Ground Black Pepper and Red Pepper Flakes
· Basil, Bay Leaf, Oregano, Parsley and Thyme
· Chili Powder, Cinnamon, Cumin, Curry, Garlic Powder and Paprika,
There are also some really great dry herb blends today that make seasoning fast and easy: Perfect Pinch blends from McCormick make life really simple. Sometimes you are just too tired to really have to think a lot about seasoning and need a quick and easy "go-to," that's where blends come in handy. (We'll talk about making your own blends in another post!) My favorites to have on hand are:
· Montreal Steak Spice and Original All-Purpose Seasoning.
Moving on to Liquids: Just a few basics to get you started. Two different oils used in very different ways:
· Extra Virgin Olive Oil and a Vegetable Oil.
A couple of basic vinegars:
· Cider, Red Wine, Rice Wine and Balsamic.
Grocery stores frequently run specials on various oils and vinegars, so keep an eye out. As you come to taste them you will know what you like and go back to it every time.
General Items: Some basic things:
· A favorite Cereal, Honey, Tea, Coffee, Peanut Butter, Nutella (if you are like Elinor), Couscous, Quinoa and Rice
Uncle Bens is pretty standard, and if you feel like living on the edge, get a regular box and a brown rice box.
Next, a few boxes of your favorite
· Pasta and a nice Marinara Sauce.
I’m partial to Barilla, but whatever you like – just check the label for salt content. In a later blog I’m going to teach you how to make a great marinara, but for now keep a jar or two on hand.
Moving on to canned goods: they last for years in the cabinet and are the fastest way to get a protein and veggie in to your dish. Try to stay away from canned veggies, except for tomatoes. (More on that later.) You just need a few things to get started:
· 2 cans each of Diced Tomatoes, Cannellini Beans, Black Beans and Tuna.
These along with the pasta and sauces are always on sale at the market. When you come across a great sale, stock up! I’m going to talk more about tuna in another blog, but in the meantime get a can packed in oil and a can in water and do a taste test. BIG difference!
Last, for those of you who fancy a little baking:
· A couple of small bags of Flour and Sugar, Baking Powder, Baking Soda, Vanilla, Brown and Powdered Sugars.
In my next blog we’re going to venture to the refrigerator and freezer and get that set up. In the meantime, get yourself to the supermarket and walk through the aisles. Start to turn the items over and have a good look at the ingredients. It can be a real education!
Buon appetito tutti!