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Acquainting Myself With the Kitchen After Years of Neglect

By , Alicia Capetillo, Staff Writer
"Hello, kitchen, such a pleasure to meet you. My name is Alicia." So began week two of the grand delivery detox experiment. The kitchen, to this point, has been a kind of love-hate relationship. I love it for its potential: Brownies and roast turkeys both come out of those swinging doors. On the other hand, I hate the impending dangers lurking around every corner. Burns from the stove, dropping a knife on my toe, accidentally getting a jalapeno pepper seed in my eye are all things I have worried about happening on my few run-ins with this room.

That said, with a few recipes under my belt and not a singed eyebrow in sight, I was feeling almost confident. Meaning it was time for a facelift and some serious grocery shopping.

Getting to Know You, Getting to Know All About You

The first step in getting to know my kitchen as a functional space (as opposed to the place I stroll through once a week on my way to taking the garbage out the back door) was tossing last year's Valentine's candy and two near-empty jars of peanut butter, and restocking my otherwise barren shelves. A huge cooking annoyance is having to make multiple trips to the grocery as you try to create a dish that the cookbook swears takes just 20 minutes. There is nothing worse than cursing to yourself about forgetting the darn parsley as you stomp out to your car at 8 p.m. on a Tuesday.

"[As] much as shopping can be a chore, if your cupboards have some staples to get you started, there's an awful lot you can do with a chicken breast, tuna steak or box of eggs picked up on your way home," "Healthy Speedy Suppers" author Katriona MacGregor advises.

The Kitchn offers a list of just under 50 pantry, refrigerator, freezer and spice cabinet items that are a must for starting out. Daunting as it was to look at the list in full, most items make a lot of sense.

Thanks to my mother's Italian roots, I already knew the value of having a nice extra-virgin olive oil on hand. Many of the canned and freezer items, though, were things I had never considered keeping stocked as recipe staples, simply because I associated them with lazy or unhealthy eating. While I'm still staying away from high-sodium canned soups, keeping beans, tomatoes, tuna and frozen vegetables means sides, salad toppings and pasta sauces are just a few steps away. Envisioning future Alicia stocking up like a responsible adult, only to then forget when she used her last box of quinoa, I even started keeping a list on the cabinet to keep track of my can storage. One can out, one can in equates to no starving Wednesday nights!

Having those basic items found in most recipes on-hand significantly cut down on my stress about making a list and checking it twice. As a result, my post-work trip to the grocery became a quick in, around the perimeter and out, rather than an hour of bouncing from one end to the other in search of my ingredient list.

"If you've got these basics in stock, then you can add fresh herbs, chargrilled meat and fish, oven-roasted vegetables and all sorts of complimentary seasonal flavors," MacGregor recommends. "Whilst no one has the time to go shopping every day, it's nice to buy ingredients when they're fresh, rather than long-life or frozen products."

Spice, Spice Baby

Occasionally people perform magic in the kitchen. You've probably witnessed it: They wave their hand in a sweeping motion over whatever is in the stove, breath in deep, look pensively into the pot and then, bam! Inspiration. "Clearly this needs a touch of paprika." But how do they just do that? I tried once, but after inhaling deeply all I could come up with was that my chicken needed a dash of—nothing. Because what I was smelling was burnt chicken.

Despite my past failings in the kitchen, mastering that art of understanding how to flavor and spice my protein and pasta dishes by smell, has always been an elusive goal. Where to begin? How to learn the essentials?

"Spices can be a bit overwhelming when you first start. There are so many to choose from and most can really overpower a dish if you use too much of one," MacGregor says. "Approach them like you would salt and pepper—use a little to start with and remember you can always add more or change the quantities next time you try the recipe."

Lucky for me and every other rookie out there, the culinary geniuses over at Cook Smarts took out the guesswork for some of the most commonly used spices. Each spice listed includes a key that identifies the fruits, veggies and proteins that pair best, plus dishes the spice is commonly used in and the other spices that combine to create flavor sensations, making your taste trials a bit more calculated. The simple combinations are easy to read and understand, plus having the taste outlined right underneath the spice's name makes that magic "Tastes like this needs a bit of peppery flavoring? Bam! Here comes the coriander." a reality.




