As we all continue trying to live our best, healthiest lives in January (before February arrives and everyone falls off the wagon at the first sight of Valentine’s chocolates), I thought I’d do a mini-series of posts talking about the ingredients I’ve found to be key in my healthy kitchen. Now, I’m not claiming to be any kind of an expert here. But I try to put healthy meals on the table for my family every night most weeks (although I’ve succumbed to takeout a bit more than usual with an infant in the house) and over my years of cooking I’ve developed some preferences. So I’m going to share my favorites over a series of four posts. Part I will focus on my pantry essentials, in Part II we’ll talk fridge, Part III will be devoted to the freezer, and in Part IV I’ll share some of my favorite kitchen tools for healthy eating.
I think the pantry might be the most important part of my kitchen. I love the feeling of well-being that comes with a full (and organized!) pantry. I love knowing that I have everything I need at my fingertips, whether I’m pulling together an entire dinner from pantry ingredients because I’m due for a trip to the grocery store, or whether I’m just flavoring up something fresh from the fridge. And there are a few pantry ingredients I can’t live without.
Herbs de Provence, Thyme and Oregano. Dried herbs are one of the best ways to bring flavor to a dish without blowing your calorie budget, but they can be tricky. I’m not a fan of most dried herbs – I think fresh is usually best. Mint, for instance, is an herb that I’ve bought dried in the past and you know what it tastes like? Nothing. At least, nothing like fresh mint. I love fresh mint so much that I’ll always, always spring for the real thing. But there are a few herbs that I must have dried in my kitchen – namely thyme, which I like both fresh and dried, oregano, which really benefits from being dried (fresh is way too strong), and Herbs de Provence, my favorite blend. I sprinkle them over pasta dishes, in egg scrambles, soups, stews and anything else I can think of.
Spices. Here’s one area where I’ll probably never pare down. I love spices, and they’re another great way to add flavor without fat or calories. I buy plenty of spices, but my favorites are cinnamon, curry powder, ancho chili powder, and Northwoods seasoning mix (a Penzey’s blend). Although I use plenty of different spices, those are my top must-haves for flavoring foods.
Fancy Salts. Sure, excess sodium is pretty bad for you. I try to avoid processed foods because of the sodium, but there is definitely a place for salt in a healthy pantry. As with things like chocolate, I firmly believe that buying the good stuff means you can use less to better effect. I always have Maldon sea salt on hand for finishing dishes, and I usually have a couple of other salts as well. Right now I’m working my way through a little pot of French Grey sea salt that I acquired from R, and I also have a jar of lavender salt for when I’m feeling particularly fancy. The better the flavor, the further you can go on just a little pinch.
Beans (canned and dried). I love making heirloom dried beans from scratch, and I keep several bags in my pantry for long winter days when I don’t have anywhere to be and I can devote plenty of time to soaking and cooking beans. (There’s not much active labor involved, but you do need to be around to babysit once they go on the stove.) But for quick weeknight meals, I keep plenty of canned beans around. Hubby loves chickpeas, while I favor cannelini beans or black beans – so we keep copious amounts of all three handy. They’re great for soups, stews and chilis, salads, goddess bowls, Mexican food night – you name it. (Just remember, if you buy canned, look for a brand that doesn’t use BPA in the can linings – yech – and rinse the beans well before adding them to your dish!) On those nights when I’ve gone awhile since making a grocery run and I’m scrounging dinner from the pantry, beans are almost always involved.
Quinoa. I’ve already told you that quinoa is one of my favorite healthy swaps. I’ll use it in place of rice in almost every dish (except for risotto or rice pudding), because it’s healthier and quicker than most rices. I keep other whole grains on hand too – I do have rice, for when I’ve got lots of time on my hands, and I always stock barley, millet, rolled oats, and often a grain mix. But when I want a grain to go with dinner (well, it’s really a seed, but who’s counting?) I almost always reach for quinoa.
Olive oil. While I don’t follow any particular diet or eating plan, my eating style tends to be similar to the “Mediterranean Diet” and that means I eat my share of olive oil. I have several different extra-virgin olive oils (and other oils, too, but olive is my favorite). They are great for adding flavor and healthy fats to dishes. (They are still oils, though, so don’t go crazy.) I always have the following: a less expensive, generic EVOO to use for cooking; a nice EVOO for finishing or drizzling over salads (I love Olave brand); and at least one infused oil (I keep white truffle-infused oil on hand because I love it, even though hubby’s not a huge fan, and I often have a basil-infused oil from Olave kicking around the pantry too; right now I’m also loving the blood orange-infused oil from Olio Tasting Room). And for very special treats, I have a little bottle of EVOO that my parents picked up in Tuscany.
Dark Chocolate. Sometimes I want a little something sweet to finish off a meal, and a square of dark chocolate is just the ticket. Just a wee nibble is enough, since it’s a strong flavor, and you’ll feel as though you had a special treat without breaking the calorie bank. I keep bars on hand and break off a square or two a few times each week – not too often, but enough so that I don’t feel deprived (because feeling deprived is NOT healthy). My favorite bars are Chocolove – almonds and sea salt in dark chocolate, or candied ginger in dark chocolate. Again, a little goes a long way!
Tea. I saved the best for last! Plenty of research shows that drinking tea is all kinds of healthy. Black tea packs potent antioxidants. Green tea helps with weight loss, and brings antioxidants of its own. And there’s an herbal for whatever ails you. Plus, if you don’t pour sugar or honey in, tea is calorie-free! (I rarely sweeten my tea, since I like to taste the tea itself. I’ll do a bit of milk and sugar in an English afternoon tea, once in a blue moon, but the vast majority of the cups I brew are unsweetened.) I always have black tea on hand, and lots of it in many different flavors, because it’s my favorite. I keep a bit of green tea knocking about the pantry too, and a tin of coconut oolong from the Spice and Tea Exchange in Alexandria, which I love. For herbals I favor chamomile (especially Celestial Seasonings honey vanilla or Traditional Medicinals chamomile with lavender), but I always have Celestial Seasonings “Mint Magic” around because it was my favorite tea as a child. I go through several cups each day, so my healthy pantry would be woefully incomplete without a wide selection.
What’s in your healthy pantry? What good-for-you ingredients can’t you live without?