Dave Humphrey and I were having a conversation a few months back, and he was talking about how the kinds of ingredients that people use in their cooking become a sort of index to the ways that they cook. He suggested that the best way to know how people cook is not to look at the finished dishes that they make but to look at the ingredients that they use regularly, the ones that they cannot do without, the ones that are essential to their cooking.
I was intrigued by this idea, and I would have written on it immediately, only Dave said that he might post something on the topic himself. He thought that it would be interesting to list the ingredients that he found essential in his own cooking and to ask his readers to create similar lists on their own blogs, to see the kinds of ingredients that others considered to be essential. This post, however, has not yet materialized, though I have reminded Dave of it more than once. So, now, because I am very interested to have Dave discuss his essential ingredients, I am pressing the question by other means, by writing the inaugural list myself and by inviting him to respond.
The criteria for the ingredients are simple. First, they need to be basic ingredients rather than complete dishes, though this does not mean that they need to be entirely unprepared (yoghurt or cheese, for example, require preparation but are still basic ingredients in my opinion). Second, they need to be ingredients for cooking rather than for baking (hopefully this will steer Dave away from his bread fetish).
Taking these criteria into consideration, here is my own list of essential ingredients, roughly in order of significance.
Garlic – A day almost never goes by that I do not use garlic. If I could only ever have one ingredient with which to flavour my food, I would choose garlic without hesitation. It can be used in so many ways, and it is so beautiful when roasted on its own. I can hardly overstate how dependent my cooking is on garlic.
Onion – I am cheating her a little, gathering all of the onions that I use regularly (yellow, red, green, shallot) under a single heading. Even so, onions in one form or another are also a key part of my cooking, both in my finished dishes and in my preparation of other ingredients like soup stock and tomato sauce.
Ginger – I have only begun using ginger regularly in the past few years, since I have been cooking Asian and South Asian cuisines more seriously, but it has now infiltrated my cooking entirely. With garlic and onion it forms a kind of holy trinity for me.
Olive Oil – I use olive oil extensively, though I use canola oil also in certain situations, and I have been using grapeseed oil more often recently, especially when I need a higher smoke point or when I want a more subtle taste. The reason that I prefer to use olive oil most often, quite simply, is a matter of taste. Though a particular cooking need may force me to use something else at times, I prefer the taste of olive oil in most situations, and I not infrequently substitute with it when recipes call for other oils.
Butter – I love butter. Some of my best childhood memories involve coating my grandmother’s homemade bread with her homemade butter and topping it with her hamemade jam. These memories have given me a preference for saltless butter and for butter that is made by hand. Despite its more brittle texture, I feel like I can actually taste the cream when butter is made like this. Though I now have to make do with mass produced butter, I still love it, and I refuse to substitute anything else for it unless in the utmost extremity.
Cheese – I have written on occasion about how important cheese is to me and to my family, which makes it a kind of problem ingredient for me. In some respects, it could head my list, though I do not use it as often as garlic or onions or ginger, at least not in a single form. What I really need is another list for my essential cheeses, but that will have to wait for another day. Suffice it to say that cheese, in one form or another, in a dish or eaten straight from the hand, has an almost spiritual significance for me.
Soup Stock – This is another item that could very well rank much higher, but that I am not sure exactly where to place. Besides soups, of course, I use stock in countless dishes, gravies, and sauces. I always have some homemade stock in my freezer, and having a pot of stock simmering on the stove is one of my purest comforts.
Black Pepper – This exercise gets difficult for me as soon as I start thinking about spices. I cook with such a wide variety of spices that it is almost unfair to start picking one over another. With freshly ground black pepper, however, I can at least offer my favourite spice with some confidence. I actually use several varieties of ground pepper (green, red, white) depending on the occasion, but it is the spice I use most frequently, and this is not simply by default or by familiarity. Fresh pepper is just beautiful.
Tomatoes – I use tomatoes, both fresh and in several prepared forms that I can myself (sauce, paste, stewed), in a wide variety of dishes. I find that tomatoes, in any form, add complexity to the taste of a dish without dominating it, and they are essential for creating the proper texture in many kinds of reduction.
Sweet Red Peppers – My love of red peppers is matched very closely by my dislike of their green cousins. Though I usually prefer bitter tastes to sweet ones, I have never been able to accustom myself to the particular bitterness of a green pepper. Red peppers, however, taste good in almost anything, and when they are roasted with a little olive oil, they may be my single favourite flavour in the world.
Mushrooms – I can still recall the day when I discovered that mushrooms came in other varieties than the “white ones” and the “brown ones”. I was in grade seven or eight, and it was my night to cook. The recipe called for shitake mushrooms. I had serious doubts that the grocery story would carry anything that sounded so exotic, but I was surprised to find a whole mushroom section. The recipe was a success, and my love affair with mushrooms has only grown since then.
Lemons – I am discovering the imprtance of having citrus in a cook’s arsenal. I do not like to use vinegar heavily, but there are occasions where this kind of acid taste is necessary, and I have found that lemon (or lime or orange) serves my purposes very well. I also like the variety of textures that most citrus fruit provides (grated rind, whole slices, juice), which makes it useful in many different situations.
So, there you are: the twelve most essential ingredients in my kitchen. I am now leaving it entirely up to Dave to put his food where his mouth is. Of course, others are welcome to play as well. Give me the link if you do.