The ingredients you never really should be without.
Delicious, healthy meals don’t have to be complicated. In fact, some of the best eating is just simple food done well. I hate the word “foodie” for this exact reason. It’s a word dripping of elitism and snobbishness, more about crazy reductions and Michelin star restaurants than a mere appreciation of food. It’s a problem of semantics, and our obsession with defining who we are and what we do, but ultimately, you don’t have to be rich and pretentious to like good food. An apple can be a culinary experience just as much as a five course dinner.
Lately, I’ve been delving into Michael Pollan’s new book Cooked and thinking a lot about this topic. The value that we put on healthy meals, how we are obsessed with cooking shows but rarely cook ourselves, and how less time in our own kitchens changes how we think about food. How when we cook for ourselves, we value the time and effort put into getting it onto the table.
As Pollan puts it, “But perhaps the most important thing I learned by doing this work is how cooking implicates us in a whole web of social and ecological relationships; with plants and animals, with soil, with farmers, with microbes both inside and outside our bodies, and, of course, with the people our cooking nourishes and delights. Above all else, what I found in the kitchen is that cooking connects.”
Cooking is what pulls us back down to earth. What connects us to the food we eat and the food around us.
But so many people find cooking healthy meals overwhelming and difficult. Even if they have decided that committing the time to making food is worth it, they don’t know where to start. I have often been asked how it is that I whip up dishes in a short amount of time. With no formal training, my cooking process has simply evolved through trial and error. And a well-stocked pantry. Above all, if you don’t have the ingredients to play with, it’s hard to make healthy meals.
With that in mind, here is the fully Foodie Underground approved list of particular ingredients that help for inspiring creative cooking. These are above and beyond your standard “fresh produce and eggs” category (both of which I highly recommend always having around), and in general I am a big believer of having a variety of whole grains, nuts, seeds and spices on hand. In short, these are 11 specific ingredients that I always keep on hand because they make it easy and fun to prepare healthy meals.
Millet is often overlooked in the world where quinoa reigns the list of trendy grains. But it should be. A tip I recently learned for preparing millet, is that before you boil it, place the millet in a saucepan without water. Put it over medium heat and stir every once in awhile to make sure the millet doesn’t burn. What you’re doing is essentially “toasting” it. When the millet has a nice golden color to it, add in your water and cook it. It makes for a delicious nutty flavor in the end product. Super easy dish: roast squash, stuff it with millet, sprinkle with olive oil and fresh herbs.
2. Fresh herbs
Even if your cooking turns disastrous, you can always sprinkle fresh herbs on top. I have mint, thyme and basil growing in my kitchen herb pots hanging from the balcony, and when I am at the market I will pick up a sprig of whatever is available; rosemary, sage, and beyond. You can never have enough, and things like rosemary are good for making delicious simple syrups out of. Rhubarb and rosemary syrup anyone?
3. Olive oil
I have turned into an olive oil freak. Reading Extra Virgin: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil was a bit of a wake up call, since olive oil makes its way into almost everything, even sweet baked goods. It’s a must have for preparing healthy meals.
4. Raw nuts
Beyond being stupid healthy for you, raw nuts can be used in a variety of dishes. I am a big fan of keeping hazelnuts and almonds on hand, and chopping them up to throw atop salads or a sauté, as well as grinding them into flour and making gluten-free baked goods. They’re also good if you want to start playing with pesto recipes. Looking healthy meals with nuts? Try kale and hazelnut pesto..
5. Buckwheat flour
Another recent obsession of mine, buckwheat flour, much like millet, is an overlooked flour. Sure, there are plenty of other flours in my pantry, but if I had to pick my favorite, it’s buckwheat. With its distinct flavor and health benefits, it’s far superior to any white, processed flour you can find. I like to use it for scones and instead of regular flour in a dutch baby.
6. Chickpea Flour
Do you know how easy it is to make gluten-free crepes and flatbread? Seriously, why we in the US haven’t imported this popular ingredient of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking is beyond me, especially sincechickpea production is on the rise in the US. And hello, you use it in everyone’s favorite dish, hummus.
7. Sea salt
Anyone that tells you sea salt is like normal salt is simply nuts. It’s the perfect finishing ingredient for all healthy meals. Fortunately sea salt is another ingredient that you don’t have to import from the other side of the world. On the west coast, you can get sea salt from the Oregon coast thanks to Jacobsen and on the east coast, from Amagansett, who harvests their salt from the Atlantic waters on Long Island, New York.
Ok, so unless you live in India, this isn’t a local product, but we have to pick our battles, and in the eating locally vs. importing battle, I choose to eat cardamom. Buy it in pods and grind the seeds down in a mortar and pestle. You can add it to sweet and savory dishes alike and even to your coffee.
9. Black lentils
Unlike other lentils which get mushy when you boil them up, the little black lentils stay nice and chewy, making them perfect for adding into salads, using as a base in a stew or simply mixing them up with a little olive oil, garlic and chopped walnuts.
All healthy meals start with garlic. OK, that’s not true, but it can certainly make them all better. You don’t just have to eat it minced. My favorite way to eat it is to bake or roast it and use it as a spread.
Support honey bees (which are dying off if you missed the memo) and get the local, small batch produced stuff. Drizzle over various fruit (apples for example) and bake them, add it to basic vinaigrettes, use instead of sugar.
Image: Lisa Norwood