The Top 10 Staples for Your Arsenal

Before we get started, I want you to know that I in no way consider myself a professional chef, however, I have had training in safety and sanitation as well as hospitality management, so I have learned quite a lot along the way.  Most everything I’ve learned in the kitchen has been through trial and error.

I highly recommend investing in a few good cookbooks.  My personal recommendations are either of Julia Child’s and the America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook.  What’s great about all three of these is that the authors teach you tried and true methods.  None of these authors would put their names on an inferior cookbook – you know the kind I’m talking about – the ones that pretty much just look good on your shelf but are of no real use.  The test of a truly dependable cookbook is how the pages look.  Like mine, you can tell which pages I use most because they have by far the most “mess” on them.  And, what I love most about the Test Kitchen Cookbook is they also tell you how they tried and failed until they got the recipe just right.

A note about recipes – you absolutely must read through the entire recipe before you get started.  I don’t know how many times I told this to my students, but it was a lot.  In fact, my husband still jumps right into dumping things into a bowl before reading the recipe and it most certainly comes back to bite him in the rear.  Why is this important?  First, you need to know if you have all the ingredients in your cupboard.  Second, you need to know if you have enough time to not only prep the recipe but cook it.  For example, if you only have 30 minutes to get dinner ready, then a recipe that takes 30 minutes just to prep is not going to work for you.  Finally, the ingredient list doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the cooking order.  Take cookies, you don’t just put the flour, sugar, butter, and egg in the same bowl at the same time.  No!  You first have to cream the butter and sugar and then you gradually add the egg and then the flour.  Ok, the top 10 recipes start now!

Recipe 1: Rice.  I know, sounds simple, but it’s so easy to overcook and under season rice and then you’re left with a gummy, tasteless mess.  The key to flavorful rice is to cook it in half water and half stock – if you’re serving it with chicken, use chicken stock; beef dish, beef stock; vegetable dish, vegetable stock.  You know how sometimes you get an end product that is pretty sticky?  When rice is transported it gets all jostled around like your boobs on a bumpy road.  And when that happens, some of the starch gets rubbed off, and then when you cook it, everything turns into a sticky mess.  The simple solution is to rinse the uncooked rice before putting it in the pot.  Finally, rice, like steak, requires a resting period.  This means, no heat and no touch for 10-15 minutes once it’s done cooking.

Recipe 2: Mashed potatoes.  This is another staple item that’s pretty hard to screw up, and yet, we all do it from time to time.  The trick to good mashed potatoes starts with, you guessed it, the right potato.  Baking potatoes should be used for baking – while they can be used to make mashed potatoes, in my opinion, the yellow ones are the best.  Potatoes, like rice, should not be overcooked.  You know when they are ready to take off the stove when you can easily pierce them with a fork.  Mashed potatoes are one of those foods that everyone likes a little differently, some like lumps, some like skin on, some like garlic and cheese mixed in.  I say, it depends on what else you’re serving.  But mostly, I prefer smooth and creamy.  So how do you get ultra-smooth mashed potatoes?  By mashing them in a two-step process.  Once my potatoes are done cooking, I like to put them back into the hot cooking pot with butter and salt and pepper and cover them up to let the butter melt.  Once the butter is melted, I first mash everything with an actual potato masher, and then when I’m ready to add in the liquid, I use a hand mixer.  As for the liquid, you could use milk, half and half, or straight up cream, though I prefer the taste of half and half.  Again, the key here is to not mix in too much liquid, or else you’ll end up with potato soup.  It’s easy to slowly add in the liquid rather than dumping it all in at once.  Once everything is all mixed and perfectly smooth, give them a taste and add more salt if needed.

Recipe 3: Scrambled eggs.  I know what you’re thinking, how can anyone eff up scrambled eggs?  But trust me, you’ve probably been making scrambled eggs wrong your whole life and never known it.  If you’re one of those weirdos who like your scrambled eggs nearly cremated, then this bit is not for you.  For everyone else, what makes for fluffy scrambled eggs is a little bit of liquid like half and half or cream added in and cooking them in a hot skillet for as little time as possible.  That’s right, it should really only take a few seconds to get your eggs to the right consistency and then take them off the heat.  Scrambled eggs should be shiny, not dull looking.  And don’t be afraid to change up how you season them.  Salt and pepper go a long way, but my other go-to seasoning is the Everything But the Bagel from Trader Joe’s.  And depending on your dietary needs, you could always cook them in a non-stick skillet, but I think they are more flavorful when you use a little butter or better yet, bacon grease.

