The key to your success in the kitchen will be the quality of your ingredients. Yes, technique and preparation are important, but frankly the single most important factor is your produce, spices and pantry items.
Some items lend themselves to being stored and some do not. When in doubt, fresh is always best and buy the best you can afford.
There may not be a huge difference between a $20.00 bottle of extra virgin olive oil and a $30.00 bottle of extra virgin olive oil, but you can be assured there’s a difference with the $5.00 bottle.
Should you need an ingredient that is not found at your local market, there are many internet sources; here are just a few:
In some cases ingredients can be substituted, but on some recipes it just won’t turn out properly.
Meat and Vegetables – I am a firm believer in supporting our local farmers. As a way to reduce your carbon footprint, this benefits us all and you get a few extra advantages.
Firstly, the produce is fresh, as it hasn’t had to come from half way around the world. Secondly, it is more likely to have been picked at it’s point of ripeness, as they know it will be in market within a day. Further, it’s often organic or at the very least, less processed.
Eggs– Free range and local farms only. Even better if you have the space, have a few hens of your own. Eggs do not need to be white, brown is beautiful too.
Cheeses– Again, buy locally whenever possible, buy frequently and try and get the best. If you want a special cheese that is made in a certain place, then search it out. If you want the best Parmesan, then go for Parmesano Reggiano; if you want Manchego, head to Spain. Buying cheap cheese is no bargain.
Butter – There are so many types of butter to choose from. If available, use a good local brand. If you have to use a major brand, chose the unsalted, as it has less shelf life and they need to rotate the stock. Margarine is not a butter substitute. In many ways it is potentially less healthy due to the hydrogenated fats, so enjoy your butter, but in moderation.
Stock– I enjoy making stock, so for me I always have some on hand. If it’s too much work for you, then choose one that is low in salt and organic. Remember that different stocks are used differently, and a dish can be vastly improved by using the right stock or ruined by using the wrong stock. The basic stocks are Chicken, Beef, Veal, Seafood and Vegetable.
Pasta– For dried pasta I prefer the Italian brand DeCecco or Martelli. However, there are many artisan brands which are brilliant. Normally I find that the Italian brands are vastly superior to domestic brands.
Rice– There are so many types, just focus on the authentic taste and the use and the choice will be clear. Easy cook rice has no place in my kitchen. For example, basmati might be lovely with a curry, but doesn’t quite work in a risotto, and Thai food begs for jasmine rice.
Olive Oil– Normally Extra Virgin (EVO) is my preference, but this is when you are using the oil to impart a taste. If the goal is long cooking, sautéing or frying, normal olive oil is sufficient.
Vegetable Oil– Use cold pressed only and keep it in the refrigerator. Oil will go rancid when not kept cold and nut oils are the most sensitive. Buy in reasonable sizes and replace as needed. Rancid oil is not only unhealthy; it ruins the flavor of your food.
Salt– I use sea salt or kosher salt, as I find its flavor is more interesting and less bitter than normal table salt. Some even say it’s healthier.
Black Pepper– Freshly ground Black Pepper and I find Tellicherry peppercorns are fantastic.
Vinegar– I always keep a few kinds in the pantry, Champagne, Cider, Sherry and Rice. They each are unique and add an interesting nuance to your cooking.
Wine – Sherry, Cognac, Marsala and Madeira are essential. For red and white wines, dispense with the cooking wines, which are packed with salt. If you wouldn’t drink them, then don’t cook with them.
Garlic– Use fresh garlic and avoid the chopped garlic in oil, unless you prepare it yourself and use it within the week.
Fresh Herbs– There are some good sources for dried herbs when fresh are not available, but when fresh are in season, you will never go wrong in choosing them.
Spices– Keep as many of your spices as possible in whole form, and grind them as you need them. I keep a special “spice only” coffee grinder that I use for this purpose. Ground spices go down hill quickly, so if they have not been used in 6 months, throw them out. Remember if you are going to use whole spices, they normally need to be roasted first, and roasting is better when they are whole and then you can grind them after they cool a bit.
Smoked Paprika- I have found so many uses for this wonderful spice. It comes in a sweet version and a slightly hot version. I always have both on hand and find it perfect to create authentic Spanish dishes and perfect for adding a bit of smoky flavor to any dish.
Here is a hint: If you have too many tomatoes to use immediately, put them in a freezer bag and freeze them whole and then gently defrost in warm water. Then they are easy to skin and can be used for sauces and any dish calling for fresh. Honestly I can’t taste the difference.
Pancetta– I have yet to find any substitute for this wonderful Italian rolled bacon. The spices are unique and add a flavor that is tough to duplicate.
Andouille Sausage– A bit tough to find in some areas, but should be sought out if possible. In a pinch, a chorizo or chaurice will suffice.
Black Beans– There is no substitute for fermented/dried black beans, which can be found in all Chinese groceries. Buy them dry in the bag if possible, as the pastes and sauces are usually packed with MSG and salt.
Bean Paste– Easy to find in Chinese markets and you can also substitute red or yellow Japanese miso paste as well.
Mayonnaise– If you are from the Southern USA, this is a critical ingredient and if I have to pick a favorite it’s Duke’s from Richmond, Virginia. It’s not easy to find in all parts of the country, however it is unique and can easily be purchased directly from the company or on many Internet food sites. As for making your own, it all depends on the flavor you are looking for.
Sesame Oil– This is the toasted sesame oil, not the cold pressed cooking oil. That is good too, but not for creating that smoky flavor.
Ginger– Use fresh ginger root only. The powdered just doesn’t work unless you’re using it for baking.
Fish Sauce or Nuoc Mam– An essential apart of Thai, Vietnamese and any Southeast Asian cooking. I prefer the “Three Crabs” or “Tra Chang” brands, but the “Squid Brand” is also good.
Chili Paste– This is a personal choice and really you can easily make your own and keep it in the refrigerator and it is ready whenever you need it.