Saturday, September 5, 2015

Taking Stock

At the beginning of the last century, Albert Einstein proved that time is relative. Its passing is marked in comparison to other events. We know we are moving compared to a dog sitting still. We know (theoretically) that if one were to travel at the speed of light, he or she would be traveling so fast in comparison that movement on Earth would seem to halt. But long before Einstein's Theory of Relativity, it could be assumed that people marked the passing of time by the change in seasons and thereby, available food. Indeed, while our days may be whittled down to a series of moments between stand-up meetings and conference calls, many calendars still refer to the major seasons and events of the year. And even if we don't know it, our bodies naturally go along with such changes.

Fall, for me, marks a unique point in the year. It is the time in which I return to Virginia and work, forcing me to reassess my budgetary and culinary priorities as my "bounty" in both areas change. While the climates and therefore foods remain relatively similar between Connecticut and Virginia my culinary needs change as I cook for one and therefore use one budget to buy goods. Cooking for myself means a little less meat and a few more veggies than I would otherwise prepare... and a lot more chocolate. And in the beauty department, a change in weather often means a change in my skincare routine and product usage.

When I was first reading cookbooks, I always loved the pantry section which listed items one should have on hand to make a myriad of dishes. I think it was the "list form" which drew me to this section which is why I was probably attracted to cookbooks in the first place. Over time, I've worked hard to establish a well edited pantry which accounts for both my cooking style and budget. While often difficult to maintain such "strictness" in a world of overabundant options, I find myself relying more and more on a few ingredients to get me through the months. Below, a few of my favorites that often find their way into my pantry or beauty counter during the cooler months.

Olive Oil: I'm not a huge fan of olive oil, which is funny because I love olives. But the substance is healthy for you, providing mono- and polyunsaturated fats which can, "help lower [the] risk of heart disease," according to the Mayo Clinic. I use it for sauteeing (my favorite form of cooking) and in marinades (my favorite form of seasoning). It also works well in one's "beauty pantry" or group of items used in heavy rotation in the bath or shower. Here, olive oil can be used as an oil cleanse (recently, Into the Gloss came out with an article entitled, "Got Acne? Put Oil On It") or as a hair mask, adding moisture to frayed tresses. As I use this product heavily both in the culinary and beauty realms, it always finds a place on my shelves. My favorite? Bertolli Extra-Virgin Olive Oil.

Grapeseed Oil: As stated before, I'm not a huge fan of olive oil's flavor, however, it carries enough health benefits and applications that I use it on the daily. But grapeseed is an oil I've begun rotating into my routine due to its neutral taste and high smoke point. Sauteeing things as much as I do, I noticed my onions were becoming burned and/or soggy when put through the caramelization process. Using grapeseed oil seems to give off less steam and an even temperature as it cooks, making both myself and my onions happy. :)

White Vinegar: While you can find olive oil in my kitchen for cooking and in my bathroom for beauty, you can find white vinegar in similar places as well as my hallway closet for cleaning. White vinegar is a veritable tour de force of applicability. In the kitchen, I use it to pickle vegetables and make dressings while in the bathroom, I use it as a rinse to give my tresses a good detox and shine. In any other area, I add it to water along with several drops of tea tree oil (Desert Essence is my favorite) to make a gentle but effective cleaner (both my yoga mats and counters benefit from this). I also mix it with baking soda to form a paste that can be spread on the tub or bathroom tiles to remove grease or stains. As I use it so frequently, I purchase it in the largest tub possible... and quickly decant it into Kikkoman containers (more on soy sauce later).

Cider Vinegar: I may not use cider vinegar as much as I do white vinegar but its application certainly runs deep in the culinary and beauty departments. Here, I mix it with honey to make a small, detoxifying morning drink. I use it in various dishes and as an astringent to tone the skin. I also use it as an anti-dandruff rinse in my hair as a chemical-free alternative to shampoo.

White Balsamic Vinegar: Of all the items in my pantry, white, balsamic vinegar may be the most luxurious. Adding subtle flavor to any dish, it is used strictly in dressings or as a dressing itself. While vinegars are the most ubiquitous items on my pantry... the white balsamic, with its sophisticated zip ranks among my favorite. (Hint, mixing it with a freshly juiced orange and olive oil = salad dressing goals.)

