Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Complete Kitchen

Becoming a scratch cook doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time to learn what you need and don’t need to make magic happen in the kitchen… and some trial and error at that. But the truth is having a simple list of items at your disposal at all times can make a serious difference in what and when you can whip up something special.

Now kitchens vary by taste, but the list provided below is the essential items of the Southern Kitchen. I happen to think this list transforms all areas and tastes… as I use the same basic starting point for most of my cooking…. but one thing is for sure. You can’t go wrong with this stuff in your pantry and fridge.

1. Chicken Stock and/or good quality Chicken Base
I don’t know if I can stress how important this is, as many of my dishes call for stock. Hell, even if they don’t I can pretty much betcha that I’ll be adding a splash to a savory dish I am cooking. But realize the finishing of a sauce, braising of a meat, beginning of a soup, adjusting of a gumbo or ettoufee… even smothering a pot of green beans.. calls for a good stock. Base can be easy to keep around as well (without taking up the space) if you don’t mind mixing with hot water… just make sure you avoid the brands that list salt as a main ingredient.

2. Bacon
What can I say? Flavor is flavor, and pork fat is king. Emeril didn’t make all of that cash cooking veggie lasagna. As you read down the list, you’ll see where I am going with this, but in my world most savory dishes start with fresh vegetables sautéed in bacon grease. It flavors my veggie dishes, I wrap whole chickens with it and when all else is lost, crank out a killer BLT.

3. Onions, Bell Peppers and Celery
The holy trinity. The base of most all soups, stew and casseroles below the Mason-Dixon Line and for good reason. I didn’t include garlic in this group but can tell you that I have a bag of fresh garlic in my fridge almost always as well. Throw carrots into this group and you can broaden your possibilities even more.

4. Kosher Salt/Pepper Mill
Truly important as most cooks don’t realize that cooking is a layering of flavor. We many times forget to season our chickens, hamburgers, onions and peppers, etc… kosher and/or sea salt is essential as well as a pepper mill, which can really make a difference. Refined pepper may be fine for a heaping bowl of cole slaw or seasoning a platter of catfish getting ready to be rolled in mustard and fried… but everything else deserves a twist of a good pepper mill.

5. Rice and Pasta
Well, I am guessing these are two items you may have… and rightfully so. The Chinese and Italian cultures can make a meal from these two dishes in less than 60 seconds. In the deep south, we usually put on a pot of rice… and then figure out what’s for dinner. Pasta with fresh herbs, a bit of chicken stock and a splash of cream can win you accolades for it’s decadent simplicity (add an egg and really show em! ). Don’t forget… yesterday’s pot of rice is today’s Fried Rice (or rice pudding).

6. Heavy Cream or Half and Half
A rule for me. As stated above quick pasta dishes can be sinful with just a bit of heavy whipping cream.. as well as transforming that leftover spaghetti sauce into a pink sauce tossed with rigatoni.

7. Parsley
A true secret… but almost every dish I whip up needs some sort of fresh herb for an taste of authenticity… and parsley is the call for me. OK, I also love the stuff. Try on a salad, in a soup or stew, as a garnish sprinkle… well you get it. It will make your dishes feel alive.

8. House Spice
Last but not least is something you must must have, and that is a mixtureof spices I call house spice. This is the stuff our chef friends scream “BAM” when they use it…. Remember earlier when I mentioned seasoning each layer of your dishes while you assemble them to cook? Well, here is your calling card. In my kitchen I keep a ceramic jar with a lid on it… inside is my own house spice blend of salt, pepper, cayenne, garlic power, onion powder, paprika, thyme, basil and oregano. I season just about everything everyday with this stuff. It gives my dishes a unique taste that I have used now in 2 restaurants. It is a trick most folks never get… so it is my gift to you!

The recipe below has really become a family favorite, and I find myself making it every summer at our family reunion in Michigan.... great on a warm summer night with something grilled along side. You can also serve in a carved out tomato or with a sandwich.....Get your house spice ready!

White Bean and Corn Relish

2 pound white beans, soaked overnight and rinsed
4 bay leaf
4 cups freshly shucked corn (or canned shoepeg works great)
4 tablespoons chopped shallots
Olive oil for cooking
2 cups small diced cucumber
8 tablespoons small diced red bell pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
4 tablespoon champagne vinegar
8 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper
Creole spice(your house blend!)

In a small sauce pan cook the beans until tender: drain and rinse. Cooking time depends on how old the beans are. In a small saute pan cook the corn and the shallots in hot oil until tender, about 3 minutes. Season with creole spice. Set aside to cool. In a small bowl combine the cooled beans, cooled corn and shallots, cucumbers, peppers, thyme, vinegar and oil. Season highly with house or Creole spice.
Yield: 12 cups