Recipe 4: Roast chicken.  If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times, when it comes to cooking, I’ve taught my husband everything he knows, which is why he’s so good at it!  But when it comes to roast chicken, his is truly the best.  His secret is making a butter concoction – with salt, pepper, tarragon or parsley, paprika, and garlic powder, and then putting it under the skin before sticking it in the oven.  When you’re buying a chicken at the store, you want to make sure you buy one that is specifically for roasting, which it should say on the label.  Most of what you find at the market is either a broiler/fryer, roaster, or Cornish game hen.  Chad also turns the bird during the cooking process so that every side takes a turn cooking.  And remember, when it registers at 165 degrees, it’s done.

Recipe 5: Boeuf Bourguignon or Beef Burgundy.  No recipe says Sunday dinners at Granny’s house like roast beef.  My Granny was a teetotaler, up until she read that raisins soaked in gin were good for arthritis (ha!), so she never cooked with wine.  If you too are a teetotaler, remember that the alcohol cooks off and you’re left with the flavor.  However, beef cooked in wine and stock…I’m salivating thinking about it.  Just like everyone else, after watching the movie Julie and Julia, I took it upon myself to learn how to make Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon.  I can remember the first time I made it, OMG, it was heavenly.  Since then, I’ve adapted my own version of it but if you’re going to learn, it’s best to start with Julia’s.  The key to a good roast is low and slow in the oven.  A good beef stew should take 3 or more hours, depending on its size, at 325 degrees.  And good seasoning is vital.  Bay leaves are a must and don’t shy away from salt.  A fresh herb bouquet is the best, but you can always use dried herbs as a substitute.  And don’t forget the most important step, butter goes in at the end and you’ll want to make a slurry with cornstarch and water to thicken up the juices if you want more of a gravy consistency.

Recipe 6: Spaghetti with Meat Sauce.  Any good marinara should not come out of a jar.  Now, of course, you can use it in a pinch, but if you have the time, you should really consider learning how to make your own.  It’s not as hard as it sounds.  You start with good canned tomatoes, tomato paste, garlic, onions, Italian seasoning, salt, pepper, and a little bit of sugar.  Yes, you heard that right.  You should always add a touch of sugar to a tomato sauce because it brings out the flavor in the tomatoes.  Some people like to add a little wine, others like to use stock it’s really personal preference.  And then you cook it low and slow on the stove.  Trust me, it’s divine.  As for turning your marinara into a meat sauce, consider using a meat mixture like ground beef and pork or ground beef, pork and lamb.  Then there’s the pasta.  Many a discussion has taken place on what makes for good pasta.  Should you add salt and oil to the water?  Should you really throw it against the wall to see if it sticks?  Blah, blah, blah.  Here’s my advice, follow the package directions.  If you’re using angel hair pasta and it says ready in 7 minutes, then check it at seven minutes to see if it’s done – and no, you don’t have to throw it against the wall.  As for salting the water; a lot of people like to put the salt in at the beginning, but I prefer to add it after the water is already boiling.  The reason for this is when you add salt at the beginning, it increases the boiling temperature of the water, therefore, taking the water longer to boil.  If you are cooking on an electric stove and have limited time, add the salt in after the water is boiling.  And I do like to add oil to the water because I like the flavor but It’s not necessary.  Finally, don’t forget to top off your spaghetti with freshly grated parmesan cheese.

