I started this blog post thinking it would be quick and easy, then I sat down to write and was stumped! How could I whittle down the list to only a handful of my favourite ingredients? There are so many I could include for a host of reasons.
In the end, I pinned the list down to the 10 ingredients I use most, some of them because they are my favourites and some because cooking creatively would be all the more difficult without them. As the list came together, it became clear that what these ingredients have in common is versatility. It is this versatility that makes them so invaluable.
What would make it into your top 10 and why?
I feel like I’m cheating a little bit here, since chilli encompasses a whole range of ingredients in my kitchen. But, I set the rules here so I’m allowing it!
I’m talking fresh chillies, dried chillies, chilli powders, paprika as well as chilli sauces (Siracha, chipotle, Cholula, Tabasco…) and pastes (harissa, Gochujang, chilli bean…) from around the world. They’re all brilliant fridge and store cupboard instant flavour hacks. And who could resist the buzz a little kick of chilli can provide?
Herbs are another great flavour enhancer as well as perfect for dressing a finished dish. Mint transports me to warmer climes, makes me think of relaxing holidays and exotic Middle Eastern or Mediterranean dishes. It can transform a dull salad of lettuce and cucumber into a vibrant summery side dish or pep up a refreshing and cooling drink.
I don’t often buy fresh herbs unless I know I’m going to be able to use them up, but you’ll invariably find mint in my fridge if there’s none left in the garden.
To go hand in hand with mint in a Middle Eastern inspired dish is pomegranate molasses. Shiny, sticky, sweet, sour. Mmmm. Makes the ultimate perky dressing for some wintery roast vegetables or a little summer salad of beetroot, lentils and feta.
There’s always a chorizo ring in my fridge as it’s one of those ingredients with which I know I can conjure up a delicious meal in an emergency. Add to soups, omelettes and tray bakes, use it with tinned pulses to make a store cupboard stew, use to flavour stuffing, burgers, or meatballs, throw a bit into salads, or have it on toast with avocado, roast peppers and a fried egg (and maybe finish with a drop or two of chilli sauce!).
Possibly the most versatile meat. An almost blank canvas for many flavourings and accompaniments. A crowd pleaser.
I prefer thighs as they have a better flavour and are juicier than the breast especially when slow cooked. Buy a whole bird and you can certainly get value for money if you use every bit of it.
Stir fries, stews, curries, soups, pies, bakes, Southern-fried, escalopes, dippers, barbequed, roasted whole, Kievs, the possibilities are seemingly endless. It’s no wonder there are 681,000,000 results in Google when you search for chicken recipes compared to the 202,000,000 for pork recipes!
Rice is the staple food of more than half the world’s population and it’s on the menu in our house around half the week. It’s quick and easy to cook and can be the basis for, or side to, so many dishes.
I prefer Basmati and buy in bulk, but you’ll also find easy cook long grain, Arborio for risotto, callasparra for paella, brown rice, sticky rice and short grain pudding rice in my store cupboard.
The king of frozen vegetables, if not the king of vegetables, full stop!
According to Birds Eye, they’re the UK’s most popular vegetable with the average Briton eating almost 9,000 peas a year. I probably eat twice that!
Beans and pulses, generally, make the list but black beans are a particular favourite. I tend to use tinned beans as I can grab and cook them quickly without having to think about soaking and long cooking, though I prefer to cook with dried lentils.
Black beans make their way into rice for rice and peas, can be turned into burgers, are added to chillies, soups and stews (combine them with the aforementioned chorizo to make my chorizo and black bean soup), can be made into a dip, refried to use in Mexican dishes or added to salads and salsas.
Cheese? Which cheese? Any cheese! I know, cheating again!
Skip the crackers, absolutely no chutney, just hand me the cheese!
But let me tell you what’s always in my fridge to have on hand for meal preparation:
Cheddar – a good all-rounder.
Grana Padano – I much prefer this to Parmesan for pasta dishes.
Halloumi – great to have to hand for grilling, burgers and salads. It lasts well so it’s a good one to keep in the fridge.
Feta – another one that lasts and is good to have in the fridge for salads, in particular. Though I’ve recently discovered giant tins of Turkish cheese, which is similar to Feta but much better value.
Cream cheese – I buy the sets of four little pots. They’re more expensive than the bigger pots but, as we don’t really eat much at any one time, they result in less waste and work out cheaper in the long run. The little pots are good to have to hand to add to sauces as well as when you fancy it on toast, with some smoked salmon, or whatever tickles your fancy.
Cheese triangles – known as cow cheese in our house. Loved by the kids and I’m a little partial to marmite and cow cheese on toast!
You might think this an odd one to make the list, but I find the little bottles of concentrated chicken, beef and vegetable stocks indispensable to add flavour to dishes and because they can sit in the fridge and be on hand whenever I need them. I much prefer them to the flavour of a stock cube and a dash goes a long way.
Yes, I make my own stock when I have, for example, a chicken carcass left after a roast and freeze it for dishes such as soups and risottos, but there’s no shame in using this really useful ‘cheat’ ingredient at other times. You’ll see it listed in the ingredients for many of the recipes on my website. If it’s good enough for Nigella, it’s good enough for me!