So I’ve got a smoked black bean soup on the stove cooking right now, and I thought I’d drop some of my totally anecdotal cooking science on you.
I’m an improvisational cook; I tend to make recipes based on what I have in the kitchen, rather than buying ingredients to make specific dishes. Because of this, I tend to keep my pantry stocked with certain items which end up getting used in lots of different things. To wit:
• Tomato puree and tomato paste. This is essential. Tomatoes are the base in almost every non-Chinese or Japanese dish I make. I know lots of cooks are snobs about their tomatoes (“I buy twenty pounds of tomatoes and boil them into sauce over a 48 hour period!”) but you and I live in the real world, or at least I do, and I can’t afford to buy fucking organic tomatoes in bulk and let them cook down like I’m some kind of goddamn Sicilian materfamilias.
Buy big cans and lots of them, they’re cheap. I never buy less than four 24 oz. cans of tomato puree when I go to the store and I almost always use them up by the time I go back. The paste is good for thickening soups and sauces and for more robust dishes.
• Black beans. Almost as versatile as tomatoes. I use them in lieu of meat in everything from chili to Mediterranean dishes. Plus you can mix them with bread crumbs and egg and make veggie burger patties.
• Balsamic vinegar. Balsamic vinegar is the Auto-Tune of cooking. It can make almost anything taste not entirely shitty. Red wine vinegar is fine too, if you don’t mind looking like a big pussy.
• Olive oil. I use olive oil almost exclusively except for deep-frying, where it’s not financially feasible. If you’re really stuck for a dish, boil some pasta and throw some olive oil and balsamic vinegar over it with a few veggies.
• Garlic. Garlic is non-negotiable. Everything has fucking garlic in it.
• Beef and chicken broth. Unless you’re vegan, in which case you shouldn’t ever listen to my cooking advice ever.
• A package of chicken breasts. Fresh are nice, but again, we live in the real world; I buy the Wal-Mart bags, three pounds of boneless skinless chicken breasts for about $7, and thaw ’em a couple of hours before I use ’em. I have razor-sharp cooking knives, so I can chop them even if they’re still mostly frozen…which comes in handy if you’re making something where you want to cube your chicken or slice it into actual strips instead of mushy creepy-looking tendrils.
• Basil, oregano, parsley. My holy trinity. The wife is allergic to thyme so I don’t use it, but I make up for it a lot with fresh rosemary from the bush out front of our house.
• Cumin. Cumin is a big ingredient in both Spanish/Mexican/Tex-Mex-style dishes and in Indian food. I go through more cumin than any other spice.
I also tend to use a lot of onions and mushrooms in my cooking, but that’s a personal choice.
Cooking isn’t about slavishly following recipes: it’s about getting a feel for what tastes good with what. I don’t give a shit about cultural accuracy in my cooking: I’ll mix up anything that tastes rad together. Call it “fusion” if you like. For example, I once made a really awesome jambalaya using Louisiana hot links and frozen chunks of mango that I dredged in salt and pepper (after getting the idea from an MIA lyric). Fucking awesome.
If you know how to make a basic soffritto/mirepoix, the basic mother sauces, and how to properly cook meat to keep it moist (hint: fast and hot), you’re set. Everything from there is just riffing on combinations of flavor and texture. I like combinations of sweet and umami or savory, personally, and I like my food rich and spicy. So I keep several kinds of salt; not the flavored sea salt shit yuppies buy from Bed, Bath & Beyond, but celery salt and seasoned salt and plain ol’ sea salt for crunchy texture. I have Crystal and Srirachi and Cholula hot sauce at the ready.
Note: this is mostly for stove cooking. I can’t bake worth a shit. I’m horrible at it. But I can walk into your kitchen and make something awesome out of whatever you happen to have.
I fail a lot and make weird shit; the other night I tried to make a Burgundy sauce for veggie burgers and ended up with a sort of hideous wine gravy that was completely inedible, mainly by adding too much flour to the mix. But there’s no such thing as failure in cooking…merely lessons to be learned.
Now, if I can just figure out what the fuck to do with tofu….