Category Archives: Tips for eating green

Show & Tell: Top 10 Favorite Pantry Ingredients


When I’m on the road talking about my cookbooks, I love to bring along my kit of favorite pantry ingredients and a few favorite tools. (Unlike a toothbrush or an iPad, though, bottles of olive oil, bunches of fresh herbs, and sharp kitchen instruments can be difficult to carry on to an airplane. So this dog-and-pony-show only travels by car.)

I find that it doesn’t matter whether I’m at a bookstore, a farmers’ market, or a kitchenware store—people everywhere are interested in flavor pairing, quick cooking solutions, and brand choices. So I tell cooks that if they keep a pantry and fridge stocked with a few really versatile, good-quality ingredients, they can make literally hundreds of different delicious vegetable dishes with whatever they happen to bring home from the farmers’ market, the grocery store, or the backyard garden.

Here’s what’s in my “kit:”

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1)Aromatic veggies: Garlic, shallots, onions; fresh ginger; scallions. I begin almost every cooked veggie dish by laying down a base layer of flavor with sautéed or softened aromatic veggies—minced, diced, chopped or sliced. Sometimes I will add them part-way through cooking or even turn them into starring ingredients, but one or more of them is almost always present because of the deep and permeating flavor they provide (especially if they are caramelized). They’re also vital ingredients in raw preparations like vinaigrettes and salsas, and can be the backbone of a tasty marinade. I keep little bowls of garlic bulbs and shallots on my countertop, onions in a cabinet away from potatoes, and fresh ginger and scallions in the refrigerator.

Favorite low-tech tool: an ordinary spoon for peeling fresh ginger skin

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2)Lemons, limes, and other citrus—both juice and zest: Lemons are probably my all-time favorite supporting player in the kitchen. My go-to vinaigrette features lemon zest and juice, and I will very often finish a saucy vegetable dish like a braise or a soup with either zest or juice or both. The bright acidic flavor instantly revives dull or hidden flavors. Often I will substitute lime for lemon, and I’m particularly fond of using lime juice and zest to enhance (and cut the richness of) creamy dressings for potato salads, slaws, and cucumber salads. Fresh orange juice has great flavor but less acidity than lemons or limes so use it in combination with lemon or vinegar.

Quick finishing sauce: Combine 1 tablespoon citrus juice, ½ teaspoon fresh citrus zest, 2 teaspoons maple syrup or honey and 1 teaspoon soy sauce or balsamic vinegar. Double or triple amounts if you like. Drizzle over sautéed or stir-fried veggies just as you take the pan off the heat.

Favorite citrus tools: Microplane zester, OXO juicer.

DSC_33323) Parmigiano Reggiano cheese: A little bit of the real deal, with its nutty, salty flavor and crystalline texture adds depth and earthiness to any vegetable dish, whether it’s a baked potato gratin or a simple dish of roasted Brussels sprouts and walnuts. It’s expensive (sometimes painfully so), but it will be the last best quality cooking ingredient I give up before I go to the poor house. Substitutes can be lackluster at best, downright awful at worst. To get your last buck out of a piece of Parmigiano, simmer the rind with your broth when making your next minestrone.

Favorite way to cut: Surprisingly, though I love the range of handheld graters available for hard cheeses these days, I often turn to my food processor to chop Parmigiano into tiny pebbles. I like the bigger pieces and coarse texture for vegetable tarts and gratin or crostini toppings.

Tip: Identify true Parmigiano Reggiano by the branded name on the rind.

4) Fresh herbs. Nothing finishes a vegetable dish like a spoonful of chopped herbs or a handful of torn herb leaves. Like citrus zest, most tender fresh herbs add top notes and should be added at the end of cooking. Heat will take the oomph out of cilantro, basil, mint, parsley, chervil, and chives, so long cooking isn’t a great idea. Hardier herbs like thyme, rosemary, sage, and oregano are happy to go into a long-cooking dish. Their substantial oils will permeate the dish as it cooks.

