Back in the day, when I was teaching myself how to cook at home, I used to plan a trip to the grocery store like I was an NFL offensive coordinator — there were manic notes and strategies and maps of aisles and maybe even headsets, I can’t remember. But now? I’ve been cooking for my family of four for so long, I know exactly what I need to have on hand to eat well all day, all week, all year long. Here’s the rundown…
1. Canned Chickpeas
Sure, you can buy dried chickpeas, the kind you have to soak overnight, but then they won’t be available for you in a pinch, which is a pretty accurate summation of my relationship with the humble garbanzo bean. When I’m stuck for dinner, I know I can take two cans from my stash, then drain the beans, dry them, toss with salt, pepper, smoked paprika, and roast on a baking sheet at 425°F until they are super crispy, and are extremely enticing when tossed into a salad with avocados, feta, and greens. Or I can braise them with onions, garlic, curry, diced tomatoes, coconut milk and serve over rice. Yesss.
2. Good Bread
(Any kind! A rustic Italian loaf, a French baguette, a basic Pullman, etc.) The first thing I do with my bread when I come home from the supermarket? Slice it into sandwich size pieces, stash in a zip-top bag, and freeze. If I don’t do this, there is a 100% chance I won’t need to use the loaf until its consistency is roughly the same as my countertop. When bread is frozen, you never have to worry about it getting stale, and it’s always just a toast away from being revived — whether you need it alongside your egg or under sautéed mushrooms and mashed peas for dinner, or my favorite way, warm with good butter.
3. Frozen French-Cut Green Beans
It might be nostalgia talking here, considering I grew up eating these on the regs, but a pile of green beans, sautéed with butter and salt is heaven for me, especially in the off-season when I can’t get my hands on fresh ones. Throw a seven-minute egg on top of them, along with a drizzle of Sriracha, and you’ve got a great lunch any day of the week.
4. Wonton Wrappers
Like tortillas and pasta, a wonton wrapper is the kind of starchy vehicle that helps stretch the odds and ends of various leftovers and vegetables. Unlike tortillas and pasta, though, it’s a little unexpected. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sautéed things like greens, chicken, tofu, squash, literally anything mysterious from the CSA box — with onion, garlic and ginger, then stuffed that whole mess into wontons, and fried or steamed them for dinner. To great applause! You can find wrappers in the freezer section of any Asian grocer or in the ethnic aisle of better supermarkets. They are super cheap.
Here’s what you need to know about me and eggs. I have two daughters, neither of whom eat eggs, and yet we need to replenish our one-dozen-count container every single week. Do the math, factoring in my husband’s schedule which doesn’t involve breakfast or lunch at home. I eat eggs round-the-clock (poached, fried, seven-minuted, scrambled) and it’s the first thing I think of basing dinner on when I know the haters are out of the house. Think: frittatas, carbonara, or breakfast-for-dinner burritos: scrambled eggs, avocado, salsa, black beans, shredded cheddar, wrapped in tortillas and heated.
6. Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips
If you have kids who are of baking age, I’d like you to try an experiment. Place a bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips on the counter, somewhere in your children’s lines of vision, and watch what happens. If your house is anything like mine, their reaction will be almost Pavlovian: Can we make cookies? Or even better, with older kids, I’m going to make cookies. Maybe it’s just that I’m a mother of teenagers, but any activity that gets my kids standing next to me in the kitchen, making something with their hands and steering clear of their screens, is an occasion for celebration. So, chocolate chips: Always. (Note: Boxed brownie mix has a similar effect.)
We go through these quickly in our house. Served halved and filled with ginger-miso dressing, it’s a great 30-second side dish to go along with your chicken dinner; chop it into salads to lend the leaf some sex appeal, or whirl into a salad dressing to give it a little green-goddess action. And have you heard of this thing, the avocado toast? My preferred method of preparation: Spread your piece of toast — grab one from the freezer! — with a shmear of coconut oil, then top with an avocado that’s been coarsely mashed with salt and pepper. (If your kid is like my kid and won’t eat her avocado toast without a cross-hatch pattern forked into it, well then, go ahead and cross-hatch.)
8. White Miso
I always have a little tub of this staring at me bright-eyed from the refrigerator, loyally waiting for me to harness its umami superpowers. Think of it like soy sauce or Worcestershire. When you taste your sauce or soup or salad dressing and you’re like, hmmm something’s missing, whisk in a teaspoon of miso and see what you’ve got. Also: No one will complain if you mash it with butter, then add that whole thing to split roasted Japanese sweet potatoes, and sprinkled with chives.
If you’re unfamiliar with harissa, it’s a hot chile pepper paste that comes in varying degrees of heat, and is another one of those shelf-stable condiments (ok, fine, you keep it in the fridge once opened) that lasts forever and serves to transform an everyday dish into something special. I mix a spoonful into a yogurt-based dressing (which would be excellent tossed with those crispy chickpeas above, btw), or stir it into melted butter, using the resulting glaze to “paint” a whole chicken before roasting.
Because it’s the season of dark spirits! And because I’m human.
What ingredients do you always have on hand? What can’t you live without?
(Photo by Christine Han for Cup of Jo.)