Today’s post about pantry essentials is going to be a bit different than others. First of all, it is longer. But I encourage you to read it all because there is a lot to share. Ah, sharing. It seems somehow more difficult and easier to share in today’s crazy environment. But today, I have the pleasure to share with you the knowledge and wisdom of other voices around the world. They are from several food bloggers who have inspired me over the years. Together, we want to share with you some ideas on how to make some common items in your pantry work for you.
When you spend a lot of time cooking at home, you begin to understand how important it is to have a well stocked pantry. Particularly now with “social distancing” and cooking at home much more. It means that you have to find more ways to be creative and to make use of what you hand.
And that is where having a well stocked pantry comes in handy. You need to be able to have ingredients on hand that you turn to over and over again. Pantry essentials are ingredients you can rely on to create delicious food that nourishes your family. Foods that can play more than just one role are an essential element of a well stocked pantry.
Four All Stars
Today’s post focuses on just four of those pantry essentials that I always have on hand. Of course, a well stocked pantry has many more than four items. But for today we’ll stick to four — two sweet and two acidic. I chose these because ‘sweet’ and ‘acidy’ are two very easy ways to amp up the flavor in anything that you eat. Team “Sweet” entries are Honey and Dried Fruit. Team “Acid” entries are Canned Tomatoes and Vinegar.
The great thing about these four pantry essentials is how versatile they each are. No one trick ponies. If it is going to take up space in my pantry, it needs to be good at doing more than one thing for me.
There are so many different ways to use these pantry essentials. I couldn’t possibly begin to have recipes for all great ideas for these ingredients. With that in mind, have invited some inspirational bloggers to share some of their ideas. Below some of their ideas, along with a few of my own, for how to use the honey, vinegar, dried fruit, and canned tomatoes.
I want to thank all the bloggers who have contributed today. I truly appreciate their time and consideration.
Let’s kick things off with Honey, from Team Sweet
Pantry Essentials: Honey
Honey is one of the most useful ingredients in the kitchen for me. Back in the “old days” before I learned to cook, I thought honey was merely for an occasional cup or tea or sore throat. That is all we ever used it for growing up.
But I have learned it can be so much more and for me it is a pantry essential. Good honey can add natural sweetness to all manner of foods. Great honey can add sweetness and flavor. I prefer locally sourced honey myself, but it isn’t available year round here in the Northeast US. I find that for most applications a quality, reliable supermarket honey will do. Just be sure it is all honey and not diluted with corn syrup (as some lower quality honey is).
Where honey is the “star” of the show, go for a more specialized honey. Honey has ‘hints’ of the plant the bees harvest pollen from. That creates what we call “varietal” honey. Bees don’t call it that. Orange blossom, tupelo, buckwheat are three popular varieties. Each brings its own flavor, and a good rule of thumb that the darker the honey, the more intense the flavor.
Use honey in a wide variety of ways, from breakfast through dinner and onto dessert. Try combining some Greek yogurt with granola and some honey for a quick morning snack. Here are several other ways to use honey to your advantage.
Most times when I make a salad dressing, I shoot for a simple formula. Start with a good Olive Oil, add some herbs, spices, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Then I add a bit of fresh squeezed lemon juice or vinegar. Pretty good dressing. But to make it better than ‘pretty good’ I add a bit of honey to help balance all of the flavors. I like to think of honey as my ‘secret ingredient’ in my salad dressings. For an example, check out the dressing I made for my Cucumber, Tomato Olive and Caper Salad. Start using a bit of honey in your salad dressing too and it can become your secret ingredient!
It may surprise you, but honey pairs really well with cheese. Just a drizzle of honey over some good cheese and you have created a sublime delight for the palate! Try pairing some good honey with an aged cheese like Parmigiano-Reggiano. You will find that nutty flavor of the cheese will be complemented by the sweetness of the honey.
Honey also pairs remarkably well with sweet creamy cheeses too. Remember, a little goes a long way, so find a good honey and a good cheese. An excellent example comes from Cara Cipolla Kretz at her blog Homemade Italian Cooking. She shares a super simple but delicious appetizer/snack with her Ricotta Cheese and Honey Crostini Board. Cara makes it easy to see how cheese and honey are naturals together.
Cheese isn’t the only food improved by a hint of honey. Fresh fruit is another great pairing. While most fruits can be sweet, they have a different flavor sweetness than the honey. Honey can help even out the flavors of a fruit, making a slightly sour one more sweet. Grilled fruit is an especially good pairing for honey.
