I don't like to preach to initiated. If you live in England you will know what it's like to reach the end of the month and be poor. Without going into the politics of the situation, I think it's prudent to have a heaving store cupboard, packed with deli-style goodies that you purchase when you're feeling a bit more flush (the first 2 days of the new month) and that will serve you well when you're just about at the end of your culinary and financial tether.
Of course, everybody has different tastes so what you tuck away in your cupboard, or plastic storage box, or drawer, whatever constitutes your pantry, behind the tinned tomatoes and flour, will all be down to you. Here is a rough list of ingredients that I have recently found indispensible in the kitchen, and I have, for the most part, listed the odd recipe here and there utilising these ingredients. I'm not suggesting that you should rush out and recklessly buy the first recherche item that you come across (I'm here to make that mistake on your behalf...) but seriously, as my Unusual Ingredient of the Week series will attest to, some of the most unusual ingredients can become as useful as a pot of sour cream or bottle of vanilla extract.
What these unusual ingredients achieve is making you feel like you are eating a proper decent meal and not just the scrapings from the back of the fridge. Very important at the end of the month.
1) Anchovies. Not the most exotic item in the world but many people are scared off by it's 'love it or hate it' reputation. No, I don't have anchovies on pizza, nor could I eat them straight out of the jar or tin but they do add an indefinable savouriness to a dish. Melted into sauteed garlic with tomatoes, they form the backbone of that infamous Spanish dish, Pasta Puttanesca (see below for recipe). I have chopped them finely and used them as part of a dressing for a hot salad (toasted pecans, crumbled streaky bacon, poached egg and soft salad leaves) and seasoned a broccoli tart with them. Unless you have an anchovy-intolerant friend, try secreting it in a dish and asking your guests to guess the secret ingredient. They will probably be pleasantly surprised (if not reformed of their anchovy phobia).
2) Capers. Preferably buy a small jar of the salted ones. It does seem like an expense but they last ages and taste so much better than those preserved in brine that become soggy and a bit sour. Capers can be chopped up and stirred into creme fraiche or mayonaisse with some seasoning and a squirt of lemon to make a lovely homemade tartare sauce - perfect with fish fingers (remember, this is the end of the month!!). Again, they are an essential part of Pasta Puttansesca. I recently made a yummy butter with capers and finely chopped shallots that I slathered on bread and topped with fish roe (another super-cheap food item). Capers can be used to spruce up all manner of salads, hot tomato sauces etc.
3) Salsa Truffina. I have made mention of this item on two separate posts, Truffle Chicken and Truffle and Spinach Triangles. It could also be stirred through some freshly cooked pasta or risotto to add a deeply earthy flavour. My husband spreads omelettes with a smear of it and tops them with sauted mushrooms.
4) Dukkah - Not really an ingredient so much as a seasoning. This makes a really cheap but moreish starter if you serve little bowls of olive oil and ripped pieces of bread with it. You can also sprinkle if over salads to add a little bit of crunch.
5) Spice Mixes. In the UK, Seasoned Pioneers do a wide variety of reasonably priced spice mixes (including the aforementioned Dukkah), that can be rubbed onto fish, added to marinades for chicken or used to flavour roast pork. These are incredibly useful and can elevate any good dish, into something really good.
6) A Herb Box. Not really unusual at all but if, like us, you have a miniscule garden or no garden at all, you can easily buy a selection of herbs from your local garden centre, plant them up in a small trough, keep them near the light and water them regularly. For your small act of kindess, they will repay you tenfold by supplying you with a constant source of what could be the chef's most important ingredient - the herb. I always associate the smell of rosemary with my mum's roast potatoes, mint with summertime and parsley with just about any Italian pasta dish that I prepare. Fried sage leaves are great on risotto and Thyme leaves can be used to delicately scent a roast chicken.
7) Tappenade. Or Olive Paste. Useful in the same way as the Salsa Truffina, you can spread it on Bruschetta with some fresh tomatoes, stir it into pasta or, as my husband uses it, mixed in with tuna for his daily sandwich! It can also be used instead of mayonaisse or butter on bread. It proved it's worth when I stirred it into the Puttanesca - we didn't have any fresh olives. Not quite the same but it gives you a flavourful, chunky sauce.
Anyway, this is just a sample. I could have added Nanjing Black Rice, Gelatine Leaves or Pinhead Oatmeal. If you have any mysterious jars that have been lurking in your cupboard for so long that you need to dust off the label to read what they are, try doing a search online for some inspiring recipes or go out on a limb and just experiment!
Here then is a recipe for Pasta Puttanesca, using several of the above ingredients:
Pasta Puttanesca is translated in several ways, tart's pasta, harlot's pasta or whore's pasta so I think we can get a rough idea of it's origins: Italian 'Ladies of the Night' prepared this dish for their customers (thanks to Simona at Saffron and Pepper for the heads up - I originally thought it was Spanish even though it clearly sounds Italian!!). It is a quick and cheaply produced dish that is nourishing and very, very tasty.
PASTA PUTTANESCA serves 2 hungry and beleagured people.
5 Tablespoons Olive Oil
3 Cloves Garlic, finely chopped
3 Sage Leaves, shredded
Sprig Fresh Rosemary, chopped finely
Tablespoon Chopped Parsley
Large Pinch Dry Oregano
Pinch or two of Chilli Flakes
Tablespoon Capers, rinsed and drained
5 or 6 Anchovies, chopped
20 or so Olives of your choice or a heaped teaspoon of Tappenade in a pinch.
Can tomatoes, drained of liquid (or use 350g chopped fresh tomatoes)METHOD:
Heat the oil gently in a saucepan. Add the garlic, anchovies, sage and rosemary and cook for a couple of minutes until fragrant. Do not allow to brown.
Stir in the tomatoes, breaking them up gently with the back of your wooden spoon. Add a pinch or two (depending on how hot you like it!) of chilli flakes, pinch of oregano, and the capers. Season lightly with salt, heavily with pepper. Simmer for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti as per the instructions on the packet.
Drain the pasta and pour into a large, warm bowl. In two lots, stir through the puttanesca sauce, ensuring that all the pasta is well coated.
Serve with some grated parmesan (optional), crusty bread (also optional) and large shovels (for applying to the mouth..)