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I always keep my shelves stocked with an assortment of storecupboard essentials so I can whip up delicious but impressive meals in a flash. I like to think of my pantry as housing a world of flavours: ground spices for an Indian touch; anchovies, capers, extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar for Mediterranean dishes; soy sauce, miso and rice vinegar for Japanese tangents; fish sauce, sesame oil and oyster sauce for Asian tones. Store dry goods in sealed containers and throw out unused food after a year.
As well as flours and sugars, the baker’s pantry should also include rolled oats, honey, butter, eggs, baking powder, baking soda, maple syrup, coconut, vanilla extract and vanilla beans, gelatine, wine and port, sweetened condensed milk, chocolate, and plain sweet biscuits.
Canned coconut cream and coconut milk vary widely in quality and the percentage of fat they contain (the fat carries all the flavour). Shake the can to ascertain thickness – the thicker the better. Avoid the small cans of solid coconut cream sold under Asian brand names as they are often rancid.
If coconut cream is very thick, which can make it hard to mix into dry ingredients, simply warm and it will thin. Adding coconut cream to any batter will make it brown more quickly, so you will need to ensure heat is not too high during cooking. Check for an expiry date as due to the high fat content coconut cream can go rancid. Any leftover coconut cream can be transferred to a jar and will keep in the fridge for several days, or can be frozen.
You can make your own coconut milk from fresh or dried coconut, although the flavour of fresh is far superior. To make a thick coconut milk, puree the grated flesh of a mature coconut – or 2 cups dried, desiccated coconut – with 1 cup hot water. Strain, squeezing all the liquid from the flesh. Chill and use within two days, or freeze.
Flavour boosters deliver a depth of flavour. Included in this group are fresh stocks, tomato paste, miso, parmesan, fish sauce, soy sauce, chilli sauce, other Asian-style sauces, curry paste, tahini, spirits such as brandy or sherry, anchovies, sun-dried and semi-dried tomatoes, dried mushrooms, olives, capers, horseradish and mustard.
It’s important to use the correct type of flour, especially when baking, as it will affect the texture of your baking. High-grade flour is not, as its name suggests, a better quality flour. The name refers to this flour being high in protein, and hence gluten, which makes it a stronger flour. As a result it should only be used in rich fruit cakes, yeast cookery and puff pastry. It will produce tough, rather than tender, cakes and muffins with ugly peaked tops.
Standard flour (or plain flour) is lower in protein and gluten so it will ensure light, well-shaped cakes. Self-raising flour has the raising agent already added, so the addition of baking powder is not necessary. If substituting standard flour add approx 1 tsp of baking powder per cup of standard flour.
Rice flour makes fritters and batters crisp. Buy it at any Asian food shop and store like regular flour. Wholemeal flour contains all parts of the wheat grain including the bran and the germ and is therefore denser and higher in fibre than plain flour.
When sifting flour, or other ingredients, measure first and then sieve or sift it. Sifting adds air to the flour to produce a lighter mixture. Flours, like seeds and nuts, contain oils that become rancid over time. For long life storage keep them in the fridge or freezer. Be sure to bring the flour to room temperature before using. If storing in the pantry, invest in airtight containers and check cupboard stores regularly for weevils. Smell for rancidity.
Included in this group are fresh ginger, garlic, spring onions, lemons and limes, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and fresh herb pestos.
Fresh herbs are indispensable in Free Range Cooking - they make everything taste fresh and lively. If you don’t have a garden, a pot of basil or parsley is really easy to grow on your kitchen windowsill. Purée soft herbs (eg basil, coriander and parsley) with a little oil or make into pesto. If not using immediately, you can freeze them in ice blocks for easy anytime use.
Woody herbs tend to have much stronger flavours so you need less. Freeze woody herbs (eg thyme, rosemary, sage and kaffir lime leaves) on the branch or dry them.
