Tag Archives: cooking ideas

7 “Must-Have” items for a well-stocked pantry

The Well-stocked Pantry

You’ll be ready for just about anything if you keep these items in stock at home at all times.

I keep my pantry well-stocked at all times. I owe that habit to years in the restaurant business. One of the chef’s assistants always ran a thorough checklist of the pantry at the opening and closing of the restaurant. It would be unthinkable to open the doors with a ‘short’ pantry.

The reasons for keeping a well-stocked pantry at home are not so different than for a restaurant. At a restaurant, it’s a matter of efficiency. If you run out of ingredients, you’ll have disappointed customers. At home, let’s say you have guests coming over for lunch or dinner. Do you want to run out of groceries just as you start cooking?

If you keep these 7 items in your pantry you’ll be able to create all kinds of meals at the drop of a hat. Think about the times when the phone rings and – boom – a friend is on the way. You’ll be ready!

The first thing to remember is it should always be quality over quantity.  What I mean by that is, with these basics, you want the best you can find to ensure that your effort to be prepared is never in vain. I’m of the mind that if you’re going to go through the effort of cooking, why not start with the best possible ingredients.

So, here’s my inventory for your well-stocked pantry. Watch my video as I run through the items:

  1. I set this out separately from ‘seasonings’ because salt is used for so many things in the kitchen. But don’t rely on just any salt – it really should be sea salt. Sea salt is not as salty as production table salt and is a lot easier to control while cooking.
  2. Whole peppercorns are far better than regular ground pepper. Freshly crushed peppercorns bring complexity to any dish: texture, aroma, taste. Jars of whole peppercorns can be found in any grocery or kitchen store. You may be tempted to keep fresh herbs around. They’re always a great add to a recipe but it’s not always practical to keep them ‘just in case’.  That’s why I keep small jars of high quality dried herbs in my pantry. To be honest, in many cases, they’re just as good for adding a concentrated flavor to any dish. My go-to dried spices: rosemary, thyme, and basil from either Spice Islands or Spice Hunter (both are very good).
  3. It’s important to always buy produce in season to get the max flavor and that’s especially important with tomatoes whose growing season is really only from June 1 through mid-September. So, when it’s January and the fresh ones are not great I use the next best thing, a great can of tomatoes. Good canned tomatoes can make a huge flavor difference. I recommend Tuttorosso Tomatoes, Muir Glen, or Simpson Brands – you can make just about anything with these canned tomatoes, and they taste great even when a recipe calls for fresh tomatoes.
  4. Good wine. Resist the bottom shelves at the grocery store. It is definitely tempting to use a cheap wine to cook with. My rule is that you only cook with wine that you would drink. That doesn’t mean it’s the most expensive bottle you have – but an affordable one that pleases anyone’s palate. It will make all the difference in the world for your finished dish.
  5. Fresh Citrus. Among the citrus, you especially want to keep lemons. They add a brightness to any dish. But you can’t go wrong with keeping some limes and oranges as well.
  6. Dried beans are a great addition to so many dishes. Dried beans are also much better texture than their canned counterparts. Just remember to soak them overnight!
  7. Great olive oil (Extra Virgin if it’s in my pantry). If you want the full-bodied flavor that can make or break a dish, make sure your oil comes in a dark glass or metal container. You can’t go wrong with extra virgin olive oil from Mandranova, Long Meadow Ranch, or Davis Estates. Use “the good stuff” for cooking and to finish a dish – your taste buds will thank you.

That’s my 7. You may think of others to keep in your pantry that work with your favorite recipes. The goal is to keep yourself well-stocked with enough basics that you can cook up just about any dish at any time and you’ll always be ready for that last-minute party!

Food Tip – The best croutons for your summer salads!

home-made croutons

Add a kick to your salads with home-made croutons – and it’s so easy.

I love crunchy carbs, don’t you? The specific carb that’s on my mind right now are croutons. Okay – so not exactly health food. I think of home-made croutons as a sort of “love food” – for the love of cooking and entertaining friends. They can be used so many different ways – perfect for topping salads and crumbled over grilled asparagus just to name a few.

Diving back to my restaurant days, croutons originate from France, early 19th Century, when an unknown chef had an idea to put small pieces of toasted bread crust into food. It was such a great idea that fragments of croûte (crust) found its way into all sorts of recipes, and eventually salads.

Now, of course, we can buy croutons in all shapes and sizes; ready and prepared for soups, salads, or whatever. Some are okay, but the best is home-made. I picked up a recipe from my favorite magazine and website, Bon Appetit. I loved it so much that I recreated the recipe in this video.

A friend of mine uses this recipe for her fried chicken breadcrumb spice mix. Not exactly health food either, but that’s a recipe that defines “love food.” I showed this recipe to another friend who loves to snack on them with a glass of red wine on “down time” nights when she binges on her favorite streaming video programs. To each her own, right?