Balsamic Vinegar: As I don't buy the highest quality forms of balsamic vinegar, I tend to use it more freely and in more dishes than its white counterpart. I generously add it to dressings, marinades, glazes, dips and sometimes as variation on a stir-fry sauce. To use the condiment in stir-frying, simply pour it over almost-cooked vegetables and watch it simultaneously begin to evaporate while adding a complex flavor to your dish. Some other recipes include:

Soy Sauce: With my beloved vinegars taken care of, my next, favorite condiment would be soy sauce. Leading into summer, I toyed with the idea of growing soybeans of my own and converting them into a sauce. However, the process is somewhat laborious. Yet, if one does choose to buy soy sauce like myself, +heidi swanson  of 101 Cookbooks suggests choosing a brand which is naturally (read: slowly) fermented over ones quickly processed. Although expensive, Dean and Deluca carries a great one which can be found here. And while I generally use soy sauce in the same dishes over and over, I'm surprised at its versatility when I expand it outside of my typical, culinary habits. The product works well as an addition to stir-fries and dressings and often serves as the base of my marinades for both meat and vegetables. A few reliable and exciting recipes lie below.

Salt: A no-brainer. No matter your budget or cooking style, salt is often found in every pantry across the universe or country. Adding extra flavor to homemade soups or enhancing existing ones in ready-made dishes, salt is that ingredient that lends an extra je ne sais quoi to dishes (indeed, I heard chef Thomas Keller would sprinkle sea salt on his dishes before consuming them). But not only does salt work in the culinary world, it can also be used in the bathroom in the form of Epsom salts (see Rubbing Alcohol All Over) or added to coconut oil to form a scrub for the skin or lips.

Pepper: A long time ago, I walked through a market in Grand Central Station and marveled at the herbs and spices set out on display. This summer, I was fortunate to return to the station and buy some. However, rather then invest in a blend of spices, I decided to stick with the basics, mainly, buying pepper. Just like tomatoes, it's a little known fact that peppercorns are actually a fruit. And unlike the tasteless grounds found in restaurant shakers, fresh peppercorns add a fruity, spicy note to foods. While I don't often use it alone, I consistently add it to marinades and dressings to obtain a hint of complex flavor.

Mustard Seed: When I was in college, my friend and I were fortunate to see a rendition of A Midsummer Night's Dream at a local theater. During the performance, I remember having forgot that one of the character's name was Mustard Seed. Ever since then, I think I've been a bit intrigued by mustard seeds and, like soybeans, thought about growing them in my garden. However, store bought mustard seeds are fine and can usually be ground into a powder and added as a kick to dressings and marinades. You can also use them to make your own mustard through Melissa Clark's recipe in New York Times Cooking.

Honey: Like salt, honey is a no brainer. And, like salt, I use honey in both my beauty and food pantries for its taste and antimicrobial properties. As I wrote many blog posts ago, water is essentially at the bottom of my food pyramid. As I learn that what goes in our bodies seems to have a greater effect than what goes on our bodies, I try to drink a lot of water to flush out my system, energize my muscles and generally re-hydrate myself. To this extent, I add honey as a way to support my local economy and ecosystem (locally produced is easy to find and can help with seasonal allergies) as well as my health. According to WebMD, "sugar is sugar" but honey (particularly buckwheat honey) has been shown to effectively soothe a cough and may help in stemming the spread of bacteria. To date, I add honey to my water each day and apply a honey mask each week to clean my skin. Although technically unproven as an anti-inflammatory for the skin, it always makes my skin feel supple and brightens my complexion. As stated in Poppin' Bottles, my favorite type of honey-based mask is one made from the honey-turmeric combination.

Garlic: Garlic is a pretty ubiquitous ingredient in my pantry. I love alliums. While I was scared of onions as a kid (I thought they were so spicy and made my grandmother give me a bowl of chicken soup without them) I have come to love them as an adult. I throw garlic in hummus and in dressings. I mash it up and sprinkle it with salt to make a paste and I used to boil the skins to make a flavorful stock composed of all those elements I would otherwise compost. And while garlic might only be found in my culinary pantry, it certainly does good by the body. According to Eating Well, studies have shown that raw, chopped garlic can help reduce the risk of certain cancers. It is also well known that garlic is a tool in maintaining a healthy heart and has even been shown to possess antibacterial and anti-fungal qualities according to the CNN article entitled "Protect your Heart with Fresh Garlic." And while some poo-poo the smell, I happen to love the scent on my hands.

Onion: Another allium, onions, to my taste, lends a sharp or sweet note to any dish. Able to be pickled, caramelized or added as an aromatic, it essentially goes into 95% of dishes I make. I love caramelized onions and make them whenever I can and on a budget, I often use extra onions as opposed to the aromatic triumvirate of celery, onions and carrots. Not only do onions add flavor to a dish, they also possess some pretty powerful cleaning properties. According to Wise Bread (the website that has great ideas for budget-living) onions can help to clean a BBQ, clean knives (and your face) and/or cut down on harsh smells. In fact, I remember an old roommate splitting and onion in half rather than washing dishes in college. To this extent, onions are a multipurpose miracle in my kitchen.

So there you have it, my exhaustive list of pantry items that serve me well as we round the bend from the summer months into something cooler.

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