If you’re like me, you’re cooking just about every meal right now and your pantry ingredients are your passport. You love this; a rare adventure at home where you have the space to play with new pantry ingredients and recipes. Your less-frequent trips to the grocery store and the farmer’s market are…exciting. Enough for you to put on real pants, and wander the aisles a bit to ensure you didn’t forget anything…exciting. Make no mistake; this domestic adventure isn’t a substitute for actual adventures into nature, maybe even abroad, canceled for the foreseeable future.
Instead of unpacking your bags in a far-off place, you’re unpacking your pantry ingredients at home; finding all of the nearly-forgotten foodstuffs that you never thought you’d get to use. Food is a powerful tool. For me, it’s one of the most poignant parts of a new place. The meal we cooked up as the sun was setting over our campsite; whatever we drank as we named off the stars; the fruits I picked wandering through an orchard on the other side of the world; the breakfast smells we woke to, and the desserts that lulled us to sleep in a foreign place.
I’m the type of person who brings home edible souvenirs from everywhere I travel; my way of securing the sensory parts of a place that I’m worried I’ll lose otherwise. Honey from New Mexico; spices from Istanbul; sugar and dried hibiscus blooms from Baja; tea from China; Pocky and all of the dried seaweeds from Japan. Each of these pantry ingredients makes it’s way into my cooking in discreet and special ways, making whatever we’re eating that much more considered.
These special souvenir ingredients are nearly impossible to share. And sometimes, I’ve used them all up. In those times, it’s the easy-to-find items that unlock a recipe, or a memory in my kitchen, bringing the glorious scents and smells of a far off place back in an instant. And it’s these pantry ingredients, and these taste memories I’m leaning hard on right now.
This domestic adventure is the perfect exploit for right now. The one that allows me to think of all of the places I’ve loved to visit, digging in a bit deeper into each.
Full fat, canned coconut milk is one of the pantry ingredients I have on hand at all times. I use it in lieu of cream and milk in many recipes, as a creamy addition to soups, a base for raises, salad dressings, and bonus-add to cakes + desserts. The flavors immediately inspire my to cook with big spices and fresh vegetables and transport me to Southeast Asia, but coconut is a flavor that mingles so well with foods, no matter where they’re from.
I often buy coconut milk buy the case, but you can purchase my favorite brand here by the can.
Here are a few favorite Coconut Milk recipes:
This Japanese spice and seaweed mix is most commonly enjoyed over cooked rice, vegetables and fish…but I also put it over my eggs, salads, soups and avocado toasts. There are myriad varieties of furikake; nearly all contain dried seaweed sesame seeds and salt, as well as other delicious additions such as wasabi, dried chilis, dried fish, shiso plum and more. I like to source a veggie version of this popular shakeable topper, typically called “nomi komi.” Depending on how robust your pantry is, you may have many of the ingredients you need to make furikake at home, but if not, you can purchase my favorite brand here.
I highly suggest shaking your furikake all over:
On toasts, mixed into quick-breads, even spun into salad dressings. Cashew butter is nutty and rich and toasty and so comforting in all the ways. It’s flavor doesn’t remind me of any place in particular, but the flavor is just voluptuous enough that it feels more decadent than just “home.” I use it for both savory and sweet purposes, and I would challenge you to consider it a condiment – spreading it, saucing it and using it to amp up your everything. I make my own cashew butter. Here’s how I do it:
I place soak 2 cups of raw cashews in a quart jar, cover with water by at least 2 inches, add a pinch of salt and let soak overnight in the fridge. In the morning, I warm the oven to 175°F, drain the cashews and transfer them to a parchment-lined sheet pan. I allow them to dehydrate in there for 8 hours, or until they’re crunchy and flavorful. Then, I toss them in my food processor and blend until smooth. Voila – sprouted homemade cashew butter!
Here are some ways I use it:
Many of the times I find myself eating dates its standing at the kitchen counter, savoring one while deciding what else to eat. They remind me of sultry snacks in the alleyways of Istanbul, and of sweet shakes enjoyed beneath palm trees in Baja. But, practically, they also add a non-refined punch of sweetness to so so so many things. Caramel-y in flavor, rich in nutrients and minerals, it’s my favorite way to sweeten everything in the kitchen.
When shopping for dates, I look for the Medjool variety because they’re juicy, plump and very versatile. I buy them in unmentionable large quantities from this amazing farm in California.
Here’s what I do with ’em:
Crunchy, subtly nutty and yet complex, there’s no place a sesame seed can’t be in my kitchen. Whether sprinkled on roadside onigiri in Japan, falling off of my warm simit in Istanbul onto the streets as I walk and eat, folded into candy in Taiwan, sesame seeds are everywhere for me. Even at home.
