For some, cooking is a passion. For others, it is a chore. I find that I lie somewhere between the two: I love getting inventive in the kitchen, but when it gets to the end of the week, and all I have left in my fridge is a woeful handful of spinach and half a tin of tomatoes, the temptation to reach for the takeaway menu is all too appetising.
This is definitely exacerbated at university. At home, if the recipe I’m working with calls for dried porcini mushrooms, or pomegranate molasses, or some other obscure ingredient only used by the likes of Ottolenghi or Blumenthal, I can almost guarantee that my mum’s extensive kitchen pantry will have it (or at least a close enough equivalent).
Given my limited kitchen cupboard space and even more limited budget at university, this kind of ingredient doesn’t tend to take priority at the checkout. However, over the years of desperately trying to spice up my instant noodles, I have honed down my go-to store cupboard essentials, which are not only easy on the wallet but also improve pretty much any meal I make. Take Susie Faux’s concept of the capsule wardrobe, and ‘foodify’ it. Simple as that.
Garlic and ginger
Okay, these aren’t technically store cupboard ingredients, but adding garlic or ginger is a sure-fire way to add flavour to any type of dish. Making a risotto? It needs garlic. Is Thai green curry on the menu? The more ginger the merrier! I use chopped garlic and ginger as a basis for every single Asian-style dish I make, with consistently delicious results.
And yes, I can hear you groaning at the thought of the sticky garlicky fingers, and that moldy thumb of ginger that ends up sitting unused in your fridge for weeks on end. Instead, try buying frozen cubes of garlic and ginger (85p apiece at Asda), which are so much quicker and last a heck of a lot longer.
I am a huge fan of spicy food, so this one is a no brainer for me. A personal favourite is sriracha, but the possibilities are endless. Chipotle sauce? Delicious. Tabasco? Yes, please. Sweet chili dipping sauce? Yum. I love adding a kick to most of my meals – be it a hearty chili, a fragrant laksa curry, or a zingy salad dressing, a little spice makes everything nice.
Cue the Facebook Mum quote: “I love cooking with wine… Sometimes I even put it in the food!”
Seriously though, adding a dash of alcohol will enhance any dish you make. Try adding a glug of that supermarket own-brand vodka to a tomatoey sauce to bring out the flavour. Or chuck the dregs of last night’s Chardonnay into your pasta. I’m not asking you to pour brandy over your dinner and set it on fire flambé-style. I’m just saying that if you’re going to chuck away that Pinot, you might as well chuck it into your meal. Waste wants not.
I literally cannot think of a dish that isn’t greatly improved by the addition of stock. It’s like salt, but better! Especially to the vegetarians and vegans out there, sometimes a meal might fall a bit flat without that extra bit of flavour that meat can bring. Stock is perfect for adding depth to any sauce, stew, gravy, or broth.
Now let me tell you something: soy sauce is not just limited to sushi. I add soy sauce to most dishes I cook – not only does it add that tasty umami flavour, but it is also a sneaky way to add glorious and rich colours to dishes that might be looking somewhat lacklustre. Marmite also works equally as well.
Here we have another versatile ingredient. Want to crisp up that tofu when you pan-fry it? Roll it in a bit of cornflour first. Need to thicken up your stew? Add one-part cornflour to two-parts water. Cheap as chips, lasts for ages, and will come in handy when you least expect it.
If you make anything (and I mean anything) with tomatoes (tinned or fresh), you need to add something sweet or sugary to bring out the fruity flavour. It might seem strange squeezing honey into your spaghetti Bolognese, but it will be all the better for it. The honey/agave is also great for sticking in salad dressings with mustard, or for drizzling over your brekkie. Versatile.
This is obviously a non-exhaustive list and won’t quite carry you through an Ottolenghi cookbook. However, these ingredients work in all manner of meals, last long enough that they won’t grow more ingredients, and are really quite tasty. So, get cooking, get experimenting, and enjoy.
If you want to see what amazing food Hannah makes with her capsule kitchen ingredients, check out her Sri Lankan cauliflower curry.