Cheats for Ethnic Cooking: 18 Pantry Must-Haves
New Orleanians cook practically everything with a mixture of diced bell peppers, onions and celery, commonly called “The Holy Trinity.” All cuisines have a few can’t-live-without ingredients; That’s what distinguishes chicken parmigiana (Italian) from chicken creole (Creole) and chicken creole from chicken tinga (Mexican). The easiest way to feign a mastery of different ethnic cuisines, is to know the key ingredients. Once you know the key ingredients, you can cook anything and make it taste like the most well-known foods of that cuisine. Please keep reading if you want to learn how to cheat your way to cooking Creole, Mexican, and Italian.
- "The Holy Trinity" (Sautéed diced bell peppers, onions, and celery)
- Cayenne pepper (Just to add spice—PLEASE use sparingly)
- Bay Leaf (It's good luck if you get the leaf in the red beans! Well…it was good luck at McDonogh #39 Elementary School!)
- Roux (Flour and fat/oil/butter. A base for all stews and soups. It's easy to make a roux as long as you keep an eye on it. Heat the fat/oil/butter and slowly add flour until it gets thicker…keep stirring and watch it get darker. Different recipes will tell you the color the roux should be. Usually, I sauté my Holy Trinity first and then add more oil and flour and make my roux all in the same pan. You don't have to.)
- If you are cooking something with seafood, add some liquid crab boil. This will give your food a "hot boiled seafood flavor."
- Cook everything "slow and low." Don't raise the fire too high and don't try to rush the food. Notice how there are no Creole fast food restaurants?
- Don't throw anything away until you are done cooking. For example, if you peeled shrimp and crawfish for something, put the heads on the side because you might want to boil them down to make a stock.
- Pico de Gallo (Raw diced tomatoes, onions, and cilantro)
- Chile peppers/chile powder
- If you are serving something on/with soft corn tortillas, drain any excess liquid. Otherwise, the tortilla will become flimsy and may break.
- Layer flavors: When I make my famous quesadillas, I brush a little olive oil on the pan side of the tortilla before sprinkling it with a cumin and chili powder mixture.
- You can make it a meal by adding a side of Spanish rice and refried or black beans.
- Olive Oil (Use it to sauté, pan-fry, or just add a little moisture and flavor.)
- Tomatoes (Sauce, paste, sun-dried, diced, etc.)
- White cheeses (Parmesan, fontina, romano, provolone, etc.)
- When serving something with/over pasta, make sure you salt the water that the pasta is cooking in (It boils faster and it will make the pasta taste good by itself) and don't rinse the pasta.
- In my opinion, dried herbs work as well—if not better—than fresh in many cases; don't spend money unnecessarily.
- When cooking with wine, add it as close to the end of cooking as possible so that you won't cook out the flavor.
READERS: What's your favorite type of food to cook? Do you have a specialty? Is there a cuisine that you would love to master, but are afraid to try? Please post your comments and questions below!