Crate Cooking is for anyone who wants to simplify their cooking using fewer ingredients. Here are my Basic Crate items for Spring. Beginning with these ingredients you can create an infinite amount of meals once adding seasonal produce.
Olive Oil, Extra Virgin
A baguette’s crisp crust makes it the perfect accompaniment to soups, salads and egg dishes. I like to have them for opened-faced sandwiches and appetizer crostini in this crate, and also use them to make my Simple Croutons.
I love to shop at Italian markets and dairies. My two favorite locations in New York, Faicco’s and DiPalo’s, both sell house-made ricotta in three pound containers for a discount. Sometimes I’ll eat it like yogurt, mix it with eggs for breakfast or enjoy it tossed with hot pasta. I always buy whole milk ricotta.
Purchasing chickens, whole, gives you the most bang for your buck. Plus, chicken cooked on the bone with the skin is both juicier and more tasty! You can roast a whole bird or cut it into pieces for faster cooking time. If I ask my butcher to cut the chicken into pieces I always save the back for stock (I place the chicken backs in a freezer-safe bag and freeze them until I collect enough to make a large batch of stock). Seek out birds that are free range and organic.
Eggs are one of the cheapest sources of protein. I like to buy two dozen at a time, keeping one dozen on hand for cooking and the second for soft or sometimes hard boiled eggs. They are great for a quick snack. Free range and organic are the best type of eggs you can buy, preferably from a farmers market. Unfortunate boiled egg tidbit: the fresher the egg the harder it is to peel off the shell. If you have eggs that have been sitting in your refrigerator for a while, hard boiling them is a great use.
Salt and acid are the two most powerful ingredients you can use to flavor food, and lemon juice is my acid of choice. The zest also has a powerful, citrus flavor which is a delicious addition to marinades and baking. Lemon adds brightness to food and pairs well with herbs and other greens. While lemons stored in the refrigerator last longer, they are easier to juice once they’ve sat at room temperature. In my recipes I call for the “zest of 1 lemon” and “juice of 1 lemon” rather than measuring. All lemons vary in size so taste as you go and add more if you’d like!
You can find good Dijon mustard at just about any grocery store. It’s so much more than a sandwich condiment! When added to a vinaigrette the mustard is an easy and flavorful way to dress any type of salad or vegetable dish.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Liquid gold. Second only to organic meat, olive oil is where you should be spending the most money with your grocery shopping. Buy the best quality you can afford. Not all olive oils are created equal! I have a year subscription from Especially Puglia that sends me a 3L tin ever quarter. Quality oil makes all the difference in simple recipes. I like to drizzle it over fresh cheeses, grilled meats and fish and also use it to finish soups. A small drizzle of olive oil to finish a dish adds a fresh and herbabicous flavor. I often keep a slightly less expensive bottle on hand for sauteing or frying, but I use olive oil for all my cooking.
While I try not to eat pasta too often, keeping a dried box on hand is a quick solution for a delicious meal. I find tubular shapes (penne, gemelli) and spaghetti to be the most versatile in dishes. The key to flavorful pasta is heavily salted cooking water.
I buy black peppercorns in bulk and grind them very coarsely as I cook, never far in advance, in a Peugeot grinder. When pepper is too finely ground it tastes somewhat dirty to me. There’s also no need to buy fancy colors – black is fine.
It may seem like an odd choice but I always have a half pound of prosciutto in my refrigerator. In my recipes bacon, pancetta or guanciale could easy work in its place but I like how prosciutto requires little to no prep. You can enjoy it cold, as is, with eggs in the morning, on a sandwich or in an appetizer spread. It crisps in a hot skillet much like bacon but in a quarter of the time, and is very lean. Yes, prosciutto is pricey but a little goes a long way.
I love salt. Culinary school and working in a restaurant will turn you in to a saltaholic. Don’t think of it as sodium – understand that salt enhances the natural flavors in food. Salt your food as you cook it, as opposed to adding it all at the end. In the spring and early summer I like to blanch a lot of my vegetables and salt is essential in bringing out the flavor. While there are many various types of salt I’ve tested these recipes with Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt, which comes in a red box. I keep a small bowl of it on my counter while I cook.
Here’s my Seasonal Crate, which, depending on the weather or your locality, can be used for spring and/or early summer. These seasonal items are available at both grocery stores and farmers markets.
Peas, Sugar Snaps
One of the first green vegetables to note spring’s arrival, I find myself going overboard once it’s finally available and buy so much asparagus. They come in a variety of sizes from pencil-thin to fat stalks. I prefer mine somewhere in the middle and like to trim them by snapping off the bottoms. To store asparagus in the refrigerator, stand them upright in a wide glass with a half inch of water in the bottom and cover with a plastic bag.
I love the sweetness of fresh spearmint. It’s wonderful with savory dishes, too, excellent in vinagrettes and with vegetables. Wrap fresh mint in a paper towel then place in an open plastic bag. It should keep for a week. Dry fresh leaves for a simple herbal tea.
Pea shoots are the tips of young pea plants. Sweet and delicate in flavor, you can simply dress them with a drizzle of olive oil and/or a squeeze of lemon to add a quick green side to your table. If you can’t find pea shoots during a later season you can substitute another type of shoot, sprout or baby greens.
Also known as shelling or English peas, green pea pods cannot be eaten and the peas must be shelled. Once shelled, the peas require very little cooking. Blanch them in heavily salted water then shock in an ice bath to stop the cooking and retain the green color in the peas. They pair excellently with mint.
Sugar Snap Peas
Unlike green peas you can eat sugar snap pods. They are wonderful raw, sautéed or blanched. But don’t cook too much as I like mine to still have a little “snap” to them! You’ll need to remove the string that runs along the pod while trimming.
One of the things I love best about new potatoes is that you don’t have to peel them. Their young skins add earthiness and color to a dish. Best boiled or roasted, they come in a variety of colors.
Radishes are one of my favorite things to buy at the farmers market. They are generally one of the most inexpensive vegetables and can last a very long time in the refrigerator. I like to put out a plate of them with salted ricotta as a snack or a quick bite before dinner. Other than cleaning and trimming, crunchy radishes require little preparation since they are best raw.
Sometimes called bunching onions, spring onions are immature, young onions with softer, white bulbs and green tops still attached. While milder in flavor than a traditional onion, both the white and green parts are edible. They are also delicious raw and you can substitute scallions in a pinch.
Tarragon is a very versatile, soft herb, essential to spring and summer cooking. Best with eggs, potatoes, chicken and fish, I also like to add it to vinaigrettes and sauces.