Have you ever been so busy with work and life that when you get home you realize you have not done groceries in a week? Have you ever felt so tired you didn't want to spend another hour standing behind the stove fixing yourself, and your loved ones, dinner? At the same time felt like, "I'm hungry but I do not want pizza tonight, or Chinese, or go out."? Well, today I am going to share my 10 favorite pantry products and how I use them.
If you know me or have been following the blog you would know my 9-5 is actually cooking at a food establishment. You might also know that I have been professionally cooking for about 30 years. Needless to say, sometimes the idea of coming home to cook dinner after having worked 10 hours on my feet all day in a hot kitchen, is not necessarily my most relaxing option. Although, for about 90% of the time it is. What can I say, I love to cook.
Quick disclosure; I am not gaining any financial gain by sharing the following favorite pantry products with you. The items I am about to share with you are items I always keep in my pantry or refrigerator. These items are great for quick meals when your energy is low. They are also essentially quite affordable. Most items almost always have a two for x much on a regular basis at the grocery store I shop. Another reason I buy them is that making these items fresh takes more time and much more effort. So the value goes to their convenience and I can invest the added effort to the main entree.
I thread lightly on the subject of convenience. We are the children of the age of convenience. The children of the space age. The era when meals were pre-prepared for you and packaged in microwaveable dishes so that we could reheat them in a few minutes and watch TV while eating. This was and it still is, the era where conveniently packaged food does not necessarily equate to quality.
The convenience I talk about is the idea of products that have a substantial shelf life, therefore are easily available. Also, the idea that they alone would make for a nice meal in the absence of major players like meats or vegetables.
The convenience I also look for is the amount of time needed for me to make it at home from scratch. Have you ever made pasta from scratch? It is a very rewarding and delectable work. But at the same time, it is time-consuming to make and to clean up afterwards . And so, that is the convenience I enjoy.
FPP (favorite pantry product) #10; Pastas
I am going to be honest, although I am not affiliated with any brands. I might mention a few products by brand name. But I am also open to weekly sales and buying different brands from time to time. I enjoy trying them all and weeding out my favorites. In the case of the picture above, I was at Whole Foods Market when I notice that they carry especially different pasta shapes. I am always looking for something new and found it at Whole Foods.
Regardless of what pasta and where you buy it, always try to keep pasta in your pantry. The simplest and honestly delicious recipe for pasta is to boil it to aldente and then toss it with salt, pepper, olive oil, and parmesan cheese. Sprinkle some red pepper flakes for extra heat and you are set for the evening.
FPPs #9 and 8, Pasta Sauces and Pestos
But, if you are like me, you also have the following two items in your pantry to dress your pasta. Marinara Sauce and Pesto. Again, buy the products you enjoy but as of late Mezzetta products have become my favorites. The pesto is quite flavorful, although it doesn't have the vibrant greens some other brands have. That is because it is actually made with basil and not spinach as I have read in many of the other pesto labels. I have also tried the Mezzetta Whole Garlic and Sweet Basil Sauce. I am a sucker for garlic and this sauce has literally whole garlic cloves!! The flavor is fresh and light.
FPP #7, Raviolis and Tortellini
I believe I must have been Italian in a past life, for I can eat pasta every day and not get tired. So another pasta that I always keep in my fridge is Giovanni Rana. I cannot think of anything easier than this. The pasta is packaged fresh, it cooks in minutes, and even though it is sold in the dairy case, you can freeze it if you do not think you will use it immediately. I have made this ravioli with pesto, marinara, and with bacon crumbles, and olive oil. Always delicious and satisfying. Giovanni also makes a mean Gnocchi, look for them in the dairy case.
FPP #6, Stocks;
Chicken, Vegetable, Beef, or Fish/Seafood Stocks. These are my most favorite flavor agents. Simply put a flavor agent are ingredients that will subtly add flavor or help carry a particular flavor profile. In my Puerto Rican Style Beef Stew recipe I ask what is the flavor of water. The answer is not much flavor and when used the final product might have a water-down taste. In any recipe that calls for stewing in juices or even when making rice, try substituting water with a flavor stock. Your cooking will step up a few notches from the rest.
My go to brand is Progresso. The same day I went to Whole Foods I bought the 365 brand and so far it has been quite good for the price. My grocer has the stocks on sale buy one get one at least once a month and I would by at least ten varieties, since I use it often.
