1. Fresh Herbs – There is NO exception for the use of fresh herbs. Some fresh herbs are already pretty widely used, like basil, but really make an effort to replace all of your herbs with fresh. It will make a huge difference in the taste of your finished product. Start with fresh thyme and oregano to see the difference right away. To keep the balance of the recipe just right, make sure to multiply the amount of dry herbs by three if you are substituting fresh, and add the fresh herbs later than the dry. An herb keeper will help preserve the lives of your tender herbs.
2. Dijon Mustard – combined with vinegar & oil, it’s a must for emulsifying a quick salad dressing. It adds an unmistakable tang to potatoes, grilled cheese, roasted fish, pan sauces and so much more.
3. Lentils, Quinoa, Polenta, Grits…all of these are lovely substitutes for rice, bread and potatoes, the one area of the square meal that could really use some jazzing up. They are unique and delicious, and they are no more difficult to prepare than the more traditional starches!
4. Roasting Vegetables – many of us treat veggies as an afterthought, nuking them in the last five minutes, but just 20 minutes in a 400 degree oven turns broccoli, cauliflower, and so many other vegetables into stars in their own right.
5. Lemons – If a sauce tastes “boring”, chances are it either needs salt or acid. Lemon juice can provide that acid like little else can, and it adds freshness and complexity to almost anything. Don’t neglect the zest of the lemon…it works in marinades, sauces and rubs. Always zest before you juice!
6. Butter – that’s right, butter. Many “low-fat” cooks see the word butter and panic, instantly substituting margarine or some odd replacement. There is absolutely no equal to butter’s taste and usefulness in the kitchen. Use it without regret to make the best food you’ve ever made. Eat a normal portion and you’ll be just fine.
7. Good Quality Cheeses – First and foremost, throw away that dreaded green can of parmesan cheese and grate your own…that stuff is practically sawdust! And don’t be afraid that you won’t use up the block of parmesan in time to get your money’s worth; it lasts a good, long time. But don’t stop there! Try shredding some gruyere instead of American in a grilled cheese, and tell me if that isn’t the biggest difference in the world. You will not need to use as much, because the flavor is so much more intense. It’s so worth it!
8. Salt and Pepper – No Joke. Don’t just save these for a last-minute sprinkle, or the flavors won’t generally get into what you’re preparing. Make sure to salt and pepper both sides of your food before cooking. Taste your food before serving it (seems basic, but people don’t do it enough!), and realize that, yes, you will need to add some salt. Chances are good that that is all that stands between a decent dish and a really great one.
9. Paper Towels – Dry off all meat and fish before you cook it. If you are breading it and it’s still damp, the coating won’t adhere properly. Searing is best done on dry proteins. A simple tip, but an important one.
10. Wine – When a recipe calls for wine, use wine you would willingly drink. If there is a bottle left over from Thanksgiving that has been in the refrigerator for months, it will not impart the proper flavor to your dish. That said, don’t use your best bottle of Pinot in your pan sauce. Just make sure you pour yourself a glass from the bottle you do select, and you’ll be all set.