By Kelsey Casselbury 2015-07-24 02:19:16
Ten ingredients every cook needs in their pantry (or fridge). Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to School Nutrition’s latest culinary series: Back to Basics. Today’s offering, “Foundation Ingredients,” is merely the appetizer in a multi-course meal of tips, tactics and techniques for the foundational elements of cooking, both in your home and in school kitchens. In this issue and others to come, we’re indulging in some at-home cooking suggestions to help you improve the meals you make for yourself and your family, as well as those you prep for your student customers. Thus, you might find a suggestion here or there that seems a little, well… unexpected for School Nutrition magazine. Our advice? Just have fun with it! This month, we’re focusing on 10 ingredients essential for everyday cooks. As you might expect, it’s difficult to limit such a list to just 10 items—after all, everyone has different taste preferences, health considerations and culinary favorites—not to mention comfort with kitchen experimentation! But when selecting these particular must-haves, School Nutrition applied just one rule: It must be one ingredient—no combinations of other foodstuffs to create a “product.” This knocked out items such as ketchup, mayonnaise and pasta, all of which certainly have their place in any well-stocked kitchen. Even following this criteria, though, there were some ingredients that just barely missed earning a spot on our list. This includes plain Greek yogurt, beans (canned or dried, depending on your level of patience), brown rice and any number of herbs and spices. What are your favorite foundation ingredients? Share it with School Nutrition on SNA’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/schoolnutritionassociation or send us an email to email@example.com, and we’ll consider adding it to a future overview. Alright, let’s get cooking! Lemons Why You Need It Lemons can be used as “flavor catalysts”—meaning that the citrus fruit not only brightens a dish with its own flavor, but it also enhances other flavors in the meal. British food writer Henry Dimbledy in The Guardian newspaper summed it up most effectively: “The lemon is like a firehose of flavor—just fire it at drab dishes and it saves them.” Interestingly, salt and lemon work similarly on your tongue by depending on some of your most basic taste receptors. (They also increase salivation.) Storing and Prepping Store the lemons on your counter; a room temperature lemon will give up more juice than one that’s cold from being in the refrigerator (although, lemons will last significantly longer in the fridge). To get the max amount of juice, roll the lemon on the counter, applying light pressure, before you cut into it. Feeling Zesty? It’s not just the juice of a lemon that makes it invaluable. The zest in the outermost part of the rind contains lemon oil, and it can punch up your food’s flavor without adding any additional liquid to the mix (like if you’re making a pie crust). Just don’t zest too far into the lemon peel, as the white pith beneath is mouth-twistingly bitter. When to Use Them If you’re marinating meat or vegetables, clearly you want to add lemon juice or zest at the beginning of the prep process. However, if you’re using it simply to brighten the dish, add a squeeze right before you’re done cooking. Otherwise, you’ll concentrate the flavor and turn it bitter. After tasting, if you discover you have added too much, give the dish a pinch of sugar to balance out the acidity. Olive Oil Why You Need It Whether you’re drizzling it on a salad, dipping bread in it or using it to sauté a piece of fish, olive oil seems to be that one source of fat that health experts haven’t (yet) vetoed. That’s because it’s a flavorful source of monounsaturated fats, which benefits your cholesterol level and your blood pressure. How to Use It What’s the difference between pure olive oil, light olive oil, virgin olive oil and extra-virgin olive oil? For one, price—EVOO, as Rachel Ray would call it, pretty much always costs more than the other varieties. That’s because it’s considered the highest-quality of the four, having been extracted through cold-pressing and not via heat. It’s best for salad dressing and cold dishes. Virgin olive oil has a slightly lighter flavor and is also best for cold dishes or low-temperature cooking. Pure olive oil—also just called plain ol’ olive oil—is a mix of refined and virgin olive oil, so the quality is somewhat lower. Use it for cooking, along with light olive oil, which is