Cooking from the cupboard?
Here’s how I do it.
Here is my list of essentials that make up my basic “cooking wardrobe”, with fresh, seasonal ingredients as the dynamic accessories that provide colour and texture.
When shopping for fresh ingredients, think of your fridge and freezer working alongside the cupboard: together, their contents are your cooking must-haves!
If you have a well stocked cupboard, fridge and freezer, then cooking a fresh & delicious meal from scratch will be so much easier and more of a pleasure!
The list below reflects what works for me: feel free to edit and add to it in keeping with the kind of meals you like to eat.
Thin: linguine, spaghetti, angel hair. Great for thin or oil-based sauces. Particularly suited to seafood and simple, bold flavours like lemon, chilli, garlic and herbs.
Short: orecchiette, macaroni. More dense than the thin pasta and ideal for chunky vegetable sauces such as broccoli. Can also be used in soups and broths.
Wide: pappardelle, ziti, fettucine. Best with robustly flavoured sauces: cream or tomato or meat based.
Round: penne, rigatoni. The wide shapes are easily coated with sauce and excellent for holding it. Also make a great base for baked pasta dishes.
Basmati: long grain and fragrant. Its low starch content means the grains stay separate after cooking. Particularly suited to Indian foods or dishes with a similar spice base.
Short grain: a great standard rice for a multitude of sweet and savoury dishes. Unlike long-grain rice, has no distinctive flavour. The grains just stick together after cooking.
Arborio, carnaroli, vialone: grown in the Po valley in Northern Italy, these types of rice contain more starch than other types and will withstand long, slow cooking. As the rice cooks, starch is released which gives risotto its creamy texture.
Jasmine: fragrant and slightly perfumed. Delicious with Chinese, Vietnamese, or Thai-style dishes. Rice contains enough starch to keep the grains together after cooking, making it easy to eat with chopsticks.
Egg: wheat noodles which have been enriched with egg. They come in varying thicknesses. Cook in boiling water before mixing with other ingredients
Rice: made from ground rice and water, these noodles need to be soaked or boiled before being used. They come in varying thicknesses.
Wheat, ramen, soba: tend to be similar in thickness as spaghetti and require boiling in water before being added to a stir-fry, soup or broth.
Grains + lentils
Cannellini beans and chickpeas: canned beans make a fantastic base for a simple meal, soup or salad. Simple drain, rinse and add at the end of the cooking time so they retain their shape and texture.
Lentils: red lentils take only a few minutes to cook and can add texture and volume to stews and soups. Du Puy are small and green-brown to blue with an earthy, nutty flavour. They can be simply boiled, mixed with olive oil as a side dish and complement meat and fish equally well.
Couscous: made from semolina and wheat, the grains vary from medium to coarse and have a very mild taste. Cook by soaking in hot stock or water until swollen.
Bulghur wheat: similar to couscous but with a nuttier flavour and more knubbly texture. Boil in hot water or stock until the grains have soaked up the liquid.
Quinoa: pronounced “keen wa” is a tiny seed used as a cereal for more than 5,000 years. Regarded as a sacred food by the Incas who called it “the mother seed”. Provides one of the best sources of vegetable protein and its flavour is comparable to couscous. Cook like rice.
Dried: they are generally not a substitute for fresh herbs, but some varieties are better dried than others. Only use dried herbs in cooked dishes, never in raw foods such as salads. Use a quarter of the amount of dried herbs as you would use fresh ones. Store cupboard basics: rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage, bay leaves and tarragon.
A mixture of ground and whole: they are essential for flavouring food. Buy the nutmeg whole and grate it as you need it rather than buying pre-ground. Keep some cinnamon sticks as well as ground cinnamon for flavouring compotes and tagines. Good quality sea-salt is a must for its purity and flavour.
Ground cumin, ground coriander, cinnamon, nutmeg, turmeric, saffron, ginger, sweet and smoked paprika, black peppercorns, sea salt.
Canned tomatoes: good quality tinned plum tomatoes are preferable to inferior, tasteless fresh ones out of season. Choose a good brand.
Olive oil and olives: use a good quality olive oil for frying, and an extra virgin single estate for drizzling over soups, bruschettas and to dress salad. It is a seasonal product and when first harvested and pressed in November has a completely different taste and colour. Choose firm, unblemished olives with a good colour and wash before use if preserved in brine. Kalamata olives from Greece are my favourite for their strong, salty and distinctive flavour.
Capers: small and green, they are the buds of the caper bush and can be bought packed in brine or salt. Rinse well before use.
Tuna: for maximum flavour, choose canned in olive or sunflower oil over brine. The only tuna not listed as endangered is skipjack. Trawling for fish using nets puts dolphins at risk of getting caught. Check labelling on cans to ensure it contains “dolphin friendly” tuna.
