essential ingredients

This page pays tribute to those surprisingly versatile ingredients you make sure are always in your cupboard, come feast or famine.

Besides the obvious, like canned tomatoes, anchovies, pasta and so on – I’m looking for extra surprises for my vast new pantry, when it finally arrives. Till now we’ve had about thirty square cm of pantry space (I’m not joking) and I’m not sure what I’ll do come my glistening new drawers and shelves and cupboards … so let’s share some ideas.


I’d like to kick this list off with a vote for these sweetly succulent little babies that give unexpected zip to all kinds of things. Some uses:

  • throw them into a little bit of verjuice (come on down Maggie –  more on Maggie-worship later…) and plump ’em up for five or 10 minutes before throwing into couscous.
  • toss a big handful into any vaguely Middle-Eastern taginey thing – chicken, lamb, fish, veg – they all love currants.
  • soak for a minute in raspberry vinegar and then toss with oil & lemon juice over strips of grilled zucchini.
  • plump as above in verjuice or vinegar, then sprinkle through a rocket salad with some feta or goat’s cheese.

lemon zestORANGES & LEMONS

I know everybody already knows about the many uses of citrus zest but in the interests of good indexing, I’m linking here to a full post on lemon zest, with a couple of Maggie Beer recipes that have the real zing thing.


And for a look at a couple of the many applications of pancetta and other varieties of cured piggywig, check out this post here.  But I think we could use a rather longer list for the pancetta. Any contributions, kitchen kith?



This can go on toast! Or in a salad, or pasta, or whatever. I love Skye Gyngell’s idea that you always have a batch of roasted tomatoes on hand … and I would love to be so organised …

Halve them, sprinkle with salt and occasionally a teeny pinch of caster sugar, drizzle some olive oil over, then bung ’em in the oven on a low heat (our old gas oven only had ‘almost off’ and 280 degrees C, but soon I shall be the possessor of a very swanky one with an actual temperature gauge. But ‘almost off’ did work just fine!) for a good hour or two or three, depending how low you can go. With plenty of olive oil I guess they’d keep in the fridge for a week or so? They never last that long in mine though.

Any other bright ideas for this little flavour bomb?


Another piquant, salty friend of the kitchen, the caper is, I learn here, is the immature flower bud of the caper bush, Capparis spinosa. Either pickled in brine or preserved in salt, as you will all know very well, the caper is an essential zing thing for a great many dishes. I tend to go for the salted babies, although the briny version are just fine if you can’t get the salted ones. And I’ve just found this site about Australian capers, which are apparently even more intense in flavour than the imported ones, which can only be a good thing!

A full post on the caper and the Empress’s ideas for fried capers are here.


I think the porcini mushroom – Boletus edulis –  Certainly deserves its own entry here. Apart from being lovely to look at, they’re earthy in flavour, silky in texture, store well and have a cooking aroma to die for – which in my book makes them a perfect zing-thing pantry staple.

I’ve used both dried porcini and the frozen fresh variety, but the frozen seemed to have only about as much flavour as a good fresh mushroom, whereas the dried really pack a punch (if you are very keen, there’s a long discussion about the comparative flavours here).

The way to use the dried porcini, of course, is to toss them into a cup with a little water to rehydrate, and then chop roughly to throw into any ragu or mushroom dish. I use them in mushroom risotto along with other fresh ones, but lately I’ve also used them a couple of times in a very luscious duck ragu.


  1. Great start, I love hooking into a bag of currants whilst I gaze into the pantry to see what else I have!
    After a couple of food tours to Japan, along with just about everything else I tried, I really got hooked onto the Japanese pickled plum “Umeboshi”! These things are like crossing an anchovy with a caper, and you can use them in that same way:
    -I have just mashed them up and put a tiny bit on some Manchego and crackers to assist my G&T sessions.
    -Roasted a rack of veal with olive oil, white wine, rosemary, lemon zest and some of these pickled plums rested the meat and whiskd all the juices and plums together to make this tart uber-sexy Umeboshi dressing.
    -Mixed it with some canned tuna, half an iceberg lettuce, dried chilli, onion, olive oil S&P and for an easy lunch salad>

    All you really need to do,(to impress your friends)is replace it where ever you read caper or anchovy in a recipe for a really interesting result!