called such because it has a lighter flavor, not because it’s lower in calories or fat. An infused olive oil is one that has had its flavor enhanced with natural seasonings. These can add a tasty zest to dishes that are sautéed or fried or simply for salads and bread dips. What to Consider You should always have olive oil on hand, but there are some applications where it’s not best to use it. Olive oil, particularly the extra-virgin variety, has a lower smoke point—between 365°F and 420°F—so its beneficial compounds begin to degrade at this point. Use canola oil for high-heat cooking instead. Try This Rather than shell out cash for pricy infused olive oil, try making your own—it’s easy! The simplest way is to combine the olive oil and desired spices and seal it in a bottle for hours or weeks! Hot infusion is another method. For a lemon-infused olive oil, for example, combine the peel of one lemon with ¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil. Simmer the two in a small saucepan over low heat for 20 minutes, strain the peels and funnel into a glass container. Whenever infused oils have reached their desired flavor level, they should be refrigerated to ensure freshness. Canned Tomatoes Why You Need Them This one’s a bit of a cheat because there are so many varieties that you should keep in your pantry—crushed tomatoes make an easy base for homemade spaghetti sauce; tomato paste gives a little umami flavor to nearly any dish; and you can consider diced tomatoes a one-size-fits-all canned food. Plus, there’s whole, peeled tomatoes, tomato sauce and pureed tomatoes. Not only are all of these easy additions to your meal, they’re healthy—it turns out, these cooked tomatoes are actually better for you than their fresh counterparts because of their higher cancer-fighting lycopene content! How to Buy Them Pro cooks prefer to use canned whole tomatoes (versus other processed varieties) so they can manage the chopping process personally. When it comes to tomato paste, however, choose the version in the squeeze tube—because who hasn’t used one or two tablespoons out of a can, stored it in the fridge and then had to throw it away a couple weeks later? You Should Know Canned items usually keep for up to a year, but keep an eye on expiration dates. Additionally, some folks express concern about the presence of BPA, a plastic resin that sometimes is used to coat the inside of metal cans. If you’re one of them, buy the tomatoes in shelf-stable aseptic paperboard cartons or glass jars. Soy Sauce What Is It Fermented soybeans are mixed with grain and certain molds (OK, this is an exception to our one-ingredient rule!) to produce a paste, which when pressed, produces a liquid. It was developed as a salt alternative at a time in history when salt was rare and expensive. Soy sauces vary quite a bit from one country to another—the kind you get in Japan is not the same as what you might enjoy in China or Vietnam and so on. What You Should Know The flavor is essential to traditional Asian dishes, particularly that elusive umami quality. Tentative about using soy sauce because of its reputation for a high sodium content? If you or your family members are not following a doctor’s orders for a low-sodium diet, remember that sodium is an essential mineral, vital for basic bodily functions, including nerve transmission and regulating your blood pressure. Just use it in moderation. Soy Sauce vs. Tamari Soy sauce has an almost-identical twin named Tamari, and there really isn’t much of a difference between these two sauces. They are both made from fermented soybeans, and they both look dark and have a sweet and salty taste; however, tamari doesn’t contain wheat, as soy sauce does—making it the perfect substitute for those on a gluten-free diet. Try This Naturally, soy sauce is the standard base for stir-fry dishes and numerous other Asian favorites. It’s also a traditional dipping sauce for sushi. But if Asian cooking isn’t your thing, consider trying it as a basting sauce for roasted chicken or salmon. Simply brush a coat of soy sauce on the meat/fish during the roasting process. You can also use it to balance the sweetness of a homemade barbecue sauce. Garlic Why You Need It Garlic adds flavor without increasing the fat or sodium content of your meals. Need we say more? Pair it with some finely chopped onions and a drizzle of olive oil for the start of a delicious savory meal. Roasted garlic is a treat all its own! How to Prep It You can use a garlic press, sure. But quite a few food professionals still don’t know that to easily peel