Refrigerator Essentials

Have these items on hand in your refrigerator to help make a last-minute meal. You can use onion for soups, eggs for an omelette, and lettuce for a quick salad.

The Base of Just About Everything: Onion/Garlic

Onion (my favorite is red), green onion (great in eggs), shallot (great in salad dressings), garlic (I said amen—just remove the green sprout inside), spring garlic if it’s in season (the ultimate garlic bread: mince spring or regular garlic and sauté with chopped parsley in a little butter until cooked through; then, off the heat, whisk it with room-temperature butter, fresh chopped parsley, salt and pepper; spread it on a baguette or ciabatta and bake it in the oven, first wrapped in foil and then uncovered).

Parmigiano Reggiano

This does not mean the fake, gross powder in the green canister! I’m talking the real thing, baby. Buy a big hunk (it lasts for months in the refrigerator) and grate away, or even nibble it as an appetizer, maybe with some traditional balsamic vinegar drizzled over it (the younger parmigiano, around 18 months, is better for nibbling than the older stuff). Parmigiano reggiano, or Parmesan, is also a great way to add saltiness to a dish without actually adding salt, and it pairs well with most ingredients. Try pasta with butter and Parmesan for a finicky young eater, or throw any cooked vegetable in the oven to be “gratin’d” with Parmesan and breadcrumbs—mmm.

Recipe: Fennel Gratin

Fresh Herbs

I almost always have thyme and rosemary at the ready—thyme is great with cooked mushrooms; rosemary is a must-have for roasted potatoes with garlic. Parsley and basil have shorter shelf lives so I usually buy them with an intention to use quickly. Try fresh dill or chopped chives as a garnish on a salad. If you have dried herbs in your pantry that are more than six months old (the saddest: dried parsley), it’s time to toss them! The real thing is beyond compare.

Recipe: Roasted Rosemary Garlic Potatoes
Recipe: Pasta with Raw Tomato Sauce (summer)
Recipe: Dress a Salad

Tomato Paste

I have recently discovered what a difference a good tomato paste can make in deepening the flavor of a dish, especially in a hearty meat sauce, or when you want tomato flavor without a lot of excess liquid. I buy the kind in a tube (instead of that ridiculous aluminum can, once opened, rusting away in your refrigerator).

Recipe: Bolognese Meat Sauce
Recipe: Veal Meatballs with Spicy Peas

Pancetta/Prosciutto/Bacon

Okay, so we probably shouldn’t always have bacon on hand since it’s so sinfully delicious, but this is a great flavor enhancer for soups, vegetables, and pasta like carbonara. (Pancetta probably has the best shelf life, lasting for about a week in the refrigerator and a couple months in the freezer.)

As for prosciutto crudo, I love to pair it with peppery arugula on a heated tortilla for a quick snack (and I add fresh mozzarella or a soft cheese if I’m feeling frisky). Don’t forget to seek out Iowa’s La Quercia American prosciutto—truly giving Parma a run for its money.

Recipe: Pasta Carbonara

Eggs

Indispensable, really. Think: quick omelet, quiche, almost any dessert preparation, and a soufflé when you’re feeling ambitious. Even meatballs need an egg to maintain their shape. And, contented sigh, delicious (authentic!) Caesar salad.

Recipe: Caesar Salad
Recipe: Huevos Rancheros
Recipe: Baked Eggs with Tomatoes and Herbs

Lettuce (Iceberg doesn’t count!)

Okay, I admit I’m a salad freak, so maybe this is just a must-have for me, but a great last-minute entrée salad can incorporate a lot of stuff lying around in the refrigerator, like celery, carrots, onion, artichoke hearts, bacon, salami, cheese… as long as you’re using quality starter ingredients, and quality oils and vinegars, your work is mostly done for you!

Recipe: Dress a Salad
Recipe: Stilton, Apple and Walnut Salad
Recipe: Tomato, Watermelon, and Mozzarella Salad (summer)
Recipe: Make Croutons!

Lemons

The organic ones are nice if you do a lot of zesting (grating the peel).
I squirt lemon on tons of things—fish, salads, vodka (what’s that now?), or to kick up a sauce.

Recipe: Veal Meatballs with Spicy Peas

Bread/Tortillas/English Muffins 

You’ve just made the best soup or salad or fried eggs, and all it’s missing is a little starch to sop it up with.

Real Maple Syrup

If there is a cartoon lady on your syrup bottle, it’s time to stop sleeping in your race car bed. Real maple syrup is 1,000 times better! (Not to mention the fake stuff is all corn syrup.)

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