Recipe 7: A simple stir-fry.  By now, you know how to make proper rice, scrambled eggs, and roast chicken which is a good combination for a quick stir-fry.  The secret to any good stir-fry is in the sauce.  This is where it’s good to experiment and figure out what you like best.  I personally prefer a combination of soy and oyster sauce, but many times I’ll use a combination of soy sauce and sesame oil.  Or maybe you like more of a sweet and sour combination – so try that!  As for the vegetables, in my opinion, there are no rules.  Use what you already have, use fresh, use frozen, it’s all about preference.  For example, I might have fresh carrots and frozen peas and I’ll happily use both.  Or maybe I only have broccoli, so broccoli beef combo it is!  And don’t buy into all the hype, you do not need to go out and purchase a wok do make a good stir-fry.  All you need is a large skillet, preferably one that is non-stick, but even that’s not going to make or break it.  Just remember to do the meat and vegetables separately and then serve it over your rice with sauce.  This is really more of a tip rather than a rule, if your skillet is big enough, you could mix it all together, but I personally like to do it separately.  Steamed rice is easy, but fried rice is delicious!  And, it’s relatively easy to make, especially if you already have leftover rice because then all you need is a little sesame oil in the bottom of a hot skillet, scramble an egg, add the rice and let it cook.

Recipe 8: Macaroni and cheese.  Mac and cheese is an old favorite, but surprisingly not that simple.  A good cheese sauce is hard to master and something I feel like I’ve only done recently.  You have to get the roux just right and then not scorch the cheese, it can be a mess.  So here’s my advice, never use packaged shredded cheese to make your cheese sauce.  Packaged shredded cheese is coated with a preservative to help it not stick together in the bag.  This coating can ruin your cheese sauce causing it to either be lumpy, separate, or have a grainy texture.  Rather, shred your own cheese.  Plus, it’s cheaper.  And make sure to use a medium flavored cheddar.  When it comes to thickness, remember that when your cheese sauce is hot, it will be thinner than when it starts to cool so consistency is key.  Don’t worry if your cheese sauce is a bit runny, it will thicken as it cools.  Finally, one way I like to make mac and cheese is in the oven using a cheese sauce that is made from cream and cream cheese, and instead of cheddar, you use mozzarella.  It is so good – I shared my recipe with the caterer we had at our wedding and she ended up adding it to her menu!

Recipe 9: Buttercream frosting.  Any fool can buy frosting at the grocery store, but any genius can make it at home for pennies on the dollar.  In fact, you probably already have everything you need.  Ingredients: powdered sugar, butter, vanilla, milk.  That’s it.  Seriously.  The secret to a good buttercream is the vanilla.  Don’t use imitation vanilla – ever.  If you don’t believe me, I would encourage you to do a simple taste test.  Make some homemade vanilla pudding using real vanilla in one recipe and imitation in the other.  You’ll immediately taste the difference.  Real vanilla is extremely simple to make.  Buy vanilla beans either from your local health food market or Amazon, slice them down the middle and stick them in a jar with a good quality vodka.  In about a week, you’ll have vanilla.  No need to take a quick trip to Mexico to buy it.  And if you want cherry vanilla, use bourbon instead of vodka.  Make sure your butter is room temperature, cream it, then add in the powdered sugar and vanilla, and then slowly start adding in the milk until it’s the consistency you want.  And that’s it.  You can add in food coloring to make it more festive and when you tire of vanilla flavor, try almond extract.  It’s my personal favorite.  You can use buttercream frosting on cakes, cupcakes, as filling between layers, cookies, or if you’re filling particularly glutinous, all by itself.

Recipe 10: Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies.  For years I’ve been looking for the perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe.  I swear I’ve tried them all.  Last year, Chad and I were in New Orleans for International contest with my chorus, I’ll tell you all about that sometime, and we ate at this restaurant that also had a bakery.  We ordered chocolate chips cookies and when we got them, we noticed they had sea salt on the top.  OMG, they were the most delicious cookies I’ve ever eaten.  From then on, I was determined to find a dupe.  And lo and behold, I found one on Pinterest.  They will change your life.  For good chocolate chip cookies, you need to use both white and brown sugars, real vanilla, salted butter (even if the recipe calls for unsalted), and sprinkle them with sea salt right when they come out of the oven.  For real, I’ve shared this recipe with practically everyone I know, and they all say it’s the best recipe they’ve tried.

And that’s it!  Those are the top ten staple items you must have in your arsenal.

Let me know if you have any questions because I would love to hear from you!

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