Filling the Fridge – Salt and Umami

One of the things that got me thinking I need to do this blog is the thought, “What would you run out and buy first if your fridge and pantry were somehow lost?”
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  • Perhaps, like Felix Unger, I would need to move in with an old friend (unlikely, Sue+Joel=Forever).
  • Perhaps you’re a recent graduate just moving into your first apartment
  • Perhaps there was an earthquake. A terrible flood. Locusts! IT WASN’T MY FAULT, I SWEAR TO GOD!

The answer, of course, is condiments.

(Darn, perhaps the title of this blog should have been “The Condimentor”)

The actual picture of my refrigerator door to the right is almost completely condiments.  The butter compartment has butter, margarine and a (ahem) spare piece of cooked bacon; the bottom shelf has two spirits (an old bottle of Lillet, and a bottle of Eiswein).  The shelves of the fridge have even more, although right now there’s a lot of space taken up by produce and leftovers, and other jars of things that have been accused of being condiments but are really ingredients. I’ll be dividing these into EssentialImportant, and Bonus sets. Essentials are things that get used frequently enough that you had better have them on hand.  Important ones are useful enough to have, but there may be a substitute or you may not use frequently enough to justify stocking it up.  Bonus items are ones I just happen to have.

So today, let’s think about some of the categories of what you should fill your fridge with, starting with salty and umami.  Interestingly, they seem to be a single category, as the seriously umami-laden sauces and such are usually salty. If you don’t know what umami is, you’re probably reading the wrong blog, but go to Wikipedia.  I’ll wait until you come back.

Essentials:

  • Heinz Ketchup. Umami? Yes sir, tomatoes are full of it. Salty, definitely. I don’t typically salt french fries if I’ve got ketchup around. It’s a cure for a pale, wan burger. I may mention it again under salty and sour, because Ketchup is the most flavor packed food out there (I’m guessing #2 is Skippy Peanut Butter, but it’s short on sour). Why Heinz? It’s the only one that’s just right.
  • Soy Sauce. Maybe my palate is busted when it comes to salty, but I can’t tell the difference between light and dark soy. I only stock one, a big bottle of Kikkoman (sometimes I get the Organic version, sometimes I’m cheap). Get one with the fewest ingredients possible: soy beans, salt, water.

Important:

  • Fish Sauce. Right now, it’s Three Crabs, LTHForum has a whole thread on recommendations for fish sauce. If you don’t cook southeast asian food, it’s less likely you’ll need this. This is usually more of an ingredient than used as a condiment on its own, except for the occasional Pho.
  • Anchovies. I keep a tube of anchovy paste: it’s the least economical way to store, but it keeps forever and is convenient.  I also have some salt-packed ones in the freezer. No, they don’t go on pizza, but they enhance braises, and are essential for a Caesar Salad — either whole fillets on the top or as an element of the dressing.
  • Worcestershire Sauce. A quick jolt of this can be used to improve beef or pork, some salad dressings.
  • Miso paste belongs on this list, but it’s more of an ingredient — I’ve never just plain added it to a dish, although Momofuku mixes it with butter for things like corn on the cob.
  • Olives.  Usually several varieties reside in the fridge. Chopping some up make a quick pasta dish, green ones go into Shrimp Veracruz, and they go on almost every salad.

Note that the first three items above are not vegetarian. That’s only a worry for me when I’m cooking for a group, but it’s something to remember.

Bonus:

  • Oyster Sauce. Again more of an ingredient, I never use it by itself. Again, not vegetarian.
  • XO Sauce. Sort of a thicker, spicier version of Oyster Sauce, even less vegetarian (usually has cured pork products).
  • Shrimp Paste. Even less of a condiment, this has the concentrated funk and umami of fish sauce.  I only use a couple teaspoons of this a year.
  • Tomato Paste. Again, a squeeze tube is wildly expensive compared to a can, but for some reason, wasting 2/3 of a 99-cent can bothers me more than buying a $5 squeeze tube with a smaller quantity.
  • Capers. These have a flavor I put somewhere between mustard and formaldehyde… but are quite appealing in small quantities in sauces.  The Jerusalem cookbook has an amazing caper and leek sauce for fish.
  • Steak Sauce. There’s a bottle of A1 on the bottom shelf, but I can’t think of the last time it was used.
  • Chili Sauce. Needed it for a recipe… I don’t use it much. Can substitute ketchup in many cases, although it’s preferred for making some barbecue and cocktail sauces.

That’s enough for now.  A few of the salty items also fall under sweet (thick soy/kecap manis) or spicy (Cholula, Tabasco, etc.), but I’ll put them on a different list.