There are foods called “staples” because they are the essential foods for your diet (unless you have an allergy). How you prepare the staples can determine how much variety you have in your diet. Think of potatoes, you can mash them, fry them, boil them, bake them, turn them into croquettes, use them as filler in casseroles, or steam them. Depending on how you cook them and how you season them, can turn a boring staple like a potato into different flavors and textures depending only on your skill to do so (and the available tools and seasonings).
In the last post I talked about the essential equipment. Now let us talk essential herbs, spices, and seasoning options. These flavorings are what keep staple foods interesting because you can mix and match and make something that tastes different. And variety si the spice of life.
So here is a basic list of things that you really need to have on hand. If you are just starting to stock your pantry, don’t buy all this at once. Just buy what you need before you need it, and build your stock up over time.
A salty Asian sauce (Soy, Tamari, Noc Nam)
Salt (any grind will do)
Sugar, honey, or corn syrup
Vinegar, lemon juice
Horseradish or wasabi paste
Roast jalepeno paste or your favorite hot sauce (big fan of Sriracha myself)
Onions/Shallots/Garlic (they store well, although garlic in jars is perfectly fine)
Ginger (powdered or stored in the freezer)
Herbs and Spices, freeze dried
Bullion cubes, beef and chicken
Things to buy fresh!
Celery (stalk or root)
Now, how do you make the most of these flavors? Well you need a little bit of background chemistry. Flavors are either water soluble or fat soluble, so you can “pump up the volume” by ensuring that your cooking has an element of both (or you can use alcohol which is less polar than water but more polar than oil).
And speaking of oil, you should always have a cooking oil on hand. Sunflower, Canola, Olive, your choice for your reasons. I like olive oil for most uses, but sunflower, canola, or soybean oil are better for stir fry or pan fry techniques. I also keep some sesame oil on hand just for flavoring Asian style stir fry dishes. I’m sure later on I’ll do a post on the nutritional pros and cons of various cooking oils.
You should also have on hand a thickening agent such as corn or potato starch or tapioca beads. These are essentially flavorless, but will let you thicken up stews, soups, or make gravy from pan drippings (and homemade gravy is so much better than anything from a packet).
If you have all those on hand, you just need to add your vegetable, starch, and protein and you can choose to prepare the food in many different ways. Asian style stir fry with white rice. Italian style with pasta. American style with potatoes. Latin style in a wrap. Even Irish style with everything boiled is an option (kidding). You can make a curry, or a stew, a gratin, and flavor it differently depending on what you feel like.
Now, these are just my opinions, by all means leave a comment with a suggestion if you see something that really should be on the list.