Already well-acquainted with the heavenly smell and taste of rosemary (come at me, rosemary focaccia) and with spice key in hand, I took the plunge and made a rub of rosemary, garlic powder, basil and just a bit of salt and pepper for some chicken breasts. Tossed in pan, baked, verdict? Actually pretty tasty. Obviously, there will be some misses along the way, but no one said getting acquainted with spices was going to be easy.

"It's all about experimenting and getting to know which flavors go together well and which you particularly like," MacGregor says.

Armed with a practical kitchen literally for the first time in my life, next week I take on meal planning. This Pinterest sensation is sure to be a true test of both my ability to read recipes and maintain my cool while supervising multiple cooking and prep steps, all at the same time.

What is the one convenient item that you always have stocked in the pantry? How are you able to use it in a variety of dishes? 

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Comments

GEORGE815 8/1/2019
Home made is the way to go Report
KOALA_BEAR 7/8/2019
My staples are eggs; canned tomatoes; tunafish; pasta; dried or canned beans, peas, lentils. Next preference would be bell peppers; shrooms; onions; ground beef, pork or turkey; chicken - whole or thighs; cheese or tofu; barley/quinoa/brown rice; chuck roast; dried fruit (prunes, apricots, raisins, currants, dates, cranberries); applesauce; butter & oils - olive, peanut & coconut; carrots, celery & parsnip; frozen or minced garlic; peanut or other nut butter; potatoes; cornstarch; ACV & red wine vinegar; catsup, mustard, mayo, horseradish; sweet & dill pickles & black & green olives; pimentos; seasonings: cinnamon, garlic, molasses, oregano, smoke flavoring, vanilla, dry mustard, Worcestershire. I could cook for months using these for many varied meals and all are in my pantry & freezer or fridge now. Report
KOALA_BEAR 7/8/2019
My staples are eggs; canned tomatoes; tunafish; pasta; dried or canned beans, peas, lentils. Next preference would be bell peppers; shrooms; onions; ground beef, pork or turkey; chicken - whole or thighs; cheese or tofu; barley/quinoa/brown rice; chuck roast; dried fruit (prunes, apricots, raisins, currants, dates, cranberries); applesauce; butter & oils - olive, peanut & coconut; carrots, celery & parsnip; frozen or minced garlic; peanut or other nut butter; potatoes; cornstarch; ACV & red wine vinegar; catsup, mustard, mayo, horseradish; sweet & dill pickles & black & green olives; pimentos; seasonings: cinnamon, garlic, molasses, oregano, smoke flavoring, vanilla, dry mustard, Worcestershire. I could cook for months using these for many varied meals and all are in my pantry & freezer or fridge now. Report
KOALA_BEAR 7/8/2019
My staples are eggs; canned tomatoes; pasta; dried or canned beans, peas, lentils. Next preference would be bell peppers; shrooms; onions; ground beef, pork or turkey; chicken - whole or thighs; barley/quinoa/brown rice; chuck roast; dried fruit (prunes, apricots, raisins, currants, dates, cranberries); applesauce; butter & oils - olive, peanut & coconut; carrots, celery & parsnip; frozen or minced garlic; peanut or other nut butter; potatoes; cornstarch; ACV & red wine vinegar; seasonings: cinnamon, garlic, Report
DRAGONFLY631 6/15/2019
Thanks for the great article Report
RD03875 2/9/2019
Dried beans, curry powder are a staple in my house. Report
LIDDY09 2/7/2019
Thank You Report
4DOGMOM1 2/6/2019
great info Report
PWILLOW1 1/23/2019
This is an excellent article. I will keep it for future reference. I have a very well stocked drawer of herbs & spices. My friends laugh about my 54 bottles all stored in alphabetical order. And yes I use them all. Report
KHALIA2
Great info! Report
great spices which help foods become tastier! Report
My father (who never cooked) always told me that the kitchen is as much a workshop as his woodshop. It is dangerous when not respected, which is why I don't have people in the kitchen when I am cooking. My kitchen is as well stocked and organized as his workshop was. And I get to EAT the products that come out of the kitchen. Report
ALILDUCKLING
I like to keep a fresh lemon or two on hand. Report
No one can run a kitchen without onions and potatoes. That's the first thing in the grocery cart if we're running low, along with eggs and milk. That's almost a whole meal right there. Report
I also keep sodium free beef and chicken bullion. These can be a little hard to find and take a little more, but so worth it for anyone watching their sodium intake. I also keep fresh mint and Rosemary. Report
Good EVOO, balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar, fresh lemons and limes, and moist, coarse Celtic sea salt. I could eat cardboard if I had these staples on hand--great for salads, marinades, dips for crusty bread, even popcorn! Report
I always have olive oil and another plain oil, no-salt added canned tomatoes, lemons, at least one head of garlic, oregano, cinnamon, cumin, chili, dried dill, etc. There are a lot of pantry staples that help make cooking easier. I'm a fairly experienced cook, but I must say I really like the spice chart above. Report
We enjoy several recipes from Carmine's (restaurant) Cookbook. Which means we like to keep San Marzano tomatoes on hand, as well as the fresh basil plants we find periodically at our local groceries. Report
I always prefer fresh, but I always have on hand: salt free tomatoes, canned tuna, dried parsley, cumin, turmeric and dried beans and lentils. I could eat for days with those ingredients. I'm one of the few who doesn't worry about running out for supplies when a snowstom is in the forecast. My favorite would be parsley. Love it. Report
I love the bog I always have bay leafs to use in any stews or soups or roasted beef I keep chicken stock on hand to us as liquid in any things that needs liquid noodles cooked in broth is good I solve the sodium problem by making my own broth and a
freezing it in small portionsI i make the broth by using the skin bones and what ever I don't want to eat of the chicken let it cool and remove the fat also with the turkey carcus fresh basil cut up in salad is great
Little louie