  2. Oh my. I was at work reading this and had to wipe drool off the keyboard.

    Hamish, you’re bringing a whole new world of wonder to this humble little bloggeroonie. I am definitely trying the rack (lamb would work too?) with the uber-umies. Will report back on the results.

  3. It’s cans of tuna for me… the little ones with combos (lime etc) aren’t always successful but some are; particularly love them with chili. Take a can and add to: scrambled eggs with fresh corn (no oil first so they caramelise a bit) and fresh tomato’s also nice in that; finely sliced cabbage, dill, avocado with white balsamic and olive oil dressing + (love your owning up to seasoning) quite a bit of salt and pepper – love the fancy-pants salt mixes (like the Tridosha ones). love the blog too.

    • ooh miss shelley – I’m loving that dill and cabbage idea with tuna. Who knew about all these crazily original can’t-live-withouts?

  4. Nothing crazily original about these nor any surprises from a self-confessed salt ADDICT but no pantry’s complete without capers and anchovies for chucking into anything. Also a plastic tub of Bulgarian feta in the fridge for crumbling over beetroot and walnut salad or into toasted sangas. Or crumble it over a piece of toast spread with fig jam, especially that Greek stuff with the aniseed in it. It’s more economical to buy the cheese in tubs and it keeps pretty well sitting in its brine. Use what you need and whack the lid back on. Oh, and a slab of speck (did somebody say salty pig? Mmm) in the fridge is always a winner for adding to the foundations of soups, stews or fried in bits to throw on top of salads or soups that haven’t already got it in. Keeps pretty well for weeks if wrapped in paper, then plastic.

    • Excellent work. Now tell me, do you keep anchovies & capers in the fridge or cupboard?

      • cupboard then fridge after opening. unless they’re salted capers which can stay in cupboard I find.

  5. […] the guests arrive (I’m also attempting the umeboshi lamb rack suggested by Hamish under essential ingredients – yikes!) […]

  6. For all other devotees of this excellent blog and for the record, I was a willing guinea pig for the umeboshi lamb rackerama chez Charlotte on Saturday night and it was frigging fantastic. Go forth, all of ye, and fill your pantries with these salty tangy little balls of deliciousness. And Charlotte, I’ll be back any time you want to experiment on me.

    • ah, shucks (boom boom). And if I say so myself, Hamish’s Oh-My-Goshy plums are indeed the new black – it was a bewdy.

      (Steph at first I read the above as ‘fill your panties with these salty tangy little balls’ – which at first I found a bit alarming, and then thought oh well, each to her own…)

  7. All very well for you sophisticated foodies but for those of us who shop in Coles where would I find Japanese pickled plums?

  8. Well Annie, you’re gunna have to venture further than the dried fruit aisle, I’m afraid. But they’re eaten lots in macrobiotic diets so I’d go the health food shop. I got some fancyschmancy organic ones – the only ones I could find, at the world’s most expensive fashion-conscious organic food joint in Surry Hills. But there was an empty space alongside where the cheaper ones had lived …

  9. […] nominate pancetta as one of life’s essential ingredients – toss a few scraps through everything from steamed beans & peas, brussels sprouts, […]

  10. […] slow-roasted tomatoes (there’s a bit here on slow-roasting – easypeasy, but takes […]

  11. […] mushroom – Boletus edulis – is one of these, and certainly deserves its own entry on the essential ingredients page. Apart from being lovely to look at, they’re earthy in flavour, silky in texture, store […]

  12. […] Have some slow-roasted tomatoes (scroll down on the Essential Ingredients page) ready to […]

  13. […] a version of Leeks Mirisata  which simply leaves out the Maldive fish/shrimp. Then I recalled our Hamish’s suggestion that umeboshi plums could make a good substitute for anchovies. Kathryn thought this a fine idea, and then her pal Lucinda (from Nourish Me and – stay with […]

  14. […] so you don’t want that giant obstacle in your way. My pantry essentials are mostly listed here (and lots of good advice in the comments too), but of course there are much more obvious things […]

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