In our last installment, I talked about the tools you needed in your kitchen to get started cooking. In this article, I’m gonna talk about food, and how to shop for it.
No matter what meal I happen to be preparing on a given day, there’s a list of stuff I always make sure to keep on hand in my kitchen. 90% of everything I make starts with this stuff, and if you keep stocked up on these ingredients, you’ll be able to make something tasty on demand any time.
- Crushed tomatoes. These are usually sold in big sixteen or twenty ounce cans, and they’ll survive a nuclear winter. Make sure you get crushed tomatoes, not stewed tomatoes, which are gross-looking and hard to deal with.
- Tomato paste. This comes in really small cans, and a little goes a long way.
- Red/black beans. Don’t bother buying raw ones; the canned ones work just as well for most everything you want to do with beans and they don’t take hours of soaking to get ready.
- Olive oil. You want virgin olive oil, which is thin and light; thicker olive oils are mainly used as dipping sauces or the like.
- Balsamic vinegar. Balsamic vineger is the Autotune of cooking; it makes pretty much anything taste awesome.
- Flour. In addition to baking, flour is good for breading and for making roux and other sauce elements. (We’ll get to that.)
- Sugar. Always have white sugar on hand, and try to keep brown sugar as well.
- Spaghetti/fettucine/random noodles. In a later installment, I’m going to teach you how to make a kickass and simple spaghetti sauce you can knock out any time.
- White rice/brown rice/wild rice. This is the world’s basic food staple, and it’s used in like three-quarters of the ethnic cuisines you’ll ever make. Brown rice…well, brown rice sucks, let’s just be honest, but it’s good for you. Wild rice is good as a side for grilled meats and the like. If you feel daring, grab some couscous as well — it cooks a lot faster than rice and it’s really good with Mediterranean dishes. Do not buy minute rice. Don’t be that guy.
- Chicken/beef/vegetable stock. Unless you want to spend a day boiling an entire chicken down into a fine paste, this is the way to go. These come in either cans or in little concentrated blocks.
- Baking powder/baking soda. Keep these around, just in case. Do not use baking powder as a refrigerator deodorant and then cook with it.
- White onions. White onions don’t need to be refrigerated and will be good for weeks in your pantry.
- Potatoes. Stick with basic russet potatoes for now; buy a ten pound bag and keep ‘em someplace dark and cool.
- Garlic. Always, always have a few clumps of garlic around.
- Mushrooms. Basic white mushrooms, and you can buy them pre-sliced.
- Red peppers. Red bell peppers are another secret weapon in the chef’s arsenal. You can also go with green bell peppers, but personally, I always like the red ones better.
- Celery. Celery, onions, garlic and peppers are the basis of a lot of Italian and Cajun cooking, plus you can slap some peanut butter or cream cheese in a celery stick as a snack.
- Milk. Unless you’re lactose-intolerant, you’re going to use a lot of milk in your meals.
- Bacon. I often go with turkey bacon, because it’s cheaper, but nothing beats the real thing.
- Eggs. Eggs are good for baking, making desserts and breadings, and also, of course, for eating on their own.
- Chicken breasts. Most stores sell three pound bags of frozen chicken breasts, and by and large, they’re perfectly acceptable.
- Kielbasa/smoked sausage. You’d be surprised how many meals you can make with this stuff.
- Italian sausage. Keep it simple here; avoid the kind that’s stuffed with cheese or anything else.
- Ground beef. Always try to make sure and get ground beef that’s at least 80/20 (80% meat and 20% fat).
Cheeses. It depends on your taste, but I always keep blocks of mild cheddar, Monteray jack, provolone and a tub of grated parmesan around, personally.
- Tofu. Hey, don’t laugh. Tofu’s weird to learn to cook with, but if you figure it out, you’ll always have an option if you have guests who are vegan or vegetarian. Plus it’s good for you.
Spices for Cooking
- Salt. Get both basic iodized table salt and kosher salt, which comes in flakes. They both have their uses.
- Pepper. You really want coarse-ground pepper or, if you’re willing to make the effort, whole peppercorns and an adjustable grinder.
- Cumin. Cumin is an ingredient in Mexican and Tex-Mex food as well as Indian.
- Basil. Sweet basil is good, and if you want to impress a date, go pick up some fresh basil and chop it up rather than using the dried stuff from a jar.
- Oregano. Go ahead and just buy the stuff in a jar, nobody cares.
- Cinnamon/cloves/nutmeg. These kick ass for making desserts and baking, and you can also use them in Indian and some Ethiopian foods.
Garlic powder/onion powder. These are good for when you wanna add some flavor to a dish but you can’t be bothered to chop garlic or onions into fine bits.
How To Shop Effectively
There’s nothing lamer than buying a bunch of food and then discovering it’s gone bad before you use it. With most of the non-perishable food on this list, you can pretty much get it in bulk at Costco or Sam’s Club, and it’s not gonna go bad anytime soon. Canned beans will probably survive a nuclear winter, for example.
Make sure you get solid, airtight containers for your noodles, rice, sugars and flour — bugs love to munch on these, and while they’re actually perfectly harmless, nothing spoils a date like finding a weevil in your creme brulee. Most big box stores like Bed, Bath & Beyond sell airtight canisters with weighted or lockable lids, like your grandma had on her counter.
Spices are tricky. A lot of spices like basil and oregano are essentially chopped-up, dried leaves, and after a while they get really dry, and your mileage with them may vary. But salt, pepper, cumin, cinnamon…these are all powdered, and you could put them on a spaceship to Alpha Centauri and they’d still be fine when they got there.
Potatoes and onions will be happy unrefrigerated for weeks or months, depending on your climate, but the rest of the veggies you’ll want to buy no more than a week before you plan to use them. I always freeze my pork, chicken and beef as soon as I bring it home. (Except for kielbasa/smoked sausage, which is usually sold in a sealed plastic wrap and which will last longer if you don’t open it.) Never freeze any dairy products or anything will milk in it, because it damages the fat cells and makes it taste weird.
A good rule of thumb is: shop once every six months for the staples, every two weeks or so for anything that needs to be refrigerated, and only buy special ingredients the day you’re gonna use them.
I have a confession to make, here: I don’t really buy organic food. When I shop, I’m looking for the best value for my dollar, and while I’m sure that organic black beans are better for the environment, Walmart store brand black beans are better for my wallet. If you can afford ethical shopping, by all means, go with it.
Next time: now that you’ve got a well-equipped kitchen and a fully-stocked pantry, we’ll start seeing what you can do with them!