Report
I always have several cans of low sodium tomatoes (crushed and diced). It is so easy to make a quick sauce that almost everyone loves, and provides leftovers. I also like to make a Crock-Pot full (5-6 qts) of Marinara every few weeks. I freeze 2-3 cups of sauce in bags (flat bags take up little space). I always have boneless chicken breasts in the freezer, and when the supermarket has lean ground beef on sale, I buy several packages to make meatballs to freeze. My son likes penne pasta so I cook a pound, freeze it on a cookie sheet, and freeze individual portions in bags (this idea came from Trader Joe's, who sell frozen pasta, but dried is much cheaper!)
Report
Powdered chicken or beef broth brings a lot of flavor to soup, vegetables, anything sauteed or otherwise heated/cooked in a pan. Just watch out for the sodium. I think Mrs. Dash has no sodium and it's all vegetable if you need a substitute. Report
The two staples not on the list--Worcestershire sauce and vinegar. A dash or two of Worcestershire sauce spices up hamburgers or sloppy joes. Also, it is required for my stroganoff. My chili recipe uses it too. Vinegar is necessary for sweet/sour dishes. It also is great on spincach and broccoli. Plus, of course, it is integral to vinegar and oil dressings. Report
LEANLEIGH
Really enjoying Sparkpeople! Report
Frozen black beans. They are free of sodium and a great addition to many of my stir fry of the moment ideas. Ease of prep items like that and many frozen veggies are key for me. Report
The mention of Pinterest kinda makes me shudder. Many a pinterest fail has come from novice cooks trying to do something that looks really cool on pinterest! It's not their fault - it's usually the lack of directions that go with cool looking videos! Report
Garlic is great for any meat, bean, or sauce main dish. I use about a teaspoon of Cinnamon on my oatmeal in the mornings on my oatmeal along with coconut oil and a small amount of molasses. Report
Cardamom and cinnamon are a great combination that sometimes fakes the tastes buds into thinking something is sweeter than it actually is. Report
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