Some cooks are not tied to recipes. They make use of whatever ingredients they find in their cupboards or their refrigerators, and rather than search grocery stores for exotic ingredients they’ve never heard of, they create interesting concoctions using what they have. I am not one of those cooks.
This explains why I have eleven different kinds of vinegar, including champagne, fig, cabernet sauvignon, chocolate, and brown rice, on one shelf in my cupboard. On the same shelf I have four bottles of balsamic vinegar. Despite this extravagant collection, I can’t remember when the last time I used any but the white and red wine vinegars. But you can count on some recipe I tried in the past calling for each of these fancier flavors.
Spices multiply like rabbits, and shopping at Costco and Trader Joe’s doesn’t help. We now have three large jars of cinnamon, three of vanilla extract, two of oregano and a half pound of cumin. And why did I think I needed a big jar of wasabi powder? Sharing shelf space are one jar of culinary lavender, one of allspice berries, and a bottle of asafoetida. The single time I used a quarter of a teaspoon of the latter probably occurred twenty years ago. The label says, “used mostly in Indian and Iranian cookery…an excellent replacement for garlic and onion.” And it comes from Norway, Iowa, population 545 according to the 2010 census.
Is the problem that we worry we’ll run out of an important ingredient before we can get to one of the five grocery stores within a mile of our house? No. Partly it’s from chaos in the cupboards. Recently we rectified this by organizing the vinegars, oils, grains and sugars. In doing so, we discovered we also had four tins of cocoa and three kinds of bakers’ chocolate.
The moral of the story for me, besides becoming familiar with what I already have, is to stop paying attention to recipes that call for a quarter teaspoon of some unfamiliar ingredient that is an excellent substitute for onion and garlic. Also, I should use up what’s left of the asafoetida, so I can help keep what is perhaps the primary employer in Norway, Iowa in business.