Recently, I ended up in a conversation with another recipe developer about what the goal of a recipe is. Her point was that a really good recipe is meant to help the cook no longer need a recipe. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but I realized she is right: The point of my job is to make my job obsolete. At least when it comes to those sort of everyday, stir-it-together type of dishes. (Baking well is an entirely different matter.)
Don’t get me wrong, I love following a recipe as much as the next cook, but when I get in the rhythm of off-the-cuff cooking, that’s when I feel truly at home in the kitchen.
So much of what we do as regular cooks isn’t just following a recipe or an intense afternoon of meal prep. It’s a sort of bits and bobs approach, maybe some leftover frittata here, a little boiled-brown rice there. I’m a pro at eking meals out from just a few things on hand. Sautéed onions topped with eggs is dinner, but a dollop of pesto on top takes the dish from boring to exciting. The key to this type of eating is using my fridge as a pantry.
But isn’t the pantry… the pantry? Yes, of course. What I mean by fridge-as-pantry is long-lasting ingredients that aren’t a meal on their own and don’t need to be cooked. I’m talking about condiments like pesto, briny or acidic elements like capers or cornichons, and long-lasting flavor-packed dried chorizo or hard salami.
These types of long-term fridge-as-pantry staples allow me to cobble various elements together, whether that’s into a satisfying dinner, transforming leftovers into an exciting breakfast, or to quickly assemble an app platter when I have friends over last minute.
Here are the five things that I keep in the fridge at all times with ideas for using them in your own off-the-cuff cooking. These are items I tend to splurge on—high-quality is key when the flavor is going to stand out more than any other element of the dish. The idea is that they’re all ready to go, no prep required.
Few ingredients are as much of a flavor workhorse as dried chorizo. It’s a great shortcut to smoky richness, whether served as-is or cooked. Chorizo tastes delicious thinly sliced and served with cheese, or it can be rendered down to infuse smoky fat into whatever it touches. Try it as the base of scrambled eggs, stirred into whole grains, or in place of bacon in a Cobb-style salad. I like to drop a few chunks of chorizo into simmering beans, or place a layer of coins on top of white fish as it bakes.
It might be easier to start with a list of foods that pesto does NOT improve. Obviously, sweet items are off the table. But when it comes to savory fridge-diving, no ingredient earns its place quite like pesto. I slather it on corn tortillas to pair with leftover frittata, dollop it on skillet eggs, and stir it into mayo to wake up grain bowls. The list of foods that benefit from pesto goes on: Let a spoonful melt into leftover soup, toss with pulled chicken, or dollop onto a leftover-vegetable quiche for exciting pockets of flavor. I usually keep vegan pesto on hand (I love Gotham Greens’ version), since once opened, it has a longer shelf life than a traditional dairy-flecked one, and I can easily perk it up with Parmesan.
Ah, miso. It’s so exciting that this long-beloved staple of Japanese culture is getting so much love stateside. If you don’t have this in your fridge yet, it’s time to pick up a tub on your next shop. The most common miso is made from fermented soy beans, but it’s possible to find miso pastes made with chickpeas or brown rice. I rely on miso for quick bursts of flavor, whether mixed with butter to spread between toast and a hard-cooked egg, stirred into a chicken soup, or blended into a salty-tart dressing. Of course you’ve had polenta with butter and cheese stirred in, but have you dolloped a tablespoon of miso in there? Oatmeal cookies can benefit from some miso in the dough, too. (Hey now, I managed to fit in baking after all!) Mix the miso in with the butter and proceed with the recipe as written. Since miso is intensely salty, I recommend starting small and adjusting upwards to get to the right balance.
Ugh, Parmesan, does it really need more press? Maybe not. But I’ve found that when I have a hunk of great quality Parm on hand, my cooking is significantly better for it. Of course, almost all home cooks know by now that the rind infuses any soup or stock with rich flavor. But what about boiling your grains with a rind in there? You’re welcome. I like to use Parm to thicken the last tablespoon of a homemade dressing for something Caesar-like. Even my favorite miso-vinegar dressing is happy with a shower of Parmesan whisked in. Try broiling roasted vegetables with a generous layer of Parm or upgrading your grilled cheese.
Technically, this isn’t an ingredient so much as a category, which encompasses a wide spectrum: salty items like olives that might not have a ton of acidity, and super tart pickles that aren’t as high on salt. But they are able to achieve the same goal of waking up a dish. Briny, tart players can combat something overly fatty—a tuna melt is exponentially more delicious with chopped cornichons stirred in, and a cheesy pasta thrown together from the pantry tastes restaurant-worthy with crushed Cerignola olives. Basically, anything in this realm is an ace-in-the-hole for easy, elegant dishes. Recent favorites have included baked chicken over brown rice flecked with preserved lemon and parsley for a date-worthy meal, brown butter plus capers plus fish for a classic, casual dinner party, and chopped peppadews folded into a Caesar-esque salad for an excitingly modern lunch.
What are your favorite fridge-based flavor enhancers? Share them with us below!