I purchase a mixture of black and white sesame seeds, sometimes toasting them myself or buying them from a reputable source pre-toasted. This amazing spice house in New York is my favorite place to get them, but my local Asian grocery store carries them as well.
Here’s what I do with them:
Dried sea vegetables are difficult to crave in South East Asia, where the unctuous scents of them waft through the sweltering streets, knocking you off your feet. But landlocked in Colorado, toasted seaweed is a flavor that sparks my senses and accents all of the other things I’m cooking here. There are several ways to buy seaweed, and there are many varieties. If you’re new to cooking with it, I recommend starting with nori seaweed sheets. If you get into making stocks, soups and weaving deeper seaweed flavors into your foods, check out kombu. You can find nori seaweed sheets in well-stocked grocers just about everywhere these days, as well as in Asian markets. When I’m looking for a specialty seaweed, I buy it from this amazing small farm in California.
From there I like to use it to:
Similar to cashew butter…but absolutely different. Sultry and deep, toasty and creamy, tahini is a transporting staple in my cooking around here.
Tahini is found most readily in cooking cultures of the Near and Middle East, and recipes vary as much as the individual states. My first encounters with its glory were in Turkey, but I’ve since found how complimentary this staple is to many cuisines.
Tahini is ground roasted sesame paste, and not all tahinis are created equal. I look for a balanced flavor and fluid texture, and so buy mine from Seed and Mill. It’s truly THE BEST.
Once I have it in the house, I make:
There was always a bottle of rice vinegar for seasoning on the table in Japan. And the same is true in my house now; I add a splash to many a salad, noodle bowl and often let rice vinegar take the place of lemon when finishing a dish that needs a little “lift.”
I buy the Marukan Organic Rice Vinegar, which is readily available at well-stocked grocers, but also here.
If you need a few recipes to start off with, here are a few of my favorites:
This pantry ingredient transports me back to a foreign time, rather than a foreign place. I used to drive over an hour in college to the co-op in Ithaca to buy groceries because I was frightened by shadowy footprint of GMO’s and non-organics stamped all over our regular grocery store. It was there, in a patchouli-laced safe haven that I discovered Bragg’s. I use it in place of soy sauce or tamari, and as a substitute for fish sauce sometimes too. Really anywhere I want an umami hit. I buy it here, and in this quantity (no joke.) It’s available at your local grocer in the international foods aisle as well, I bet.
Now that you’re familiar with it, you’ll find it as a crucial ingredient for lots of recipes I share here. In particular:
Miso! Yes, this is the star of that soup that you always get at Japanese restaurants, and it’s a powerhouse of flavor. Miso is a fermented soybean paste with a wonderful umami essence. Salty, funky and sometimes sweet, it’s one of the flavors I didn’t start craving until AFTER I’d left Japan, but now it’s a pantry ingredient I can’t get enough of.
Not all miso pastes are created equal – and looking at the miso section can be overwhelming. There are over 1000 varieties of miso! Different colors – and flavors – to choose from. I buy white miso paste, which is milder than the red or brown varieties. You’ll find it at your favorite grocery store in the refrigerated section near the Kimchi and tofu, at your Asian grocery store OR this is a great readily available option. If you’re ready to jump into the deep end and really fall in love with covetable miso, this is my favorite of favorites.
Here’s what I do with my miso:
Another Japanese staple that I only started craving after moving thousands of miles away from Japan. (Small sobs.) Ume plum vinegar is vinegar made of fermented ume plums, just as apple cider vinegar is made of fermented apples, rice vinegar is made of fermented rice and so on. It’s a unique, salty and very tart flavor that I use to give a quick, finishing hit to salads, soups, avocado toast. It’s an acquired taste, but truly an adventure. Pick up a little bottle here and give it a whirl.
You can also use it like this:
Firey and garlic-y, I like harissa for bringing the heat, it a smart way that’s never too much. I first encountered harissa in the open-air markets of Northern Africa (it’s culinary roots lie in Tunisia.) Harissa is a blend of spices and herbs, there are thousands of recipe iterations, and you can find it in dried powder form as well as in a paste. You can make harissa paste yourself (here’s an interesting recipe,) but I like to try different harissa from different places. This is a recent favorite. Give it a whirl, or look for it at your local grocery in the international foods aisle!
Once you’ve got it:
Korea was one of the few nations in Asia that I didn’t get to visit while living on that side of the world, and so having gochujang in my kitchen isn’t a taste memory – it’s a taste aspiration. Gochujang is a fundamental ingredient in Korean cooking; a thick and spicy-sweet crimson paste made from red chile pepper flakes, glutinous rice (also known as sticky rice), fermented soybeans, and salt. I recently used it to slather over roasted chicken using this recipe and it was knock-my-socks off good. I have been buying this brand of gochujang and really loving it. Similar to harissa, I look forward to trying different varieties and using it for all sorts of applications.
Here are some ways I like to use it: