This crazy adventure started some years ago. One of my best friends kept telling/asking me to write a cookbook for her. Since I hadn’t given her a birthday present for the last three years – caused by a lack of inspiration and money – I decided to get started. I’ve been writing down my successful dishes for some time now. I’ve hit a wall, though, because I can’t test the recipes myself. You could help me with that! If you try out (one of) my recipes, can you give me a shout if something’s not explained clearly or if you are confused about the instructions. That way I can improve my recipes. Thanks!
To avoid unnecessary snags, I’ll give you a peek inside my pantry. The following herbs, spices, oils, and other pantry staples are (almost) always on hand at my house:
Herbs, spices and other flavour boosters
– salt: I mostly use white rock salt when cooking, except for salting cooking water. In that case I use a fine sea salt.
– black pepper: I would be lost without my pepper mill. I always use black peppercorns, as I prefer their flavour over white, pink or mixed peppercorns.
– nutmeg: Any autumn or wintry meat dish or mashed potatoes get some nutmeg. Sometimes I even add it to my infusion tea in autumn.
– dried garlic: I believe that any type of dried garlic or garlic powder can save a garlic dish if it needs just that little extra.
– garlic paste: When I want to use (kind of) fresh garlic, but I don’t want the hassle of peeling and chopping, I get out my tube of garlic paste. It doesn’t taste as strong as freshly chopped or pressed garlic, but it does the job if you’re in a pinch and not too stingy with it.
– turmeric: I discovered this root a few years ago, in powdered form at least. Ever since I have been using it in a lot of dishes, probably even where it doesn’t belong. Oh well.
– cumin: I love powdered cumin and use it in pretty much any non-European cuisine based dish and even in some of the European ones. And yes, I do buy it powdered. I’m terribly lazy when it comes to herbs and spices. You’ll have to get used to it.
– coriander: I’m one of those people who absolutely loves fresh coriander. When I was living in dorm style lodgings while studying, I would buy a pot of coriander, use it to cook and then finish it off by picking the leaves and eating them like crisps. These days I mostly use powdered coriander (made from the seeds) and I’ve been able to convince some fervent coriander haters that not all coriander is bad.
– dried chili flakes: I’ve tried a lot of different dried chili blends. At the moment I’m using a rather generic blend of various chilies, mostly because of the easy jar it comes in.
– cayenne pepper: On top of the dried chili flakes, I’ve become a fan of cayenne pepper. This spice used to scare me, until I started running with it and experimenting. Yes, some of those experiments turned out very spicy.
– smoked paprika powder: This is one of the things that gives chorizo it’s recognisable flavour. One of my mum’s colleagues brought her some of this from Spain and while she barely touched it, my tastebuds fell in love.
– paprika powder: So as not to overdo it, I always use a mix of smoked and regular paprike powder.
– cinnamon: It’s a wonder that this spice isn’t at the top of this list, because I LOVE cinnamon. You can never have too much of it, in my opinion, and the best thing is that it goes with both savoury and sweet. Sadly other people don’t always agree, so I have to reign myself in.
– saffron: My uncle is as much of a traveller as I am and a few years ago he travelled to Madagascar. As a souvenir he brought fresh vanilla pods and saffron powder for my mum (and me) and for my aunt (and my cousin). Is there a better souvenir?
– curry powder: This is a spice blend I rarely use. I get the curry powder out when making cocktail sauce. Apart from that it doesn’t leave the cupboard.
– Italian and French herb mixes: I grew up eating food seasoned with these kinds of mixes and even though I don’t use them that often myself, I can’t imagine not having them in the cupboard, even just as back-up.
– other mixes: In the summer I can’t do without my prawn or my Caribbean herb mixes. They make a simple piece of grilled (shell)fish delicious without any effort at all. The Japanese mix comes out when I’m in the mood for noodles. Then I cook up something that vaguely resembles Japanese take-away and is in no way similar to the food I had in Japan. It’s still a great mix though.
– cocoa powder: I’m not certain whether this counts as a spice or not, but I have to put it somewhere. Cocoa powder is a necessity! You never know if you might want to bake a cake. Fun fact: chocolate cake (a family twist on the classic quatre-quart) is the first thing I ever learned to bake and one of the, or even the only, proper recipe I know by heart.
