Friday, February 5, 2010

Part 2, Lesson 5: Reading Labels

Part 2: "I Don't Know Anything About Food"
Lesson 5: Reading Labels

 My husband has declared me a genius on more than one occasion where I went into the kitchen without a plan, raided the cupboards, and came up with a full meal.  It isn't rocket science and everyone can do it.  Even you.  It does require a decently stocked pantry.  A meal requires four layers:

  • A base (grains, starches)
  • A protein
  • Flavor (as simple or as complicated as you'd like)
  • Fill in with veggies
Thus, you should stock your pantry, fridge, and freezer accordingly.

The Base Layer
This doesn't have to be the literal, physical base layer, but I have to tell you that when I'm pressed for time and ideas it's really easy to start with rice or couscous and put something on top of that.  Good things to have on hand are rice (short grain, long grain, and brown), couscous, barley, quinoa, bulger, wild rice, and potatoes.  And let's not forget about pasta.  It's nice to have a variety of short and long types on hand.

Pantry Proteins
Beans, lentils, and quinoa are full of protein.  TVP or TSP granules or nuggets are good vegetarian proteins if you want to go that route, but they're fairly processed.  Shelf-stable silken tofu lasts a while and is extremely versatile.  Canned meats and seafood are always an option.  Dried mushrooms (hit up an Asian grocery for the motherlode) and sea veggies (nori/laver, konbu, agar) are nice to have.  Oh, you didn't know that nori was high in protein?  Now you do.  And don't underestimate the role nuts and seeds can play in savory main dishes.

The pantry is where your flavor lives!  There is a galaxy's worth of oils, vinegars, and condiments out there.  And of course, there's your spice rack.  You can keep dried chiles, fruit, and vegetables on hand nearly indefinitely.  Garlic and onion are on this layer too.  Stocks and broths are lifesavers and pack in a ton of flavor when you pair them with grains.

Once you've got these three layers covered, it's easy to fill in the blanks with fresh or frozen fruits and veggies.  So, say you're craving Mexican.  Takeout is just a phone call away, but... you decide to check your kitchen first.  You grab some long grain rice, a can of black beans, garlic, onion, and chicken broth.  Scanning your spices you remember the cumin and chili powder have that "Mexican-ish" flavor you're craving.  Moving to the fridge you get some frozen corn and cheese.  And what's that in the back of the freezer?  Some leftover shredded rotisserie chicken?  In about 20 minutes you've got a simple meal of beans, corn, and chicken over rice.  You can fill in the rest with simple frozen veggies or a salad.  No takeout required.  It may not be haute cuisine, but at least it's real.

Canned Vegetables
Let's talk about canned veggies for a moment.  They're cheap.  Available.  They keep for years on the shelf.  But I don't recommend them.  In college I had a couple of roommates who worked at a vegetable canning facility... and let's just say that if I ever use a canned vegetable (a couple of times a year, maybe) I pay quite a lot of money to buy the best brands on the shelf.  Um, yikes.  That's not even going into the sodium levels, the viscous mystery fluid they're swimming in, and the BPA plastic that lines the cans.

But Tomatoes Are A Vegetable Too, Right?
Well, no, technically they're a fruit.  But canned tomatoes are great to have around.  If you buy a decent brand, there is very little chance of... foreign material... getting into the cans.  I personally try to only buy whole peeled canned tomatoes because they use the best fruit for that.  That's not to say that I never use canned chopped tomatoes.  It all depends on how pressed for time I am.  You might consider canning your own tomatoes too.  It takes a little time and effort, but anyone with some jars and a big pot and accomplish this.

Pull out one more convenience food from your pantry and put it in that box in your basement.  Yes, even that box of Rice-A-Roni you're keeping for your late-night beer munchies.  Now take a look at your spice collection.  How old is that ground nutmeg, really?  Did you know that most spices herbs start to break down and lose their flavor after 6 months?  So that jar of crushed basil you've had since the first Bush administration?  You might want to toss that.  But don't toss everything you own yet.  Make a list of spices herbs you want to replace and slowly, over time, replace them one or two at a time.  If you want to be extra nerdy you can write the date you bought your herbs and spices on the container with a sharpie or a piece of tape.

I don't know anyone who can afford to replace their spices every six months, but there does come a time when you should probably say enough is enough.  I'm going to throw away a jar of rosemary I've had since my first apartment in 2000.  Your turn!

Once you start cooking with fresh (read: recent) spices herbs you will really notice a difference.

(Thanks to Missy for pointing out that there is a difference between herbs and spices.)

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