The recipe indeed starts off simple enough, with a loaf of day old bread from your favorite baker. I love the Röckenwagner Farmer’s Market brand. It’s where I can find my favorite loaf of bread – rosemary olive oil. But your bread can be anything – a pure sourdough, a French loaf – it doesn’t matter.

Next step, preheat your oven to 375°F.

Take your loaf of day-old bread and trim off the crust all the way around. You don’t have to be careful with the trimming, because after you’re done, you’re going to take the whole loaf and tear it into irregular, jagged pieces. The pieces should be about the size of your thumb leaving behind plenty of nooks and crannies.

In a single layer on a baking sheet, pour a few glugs of good extra virgin olive oil over your pieces of bread. I’m a little particular about my olive oil – I wrote a whole explanation you may want to read. In this case, I use Terra di Brisighella that I brought back from Italy. It’s real Italian, extra virgin and has an excellent taste.  But, as long as it’s good olive oil and you like the taste it’s the perfect one for your recipe.

Sprinkle salt generously. I use sea salt because it’s not as salty tasting as table salt. It’s perfect for this kind of preparation.

Next, squeeze all of the pieces of bread with your hands to help them absorb the olive oil and salt. Then spread the pieces out again.

Slip the baking sheet into the oven for about 10 minutes.  Watch the oven (not all ovens heat the same) and make sure you take them out before they burn!

Then enjoy some tasty croutons, made by your own hands!

How to pick olive oil – read the labels!

olive oil fran berger

Want a great olive oil? Here are 6 tips for reading labels and looking for signs.

I went to dinner at one of my favorite Italian restaurants in Beverly Hills with a group of friends. My history buff friend was there. I told you that he’s never without some interesting anecdote or interesting factoid. He calls it an occupational hazard of being a university professor.

Well, this time we were commenting on the olive oil that the chef used; a stand-out flavor that made my Braciole di Manzo (beef rolls with prosciutto and tomato sauce) scream out amo l’italiano! (I love Italian!) In a break in the conversation, our history buff told us that the reason we use olive branches as a sign of peace is that it takes several years to grow an olive tree mature enough to produce olives. During war, ancient armies went straight to the olive tree groves and burned them down.

It takes years to produce a good crop and decades to form a legacy of taste. That’s why good chefs do not fiddle with cheap olive oil. It just doesn’t happen.

I love olive oil. It’s great to cook with – sautés, sauces, salads, even just for dipping great bread – not just for Italian food, but for almost any dish you can imagine where you want to add that wonderful and timeless flavor. And like many of my friends who are chefs, I am a little picky when it comes to selecting my bottle of olive oil.

There are big differences in brands, and it’s actually easy to tell which ones are better – if you know what to look for! And just like wine, you just need to know how to read the label:

  1. ‘Extra Virgin’ is the highest quality given to olive oil – it means it’s unrefined, free of chemicals and other ‘defects’ like rancidity and never treated with heat. There’s still quality variations within ‘extra virgin’ but it’s the best way for an overall guarantee of purity.
  2. My recommendation, if true flavor is what you want, then stay away from any bottles of olive oil that say “light.” Oil is always 100% fat – it can NEVER be “light.” What the label really means is that the oil has been distilled and treated in such a way that strips away the true odor and color of olive oil. If all you need for your recipe is a common cooking oil, then buy an inexpensive neutral oil like peanut or grapeseed.
  3. If the bottle is inexpensive and still labeled ‘Product of Italy’ then there’s a pretty good chance that the olives weren’t grown or pressed in Italy. The label may mean that’s where the product was placed in the bottle – which is a whole other thing, right? They can still claim it’s a ‘product of Italy’ if it was only bottled there.  So, the oil could come from just about anywhere. Look carefully on the back of the label for “IT” (Italy) or “GR” (Greece) or “SP” (Spain) as the source of the olives.  If you can, buy one that comes from one farm or collective but at the very least from one country.
  4. Not all great olive oil comes from Italy. Some of it comes from California. One hint: if the oil comes from somewhere that also produces good wine, then there’s a good possibility they have great olive oil too!
  5. Let’s end an old fable right now: just because the olive oil is darker and greener doesn’t mean it’s a higher quality oil. Some very high quality olive oil is light yellow. So, color doesn’t really matter. Like wine, good olive oil has a great aroma and taste. It all depends on what you like personally.
  6. One thing that is not a fable: good olive oil never come in a clear plastic or clear glass bottle. Ever. The ‘good stuff’ usually comes in an opaque or dark glass, or metal. The reason is that good olive oil goes bad fairly quickly. Exposure to light and heat speeds up that process.

One last point, good olive oil doesn’t HAVE to be used with Italian food. Find a flavor you like for the dish you want to prepare – could be continental, Americano, or even Asian – and love it!