Gotta have Sriracha? Caviar? Ruffled potato chips? Your staples tell a story about you. Here are our writer’s top 10 foods for making dinner out of (next to) nothing.
You can learn a lot about a person by his staples. My friend Matt’s kitchen teems with a kaleidoscope of green, red, and golden hot sauces, testifying both to his family’s adventurous palates and his Taiwanese wife. Another friend’s pantry—turmeric, golden vadouvan, caraway, cardamom, and lentils for dal—reflects his Pakistani heritage.
With my hankering for Mexican and New American foods, I cook a lot of enchiladas, quesadillas, and roast chickens, but I often toss Thai, Chinese, French, Italian, Indian, and other cuisines into the mix. And although now I can see what I have (tofu, Brussels sprouts) and immediately know what I want to make (dry-fried tofu with fish-sauce-caramelized Brussels sprouts), that wasn’t always the case. As a novice cook, I was constantly running back and forth to the grocery store, never having the right things at home to last me a few days.
One day I came upon an article in which a food writer wrote that she always had lemon and an onion in the fridge—the former for acid, and the latter for silky sweetness, or to build any vegetable dish. Genius! This hadn’t occurred to me, and because I always learn something new about other people’s cooking building blocks and how they get them through a week, I’m sharing my top 10 ingredients here. These are the foods I always stock, and why:
White, yellow, or Vidalia, I’ll always have one kicking around. I caramelize them for tarts, build massive pots of black and white beans around them, and throw them into guacamole.
Like ebony and ivory, these two (of course!) go together. I love to roast the whole head and use the sweet, smashed cloves on bread or spun into pasta. And in the event that I made too much pasta, I’ll sauté a small smashed clove in butter or olive oil the next day, discarding the clove and tossing leftover noodles quickly in the infused oil, then dolloping the whole shebang with crème fraîche.
Ideally one has both limes and lemons, but as bartender Joaquín Simó of New York bar Pouring Ribbons expressed it to me, “Lemons are sour, and limes are tart.” Lemon juice adds a real punch of acidity to a dish, whereas lime sort of nudges it down a tart path. I use lemons to stuff chickens and deglaze their pans for easy gravy. I squeeze them into homemade bourbon sours and over pasta. If a dish is lacking something, I ask myself if it’s lemon.
Everyone has their emergency canned protein, and props to those of you who bust out high-quality anchovies and salmon as your go-to snacks, but I always have good tuna on hand, splurging on Genova or Cento packed in olive oil when I can. It makes for instant snacks or—if I have bread—tuna melts when I walk in the door ravenous, and I’ve been playing around with layering it into pasta with olive oil, capers, and roasted garlic. (Yum!)
I’m a New Englander, and even at my most broke in this life—my pants had holes; I couldn’t afford health insurance—I’d buy good, unsalted, European butter. These days some domestic butters are just as lovely, and the price has gone, blessedly, way down.
Yes, this list is heavy on proteins and fats, which testifies to the foods that power me; I’d fight you for cheese, but never for a box of pasta. My belly rumbles when I’ve had biscuits or French toast for breakfast, but not when I’ve wolfed a few tablespoons of cannellini beans sautéed in olive oil with onions and garlic and seasoned with lemon.
An acquaintance, observing my twitchy salt trigger hand at the table, once joked that I should have a salt lick installed in my home. I’m a big fan. I love that you can season lightly at the beginning of cooking in order to cut down on how much you need later. (Pasta water, for example, should be seasoned with at least a tablespoon.) I always have Kosher and sea salt on hand, and sprinkle the latter liberally on eggs and avocados.
It was only when I attended the Vermont cheesemakers’ festival many years ago that I felt truly at home in this world. Here were bearded men holding babies and arguing about the difference between 18-month and 30 month Comté; there were women tipping back beer while debating the merits of Brillat-Savarin and Camembert. I’ll always have a knob of cheddar, some twisty, stringy Oaxacan cheese, or a fresh cheese in my fridge.
Because life is short, and it’s best to stay alert to catch it all. I have learned the hard way not to leave the house without coffee, as I am not a good person without it in my system. These days I stock up on locally roasted, chocolatey Ethiopian Forty Weight beans.
Cheap, cheerful, and plentiful in my Mexican-American neighborhood, beans are a major staple in my home. Ideally I have a bag of cannellini and another of black, which are less expensive and lighter than the heavy pre-soaked, pre-cooked beans, but I like to have those, too, for those hangry, rushed weeknights that sideswipe all of us.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Martha Stewart Living, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.