– chicken, vegetable and meat broth powder: I have never made a proper broth, because I don’t have the time and because it’s easier to use these powders I get from the market. Whenever I feel like making risotto, for example, it only takes me 5-10 minutes to make a good broth. I also use these powders to enhance the flavour of certain sauces or dishes such as chili con carne.
Oils, vinegars and other condiments and additives
– olive oil: You can’t cook without a proper olive oil. The right oil shouldn’t be too sharp or overpowering. Although I have a separate bottle of, good quality, olive oil for summer salads, appetizers and platters, I use a basic olive oil to cook with.
– corn oil: Olive oil has a very distinctive flavour that just doesn’t complement some dishes, such as Latin American cooking or that chocolate cake I was talking about. In that case I use a simple corn oil.
– toasted sesame oil: When I was younger I was intrigued by any special oil, such as chili and truffle oils. I’ve grown out of that, mostly. Toasted sesame oil is my guilty pleasure when it comes to fancy oils. An oil such as this can easily make or break a dish and knowing how to balance its flavour properly is something I’m still learning and experimenting with. I do know that you shouldn’t heat this oil, so that’s something.
– white wine vinegar: I cringe as I think back to that time when I used white wine vinegar in most dishes. I still love it, but I’ve come to appreciate that less is more when it comes to vinegars. I mostly use it in salads and other dressings these days.
– balsamic vinegar: Living in Belgium has been the cause of many frustrations. Being able to buy the good stuff when it comes to balsamic vinegar is not one of those. I used to hate this vinegar as a kid, then I overused it (as I did with the white wine vinegar). Nowadays the vinegar and I seem to have come to an agreement. Salads and platters liven up with a touch of it and sometimes I knock myself out and use it in a marinade or something similar.
– balsamic cream vinegar with raspberries: This was my introduction to balsamic vinegar. The added sugar and raspberries give it a more syrupy texture and a softened flavour. Although I like regular balsamic vinegar too, I still prefer the creamy stuff with a tomato and mozzarella platter.
– soy sauce: I have a collection of tiny bottles of soy sauce, from take away sushi, to go along with the bottle I bought. Since I don’t use this very often, the collection keeps growing. I only use soy sauce to make my version of Japanese (inspired) noodles and to marinate the salmon or prawns for a poké bowl. Still, if I ever run out, I will immediately buy another bottle… or, you know, order sushi.
– rice wine vinegar: This is bottle that gathers dust most of the year, since I only use rice wine vinegar when I make poké bowls. It’s the same as with the soy sauce though, I would miss it if it weren’t there.
– honey: My cousins and I grew up with the taste of honey. If we wouldn’t settle down for a nap and kept spitting out our pacifiers, our grandmother would dip them in some honey. One day we found where she kept the jar of honey and got a sugar high (and probably a tummy ache) of eating it all. That’s when I got turned off honey for a good many years. I still can’t eat – or even smell – solid, spreadable honey without feeling queasy. I quite like liquid honeys, though, such as acacia. I use them in dressings, marinades and in sauces sometimes. I prefer honey over sugar to sweeten most things. And of course it works wonders for a sore throat stirred into some tea.
– maple syrup: I don’t like maple syrup on its own, because to me it has that same burnt flavour as coffee and caramel. I do like using it to sweeten yoghurt or certain desserts in combination with honey. It adds a different layer of taste.
– mustard: I have a love-hate relationship with mustard. I couldn’t miss it in my kitchen, even though one jar will last me a long time. I mostly use smooth, yellow mustard in dressings and darker, grainy mustard in sauces or marinades.
– mayonnaise: I can’t help it, I’m Belgian. I need proper mayonnaise. The best mayonnaise is the one my grandmother makes and I can’t wait to try making it myself.
– white wine: I will always have at least one bottle of white wine in the house to make risotto whenever the mood strikes me.
– apple cider: I see a lot of recipes in which apple cider vinegar is used. I always substitute it with white wine vinegar. I do keep some actual cider on hand to use in my chili con/sin carne or other Latin American ispired dishes with tomato sauce. I don’t know why I started doing this, except that it makes sense in my head.
These are the basic ingredients most people have somewhere in their kitchen cupboards.
– self-raising flour: Imagine wanting to bake a cake (regular or mug cake) and there’s no flour. The horror!