These days even the supermarket sells an enticing array of noodles which offer tremendous scope to the cook at home – in stir-fries, soups and salads. Asian noodles are different from pasta in that they often contain salt. Cook in boiling water, cool under cold water and drain. They can be cooked ahead of time and rinsed to separate just before using. Dried noodles more than double in weight on cooking.
The clear, brittle strands of bean thread noodles known commonly as vermicelli noodles soften quickly to a palatable texture after a few minutes in hot water. Often found in the produce department, these noodles are tied into a large bundle, which needs to be broken up before using. It’s easiest to transfer them to a large bag and use sharp scissors to separate them as they can make a huge mess.
When using dry egg noodles allow about 60-75 g per person. They are sold fresh and dried, often in potion ‘nests’. Cook like pasta in plenty of boiling, salted water according to the manufacturer’s instructions. They will take 2-4 minutes depending on thickness.
Soba noodles are made with buckwheat and traditionally used in soups and salads. Cooked like pasta, they take about 7 minutes. Udon noodles are very thick, hearty wheat noodles, often sold fresh from the chiller in Asian food markets. They are already cooked and simply need reheating in a bowl of hot water before using. Rice sticks soften in warm water. When ready to use boil in lightly salted water for 2-3 minutes until tender.
Dried noodles will keep in a sealed container for months.
Chocolate should not be melted over direct heat as it will easily overheat and stiffen. If this should happen it can usually be salvaged by adding a little vegetable shortening or oil (but not butter as it contains too much water). To melt chocolate, break into squares and melt in a double boiler or microwave on medium for 30 second intervals until runny, stirring between each interval to make ensure the chocolate melts evenly and to avoid large lumps burning before they melt.
Water has a devastating effect on chocolate – even the tiniest droplets of water can cause the chocolate to ‘seize’, begin to solidify and turn grainy and dull, rendering it useless. Once this has happened, nothing can coax it back to the desired velvety smooth liquid state. While chocolate will seize if it comes into contact with moisture when melted alone, it may be melted into a small amount of liquid quite safely, provided the two are melted together. If a recipe calls for liquid to be heated with the chocolate, remember to add the minimum required to prevent seizing, eg 30g chocolate needs no less than one tablespoon of liquid.
Chocolate should be stored in a cool dark place as it does not react well to fluctuations in humidity or temperature. Refrigeration, like humidity, causes a bloom in chocolate – causing blotches and streaks and sometimes rough surfaces (although the flavour of chocolate is not affected).
Some staple nuts for the pantry are: almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, cashews, pistachios, hazelnuts, brazil nuts, macadamias and peanuts. With the exception of chestnuts, nuts are easily interchanged in cooking, and each will provide its own specific flavour profile. Walnuts make an acceptable substitute for pecans, and macadamias can be successfully used in recipes that call for candlenuts. It’s important to remember that the higher the fat content of a nut the more quickly it will cook and brown. Macadamias will cook more quickly than peanuts, for instance.
It’s very simple to roast your own nuts and the flavour is fresher than any store-bought nuts. Place raw nuts on a baking tray and drizzle or spray with just a little oil, tossing to coat. Spread out and bake at 180°C until crisp and pale golden. Cooking time depends on fat content. Almonds take about 12-15 minutes, while walnuts and pine nuts, which have higher levels of fat, cook more quickly – test after 10 minutes. Peanuts have slightly less fat than the rest and will take a little longer. Cool nuts before storing – they will crisp as they cool.
Nuts will keep for months in the shell, but once shelled they can go rancid very quickly unless stored in a cool, dark place. It’s fair to say the higher the fat content the quicker the nuts will deteriorate. Check for quality before purchasing (a sniff will reveal if they are rancid) and for best results store in the freezer or in the fridge. Throw out rancid nuts - not only do rancid foods taste foul, they are also bad for you. Nuts will keep 3-6 months refrigerated and will last for a couple of years in the freezer (they can be used straight from the freezer, but keep them in a sealed container to prevent contamination from any strong aromas or flavours from other foods).
