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I'll start this post with saying that I adore my pantry. I slowly made it grow from a few cans of Chef Boyardee and crackers (just kidding, mom!) into a real creativity sparker.
All it takes is a bit smart spending to make any storecupboard, regardless of its intended use, into a reason to take out a skillet and try your hand at something new. After a lot of research (read: experimenting on my own and blowing up the kitchen), I've compiled the most essential elements to achieve a complete, and useful cupboard.
* Pasta: one of the cheapest side/main dishes around, it's usually divided into three categories: long (linguine, spaghetti, fettuccine, lasagna to name a few), short (Farfarelle, star, ravioli, etc.) and flour type (regular, whole wheat, etc.) . There are also foreign varieties like rice and egg noodles, found in specialty aisles or stores. Try to have different types of each to cater to different tastes.
* Rice: Also a staple for its low economic impact on the poor wallet and the sheer variety available. Long rice and short rice are the norm in Puerto Rico, each requiring a different method of steaming. I personally prefer the short grain, but long is, in the long run, a better value for your money. Other than those two, supermarkets carry foreign rices, like Basmati, Risotto and sushi rice among others, that open up the possibilities of experimenting.
* Flours: there are plenty of different flours commercially available, but the most important categories are all-purpose, self-rising and cornstarch. The first two are available both gluten-free and whole wheat, as well as regular. Self rising contains a raising agent that make the dough rise Cornstarch is ground corn and can be used to thick stocks and soups, breading, and other uses you can look up on the Internet. On a side note, it can be mixed raw with water or milk to make a Non-Newtonian fluid.
* Raising Agents: There are plenty of raising agents that help flours rise, used in baking mostly. They react with water (or in case of yeast, sugar) and heat to make carbon dioxide bubbles to make the dough rise.
* Beans: There are about 30 or more types of edible beans, differing region to region. In Puerto Rican cuisine, the most commonly used are the red beans, white beans and snow peas. They are usually boiled to get rid of the toxins and give their distinct texture and are eaten as such or cooked in sauces to give them flavors.
* Sauces: depending on your location, sauces can differ from another's norm. The types available are (see here for more information!): White, Brown, Bechamel, Emulsified, Butter, Sweet, Fresh, Hot, East and Southeast Asian.
* Vinegar: Vinegar is an acidic liquid derived from distilled alcohol, usually to 0.04% (general chemistry anyone?). It's used to chemically tenderize red meat and sometimes used as a salad dressing.
* Mustard: Mustard is made by crushing seed of the plant of the same name. Dijon is a more refined, flavorsome paste with herbs and spices added.
* Tomato paste: a long lasting paste made from mashed boiled tomatoes used to add flavor and body. Supermarkets carry many brands, almost always canned for longevity. NOT to be confused with Ketchup, which is has been processed to the point of being a condiment, not a substitute for paste.
* Oils: There are many kinds of oils, all depending on the source. Frying oils are usually vegetable based (ex, corn) or seed based (peanut, sesame). A healthy alternative is olive oil, available in regular, virgin and extra virgin. For gourmet cooking, herb infused oils can be made months ahead to be used in cooking or dressings.
-Ginger: available in its natural root form, pickled and candied. It's a strong aromatic herb that, if overused, overpowers subtle flavors in a dish. It's used a lot in Asian cuisine in all its forms.
-Vanilla: the sweetening herb, its flavor is well recognized in desserts. Available in pods (these are aged a minimum of 3 months before sold to enhanced the flavor), clear and dark extract (latter being my personal favorite), imitation flavoring (extract that has been watered down considerably) and powder. Pods are generally very expensive, so use good quality extract instead.
-Black pepper: Grated peppercorns make up the fine, but essential seasoning. It's available ground or fresh (usually inside a grater). Fresh ground pepper has a stronger impact on a dish.
-Cinnamon: coming from the bark of a tree, it's a poignant, spicy flavor that has to be carefully added.
-Coriander: can be found in seed or leaf form, it can be an excellent addition to meats.
-Cloves: these are dried flower buds that can be added sparingly to meats and sweet dishes to enhance them.
-Nutmeg: An aromatic seed that's grated to be used. Can also be found in ground form.
-Star Anise: A spice composed of the star-shaped fruit, it's usually added to stir-fries and Asian cuisine for its distinct and strong flavor.
-Bay leaves: These are leaves added before the cooking of meats, stocks and casseroles and must be removed before serving.
-Oregano: an aromatic, strong herb used in Italian dishes. It has to be used sparingly, as it can overwhelm other flavors in a dish.
-Parsley: an extremely versatile leaf herb, it can be used in rice, potatoes and most meat and poultry. Green, fresh parsley is used to garnish food as well.
* Salt (differences between each): Table salt is the product of two incredible dangerous elements (Sodium is explosive when exposed to water, and Chlorine is a toxic gas) that is surprisingly stable. The difference between each type is the level of purity, with sea salt being the purest (and expensive) to table salt (most common).
* Sugar (granulated, caster, icing, raw,): Sugar types differ in the amount of processing the sugar cane juice is submitted to. The purest product is molasses, which is a viscous dark liquid. Once heated and crystallized, it becomes brown or raw sugar or demerara. If processed, it will produce granulated, caster, and finally icing. Note that the last has been added anti-caking agents to prevent clumps. Sugar, in all it's forms, is used to flavor and decorate (caramelizing, dusting to name a few).
Like always, I hope this entry helps you, the reader, in any way it can in your culinary experiments!