What I DON’T want to do when talking about ingredients is to get into a long-winded discussion of “the best” this or that. I believe in a few basic principles about choosing ingredients but am in no way of the “food snob” camp. Remember two things I learned very early: just because it’s more expensive doesn’t always mean it’s any better, and you can still screw up the finest ingredients by improper preparation. Yes, by all means try and make sustainable choices but buy what’s in your budget, from where you can and want to get it, and don’t think that if you are seen shopping at a regular supermarket for something you are somehow blaspheming your commitment to good cooking. Good cooking comes from the heart and the soul, and shopping for ingredients shouldn’t be a painful, guilt-ridden exercise! Now that’s said, we can move on and talk about the raw materials.
No matter what you are purchasing, choosing the right ingredient for the task is as important as the right task for the ingredient. In general terms, buying things that are local, grown in their intended life cycle (not MAJORLY aided or enhanced), freshly sourced, and in season is a very good place to start. Know where your food comes from, and try and ensure it comes from fairly close to home as much as you can, are my guiding principles. In any set of variables, you will have a range of possible results, and starting off with ingredients most likely to give success to the cook can be the difference between the acceptable and the extraordinary. A few pointers in each of the following categories can help not only in the creation of great dishes at any one time, but the anticipation of potential menu items based on what one can expect to find in the market at any given time.
Fruits and vegetables
Get to know your local growing season. For our local area of the Pacific Northwest, that means something to look forward to at each time of the year: from asparagus, rhubarb, morels, and peas in spring, to berries, stone fruit, and tender young vegetables in the summer, a segue to tomatoes, followed by mushrooms, squash, and finally root vegetables and overwintered storage crops before it starts all over again. The converted will never again eat a strawberry outside of June, or a tomato before July or after September. Some of these micro seasons are only a few weeks long, so the creative cook has only a handful of kicks at the can before a long wait to try something new. This anticipation becomes a huge source of inspiration, and I have often found myself planning a meal in my mind a year away, “next time we have some….”
Meats and poultry
Find out who supplies your favourite butcher, as great meat and poultry is as much about the handling as the raising in my experience. Small farmers quite often only deliver supply once a week or so, so knowing which day the fresh stuff comes in is a great piece of information to have. Well raised, well handled meats and poultry provide not only a terrific base for the meal, but often have depth of flavour and texture so that they need very little in the way of additional help to make them taste great. One of the greatest complements I ever received from a customer was after serving a him a very simple dish – roasted organic chicken breast, herb gnocchi, and a mushroom ragout. Tom said to me, “Chef, that’s what I like about you – you’re not trying to hide anything. You just put a bit of salt on it and send it out.”
Fish and seafood
As with produce, and perhaps even more so, seafood requires knowledge of the season, a good trusting relationship with your source, and adaptability. As fishing in BC is often subject to short seasons and openings, inclement weather, and a high level of perishability, my goal is always to first decide on a style of fish and then see what looks great before finalizing the menu. You may head to market intending for halibut but find some ling cod looks better, or be on the hunt for a fine piece of deep red tuna to find nothing that lives up to the vision. Being able to decide to make a U-turn and prepare something completely different is usually the right thing to do if what you were looking for doesn’t live up to your expectations. Of course, if there is an ABSOLUTE need to have a certain product, I always try and make contact at a few key junctures: when planning the menu, call ahead and see if what you are looking for will be in season, check a few days in advance to get a sense of the delivery schedule and put in any special requests (If I’m not buying a whole fish or fillet, I always ask for the front portion of larger fish, as they have better yield and are generally more even in thickness than tail sections) It is not always a bad thing to purchase a product at its peak of freshness and then freeze it for the needed day, especially if it means not buying something that has been sitting in the display cooler for several days. In fact, certain types of seafood, such as prawns and sablefish, are better purchased frozen, as they are processed immediately after coming out of the water on board the vessel.
Herbs and spices
Fresh herbs make the world of difference, especially if you have a garden and can snip them as needed. Plant those that will be hardy year round, such as thyme, sage, and rosemary, and then supplement with spring and summer plantings of the finer varieties. Spices do fade over time, so purchase them in small amounts, whole if you can, and toast and grind them just before using.
A well stocked pantry is the basis on which so many fine meals can be created. In general, you want to have enough variety so that you can be creative, but not so much that stuff sits around forever. I usually try and have the following on hand, and from this can usually go a few different directions or tackle most recipes. Feel free to add or subtract according to what you like to cook and eat:
Wheat flours: all purpose will do for most things, but if you make a lot of bread or pastry, keep those around
Other flours, etc: cornmeal, rice flour, corn starch, rolled oats
Sugars and sweeteners: white, brown, and icing sugars, honey and maple syrup
Leaveners/baking supplies: baking powder, soda, instant yeast, cream of tartar
Vinegars: white, red wine, cider, balsamic, rice
Salt: coarse and fine sea or rock salt
Nuts: a couple of varieties you like (I am partial to hazelnuts, almonds and pecans myself)
Oils: vegetable, olive (extra virgin), sesame
Rice: one long (basmati, jasmine) and one medium or short grain variety (arborio, carnaroli, calrose), your preference
Pulses and whole grains: A variety or two of dried lentils or beans and some whole grains if you like to use them
Chocolate: Dark and white couverture or pellets, cocoa powder
Spices: A good variety plus a couple of blends (we’ll talk about those later)
Vanilla: a good extract is fine, but having a couple of beans around is always nice
Liquor: white and red wine, sherry, dry vermouth, port, a couple of liqueurs you like (coffee, orange, and nut flavours are always good to have). Buy stuff that’s not expensive but that you also like to drink so it doesn’t go bad!
Canned goods: plum tomatoes, tomato paste, coconut milk
Dry pasta: a long noodle and a shorter variety
Dried fruits: a few things you like
Panko or other dry bread crumbs
Perishable staples and condiments:
butter or margarine (don’t be that way, I use it all the time for certain things)
sour cream or yogurt
cheese – parmesan and something that melts nicely
fresh garlic and ginger
dijon mustard (smooth and grainy)
your preferred hot sauce
some sort of chili paste – sambal, sriracha, etc
stocks (chicken/beef/veg, in freezer or tetra packs)
aluminum foil (heavy duty)
zipped plastic bags for marinating and storage
storage containers with lids
That should be a good start for most people. Next, let’s talk about tools and equipment!