I don’t make everything from scratch. I just don’t have the time. Below are seven ‘prepared’ ingredients I always have on hand that make cooking a little easy due to their ease of use, versatility, or just plain awesomeness.
Panko: These light Japanese style bread crumbs are a gift from the food gods. I’m not averse to drying white bread in the oven and making my own bread crumbs, but why would I when panko is so perfect. If it’s crunch you want, then panko is where it’s at. Other bread crumbs (like Italian style) are usually too fine. If I notice my bag is getting low then it’s to store I go to re-stock.
Favorite Use: panko breaded fried shrimp.
Curry Powder: Sure, I could buy individual spices and mix my own curry powder (and I do sometimes!) but usually I just want something quick to throw in a dish that has the flavor profile I want. Curry powder fits the bill. Given that there are dozens, possibly hundreds of varieties and brands available you’re guaranteed to find one you like. I tend to go for the yellow variety and I make sure It’s not too hot (I like to control the heat with fresh pepper or powdered cayenne). Curry powders are usually well balanced, already, so it cuts down on the ingredients you need to add to a dish. Anything that simplifies cooking gets an A+ from me.
Favorite Use: curry chicken
Jarred Pasta Sauce: I’m only talking about the tomato kind. I would never use jarred alfredo sauce (but since this whole article is me promoting ready-made stuff I won’t look down on you for using it). I always make my own gravy, but I only make my own tomato sauce half of the time (usually when I make meatballs). If I’m making a baked ziti or a lasagna, chances are I’m using the jarred stuff. I stick to the basics (marinara, original, tomato basil…). I can add any vegetables, meat, or other spices that I want but the hard part of stewing tomatoes until they form a sauce has already been done for me.
Favorite Use: baked ziti
Stewed Tomatoes: If you don’t know what stewed tomatoes are they’re sliced tomatoes cooked in their own juices with celery, onions, green bell peppers and spices. You can find them next to their more widely used brother, diced tomatoes. My mother basically raised me on them so I guess this one can be chalked up to childhood tastes that have carried over into adulthood. Stewed tomatoes are kind of sweet, but I like the sweetness and I always have at least 5 cans around. One thing I enjoy doing is chopping them up and cooking them quickly with garlic and fresh basil, then spooning that over panko fried chicken breast, and finally topping the whole thing with shaved parmesan cheese. I could put them in any recipe that calls for diced tomatoes, but I don’t because that would be overusing them.
Favorite Use: Pasta with Italian sausage, eggplant, zucchini and chopped stewed tomatoes (Yeah, I don’t have a name for that other than “damn good pasta dish”)
Canned Salmon: Nothing is better than fresh salmon cooked to the perfect doneness, seasoned lightly and served with fresh vegetables. Canned salmon couldn’t beat that no matter how well it’s made but there is something about it. Something that keeps me coming back to it for one thing: Salmon cakes (also called patties or croquettes). Yeah, fresh salmon is great for this, but let’s face it canned salmon has a long shelf life and you don’t have to chop it so once again it’s all about convenience. I always take out the bones (though they become so soft in the can you can eat them), but never the skin. I try to buy it when it’s on sale and currently have three cans on hand.
Favorite Use: Salmon cakes (served with grits or biscuits)
Saltine Crackers: Crackers hardly get simpler than saltines, but for something so simple they’re amazing. And while I do eat them with cheese sometimes (because they’re crackers) it’s all their uses beyond being crackers that interest me. I grind them in a food processor and use them to bread fried eggplant and zucchini as well as chicken for chicken parmesan (I don’t use panko for everything fried, though I could!). I crush them and use them as binders in crab cakes and wait for it…salmon cakes. I add them to soups, stews, and chowders as a thickener (just like you might use flour or corn starch only better). Finally, I love a little bit of them ground fine and tossed with steamed vegetables and butter. That sounds weird but it works for me.
Favorite Use: Fried eggplant and zucchini with a sprinkling of parmesan cheese
Italian Seasoning: I may get some hate for this one, but I use it religiously. Italian seasoning is a mix of dried herbs commonly used in Italian cooking like basil, rosemary, and oregano. One might wonder why a cook that has all of these herbs already would need Italian seasoning. You don’t need it. Nothing on this list is necessary, but my pantry is seldom without it for long, because If I didn’t have it I would have to approximate the taste by mixing a whole bunch of herbs together. That might work but I never have marjoram so it would pale in comparison. If I have a dish and I say It needs rosemary I add rosemary, thyme I add thyme, basil I add basil. If I have a dish and I say this needs the taste of “herbs” then I add Italian seasoning. You know the taste I’m talking about. The taste only herbs can provide but not a particular herb, just herbiness.
Favorite Use: In soups and tomato sauce
This list is by no means exhaustive. I keep a lot of other prepared ingredients on hand, but these are my seven favorites. I may do a follow up with several more in the future.