garlic, all you really need is a large chef’s knife. Remove the individual cloves from the garlic bulb, get rid of any loose paper skin and then place it on a cutting board. Take your chef’s knife, turn it so the blade is flat, parallel to the cutting board. Using the heel of your hand, smash the knife blade down on the garlic clove. Voila—it will pop free from the rest of the skin. What About Garlic in a Jar? If you really can’t stand handling fresh garlic, you can buy pre-minced garlic packed in olive oil or water. If so, know that roughly ½ teaspoon of the pre-minced garlic equals one fresh clove. However, buyer beware—this garlic might be convenient, but it won’t be quite as pungent or tasty. Try This For a milder garlic flavor and a creamy texture, roast the bulb. Preheat the oven to 375°F, peel away the loose outer layers and slice a ½-in. off the top of the bulb. Place it in a small ovenproof dish with a ½-tsp. olive oil. Roast for 45 to 60 minutes, or until the cloves are browned and soft. Squeeze the garlic out of each clove to spread on bread or use in a sauce or dip. Mustard Why You Need It Squeeze it on your hot dog, sure. Drizzle it in your homemade salad dressing, definitely. But did you know that mustard adds a depth of flavor to your classic mac and cheese recipe or that it lends a tanginess to your meat marinade or scrambled eggs? Plus, you never have to feel guilty about eating it—mustard seeds are rich in minerals and contain phytonutrients called glucosinolates, which studies suggest help to prevent several forms of cancer. One teaspoon of mustard only has 3 calories! King of Mustards If you could choose only one mustard, we suggest Dijon—it’s medium-heat, creamy flavor offers the most versatility. However, plain ol’ yellow mustard is likely the most popular option, as it’s on the milder side while still boasting that sharp mustard tang. For a spicier version, check out brown mustard. Delectable Duo For a simple sauce to drizzle over roasted vegetables, whisk mustard with melted butter. It takes those veggies from just so-so to superb. For something a little more complex, mix mustard with white wine vinegar, shallots and just a teaspoon of heavy cream and pour it over grilled meats or fish. Mustard also makes great vinaigrettes, marinades and barbecue sauces. Balsamic Vinegar Why You Need It When your soup, stew or sauce seems bland and like it’s missing something, the answer probably isn’t salt—it’s acid. You could use the aforementioned lemons, but for us, sweet-tart balsamic vinegar adds its own je ne sais quois. You might only think of balsamic vinegar as a salad dressing ingredient, but there are so many more ways to use it to perk up your food, whether reducing it to a glaze or syrup, brushing it on roasted vegetables or even pouring it over a sweet dessert, especially fruit. Make It Complicated Vinegar is vinegar, right? Not when it comes to the balsamic variety, it turns out. Traditional balsamic vinegar, made from whole pressed grapes, is aged for a minimum of 12 years and can go for as much as $200 an ounce! (That’s probably not the type you’re cooking with.) Check the options at the grocery store for a reasonable substitute. You want the ingredients list to include “grape must” or “aged grape must” or “mosto d’Uva.” Otherwise, it’s likely you’re buying cheap white wine vinegar with caramel coloring added—not that this isn’t still a delicious addition to your recipes. How to Use It If you do have tradizionale balsamic vinegar, don’t destroy it by heating it—this will sweeten it and reduce the acidity (although the more mellow flavor produced by heating may work for certain recipes). Whatever, you do, don’t overdo it. Balsamic has a distinctive flavor, and the trick is for diners to think, “Hmmm, what is that flavor?” without it being obvious or invasive. Broth or Stock Why You Need It Want to add flavor to rice or other grains? Boil it in a broth. Want to cook vegetables or meat without the fat in oil? Do so in a broth. Want to keep meats moist while roasting in the oven? Periodically baste them with a broth. Of course, broth (or stock) is also the base ingredient for the majority of soups, stews and, in some cases, sauces. It’s really a multi-purpose liquid for all sorts of cooking processes. What’s the Difference? You could buy broth for $2 a box or stock for $4. What are you paying for? Technically, stock uses meat bones, while broth is made only with the meat, so stock tends to boast a richer flavor. In a pinch, though, you can use them interchangeably…unless you’re making a recipe for