My name is Susan, and I’m a recovering pantry hog.

(“Hi, Susan.”)

I started buying frivolous and expensive pantry items when my oldest was a baby. Sleep-deprived and covered in poop and spit-up, I found great solace in my corner grocery’s condiments aisle. By the time I went back to work, my pantry was bursting with glacéed chestnuts, tinned sardines and Major Grey’s chutney.

My oldest is almost 15, and I think the glacéed chestnuts are still on my shelf. I shudder to think how much money I spent on pricey pantry items I never used.

I’m not alone. I see a lot of pantries in my work, and most are overstocked.

Of course, every kitchen needs basic supplies. Cooking oils and vinegars, kosher salt and spices, canned beans and pastas … those must-have items should grace your pantry shelves at all time.

But pantry hogs want more. We stuff our shelves with tapenades and nut oils; with pestos and preserves that we never use. Eventually the stuff expires or turns rancid. And we’ve wasted several pretty pennies.

Pantry hogs, there is a better way! Rather than believing all those food magazines and investing in each month’s pricey product du jour, choose just four or five splurge-worthy items that you know you’ll use.

If you aren’t sure what those might be, here are my top five:

1. Preserved lemons. I adore Les Moulins Mahjoub’s natural preserved lemons. Their spicy/salty kick is wonderful when tucked inside poultry or nestled under a chicken’s skin (https://dinnerbysusan.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/a-chicken-rises-from-my-ashes/). They can be cut into tiny pieces and used as a relish atop baked fish. They can be minced and stirred into risottos. Purists will tell you to eat just the rind, but I gobble down the entire lemon and love every tangy, bracing morsel. You can find Les Moulins Mahjoub’s natural preserved lemons at Williams-Sonoma for about $13 or at other specialty purveyors. Locally, I buy mine at La Cuisine (http://www.lacuisineus.com/) in Alexandria, VA.
2. Sea salt. I listened to cooks wax rapturous about sea salt for years and didn’t get it. Kosher salt seemed fine to me. Then during a visit to my favorite hometown kitchen store (https://dinnerbysusan.wordpress.com/2012/08/07/nostalgia-in-a-coffee-mug-or-why-i-love-my-hometown-prydes/), I bought a tin of Caravel Gourmet French Fleur de Sel ($12.50). I’m so glad I did! Sprinkled judiciously on risottos or roasted baby potatoes, it coaxes extra flavor and adds a touch of crunch. When sprinkled on top of a chocolate-frosted cake, it adds a deliciously salty counterpoint to the sweetness of dessert.
3. Dried mushrooms. Less than an ounce of dried porcini, chanterelle or woodland mushrooms gives an intense flavor boost to whatever you’re cooking. I like to reconsititute dried ‘shrooms and add them to my favorite tomato sauces (https://dinnerbysusan.wordpress.com/2012/09/19/in-defense-of-velveeta/). I also like to crumble them dry into fresh mushroom soup. Or plump them in water and add them to a green bean saute. FungusAmongUs (http://www.fungusamongus.com/) offers a wide range of organic dried mushrooms. ($5-plus for 1 ounce) and can be found at most organic markets.
4. Anchovy paste. At a tad over $2, anchovy paste isn’t a huge investment. But it will pay outsize dividends in your cooking. This is what I turn to when my pesto is a little too sweet. When my potato salad dressing seems cloying. When my Parmesan dip needs a bit more depth and nuance. Start small — just a drop or two at a time will do. Mix the paste well into whatever you’re cooking, and taste. You shouldn’t taste fish. Rather, your dish should suddenly have a fuller, more satisfying feel.
5. Chile de Arbol. These Mexican chiles are my new favorite ingredient. I bought a 1-ounce package of India Tree Chile de Arbol at La Cuisine for about $6 last December. The fiery little peppers add a smoky spice to whatever you cook. I’ve crumbled them in pasta sauce, then added dollops of sour cream to tame the bite. I’ve taken the advice of Chef Suzanne Goin and sizzled them with garlic and rosemary before making soup. And I’ve put them into this recipe, adapted from Chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi by way of Bon Appetit magazine. Invest in your own package and enjoy the fruits of a pared-down pantry yourself!
Salmon In Spicy Tomato Sauce (adapted from Bon Appetit)
(Please don’t let the number of ingredients deter you from trying this. Simply assemble everything before you start. Use the sauce in other ways, too: It’s delicious paired with chicken or spooned over roast potatoes.)
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Salt and pepper four 6-ounce salmon fillets, then dredge them in 3 tablespoons flour, shaking off the excess. Sear in oil 2 minutes on one side; then 1 minute on the other side. Remove to a plate and wipe out the skillet.
In a small bowl, combine 6 small, minced garlic cloves, 1 tablespoon caraway seeds, 2 teaspoons sweet paprika, 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon and 2 tablespoons olive oil.
Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in the skillet. Add 1 Chile de Arbol, broken in half, and saute for 30 seconds. Remove chile, then add the garlic-spice mixture. Saute 30 seconds.
Carefully stir in 2 tablespoons tomato paste and 1/2 cup water. Bring to a simmer for 30 seconds, then stir in 2 tablespoons lemon juice and 2 teaspoons sugar. Season with salt and pepper.
Return salmon fillets to pan. Cover and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook fish for 5-7 minutes. Remove pan from heat, uncover, and let fish cool slightly. Sprinkle with cilantro to taste before serving.
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