For all non-Asian cooking, use extra virgin olive. I use commercial brands for cooking and frying and dressings, and have a special bottle of estate extra virgin olive oil for salads, dressing pasta, cooking vegetables, garnishing bruschetta or putting the finishing swirl on a dinner or lunch plate.
Neutral flavoured oil, such as grapeseed, rice bran, canola, corn or safflower, should be used when you don't want the taste of the oil to come through. (Olive oil provides a rich Mediterranean kind of flavour.)
For Asian cooking and dressings, choose sesame oil. It can be used hot or cold, but be careful as it has a low burn temperature. It's strong, so you don't need much - just 1-2 tsp adds a real zing of flavour to a dish.
Spices should be bought regularly and kept sealed for freshness. Discard those that don’t have any aroma when you open them. For more flavour, buy whole spices, such as cumin and coriander seeds, and toast and grind them yourself. Spices such as fennel seeds, star anise, cardamoms and saffron are a fast track to creating exotic flavours.
Always keep on hand a variety of different types of rice, pasta, couscous, polenta, potatoes (store these in a dark, cool place in the pantry) and flour or corn tortillas.
Sugar is an ingredient common to most baking recipes, but you’ll find variation among the sugars used. Each type of sugar has specific qualities, which means different sugars are not interchangeable.
White sugar is the most common sugar and is suitable to use in most baking recipes, unless otherwise specified. Caster sugar is finer grained and its smaller sugar crystals dissolve easily, so it is ideal for more delicate mixtures such as meringues and sponges or when a lighter textured result is required.
Icing sugar is most commonly used as the key ingredient in icings and frostings, but you’ll also find it used within cake and biscuit mixes when a smooth, soft finished texture is required. Cheaper brands of icing sugar can be lumpy, so it’s a good idea to sift them before use.
Raw sugar is a gold colour with coarser granules than white sugar and a flavour closer to brown sugar. It is often used in baking to enhance the colour of the finished result. Brown sugar has a dark colour and rich caramel flavour. Because it is coloured with molasses it absorbs moisture more readily, which may result in biscuits softening more quickly.
The more sugar you use in a recipe, the 'fudgier' it will become. Recipes such as brownies, which have a large measure of sugar, will also have a crusty top.
Canned tomatoes, tomato purée and tomato paste are always useful to have on hand for quick sauces and to add to stews and slow cooked dishes. Artichokes, water chestnuts, beans and chickpeas, tuna and anchovies are also useful.
When a human baby is born the scent that attracts it to its mother's nipple is the same as that of vanilla. Perfume companies have figured out that vanilla is a powerful pheromone, but it is in the kitchen that vanilla's subtly exotic flavour comes to the fore. Beautiful in desserts, the seed pods of this tropical climbing orchid are supple and intensely aromatic. Where possible use pure amber-coloured extract or whole beans.
Choose vanilla beans that are supple and moist. Split the vanilla pod lengthwise and scrape out the seeds, which carry the bulk of the flavour. Infuse beans in milk or cream for custards and sauces, scraping in the seeds for extra flavour. Once used the vanilla pod can be rinsed and stored in sugar and will impart a light vanilla flavour. Or blitz the chopped beans with raw sugar in a food processor and use this as a flavouring - 1-2 tbsp will add a rich vanilla taste to sauces and cakes. Store vanilla pods in a sealed container.
I prefer to choose pure vanilla extract over artificial vanilla flavouring. A minimum of 35% alcohol is required for an extract. Sugar and other substances may be added. Artificial vanilla flavouring is chemically treated to mimic the flavour of vanilla.
Red and white wine are good for wine-based sauces and mustardy dressings. A splash in mashed potatoes is also really good.
Balsamic - a sweet, aged vinegar - is ideal for bitter greens, tomatoes and strawberries, and to finish casseroles and sauces.
Rice vinegar is a slightly sweet, aromatic vinegar, ideal for cooking and cold uses.
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