Cooking quick, healthy, delicious food relies heavily on having fresh and in-season foods on hand. That said, if you stock your cupboards with certain staples, you can easily round out any meal with ingredients that spice, flavor, and frame whatever’s fresh on your plate. These include:
Herbs and Spices
Your spice collection should reflect the kinds of flavors you like in cooking. Are you a fan of Indian cooking? Then you need cumin, turmeric, coriander, cayenne, cardamom, curry powder, and cinnamon.
Is Mexican more your thing? Go for cayenne and other chili powders.
Italian lovers will want to stock oregano, basil, and bay leaves, among others.
Using herbs and spices is not an exact science. As you sharpen your Ninja kitchen powers, you’ll find yourself throwing a pinch of this and a little of that into the pot, and getting great results.
Different temperatures require different types of oils.
High heat. There are two good high-heat cooking options. One is safflower oil, which is flavorless and can be substituted for canola. (Stay away from canola, a very processed oil prone to oxidizing and going rancid.) Another good choice is heart-healthy coconut oil, which is loaded with the saturated fat lauric acid, known for increasing good (HDL) cholesterol. Coconut oil has a rich, tropical flavor that marries well with Indian and other spicy cooking, but might not work with every kind of cuisine. It comes in a jar and is solid at room temperature, and can withstand very high heat without becoming carcinogenic (which is a problem with some other oils).
Lower heat. Keep a bottle of light olive oil on hand for lower-temperature cooking. Its mild flavor doesn’t have much effect on food, and it’s a very healthy oil. Use a mister filled with light olive oil, and toss that commercial spray.
No heat. Extra-virgin olive oil is the gold standard for dressing salads and for drizzling over pasta, bruschetta, steamed vegetables, or other finished dishes where you need some richness and flavor. Look for deep green olive oil. Don’t buy it in large bottles, because it can go rancid—and you don’t want to waste your money on an expensive bottle that’ll go bad before you’re halfway through it. You can also branch out with exotic oils such as flaxseed, walnut, avocado, and sesame. Each of these imparts its own characteristic flavor when drizzled over finished food or used in salad dressings.
There are four that will serve you well:
Apple cider: Get the unfiltered, all-natural kind—you’ll know you’ve got the right stuff if the bottle is cloudy with particulate matter. This is called “the mother,” and is an indication that natural, healthy fermentation is happening in the bottle. “The mother” is full of healthy enzymes and minerals, which are destroyed by pasteurization and distillation. Basically, if the vinegar is not cloudy, the health benefits have been removed. Apple cider vinegar, along with that beautiful green extra-virgin olive oil and a crushed clove of garlic, makes the best and healthiest salad dressing. (Just say NO to bottled salad dressings. They’re filled with added sugar, chemicals, and low-quality oils.)
Rice vinegar (or rice wine vinegar) is milder than plain white vinegar, and is used in all kinds of Asian cooking.
Balsamic vinegar is a thick, dark vinegar made by aging unfermented grape juice in wooden barrels. Like apple cider vinegar, balsamic makes a mean salad dressing, and is also wonderful drizzled over vegetables and pasta. A little of this intensely flavored vinegar goes a long way.
Red wine vinegar is yet another great salad dressing-maker.
Wheat and corn are the staple grains of our modern diet, but there are so many other choices! If you choose to eat grains, try to squeeze as many different varieties as you can into your diet, and squeeze out refined wheat flour and corn. Many people have gluten sensitivities, and fortunately more and more gluten-free grains are making their way into the market. Here are some good alternatives—mostly gluten-free—to keep on the pantry shelf:
Quinoa (GF) is a light, fluffy, nutty grain that’s a good alternative to white rice or couscous.
Brown rice (GF) is hearty and distinctive, and is rich in dietary fiber and nutrients.
Barley is another rich, nutty grain that can be used as you would rice in soups and savory foods, or in morning porridge. Like brown rice, it is rich in fiber and nutrients.
Buckwheat (GF) is not at all related to wheat, but is actually the seed of a fruit. If you’re sensitive to any grains that contain glutens, then buckwheat—and buckwheat flour—is a great choice. And buckwheat pancakes are amazing.
Let’s get one thing straight: that little package of pre-sweetened, pre-cooked oatmeal (GF) that you dump in a bowl with hot water? That is not what we mean by “oats.” That is not even what we mean by “food.” Real oats are a really healthy grain, and there are several options for including them in your repertoire. With oats, the more effort you put in, the more health benefits you will reap.
• One choice for oats is “quick-cooking” oats, which are steamed, chopped, and rolled before being dried for packaging. They cook up in a hurry.
• Even better, but more time-consuming to make, is “old-fashioned” oats, which are steamed and rolled, but not chopped—so more texture remains.
• The best choice for oats is steel-cut, produced by running the whole oats through steel blades, which thinly slices them but leaves them nicely dense and chewy. These are best soaked overnight, then cooked in the morning for a seriously hearty breakfast.
Always keep some beans on the shelf! A can of beans is a cheap and healthy last-minute meal choice. Just be sure to choose a brand that packages their beans in BPA-free cans. Also, try to find beans marked “No Salt Added.” Add in a little rice, maybe a few veggies, and you’ve got a great dinner.
A better option is the new, pouched packages of beans because there’s no chance of BPA leakage into your food. Keep a few on the shelf for spur-of-the-moment cooking.
The best option is the one that takes some more legwork: soaking and cooking your own beans. If you know you want to eat beans tomorrow, pour some dried ones in a bowl tonight and cover them with water, about an inch above the level of the beans. Leave them overnight, then drain and rinse them in the morning. Put them in a pan with some fresh water, about an inch above the level of the beans, and cook them for about an hour. If this sounds like too much of a hassle, consider doing this process on the weekend, in order to have a big pot of already-cooked beans in the fridge all week. This is the healthiest way to enjoy beans, and is far and away the cheapest.
As with legumes, canned is good, pouched is better, dried is best. The great thing about lentils is that the soaking time for them is much shorter—you can get away with an hour or even less with some of the smaller varieties.
(Toot avoidance: Don’t forget to rinse beans and lentils after soaking to get rid of the residual sodium and oligosaccharides. Oligo-what? Those are hard-to-digest sugars that give you gas.)
There you have it, a pretty comprehensive list of pantry basics. Now just add your own personal favorites (remembering to buy staples that are as simple and as additive-free as possible) plus fresh fruits and veggies. This’ll keep your kitchen running smoothly, and keep you healthy and strong.