I need to downsize. I'm not talking about just my car and my home but also my pantry. Don't misunderstand me; I still enjoy experimenting with new recipes and ingredients, but I have condiments, pastas and canned and packaged goods that hit their expiration dates before I use them.
People give me stuff and I get samples that I give away because there is only so much I can cook. So now that it's the new year, I'm thinking about those ingredients that I must have. Here's a list of some of them:
Dried red-pepper flakes: I carry individual packets of these with me at all times in case I need an emergency endorphin rush when traveling.
Hot sauce: I also carry tiny bottles of Tabasco with me in case the chile flakes don't do the trick. I love other hot sauces, too, but I am downsizing, right? That's why I would have only two kinds - the other would be Cholula hot sauce.
Rooster sauce: Also called sriracha sauce, this Vietnamese hot sauce comes in a squeezable bottle and is incredible on just about anything. It's also good mixed with mayonnaise as a condiment. That's what Japanese restaurants use to make sushi.
Smoked paprika: My love affair started two years ago with this spice, and it continues to blossom.
Spice mills: The ones that come filled with a good-quality sea salt and peppercorns. I also really love the varieties of spice mills that come with Italian spices, steakhouse mixtures and triple peppercorns. I know that the spices are fresh and grinding them to order ensures great flavor.
Olive oil: I always have at least two varieties of olive oil: extra-virgin and refined.
Canola oil: I use canola when I want to saute and not impart a strong flavor.
Toasted sesame oil: I'm an Asian food freak, so dark-roasted sesame oil is a must. I mix it in a ratio of three parts canola to two parts sesame oil. I use the mixture to wok-saute vegetables and noodles.
Balsamic and rice vinegars: I don't toss a salad without these. However, I really enjoy fig, pomegranate and chianti red-wine vinegars as well. I will keep reminding myself about downsizing.
Fresh herbs: I can't live without basil, oregano, cilantro and thyme for most of my cooking needs, but because I am a bon vivant, I would hate to go without Thai basil and culantro, a relative of cilantro.
Short-grain brown rice: I can survive on steamed short-grain Japanese rice sprinkled with tamari, scallions and avocado chunks.
Basmati rice: Either white or brown, basmati rice has a nutty aroma and flavor that I crave. I cook a huge pot of rice once a week.
Feta cheese: I go for Greek or Bulgarian feta. They are far superior to domestic brands.
Parmigiano-Reggiano: If I can't find the granddaddy of parmesan, I go for parmesan Padano, the next best thing.
Fresh ginger, garlic and lemon grass: My food would be boring and meaningless without this trio. I sometimes puree all three in equal parts with some oil to make what I call my "monster mash," which I use to saute many dishes.
Canned beans: Either black or white cannellini are great for quick dinners, chili, stews and soups.
Tamari: This aged soy sauce is superior to commercial soy sauce.
Whole-wheat pasta: I don't care what shape it's in, I crave simple pasta dishes made with some of my other must-have ingredients.
Here's a simple recipe using my favorite ingredients that you can make in no time.
Steve Petusevsky writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, which provided the recipe analysis.