Follow by Email

Friday, June 24, 2016

Finding your Top 5

Bon Appétit magazine used to do (perhaps still does?) interviews with celebrities at the end of each issue regarding their 5 staple foods: the things they always keep stocked at home. The answers ranged from Cheetos to wheat germ, but it was always interesting. As someone who likes peering into other peoples' carts and baskets at the grocery store I loved it.

Creating a list of grocery staples is important for a number of reasons. Keeping a few versatile basics on hand at all times helps ensure meal variety while economizing grocery costs. Each family's list will be different depending on dietary needs, lifestyle, and flavor preferences but everyone winds up with an essentials shortlist. Here are my top 5 staple foods in no particular order:

1. Plain yogurt: plain yogurt features prominently in our lives. Yogurt with fruit and granola makes a great breakfast or snack, while mixing it with a dollop of jam or honey satisfies late-night dessert cravings. It can replace sour cream in dishes like goulash or potato salad, and is a standard ingredient in many Indian dishes. It is perfect for sauces, such as tzatziki, as well as dressings (tangy ranch, buttermilk-feta, and lemon-dill are some of our favorites). Replacing heavy cream with plain yogurt can be a healthy alternative as well. For example:
One of my favorite weeknight recipes. It is easy, filling, and healthy.
Almost any herb or spice can be substituted for the dill or cumin seeds.
The original recipe is from Southern Living.
I prefer to make my own yogurt using an automatic yogurt maker. Mine cost about $25 and makes 7 individual servings of yogurt per batch. It has a manual on/off switch, though some more expensive models have a built-in timer. The individual glass containers are convenient for taking to work and are dishwasher safe.
To make yogurt just heat milk over the stove until it just begins to steam. I usually use 2% lactose-free milk or coconut milk. Pour heated milk into mixing bowl and cool to room temperature. Stir in yogurt starter then divide mixture into the yogurt maker's cups. Place cups in the base, put on the lid, and turn the yogurt maker on. Ta da!!! 12 hours produces thinner yogurt, while 14 hours makes thicker Greek style yogurt. When finished, store yogurt cups in refrigerator.

2. Canned diced tomatoes: perfect for summer soups, winter stews, and all manner of sauces, diced tomatoes add depth to a number of dishes and are particularly useful for Italian and Indian dishes. I use about 2 cans a week. To maximize versatility avoid seasoned varieties and select a brand with as little added sugar or salt as possible.

3. Cornmeal: since my husband is Colombian we frequently make arepas and empanadas (perfect for breakfast, lunch, or dinner!) so finely ground white cornmeal is an essential staple in our house. This type of cornmeal can also be substituted for traditional white flour in some baked goods, making it a cheaper alternative to gluten-free flour. It works particularly well in fruit and nut cakes which tend to be dense and moist (such as carrot cake, apple cake, or buttermilk pecan cake). It also makes delicious crusts for bar desserts (such as lemon bars).

Living in the South, cornbread also features prominently in our lives. It is an art form here and everyone has their own special recipe. While I vary between a slightly sweet version and a Monterey Jack and jalapeño version, the process is non-negotiable: a.) stir together your dry ingredients in a bowl, b.) melt the butter over the stove in a cast iron pan then remove pan from heat, c.) whisk eggs into the milk then add the mixture to the butter, d.) add dry ingredients to cast iron pan (do not over mix!).
The Le Creuset (right) is better sized for daily use but Old Faithful (left) has been in our family
for decades and has graced campfires and grills as well as stovetops and ovens. 
For baking I usually transfer my batter to a muffin pan because I'm sacrilegious like that, but you can also be traditional and pop your cast iron pan directly into the oven. For a fun twist, spoon cornbread batter over thick soup (hearty vegetable soup and cream of mushroom are my favorites for this) in a dutch oven and bake until cornbread is cooked through. It makes a delicious shepherd's pie type casserole.

Our favorite brand and type.
4. Rice: I love rice. It can be added to soups or topped with curries, steamed or roasted vegetables, or just a little butter and cheese. We have rice and black beans for dinner probably once a week, a staple meal in much of Latin America. My low-fiber diet prevents us from using brown or wild rice, so we stick to long grain white rice.

Adding a little olive oil to the water during the cooking process produces fluffy, perfect rice every time. Leftover rice reheats well and can also be turned into rice pudding or formed into patties and pan fried (the rice version of potato pancakes).

5. Mushrooms: for the first 20 years of my life I despised mushrooms. At some point in early adulthood I realized they were delicious, and living with a vegetarian has transformed them into a staple ingredient. Baby portobellos are our go-to type since they are inexpensive but have good flavor.

Mushrooms are perfect for omelets, kebabs, stir fry, soups, curries, and myriad other dishes. They have a "meaty" quality that appeals to vegetarians and meat eaters alike. Mushroom stock is a great substitute for recipes calling for beef or pork stock, and I use mushrooms in lieu of bacon or beef in spaghetti carbonara, quiche lorraine, lasagna, and stroganoff.

For parties, stuffed mushrooms are an easy and always popular appetizer. Here are my two favorite versions:

Chestnut stuffed mushrooms
I prefer brands with cardboard
packaging. I think the mushrooms
stay fresh longer.

1 shallot, diced
2 large cloves garlic, diced
8 oz. chestnuts, shelled and roasted (can be purchased this way)
1 Tbs. fresh sage leaves, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
2 packs baby bella mushrooms
Garnish: Pecorino or romano cheese, shaved

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Remove the stems from the mushrooms and dice stems and chestnuts. Place mushroom caps on baking sheet. Mix first 5 ingredients in bowl then spoon mixture into mushroom caps. Bake mushrooms for 15-20 minutes, or until mushrooms are tender and filled is heated through. Garnish with pecorino or romano cheese shavings.

Goat cheese/Butternut squash stuffed mushrooms
6 oz. butternut squash, finely diced (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 Tbs. fresh sage leaves, chopped
1/8 cup dry white wine
2 ounces goat cheese
1 Tbs. butter
Salt and pepper to taste
2 packages baby bella mushrooms
Garnish: fresh chives, chopped

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Remove caps from mushrooms and dice stems. Sauté butternut squash in olive oil until lightly browned. Add mushroom stems, sage, butter, and salt and pepper. Saute 2 minutes. Add wine. Cook until wine has evaporated, stirring constantly. Remove pan from heat and allow to cool 10 minutes. Stir goat cheese into squash mixture. Place mushroom caps on baking sheet. Spoon filling mixture into mushroom caps and bake 15-20 minutes, or until mushrooms are tender and filled is heated through. Garnish with chopped chives.


  1. I'm still trying to gradually convert Brandon over to mushrooms. It's a slow and painful process. But we are making baby steps!