Outside of Florence, food writer and photographer Giulia Scarpaleggia teaches cooking classes in the Tuscan countryside. She also writes the blog Juls’ Kitchen, where she shared her recipe for grilled stone fruit with honey and rosemary syrup. I love how she enhances the honey with a touch of vanilla and rosemary. What a heavenly way to really bring all the flavors together. An easy way and create something great from basic ingredients.
It will not be any surprise to you that sweet honey is also at home in desserts. Some might think that honey is most at home on the dessert tray because of its sweetness. And that isn’t wrong. There are all sorts of desserts that take advantage of honey. Here are a couple that come to mind. Baklava, popular throughout Greece, Turkey and the Balkans. Italian Struffoli, deep-fried dough balls soaked in honey. Alfajors, a biscuit stick from Spain made with ground almonds and honey. Almost anywhere you travel — Mediterranean or beyond, you will find a dessert classic dessert with honey.
In Morocco, the flaky Briouat can be made either savory or sweet. Filled with meat, cheese, lemon, and pepper, savory briouats are typically folded into triangles or cigar shapes, and served as an appetizer. But the briouat can also be sweet, filled with almonds and sugar. Once cooked they are dipped in honey to completely coat them in a sweet shell of honey goodness. Nada Kiffa, who writes the blog Fleur d’Oranger, Masala and Co shares her recipe for the Moroccan delicacies with almond and honey- Sbiaat & briouats bellouz. The tasty desserts are sometimes said to be the Queen of Moroccan Pastry.
Pantry Essentials: Vinegar
Vinegar is one of those ingredients that is easy to under appreciated. It is never the star of a dish, always a supporting player. Vinegar’s main role is to provide acid to a dish, and that acid can be essential to good flavor.
It is well known that a critical element in good cooking is the ability to use acid to your advantage. In her cookbook and Netflix series Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, Chef Samin Nosra identified acid as one of the four basic elements of good food. She believes that acid is necessary to help balance flavors.
Some foods are naturally acidic, like tomatoes and yogurt. But others need the acid added to them to brighten and amplify their flavor. Common ways to add acid are with a citrus like lemon and with vinegar. We have talked about lemons before, so let’s stick with vinegar today.
Although it is often overlooked, vinegar can be used in many ways from salads to desserts. Check out a few below.
In my Spanish Pizza – Coca with Candied Red Peppers recipe, I relied on sherry vinegar to help highthend the flavors of the sauteed vegetables. I told you then that I thought that the sherry vinegar was the one ingredient mattered the most. I stand by that, and know that without it, the candied peppers would taste flat and boring.
One food that everyone associates with vinegar is a salad dressing. Imagine a Greek salad without a good dressing. It would just be a collection of vegetables on its own. What “makes” a good Greek Salad is the dressing.
Eleni Saltas, in her self title blog, shows off how red wine vinegar makes the difference in a traditional Horiatiki Salata (Greek Village Salad). It is the acid of the vinegar that brings together the saltiness of the feta, the brininess of the olives, and the freshness of the other vegetables. Without the acid, the flavors would not come together to create the classic taste of the Greek Salad.
Sometimes a salad dressing isn’t just a dressing. Vinegar can pull double duty on leafy greens like kale, collard, and chard. A bit tougher than a simple lettuce, these greens can use a bit of help soften up. Vinegar helps soften and tenderize the leaves so that they are more digestible. It aids in the breakdown of tough fibers. That in turn makes the greens easier to digest and easier to absorb their nutrients.
In Umbria, Elizabeth Minchilli shares a recipe from her self titled blog that unlocks the power of vinegar to complete her Spring Salad of Tuscan Kale. Balsamic and white wine vinegars combine to bring out the flavor of a fresh kale, spring onions and edible flowers. The double dose of vinegar works well here (along with the orange) to help soften the kale leaves at the same time. It also creates a more complex flavor that is more interesting.
Not just for salads, vinegar can add a brightness to dessert as well. There is a long history of balsamic vinegar enhancing the flavor of fruits. Balsamic vinegar, unlike most other vinegar, does not come from a wine. It does come from grapes, but those grapes were never fermented into a wine first. As a result, balsamic vinegar keeps more of its natural sweetness along with the acidity.