If you can grow any herbs at all, please do. Even a pot or windowsill will offer you freshness, availability, and the ability to cut just the amount you want. And if you have even a small yard, just a few square feet will be enough room to plant one or two of the heartier herbs, many of which are perennial in milder parts of the country. But if you’re like most of us and have to get at least some of your herbs at the grocery store, take them out of their original packaging when you get them home. Wrap them in damp paper towels and store in zip-top bags. The exception is fresh basil. If it hasn’t been refrigerated yet, keep it in a jar of water at room temperature.

Tip: Use a very sharp knife when chopping herbs and don’t overchop or you will get bruised, blackened herbs that can get bitter.

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5)Extra-virgin olive oil and unsalted butter. I cook almost exclusively with extra-virgin olive oil and unsalted butter (usually a combination of both) since cooking fat adds flavor to a finished dish, and these are both flavorful. The exception is high heat, which destroys flavor compounds (and of course, burns butter, due to the milk solids, though adding some oil will drop the smoke point a bit). So I keep one other oil on hand for stir-frying—usually peanut oil or vegetable oil, sometimes grapeseed oil. Nut oils I save for vinaigrettes.

Tip: To settle on a moderately priced extra-virgin olive oil that can be a “house” brand for you, buy several and do your own side-by-side taste test. (Invite some friends and family.) You’ll be surprised at how different the flavors can be. I tend to like the richness of olive oils originating in Spain (which many do—check labels.)

6) Vinegars and other acids: Like citrus, vinegars and other acidic ingredients like hot sauce, tomato sauce, pickling juice, wine, and unsweetened fruit juices really add dimension and brightness to vegetable dishes. You don’t need to go crazy keeping a lot of these around. In fact, you can settle on a couple vinegars you like best and stick with those.

My favorite vinegars: sherry vinegar, white balsamic vinegar, malt vinegar.

7) Honey, maple syrup or other natural sweeteners. As I mentioned above, I love a quick little sweet-sour finishing sauce for veggies, so I am quick to reach for the maple syrup bottle. And sometimes just a drizzle of honey over something like roasted cauliflower is a lovely finishing note. So pick your favorite natural sweetener and store a bottle of it next to the vinegar.

8) Toasted nuts and dried fruit: I keep almonds, pecans, walnuts and pine nuts in the freezer and toast small batches of them to add to veggie dishes for interesting texture and deeper flavor. I find the flavor of toasted (or maybe I should call them roasted) nuts to be much more appealing than raw nuts. I also love adding chopped dried cranberries, cherries, apricots or figs to winter veggie dishes.

Tip: To toast nuts, spread them on a sheet pan and put in a 350°F oven until browned and fragrant, between 4 and 10 minutes, depending on the nuts. Keep an eye on them—deep golden brown is good; very dark brown is heading for bitter. And use your sniffer–you’ll be able to smell when the nuts are starting to get too brown.

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9)Bonus “umami” condiments: To give veggies an added depth—almost a “meaty” flavor, I keep a few robust condiments (always in the fridge after opening) from each of my favorite cuisines. I could probably get by with just soy sauce and chili-garlic paste, but usually I have sesame oil, oyster sauce or fish sauce, capers, olives, sundried-tomatoes, and anchovies around, too. Plus coconut milk, canned tomatoes, and boxed broth in the pantry. All these condiments are bonus ingredients—you can certainly make delicious vegetable dishes without them.

10) Kosher salt and a good pepper grinder: I use Diamond Crystal kosher salt because I like feeling the large pieces in my hands as I season, but I also find that it dissolves well. I’m afraid that the perfect pepper grinder is still eluding me!

Of course there are other things in my pantry to stretch veggies further into main dishes—beans, grains, pastas. But for weeknight veggie sides, I can do just about anything with what I’ve listed here. And with the exception of the fresh herbs, pretty much everything can be shopped for infrequently and stored for several weeks at least.



Raising Dinner

Our Thanksgiving turkey is walking and talking less than a quarter mile up the road. She is ranging around in a big pasture with a few hundred friends, enjoying the fresh grass, salt air, and rosy sunsets of rural West Tisbury. Even closer, a few paces down the road in the other direction, tasty lamb shanks graze in a spent hayfield. I drive by them every time I leave the house. Of course, I don’t necessarily think “rosemary and garlic” when I look at them. I think about how gorgeous their chocolate and cream-colored wool is and how funny their faces are, with their feral eyes and grinding jaws and devil’s ears. Baby lambs are cute; adult sheep can actually be sort of strange looking.