– white sugar: In some yoghurt, on top of pancakes or as a key ingredient for most baking recipes, I can’t go without some regular white sugar in the house.
– vanilla sugar: These tiny packets are great to sweeten some plain yoghurt or in pancake batter. I realise I could make it myself, but it seems quite unnecessary looking at the storebought alternative.
– rice: You can always find arborio rice and a type of long grain rice, usually basmati, in my pantry.
– couscous: I hated couscous when I was younger. It tasted like warm flour to me and apart from that didn’t have any flavour at all. Then my mum made it herself at home, with some spices, chicken broth instead of plain water, and some olive oil at the end and a whole new world opened. Now I love it! It’s so easy to prepare and it tastes good: win-win.
– pasta: Saying ‘I love pasta’ is the understatement of the year, no lie. I prefer the longer, ribbon style pasta like spaghetti and tagliatele over penne or macaroni. At any time there will be at least two packets of spaghetti in the house, along with some lasagna. I also like gnocchi, ravioli and tortelloni, but I buy those fresh. Or I make them myself if I have the time.
– lentils: I’m very lazy when it comes to beans and legumes. I always buy them canned, so that I don’t have to remember to soak them and then cook them when I want to add them to a dish. So a can or two of lentils has its designated spot in the cupboard.
– red and black beans: It’s the same deal with the beans as with the lentils. I enjoy having (some of) the work done for me.
– tomato puree: I usually have a tube of this miracle puree in the fridge and some small cans in the cupboard. I’ve also got a type of tomato puree, less concentrated, with onion, carrot and some other vegetables added too. That is my go to pizza topping sauce, for example.
– tinned tomatoes: When I was younger I swore by passata. Now I prefer tinned tomatoes. I use both roughly and finely chopped tomatoes, depending on the sauce I’m making. Quick tip: if you don’t want it too runny, drain the tinned tomatoes before adding them to the dish.
– tinned tuna: This one brings me conflict. Tuna is an endangered species because of overfishing. So on principle, I limit myself to eating tuna only once a month. When I didn’t eat sushi it was a lot easier to commit to this than it is now. Still, tins of tuna are great to have as back-up.
– chocolate drops: Callebaut sells these big bags of chocolate drops. I have a bag of milk and dark chocolate ones. They are so easy to use in everything from chocolate milk, to cakes and chocolate sauce.
– eggs: Eggs are a must in every fridge. Even though I rarely seem to consciously use them, when I’ve run out I’m in trouble.
– light soy cream: Real cream tastes great, but it’s often too heavy. Instead I use soy cream. You don’t compromise on flavour, but it’s lighter and healthier.
– limes and lemons: I always have at least one of these in the fruit drawer and usually both. A little squeeze can transform a dish and lift the flavour of a heavy sauce. And they are necessary ingredients for a lot of cocktails of course.
– light cream cheese: I love cream cheese. I eat it with bread, in sauces, in soup, dessert, and anything else. It’s so versatile.
– white yoghurt: Breakfast, snack, dessert, dressing… yoghurt can do it all.
– fresh garlic: If you didn’t know that I love garlic, you clearly don’t know me well. I don’t use fresh garlic that often anymore because of that garlic paste I found. I still have it in the pantry though, for those days I have time to cook.
– onions: Even though I hate chopping onions from the bottom of my heart – I cry, badly – I love eating them. So, I embrace the pain and fight the onions.
– potatoes: If I wrote the menu every week, we would probably eat a lot less potatoes than we do now. Sometimes though, they call to me to turn them into mashed or baked potatoes or to grill them as chips.
– tomatoes: Whether they’re big or small, I like them all. The best tomatoes in the world are the ones from my grandfather’s garden. Every summer, around July, we get the first fresh tomatoes and from then on we eat some kind of tomato salad at least once a week until there are no more tomatoes left. Eating these beautiful red and yellow tomatoes out of my hand like an apple at my grandparents’ house is one of my favourite childhood memories.
I think that concludes the list, which is a lot longer than I anticipated. Don’t feel obligated to buy all of this. I’m firmly of the opinion that the pantry – or the kitchen in general – reveals the soul of the people living in that house. Now I’ve made myself hungry, so I’m off to work on some recipes.