It is this natural pair of sweetness and acidity that gives balamaic the almost unique quality to ‘magically’ transform an ordinary fruit to spectacular. The sweetness in the balsamic amplifies the sweetness of the fruit, and the acid helps to balance it all.
Frank Fariello at Memorie di Angelina tells us that a good balsamic vinegar will “turn even the most insipid supermarket strawberries into something worth eating.” He shares his tips and tricks for coaxing the most out of the fruit in his post Fragole all’aceto balsamico (Strawberries with Balsamic Vinegar).
Pantry Essentials: Dried Fruit
Dried fruit may not seem like a key pantry staple. But if you don’t have some on hand, you are doing yourself a disservice. Dried fruits are a great way to add some sweetness to any dish and really belong on the list of pantry essentials. Beyond that, they can last a long time in your pantry. You can enjoy the flavors of fruit even when they aren’t in season or easy to find.
You may well have some raisins, or even some dried cranberries. Perhaps even some golden raisins. These are a great start. But I encourage you to get a hold of some dried apricots, prune or dates as well And my personal favorite — dried figs. Together, these are the most common dried fruits of the Mediterranean.
I find dried fruits are great for snacking out of hand. They are also a nice appetizer paired with nuts like hazelnuts, walnuts and almonds. Here are some other great ways to use dried fruits.
I find myself using dried fruits in salads year round. It is a simple way to add some sweetness to the salad. Almost any kind of dried fruit can work, but I seem to turn most often to golden raisins or dried apricots in salad. Together or separately, they can work well in almost any fresh green salad. They also pair nicely with a roasted vegetable salad such as my recent Roasted Carrot and Chickpea Salad. Although they are ‘supporting players’ in this salad, I don’t think it would be as good without them.
Dried fruits almost seem to be made for slow cooking. The long slow cook time helps them to absorb some of the cooking liquids and rehydrate. It also allows time for the sweetness and flavor of the fruit to infuse into the whole dish.
The North African tagine is the perfect sweet & savory dish to show off the power of dried fruits. Classically cooked in an earthenware pot of the same name, tagines are a combination of meat, vegetables and dried fruits. The long, slow cook time also makes it a great dish to set up in the morning and let cook all day while you are home. If you don’t have the specialized pot, you can use a slow cooker instead. Lisa Goldfiger from the blog Panning the Globe shares her Slow Cooker Chicken Tagine with Apricots and Chickpeas recipe to show how easy it is.. And you knew I had to include at least one recipe with my favorite – chickpeas!
As a fruit, you would think that dried fruits would be a natural at the breakfast table. And you would be right. The beauty of it all is that there isn’t anything very complicated about it. Dried fruit, some yogurt, some nuts. A healthy and filling breakfast.
Turkish Chef and blogger Ozlem Warren keeps it simple at her blog Ozlem’s Turkish Table. She shares a family recipe for Yoghurt with Dried Apricots, Walnuts, Pomegranate Seeds and Honey. She also gives you some of the health benefits of this simple breakfast. To top it off, Ozlem shares some ideas for an excellent Turkish styled brunch that are out of this world.
Perhaps it would surprise you but a fruit salad is also an excellent way to experience dried fruits. Dried fruit salads often include nuts like almonds or pistachios. Sometimes they are soaked overnight in a simple syrup to help plump the fruit. But a good dried fruit salad doesn;t need that much advance planning. .
Popular throughout the Middle East, Khoshaf is served commonly during Ramadan. Like dried fruits with breakfast, the preparation is simple, but the flavors are rich and filling. Centered on a basic recipe, you can easily adapt it to suit personal preference. I have seen many Khoshaf recipes from Syria and Lebanon to Iran, But the dish is most closely associated with Egypt. The beautiful blog Sugar and Garlic is written by Egyptian author Noha. She shares her family’s recipe for a Khoshaf that is at once simple and elegant. The flavors are just perfect together.
Pantry Essentials: Canned Tomatoes
Last but certainly not least on the tour of pantry essentials is canned tomatoes. Canned tomatoes. Tomatoes may be the only vegetable (of fruit) where the canned variety is acceptable in my kitchen. I prefer whole, real ingredients to processed and canned every day. But unlike other vegetables, when canned tomatoes don’t have much added to them for freshness. This is largely due to the fact that tomatoes are so acidic to begin with, that you don’t need to add chemical preservatives to the can.
