Every cook has a few items without which his or her kitchen feels completely bare. Here are five essential ingredients that I have discovered that I absolutely, positively cannot cook without:
1. Sriracha hot sauce, aka the big red bottle with the rooster on it. Vietnamese immigrant Huy Fong started making this red jalapeno sauce by hand in Los Angeles, California in 1980, and now presides over a small condiment empire. I put this sauce on practically everything savory that I eat, and if I ever get my hands on an ice cream maker I'm likely to try turning out a batch of Sriracha ice cream.
2. Whole black peppercorns, a mortar, and a pestle. I hate store-bought ground pepper, which is really just mildly spicy dust, but I'm not all that enamored with those "twist-and-grind" pepper mills either. Sure, the big ones look all cool, like something you'd whack some unruly dinner guest upside the head with all Lord of the Rings-style, but they're awfully unwieldly and still only deal out pepper in amounts too small to be useful when I cook. Instead, I like to take a handful of peppercorns and grind them in my mortar and pestle on the spot -- simple and effective. Not only can I control how fine the grind will be, but once I've done it I have all the pepper I need for the entire meal as I go.
3. Trader Joe's Organic Tomato & Roasted Red Pepper Soup. While this soup is of course absolutely delicious in and of itself, I've found it to be a perfect ingredient when making sauces or kicking up something as prosaic as Turkey Taco Night. I try to keep at least one carton of this stuff around at all times (two if I've already opened one!).
4. Limes. I buy 'em by the bag every week, and somehow never fail to go through them over the next seven days. Being a fresh salsa freak probably has a lot to do with that, but then again who doesn't like a good Cuba libre every now and then -- or every night, as the case may be?
5. Chinese Five-Spice Powder. Since my best friend first used a sprinkle of it to whip up the best batch of fried rice I'd ever eaten, I've tried to maintain a supply of this blend of cassia (Chinese cinnamon), cloves, fennel seed, star anise, and sichuan peppercorn. Not only do I add it to stir-fries and the occasional curry, but it works surprisingly well as a substitute for the spicing that normally goes into a Greek tomato sauce for makaronia me kima or kreas kokkinisto. Buy it pre-made or grind your own.
So those are my Top Five. What are yours?