Under Appreciated, Must Have Ingredients

I love to cook and am fascinated by exotic ingredients. You might even say I’m an ingredient investigator… As a result, I have a stocked, no, let me clarify, an overflowing pantry, filled with just about anything you can imagine from marmite to powdered egg whites to cake meal. But despite the range of recipes, flavors and cultures that are featured in my dishes on a daily basis, there are some ingredients I just can do without. Aside from what I consider my staples of tomatos, onions, garlic, ginger, and a myriad of spices, there are some ingredients that may be lessor known to you, or at least not in the way that I use them, that are worth introducing. Here is my list of 20 pantry essentials, under appreciated, must have ingredients.

Note: Each ingredients links to more information.

  1. Anchovy PasteThis salty, fishy paste is wonderful in marinara sauce, stir-fry or mixed into a dip.
    Available in most grocery stores.
  2. Bulgar — This versatile, Middle Eastern grain is a key ingredient in tabbouleh,  is great for supplementing ground beef and also quite tasty served plain as an alternative to rice.
    Available in most grocery stores or Middle Eastern markets.
  3. Buttermilk — Want to make delicious fried chicken? Soak the meat in buttermilk for several hours. I also use buttermilk in many dishes such as pancakes, mashed potatoes, and cornbread.
    Available in grocery stores.
  4. Capers — This Mediterranean plant, sold pickled, can be added to marinara sauce, stewed with meat, served as topping or garnish and mixed into sauces such as tarter sauce for a tangy punch.
    Available in most grocery stores.
  5. Chickpea Flour — Also known as garbanzo, gram or besan flour, this flour has become my go to flour these days. Perfect for a gluten free diet but that is not the only reason to use it. This flour has a stickier denser quality which makes it idea for battering meat or fish for frying. It is also wonderful for pancakes, waffles and other baked goods but don’t worry, your food won’t taste like hummus.
    Available in some grocery stores, Indian or Middle Eastern markets (more affordable).
  6. Coconut Milk — A key ingredient in Thai or South Indian dishes, coconut milk is not just for curries. Use coconut milk to replace cow’s milk in recipes such as baked goods or smoothies, even ice cream. Perfect for those who are lactose intolerant. Also makes a great meat marinade. I prefer the canned milk but if you are not crazy about the coconut taste, you can use the carton coconut milk, which is sold in stores by the soy milk, and that has only a hint of coconut flavor.
    Available in most grocery stores, Asian, Indian or Caribbean markets (more affordable).
  7. Dried Beans — I have written about the benefits of cooking dried beans or lentils before and I’m sure I will again. In our age of convenience, we have become accustomed to using canned beans in recipes which is a shame. It is a pet peeve of mine that so many recipes call for canned beans without evening mentioning dried beans as an alternative. Dried beans are more affordable, healthier, produce less gash and have a much better texture after cooking. The beans are firm instead of mushy. If you use a pressure cooker, you can cook dried beans (after soaking) in about 20 minutes.
    Available in most grocery stores, Asian, Indian or Caribbean markets (more affordable).
  8. Evaporated Milk — I was introduced to evaporated milk in the Dominican Republic where it is always added to smoothies. Evaporated milk is basically condensed milk without the sugar. Being condensed, it has a creamy taste with less fat. I use it mostly in dishes like chowders and cream sauces. Added at the end of cooking gives your food a fresh creamy taste.
    Available in grocery stores.
  9. Ghee — A staple of Indian cooking, ghee is clarified butter. It is more digestible and better for you than butter. Use a little bit for sauteing vegetables and your kitchen will smell amazing. Another great technique is to “bloom” your spices in a frying pan with a little bit of ghee over medium to low heat. The blooming technique awakens the spice flavor.
    Available in Indian markets or online retailers like Amazon.
  10. Malt Vinegar — This under appreciated vinegar is what gives English fish and chips their distinctive tang. I also use it as a meat tenderizer.
    Available in most grocery stores.
  11. Mirin — This is a Japanese rice wine with a low alcohol content. It has a sweet, light taste. I use it in stir-fries but also in salads like cole slaw.
    Available in Asian markets.
  12. Molasses — This thick black syrup is considered antiquated but it is an incredibly versatile staple. Molasses is high in iron and has less calories than sugar. I use it in barbeque or sweet/sour sauce and I add it to baked good like cornbread or muffins.
    Available in most grocery stores.
  13. Sardines — We are over-fishing our waters and also poisoning our oceans which can make it challenging to find a healthy, sustainable fish. Sardines are one of the best choices. Super-high in calcium and protein, sardines are a healthy ingredient to use on a regular basis. They key is buying high-quality sardines. I buy them packed in olive oil and make a sauce that is great over spaghetti or polenta. A great combination with sardines is capers…
    Available in grocery stores.
  14. Sesame Oil — This is one of the healthiest oils out there and used in Asian and Mediterranean cooking. I use it in stir-fries and also love it in cole slaw.
    Available in some grocery store or Asian markets.
  15. Shrimp Powder — Probably one of the more unusual items on the list, this is basically dried shrimp that has been ground into a powder. It is wonderful in fish soups, stir-fries or curries.
    Available in most grocery stores, Asian, Indian or Caribbean markets (more affordable).
  16. Siriacha — You probably have heard or seen this hot sauce as it has been widely popular of late. It hails from Vietnam and although it’s popularity is as a condiment, I use it in my cooking as an ingredient in things like barbeque sauce, spiced ketchup/mayo, stews and meat marinades.
    Available in some grocery store or Asian markets.
  17. Tahini — Made from ground sesame seeds (very high in calcium), tahini is best known as an ingredient in hummus but I also use it mixed with yogurt and lemon as a sauce for meat or fish and in my felafel to make it moister.
    Available in some grocery stores, Indian or Middle Eastern markets (more affordable).
  18. Tamarind Paste — This intensely sour paste is made from the tamarind plant and is used in curries, chutneys and other Asian/Indian meals. I also use it in sweet/sour sauce and as a marinade.
    Available in Indian or Asian markets.
  19. Tapatio – There are a lot of different hot sauces out there but in my opinion this is one of the best for Mexican flavor. It is one of the top selling hot sauces in Mexico but virtually unknown outside of Mexican communities. This sauce packs a punch without the vinegar taste of tabasco. Used moderately, it is a great flavor-awakener without being too hot. Used generously, it will spice things up quite a bit. I use a few drops in all my Mexican dishes.
    Available in some grocery stores or Latin markets.
  20. Tomato Concentrate — Not to be confused with tomato paste, tomato concentrate is sold in a tube and is used to add a tomato note to a dish versus as a basis for a sauce. Often when I make a marinara sauce, I will start with fresh, chopped onion and tomatoes and add a tablespoon or two of tomato concentrate. Of note, it is important not to buy tomatoes in a can as the acid from the tomato can react with the metal and taint the tomatoes. When I can’t use fresh tomatoes, I buy chopped or pureed tomatoes in a fresh-pack box.
    Available in some grocery stores.

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