I don't think I've ever walked into an empty kitchen. I mean, literally- an empty one with absolutely nothing in the fridge or closets.
Everyone, I believe (or assume at least) has some sort of kitchen staple lying around at any given moment.
Today, you won't get a recipe, but a little sneak peak into ten items I always have in my cooking space. This excludes of course the absolutely essential ingredients of salt, pepper, olive oil and onions. Instead, these are ingredients that I discovered throughout the years, that have always proved to add a dash of magic to any dish. In a nutshell, they are additions that make cooking an even more enjoyable moment for me and that often stir curiosities as friends and family ask what that little mystery ingredient is.
This is one incredible ingredient, particularly in baking. Mahlepi is a staple in most Middle Eastern & Greek cuisines. You'd never guess it's ground kernels of cracked cherry seeds. My grandmother used to typically use mahlepi in her traditional Easter cookies. I loved it's intriguing taste so much, I'll often sneak some in to most of my baking recipes.
This reddish-brownish spice is terrific, I often go through waves of sumac addiction throwing it in every dish I make. I first discovered it sprinkled on falafel (which I tell you, is the only way to eat falafel- it just puts it on a whole different level!). However it's zingy taste works marvelously well with chicken or sprinkled on salads. Simply one of my favourite spices, I can't imagine my kitchen not having this at all times.
What better then this genius mixture of thyme, oregano, basil and often sumac and sesame? Similarly to sumac, zaatar adds flavour to any savory dish. Zaatar can be bought in green or brown varieties, with or without sesame (note that green type tends to be more bitter). Fish, chicken, pasta, vegetable, bread, eggs, cheese... what does it not marry well with? Could it possibly be the "perfect" dried herb?
FOUR: Dried mint leaves
Another one with tremendous versatility. Over 50% of the salads I ate in my life where generously sprinkled with dried mint and consequently, me leaving the table with "green stuff" stuck in my teeth. It brings a sense of freshness to many dishes- especially fish, lamb, yoghurt and vegetable based ones. Conveniently, it also stores real well and the taste remains even months later. Bonus: for digestive emergencies, you can make an infusion out of it to help with any eventual indulgences.
Some like to think that anything with butter tastes better. I like to think they're nuts- nuts make any dish taste heavenly! And if I'd have to choose one nut it would be almonds. They transform sweet and savoury recipes into something even more delicious. From breakfast to dinner, they work with any dish of the day. Little secret of mine: any cake will have a much more moist, rich texture if you spike the flour with ground almonds.
SIX: Risotto rice
I suppose that the most popular starch to keep in one's kitchen would be pasta. In mine however it is rice to make a Risotto. Why? Well like pasta, it's beautifully versatile. Unlike pasta (and this is my personal opinion), it lends well to casual and fancier settings. Last but not least, it's a bit more of a challenge to cook (although, not as much as one might think!) and requires some form of "practice". The more risotto I've made, the better I've become. There has to be one dish I have to be able to whip up perfectly, and my decision was made years ago. Risotto it surely was.
SEVEN: Sweet Souvenirs
I've always loved to travel for as long as I can remember. When packing, I'd have a golden rule: leave some empty space in your suitcase to bring back some local food gems...just cross your fingers they don't get confiscated at customs! And if I'm not travelling, I spend a ridiculous amount of time in ethnic food shops, discovering new ingredients from around the world. Below are examples of Japanese Azuki Caramel (absolutely superb), Chocolate "Spread" with Kirsch & Cherries (packaged beautifully as well), "Aphrodisiac Honey" (mixtures of honey with plenty of nuts and spices), and Orange Blossom Water (which adds an Oriental mystery to any dessert!)
EIGHT: Unsweetened cocoa
Obviously, this one has a million uses for sweet preparations. And I've come to experience that if at worst you don't have chocolate to make a chocolate cake, you can get away with using unsweetened cocoa. Additionally, it also sneaks into savoury dishes in interesting ways. I like to think of this as beautiful dark velvet with expected and unexpected surprises.
I have a theory that we are born with either a coffee or tea gene. Most people I come across are either/or, but seldom both. For me, there is no doubt, I am a coffee drinker. Specifically, a strong espresso one. Throughout the years, I've developed a strong loyalty to the Italian Kimbo brand which tends to be particularly popular in the South of Italy. I have yet to find another brand that beats it's quasi-perfect taste. Coffee is always in my kitchen for 1) drinking and thus maintaining some form of sanity throughout the day and 2) cooking in both sweet & savoury dishes.
Ah yes, this is certainly my French influence. Mustard- the French kind specifically. The best condiment to have ever existed. I always have a jar lying around, whether it's a classic mustard or one with an interesting flavour twist. The beauty of mustard is in it's simplicity and it's capacity to enhance the taste of the most simplistic dishes. Let me tell you that a tender piece of steak or grilled chicken with or without a dab of mustard are two completely different things!