Abracadabra in the kitchen

Harry Houdini always had an escape route up his sleeve.  While his stunts appeared to showcase a supernatural  power to escape many locks in perilous conditions, a skeleton key and a double jointed body helped to guarantee him safe passage.  Why don’t we cooks take a little advice from Mr. Houdini and give ourselves a way out when the going gets tough?  What is your kitchen skeleton key?  And, no, take-out does not count!  (Though, to be clear,  I am all for take-out!  It’s just that I am also all for being prepared in case you want-or need-to cook.)  Think about it.  I believe that a well stocked pantry is as useful as Mr. Houdini’s secret keys and flexibility; it can save you in a moment of near cooking disaster.

These are a few of the ingredients in my pantry and kitchen that I keep on hand to guarentee success in the face of any surprise guest, late (or no) meal planning, or culinary disaster. (I’ve had plenty!)   Here they are in no particular order:

  • Fresh basil- I keep a plant of it on my window sill at all times.   It is fabulous cut up into salads, stuck under the skin of a chicken breast with goat cheese, in butter over corn or potatoes, in pasta, etc.
  • Moonblush tomatoes- see the post “Girls you can count on” for the recipe.  They are fabulous in pasta, salads or as an appetizer.
  • Good quality olive oil. 
  • Sea salt- I prefer Maldon’s, but whatever you like works.
  • Garlic
  • Good quality parmesan- great on salads, pasta or just to nibble before dinner.
  • unsalted butter
  • bacon- fabulous in salads, pastas and everything else!
  • Craisins (dried cranberries)- These add a fresh bite to salads and cookies.
  • Slivered Almonds- add a fabulous punch if toasted- in salads, pastas and desserts
  • Potatoes- a good potato can right a great deal of wrongs.  They can be baked, mashed, gratined, boiled or fried.  They are fabulous no matter how you prepare them!
  • Pasta- all shapes and sizes.  Because most pasta dishes don’t take very long to make, this is the perfect fall back item.  Add olive oil, a few moonblush tomatoes, some good parmesan and red pepper flakes and you are in business!
  • Olives- I love a good olive.  Be it roasted or brined- olives are it!  They are great in pastas (no pits) or as a starter (pits are fine) before dinner. 
  • Goat cheese- this is so versatile!  You can add it to pasta and get a defacto cream sauce effect;  you can  add herbs to it and have an amazing appetizer; you can stick it under chicken breasts and have a divine entrée.  You get the idea.  It’s great to have a roll of it in the fridge.
  • Dried mushrooms- fabulous in pasta, or even with chicken.  Can use in soups.  Great to have in your back pocket.
  • Chicken stock- you can make soups, sauces and pastas and more.  It adds a depth of flavor that can’t be duplicated.  I make it (See post: Taking Stock) and freeze so that I always have it around. 
  • Dijon mustard- fabulous spread over a beef fillet, as an ingredient in marinades, or salad dressings
  • wine- both red and white.  Great for sauces and deglazing of pans.  Terrific addition to marinades.
  • lemons- perfect for salad dressings, chicken dishes
  • onions- perfect for pasta, veggie or chicken dishes
  • white sugar…need I say more!
  • molasses- fabulous for baking
  • Good quality semi-sweet and bitter-sweet chocolate
  • good quality brown sugar, both light and dark
  • confectioners sugar- baking
  • balsamic vinegar- baking, salad dressings and some main course and sides
  • good quality vanilla extract- baking

Note: this is by no means a complete list.  If there is something that you can’t live without in your pantry- please share by commenting!  I’d love to hear what your skeleton key is!


  1. Posted February 3, 2010 at 7:35 am | Permalink | Reply

    Thank you again for mentioning the merchants in Bronxville (in this case Paul from Mini’s) when writing your column for myhometown. This kind of community support is very valuable and is another reminder how important it is to support our local merchants. I love your recipes. Keep up the good work. Thanks, Ruth Wood

  2. Betsy L
    Posted February 3, 2010 at 10:26 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Hummus (hummous?) and carrots, red peppers, grape tomatoes and celery are always in my fridge – good for snacking, and good for the unexpected hors d’oeuvres demand – like tonight, when I need to take an hors d’oeuvres to an event, and the day got away from me. Easy and a yummy alternative to rich hors d’oeuvres offerings.

    Thanks to you, I now have basil and rosemary on my windowsill – thanks for the reminder!

  3. Miquele Pizzol
    Posted February 13, 2010 at 7:17 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Helpful list! Besides some of the items on your list, black pepper is a must in my kicthen. I add it to everything I make, unless the recipe says otherwise. And cinnamon, which goes well with most of my baking.

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