We all want to eat healthily, don’t we? Still, at some point we’ve all looked despairingly into a bare store cupboard and reached for the take-out menu instead. The secret to success is to be well-prepared, and to keep some basic ingredients to hand. With this approach, we can increase our chances of sticking to a healthy eating plan. So which ten essentials do I keep in my store cupboard?
Rice is such a versatile ingredient that I’d be pushed to manage without it. Of course, pilau rice is the standard accompaniment to curry, and egg fried rice tastes delicious with a Chinese-inspired dish. However, rice also forms the basis of a host of dishes such as paella and risotto, as well as making tasty milky puddings. Ideally, keep several different kinds to hand (e.g. arborio for risottos and basmati for curries), but remember that they’re all interchangeable in an emergency.
Pasta is also a staple ingredient for many dishes, including lasagna, pasta-bakes, cannelloni, and of course, the classic spaghetti bolognese. It also works well in cold dishes—add chopped bell peppers, scallions, sweetcorn and kidney beans to cooked pasta, and mix with a flavorful dressing to create a superb pasta salad.
Repetitive eating leads to boredom, so ring the changes with your carbohydrates and embrace different grains. Delicious hot or cold, a variety of grains will delight your taste buds and provide varied textures. For example, enjoy spicy Moroccan tagine with couscous, pair flatbread with bulgur wheat and an eggplant dip, or make a hearty salad using quinoa.
4. Beans and pulses
Packed with protein and fiber while free from fat, beans and pulses are a wonderful substitute for meat. They can also add bulk to dishes to make them healthier and to save money. Dried beans need soaking before cooking, but can be cooked and frozen in advance, whilst canned ones are more convenient. Lentils taste amazing in soups, can thicken stews, and make a great alternative to potatoes. Meanwhile, bean casseroles are ideal for a warming winter dish.
Flour is another fabulously versatile ingredient. It can be used to make savory pastry for pies, sweet cakes, cookies, and mouth-watering homemade bread. Wholemeal flour provides more fiber, and different bread flours can be used to create inspirational breads and rolls if you add extras like seeds, olives and dried tomatoes. Keep dried yeast to hand as well.
A well-flavored stock is the essential ingredient in so many dishes. Keep several kinds available, such as beef, chicken, fish and vegetable, and match the kind to the main ingredient of your dish. Homemade stock takes a while, but boiling up a large batch and then freezing individual portions saves time. There are also many shop-bought stocks that are convenient and do the job just as well.
7. Canned tomatoes
Canned tomatoes are the ultimate convenience food. They can be added to slow-cooked casseroles, pasta sauces, home-crafted pizza, and fragrant Eastern dishes. They can also make a gorgeous soup starter—just add vegetables, left-over meat scraps, and a few herbs for an unforgettable lunch dish.
8. Cooking oils
Sunflower oil is perfect for frying or whipping together homemade salad dressings, whilst olive oil gives a refreshingly peppery tang to many dishes. Groundnut oil can cook at very high temperatures for stir-frying, and sesame oil has an exotic flavor with hints of the East. Flavored oils (infused with herbs or garlic) not only taste divine but are a great time-saver too. Be sure to stock up on a selection of vinegars as well—balsamic, red or white wine vinegar and apple cider vinegar are some of the best staples.
9. Herbs and spices
A basic range of herbs and spices will give you an infinite number of ways to create different taste sensations, and allow you to cut down on using salt. Italian herbs give zing to a pizza or a beautiful herb bread, whilst cilantro (i.e. coriander) is critical in Asian cookery. Sweet spices such as cinnamon and cloves bring warmth to cakes and cookies, whilst cumin and ground coriander underpin North African creations.
Lastly, a subtle hint of garlic adds a wonderful shade to almost any dish. Use it in stir-fry dishes, soups and stews, or fried up with onions and chilies to begin curries or West African delicacies. Blend with butter for a light flavoring that’s perfect for fish, or make hot dripping garlic bread to accompany an Italian meal.