Anchovies: salted or tinned, which are very different in character, but both are useful melted into a sauce to dress pasta or vegetables.
Balsamic vinegar: is grape juice boiled for a long time then transferred to wooden vats for ageing for up to 50 years for the most expensive. The older the vinegar, the darker in colour and the more intensely sweet.
Harissa: a hot and spicy Middle Eastern chilli paste that traditionally accompanies couscous. Use sparingly to add flavour to tagines, sauces or a simply griddled piece of meat or fish.
Dijon mustard: the smooth and wholegrain varieties are both medium-strength which makes them good all-rounders for dressings, marinades and sandwiches.
Soya, fish and oyster sauce: these salty sauces are essential for Asian cooking. Soya sauce is made from fermented soybeans, varies in intensity and sweetness and also comes in a reduced salt variety. Fish sauce has a pungent aroma, but the taste is addictive!
Sweet chilli and hoisin sauce: these two offer sweetness with a subtle kick. Ideal for stir-fries and marinades or as a dipping sauce.
Rice wine: or “shao hsing” has a mild taste. You can use medium or dry sherry instead.
Sesame oil: adds a unique taste of toasted sesame to vegetables and other foods. Use sparingly as a flavour maker not for frying.
Thai red and green curry paste: the red paste is made from ground red chillies, garlic, lemon grass, ginger and fermented shrimps amongst other things. The green variety includes coriander and green chillies. Keep in the fridge once opened.
Miso paste: this very thick paste is made from fermented soya beans and rice. It has a nutty flavour and is a bit salty. Generally the darker the colour, the stronger the miso.
Coconut milk: pressed from the kernel of ripe coconuts, this is a mainstay of Asian and Caribbean cooking and can be used to flavour curries, soups and desserts. I use the reduced fat variety without any loss of taste or eating quality.
Sambal oelek: a paste made from fresh chilli peppers which can be used as a convenient substitute for fresh chillies.
Flour: stone ground plain (white or brown) flour for bread making and soft wheat flour, sold as plain or self-raising flour, for cakes and pastry making. Plus cornstarch for thickening sauces and for baking, in combination with other flours, to give a finer texture.
Cocoa, minimum 70% chocolate and vanilla: remember, the better the quality the better the flavour! Use vanilla extract instead of vanilla essence and use a vanilla stick to flavour sugar for baking.
Almonds and coconut: ground almonds produce a buttery flavour in baking when mixed with flour. Coconut is readily available dessicated (dried and very fine) or shredded. Both are high in fat, and make cakes and biscuits moist.
Baking powder, bi-carbonate of soda, cream of tartar: are all leavening agents. Baking powder, out of the three, has the mildest taste and leaves no residual flavour.
Honey: made by bees from flower nectar and stored in their hives in a maze of waxy honeycomb. In general, the darker the colour the stronger the flavour. Any mild coloured honey is suitable for baking.
Sugar: white, caster and icing sugar are all white sugars with a different texture. Brown, dark brown and Demerara sugar all have residual molasses that have not been removed during processing and which gives them a caramel taste. Buy fairly traded products where possible.
Blackstrap molasses: is a natural sweetener with a rich, bittersweet taste. It is a good source of minerals and vitamins and the flavour enhances many dishes including cakes, chutneys and stews.
Date syrup: made from the juice of fresh dates, it’s got a distinctive sweet-sour taste.
Jam: can be used to make a quick dessert as well as eaten on a piece of toast.
Single cream or crème fraiche
Chunk of Parmesan
1 other cheese you love: goats cheese or a piece of blue cheese for example.
Tub of ricotta: if you like fresh cheese, but be aware that it does not have a long shelf life and needs to be eaten fairly quickly once you have opened the tub.
Coffee: freshly ground or beans which you grind yourself as and when needed; best kept in an airtight jar for freshness.
Peas: frozen can be superior to fresh, unless very recently picked
Soya beans: soya protein can help maintain a healthy heart but make sure its non-GM.
Berries: as I write, I still have two plastic bags of blackberries waiting to be turned into a apple & blackberry crumble or whizzed into a nutrient packed smoothie with some natural yoghurt, seeds and tablespoon of oats.
Tub of good quality vanilla ice cream: goes well with fresh fruit and most desserts
Stock: make and freeze your own into an ice cube tray or buy in tubs. A “must” as a base for soups and quick meals in a bowl with pasta or noodles.
Eggs: medium, free range organic
Tea: I keep a few different types, loose and teabags, black, green and herbal to suit different moods and occasions
Marmite: love it or hate it?
Good luck with sorting out your kitchen cupboards: I bet once you’ve got a good store + system going, you’ll never look back and will find scratch cooking + shopping so much easier.
As always, I am keen to hear your comments!