It is easy to find lots of choices at the grocery store. Most brands will do, but there are a few things that stand out for picking the best canned tomatoes. First, look at the ingredients. The entire ingredients list should consist of tomatoes, and a touch of salt. That’s it. Second , if the option is available, try fire roasted tomatoes. Fire roasting adds a depth of flavor to the tomatoes that make the experience that much better. And finally, don’t get any ‘basil added’ or ‘pepper added’ varieties. Not that they are bad themselves, but the addition of a specific flavor limits your options. Plain tomatoes give you the ability to use them in a wider variety of ways.
Canned tomatoes can make an appearance during breakfast (or brunch). My recent post for the Tunisian tomato and egg dish Shakshouka is a perfect example of this. The base of the dish is a spicy tomato sauce where the eggs are poached. Not only for breakfast, Shakshouka makes a great lunch or dinner. One particularly nice thing about it is that it is budget friendly. A can of tomatoes and a couple of eggs make a meal, and for pennies. A great way to stretch the budget without sacrificing taste.
Judging by how much shelf space is taken at the grocery store with jars of Pizza Sauce, a lot of pre-made sauce is sold. It seems obvious to me, but I don’t think everyone knows it yet. You can make your own at home from canned tomatoes, your own pantry essential. You get a lot better control of the flavor you want, and a lot less of the things you don’t want in a ‘processed’ sauce.
Pick the herbs and spices that you like. I’m partial to a bit of oregano and a dollop of basil pesto. If you’d like, add a clove of garlic or a touch of balsamic vinegar. Place those along with a can of tomatoes to a food process and take it all for a quick spin. Done. Pizza sauce. You may never go back to pre-made sauce again.
It is hard to think of canned tomatoes without thinking about using them for tomato sauce. Always best in the summer with fresh tomatoes, tomato sauce can be made year round with canned tomatoes. I grew up in an Italian American household and Sundays were for making tomato sauce. Big pots of it, almost always from canned whole or diced tomatoes. It would simmer for hours on the stove top before it was done. I thought that tomato sauce was a uniquely Italian invention.
It turns out that it isn’t. There are variants of a ‘tomato sauce’ in every corner of the Mediterranean. Further, tomatoes are a new world food that were introduced to Europe by early explorers. So it stands to reason that there are versions of tomato sauce native to the Americas. In fact, there is research to suggest that Mexican salsa is a direct ancestor to the Italian tomato sauce.
But as I said, I grew up Italian so for today we’re sticking with an Italian tomato sauce. Without meat, it is called a marinara sauce. With meat, it is ragu, or bolognese (which is a specific type of ragu). Just because you are having an Italian styled tomato sauce doesn’t mean it has to simmer all day like my Mom’s. Most of the time now I make a quick and easy sauce, which is perfect for just about every occasion. Rosemary Molloy from An Italian In My Kitchen shares her recipe for an Easy Tomato Sauce. I love how she uses whole ingredients and delicious spices to coax excellent flavor out of such a simple dish. Try this the next time you need a tomato sauce.
One of my favorite dishes in this whole run down is this one, the Tumbet Mallroquin. Sometimes called a Spanish Ratatouille, the Tumbet Mallorquin is a mix of fresh veggies topped with tomato sauce. The Spanish variety is said to have originated on the Spanish island of Mallorca. A combination of potatoes, eggplants, peppers and garlic, it is an easy dish to put together. It can be served as a tapas, as a meal on its own, or as a side. Or it is great as leftovers, and I even saw some who use it as a condiment. With tumbet it is difficult to go wrong.
Albert Bevia, blogger at Spain on a Fork, takes it up a level. He keeps it easy to make, but stacks the veggies brilliantly inside a circular mold. This takes it from a delicious dish to a delicious and elegant dish! And if you don’t have a circular mold, take the bottom off of the can from your tomatoes and use that!. No reason you can’t make this at home. Check out Albert’s recipe for Tumbet Mallorquín – The Spanish Ratatouille to see how you can make this restaurant worthy dish in your own kitchen. Find a link for his YouTube video there as well.
So that’s it. I know that this has been a long post and I appreciate your patience in reading through. I’m sure you can find ideas here on how to stretch your pantry essentials to your advantage. Think about the same concepts for different pantry staples on your own. Feel free to leave other ideas in the comments as well.
Finally, a great big THANK YOU again to all my fellow bloggers who have shared with us today. Check out there blogs as well for great inspirations!