All-time favorite lists: My top 5 cooking ingredients.

Okay, so last week, I rounded up my all-time favorite kitchen gadgets in honor of Epicurious‘s 15th Anniversary. And, I might have mentioned how I love lists, in passing.

How about my all-time favorite cooking ingredients? I’m going to give stuff like salt, extra virgin olive oil and butter a pass on this one because they’re no-brainers. Everybody knows how awesome stuff is when you put butter in it. Duh. Those are things that most people use, anyway. This is stuff that kicks things up a notch, as Emeril would say.

1.  Sesame Oil
I’ve only been onto sesame oil for a few years, but once I tasted it, I knew I loved it. Nutty, roasted goodness. Mmm. Its a staple for Asian cuisine, but that shouldn’t limit you in its uses. I love a few dashes on salad. Or in a dish I make with sauted chicken breast and pasta. I was eating some soup at an Asian restaurant a couple years ago. It was a lobster hot and sour soup, but it was more like lobster bisque. Not hot or sour at all, but it had this deep, roasted nutty flavor to it Yep, sesame oil.

2.  Goat Cheese
I love goat cheese. I love it plain, in salads, in pasta, in quesadillas, on pizza … I’m starting to sound like green eggs and ham. “Not on a boat, not on a goat, …” Put it in a omlet instead of feta. Basically, you can put it in anything you would feta and it will be better. I’m not sayin’ I don’t like feta. We’re talkin’ cheese, people! It’s just better than feta. It is even good on toast with jam. No lie.

3.  Cilantro
I’m not a big “you must use fresh herbs!” kinda cook. I like ’em when I have ’em, but I’m not above whipping out a little jar of dried basil if need be. Don’t get me wrong. Fresh tastes better, but if you’re making something like lasagna, is it going to be a big deal if you use dried instead of fresh? Well, I’ve never tried dried cilantro. Never looked for it at the grocery store. Do they even make it? Don’t know. Because cilantro is one of those things that you can taste in food. Even if it’s something like enchiladas. It’s used in Latin dishes a lot, but that doesn’t matter. Hmm, what if I made an omlet with goat cheese in it and sesame oil, and chopped up some cilantro to mix in the egg mixture? Hmmm.

4. Shrimp stock
I always buy shrimp with the shell on. It’s a pain in the ass to peel them when you’re cooking them, but I use the discarded shells to make stock. And I freeze it in my muffin tin in 1/3 cup portions and keep it in a ziplock bag pretty much all the time. It’s so easy, and you’ll never have to buy clam juice or anything at the store for some obscure recipe, because you can substitute this. I most use it to make jambalaya. I cook the rice in shrimp stock for extra flavor. But I’ve used it to make wonton soup by subbing some of the chicken stock (but not all of it) for shrimp stock. It gave it a little different flavor. As a matter of fact, you can mix it in anything you might be needing chicken or beef stock for to give stuff a little different taste. In a good way.

5. Heavy Cream
Okay, so this borders on the basics like extra-virgin olive oil and butter, but I include it on the list for one reason. Approximately, 98% of the time a recipe calls for heavy cream DO NOT try to substitute milk, even worse, skim milk, for the sake of saving calories, or because you think there’s no need to drop 4.99 on a quart of cream when you only need 1/2 a cup.  They’re not interchangeable. That being said, one time I made a pumpkin chowder that called for 5 cups of heavy cream, and it was just too rich. Next time, I’ll likely sub maybe 1 1/2 cups of chicken stock. If you do want to cut calories in a recipe, you can in some cases sub half and half for cream, or even for part of the cream. However, most of the time, recipes only call for a small amount of cream, because it is so rich. And, as long as you don’t eat it every since day, a little bit won’t hurt ya.

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