which the stock is an essential ingredient, such as chicken noodle soup. Read the Label Canned and boxed broth can be sneaky when it comes to its ingredients. Read the label to avoid added sugar and caramel coloring, plus aim to buy a lower-sodium option whenever possible. Don’t Forget If you’re cooking for a vegetarian, use a vegetable broth. It seems obvious, but many meat-eating cooks fail to remember that this one subtle ingredient is an animal-based product. Sugar Why You Need It Sugar can be a problem-solver and recipe-saver if you find you have added too much salt or acid. If you add a dash too much salt, just balance the saltiness out with a pinch or two of sugar. The same thing goes for something that’s too acidic; just add a little sugar and your culinary crisis is averted! But this is just one of sugar’s many roles in food preparation! For example, it does more than just sweeten baked goods—it acts as a tenderizer for dough, absorbing water and inhibiting gluten development. It also incorporates air into shortening when creaming. It stabilizes foams, such as meringues. To reduce the starch flavor in corn or carrot recipes, add sugar to the cooking liquid. Caramelization Keys Sugar aids in the browning process of meats and vegetables, which gives them a little extra flavor. This process is called caramelization—the process of heating sugar until it melts into a gooey brown liquid. Sucrose (a fancy word for white table sugar) browns at 338°F, so add sugar as you please to vegetables and meat. Note, however, that it must be done through dry-heat methods, such as sautéing, roasting, grilling or broiling. Other Uses Of course, you use sugar to sweeten cakes, cookies and other baked goods, but beyond balancing flavors and caramelizing, you can cook with sugar as a glaze for vegetables, as part of a dry rub to crust meat or for brining fish, meat or poultry. For the former, add sugar to the cooking liquid for the vegetables—whether stock or water, mixed with a little butter—and reduce the liquid until it’s thick. Eggs Why You Need It Eggs are one of the easiest sources of vegetarian (but not vegan) protein available. If you’re not in the mood to roast a chicken or saute a piece of fish, crack an egg into hot cooked pasta for carbonara or add a fried egg to a salad. Each one is loaded with a long list of vitamins and minerals, and 6 grams of protein. Egg whites also contain HDL cholesterol, which is the good form that helps reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. Uncoding Carton Info Shell eggs are graded based on the interior and exterior quality of the egg at the time it is packed. Grades are given in descending order of quality (AA, A, B). Grade quality and weight (size) are not related to one another. According to the Humane Society, the majority of egg labels (e.g., cage-free, free-range, certified organic) have little relevance to animal welfare, because there are no official government standards or enforcement mechanisms. We recommend that you do more research if you are spending more money on eggs based on the labeling. Try This Eggs are such an innovative superfood, there are an amazing array of ways to mix up the way you prepare them—at breakfast, lunch and dinner! For a hearty breakfast, try baking your eggs rather than scrambling or frying them. All you have to do is preheat your oven to 350°F, grease a muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray, crack your eggs into the molds of the pan, add your spices of choice, let them cook for about 17 minutes—then breakfast is served! What About Baked Goods? Eggs comes in medium, large, extra-large and jumbo varieties. Recipes for baked goods typically default to large eggs, which provide about 3.25 tablespoons of egg. To learn more about the role eggs play in baking—where they’re essential as a binder, a flavor agent and a thickener—check out “The Science of Baking” in SN’s December 2014 issue. Kelsey Casselbury is School Nutrition’s managing editor. Editorial intern Elyssa Ganser contributed to this article. Photography by www.istockphoto.com and jiunlimited.com. BONUS WEB CONTENT We’ve given olive oil and balsamic vinegar coveted spots on our list; however, other oils (such as sesame, peanut and sunflower seed) and vinegars (including white wine, rice and apple cider) all have unique characteristics and culinary roles. Plus, we offer some black-and-white salt-and-pepper suggestions. Check it all out at www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazine/bonuswebcontent.
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