FPP #5, Canned Tomatoes
A few years ago I went through a pasta sauce drought. I didn't care for the available products at the store. I was looking for simplicity in ingredients, a low level of preservatives and additives, and a low sugar content. At the time, it felt like I could not find one that would not cost me an arm and a leg. And the cheaper products were not "clean" enough for me. So I opted to not buy any pasta sauce. That is why the first quick recipe I gave you was olive oil and parmesan. I also learned to enjoy the same pasta with added canned diced tomatoes.
I use diced canned tomatoes as much as I use stocks. Stews, sauces, and soups. Canned diced tomatoes, are already cooked and flavored, adding another level of flavor to whatever you are making. They behave much better than adding raw tomatoes to a recipe. Raw tomatoes have to be peeled, or charred to get them to be fire roasted. They will have to release their juices before they start absorbing the juices of what you are making, and in a way, they are not adding much more flavor. Canned tomatoes bypass all these hurdles, becoming a flavorful addition not a distraction to the recipe.
Here is another example of trying a different product
In the below picture there are two cans of tomatoes. One is tomato sauce by Hunts, and behind it towards the left there is a can that reads Muir Glen. This is the first time I bought these Fire Roasted Crushed Tomatoes, and I have to say, they are delicious. We made a tasty tomato soup that hit the spot on a rainy Florida evening. I normally buy Hunts Fire Roasted Diced Tomatoes, but we decided to spend a few more cents for the Muir Glen brand and we were blown away. I will most likely be purchasing both brands in a regular basis.
Another tomato sauce that we immediately re-buy once we use it at home is Frontera's Tomatillo Sauce. Talk about a kick in the pants! This sauce has a mild punch that builds gradually. Light and fresh tasting. I have a few recipes that I have yet to write for green enchiladas and white chili, both made with this great sauce. I don't think you quite eat it by itself, but it makes taco night spectacular.
FPP #4, Tomato Paste in a tube
Yes, still on tomatoes. I do not know how this was not a thing sooner. For the home cook who might use a teaspoon at a time of tomato paste, tomato paste on a tube is a time and money saving miracle. The tomato paste cans are tiny and cute and inexpensive, but I would almost always will through out half of the can because I never used the entire contents. The tube lasts and stays fresher longer. One of these tubes last me about 2 months. I use tomato paste as a thickener for red meat sauces. Of course I use it when making my own marinara sauces and in chilis and soups. Tomato paste has a stronger more acidic, bitter tomato flavor, considering it is a tomato concentrate.
FPP #3, Beans
Beans are one of my favorite ingredients to have in my pantry. I use them as a side dish, like good Puerto Ricans do, but I also like to sprinkle them through my cooking in casseroles, roasts, and pastas. Not to mention soups, and pureed into appetizers, like hummus.
FPP #2, Clarified Butter
When I went to culinary school we had two pots always going in the back burners. One for stock and one for clarified butter. Every time we prepped vegetables we will take the remnants and added them to the stockpot. At the end of the day we would strain the stockpot and chill the stock. The clarified butter was a similar process. We would take about 4 to 5 pounds of butter and place it in a bain-marie or water bath. The pot would be set at medium heat to begin to melt the butter. As the butter melted and heated, it would separate. During the day we would remove the solids that would float to the top. Every time we sautéed anything we will use the clarified butter. As I started working at professional kitchens, this was always the fat used to sauté on the line.
At home it is almost impossible to maintain these two pots going. Especially when I am working at a kitchen all day. So, the broth serve for the stocks we used to make, and this particular ghee brand works great as a clarified butter substitution. Kelapo, has been one butter that it is not solid or blended to maintain a solid state at room temperature. It is quite liquid and you can even see the milk solids at the bottom of the jar. I have tried a few, and this one takes the price. It is a great alternative to butter while cooking, and it helps with the smoke point when mixed with olive oil.
My number one item in the pantry!!!
FPP #1, Wine/Alcohol
Not only can a glass of wine after work could relax you, wine is an amazing flavor agent. My primordial use of wine is for cooking. I do not drink much, and if I do it is only one small glass. Wines brings depth to sauces, and it is great from releasing the little bits of flavor stuck to the bottom of the pan.
Other alcoholic beverages I like to keep handy are assorted beers, anything from lagers to IPAs. Beers are great to make marinates for beef, to add to soups, stews, and chilis. Bourbons, whiskeys, and scotches. Again, I do not drink much so I might exchange one for the other on some recipes. Tequilas, Rums, and Vodkas are great to have in your arsenal for they too could be used as marinates and key sauce ingredients.
Want to read more? Check out these great posts:
- Arroz con Dulce, Puerto Rican Rice Pudding
- Favorite Coquito Recipe
- Puerto Rican Inspired Bread Pudding. Budín de Pan.
- Tender Chicken and Chorizo Stew
- Red Sangria