Cuteness factors aside, we are really fortunate to have uber-local, humanely-raised (delicious) meat available to us. And even though we can see how these animals are raised, they’re still living on our neighbors’ property—not ours—so we don’t have to deal with the whole personality issue. Yet.

Yesterday I was staring into the face of a charred pig with a spit in his mouth. It was the second Island pig roast we’ve been to in the last few weeks. As Libby and I nibbled on a particularly sweet and juicy hunk of pork, I said to her, “Do you really think we could do this—raise a pig and then eat her?” Libby just sort of giggled nervously. This is a girl who pays attention to what’s going on around her, and she knows. Knows how most meat animals in this country are raised (heard me talking about it enough) and knows what humanely raised animals look like (dozens of visits to Island farms, don’t you know). And she understands the difference between a farm animal (one that you spend lots of time and money feeding and watering in order to get a certain return on it) and a farm pet (like our dog Farmer, whose sole purpose in life is to be cute and provide lots of kisses and snuggles on the couch—and to chase chickens).

But still she is an animal lover. And she is 10 years old. I, on the other hand, am not 10. So I’m not sure what my excuse is. I’m just awfully afraid that we’re going to get piglets (already in the works for next spring) with the intention of raising them to slaughter weight (sometime next fall) but wind up with a couple of 600-pound sows (a decade from now) that have become the hugest hungriest farm pets ever. I keep thinking of James Taylor’s song about his pig, Mona, who he bought expressly to raise for meat and never was able to slaughter.  “Mona, Mona, so much of you to love, a little bit too much of you to take care of.” This famous pig actually lived on the Vineyard. Some of my friends remember her. And she was huge.

Not eating our own pork would be hypocrisy at its worst. I am (at least I think I am) 100 percent in favor of more locally, humanely raised animals. And 100 percent in favor of eating all the parts of those animals and making that meat stretch over many meals. Choosing to eat a little less meat overall and a little more locally-raised meat are the only ways I see to help fuel the shift away from factory farms.

And I am especially excited about a movement on the Island to build a USDA-approved four-legged humane slaughterhouse. This would be a big incentive for Island farmers to raise more meat animals, because they wouldn’t have to take the animals on an expensive and stressful ferry ride to a facility hundreds of miles away (and wait weeks to get the meat back). And by definition, an Island animal is a pastured animal—there’s no such thing as a feedlot here.

Most ludicrous is the thought that I might disdain eating our own pig and then turn around and go to the grocery store and buy a package of bacon (which I will do—there is certainly no point in pretending that I will never eat bacon again). This would be like giving the factory farms a big thumbs up and poking a stick in the eye of all the efforts to return animal raising to a natural and sustainable system in this country.

And here’s the kicker. We wanted to be farmers. So we started to grow vegetables. Then we got a few laying hens. Then we got some more laying hens. Then we decided we might actually like to get serious about farming as a small business. Then, just a few weeks ago, our landlord invited us to use the three acres of fields behind us for farming. So now we have 200 more laying hens arriving here—tomorrow. And once you decide to make eggs a business, you really have no choice but to “trade in” your hens every couple of years, because their productivity declines. It’s way too expensive (and not a smart business move) to feed hens that aren’t laying many eggs. (No matter how much pasture the hens graze on, they still need supplemental feed.) So your two-year-old hens go off to slaughter. They become chicken pot pies.

Ah. It appears we have already crossed the line into raising animals for meat. Making the leap from a chicken to a pig shouldn’t be that hard, should it?

P.S. The three acres are the reason why the pigs are now a possibility. And stay tuned for more about the arrival of the 200 chickens and photos of Roy’s new coops. The chickens are 17-week-old pullets, so they’ll be ready to lay in a few weeks. We’re skipping the baby-chick phase this time, so at least we don’t have to deal with that cute fest!

And thank you to The Good Farm, Cleveland Farm, and Mermaid Farm for letting me photograph their turkeys and sheep on State Road.