Homemade condiments, dressings and toppings are a pathway to fast, flavourful cooking

Todd Kliman

THE WASHINGTON POST – Cooking has always been essential to my quality of life. But in the ongoing lockdown that is our pandemic existence, it has become essential to my sanity. Can’t go to restaurants, can’t go to movies or theatres, can’t go to games. What I can do is cook.

I cook when I have the time and I cook when I don’t and I cook when I am tired and I cook when I don’t want to. I cook morning, noon and night. I am never, it seems, not cooking.

And yes, that puts enormous, some might say ridiculous, pressure on every meal, but sometime this spring, I realised there was a Venn diagram overlap in my need for escape and my need to feed myself.

That’s when I came up with the idea for what I like to call my secondary pantry.

In a restaurant kitchen, chefs have what they call their mise en place, a kind of pantry-at-the-ready filled with condiments, garnishes and sauces their cooks spent all day preparing, and that they draw upon, in the moment, to assemble their dishes.

That’s what my secondary pantry is, a kind of mise en place of homemade condiments, spice mixes and garnishes.

Roasted butternut squash with crumbled chickpeas. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

It’s hard to believe that what began as a little experiment to keep myself entertained would grow into something I now depend upon, much less that it would change the way I think about putting together a meal.

A secondary pantry isn’t something anyone needs. But like that kitchen gadget you splurge on and now find indispensable, it can make your life easier and your food taste better.

I spent over a decade as a food critic and food writer, which has left me a little too much in love with the sorts of jewelled touches chefs embrace – and that my friends sometimes roll their eyes at. But that experience also taught me a lot about the way good dishes are built.

If my pantry is for building blocks, my secondary pantry is for turning simple things – a plate of eggs, roasted vegetables – into something special. Especially when I have to hustle to put a meal on the table.

‘Pantry’ is a bit of a misnomer; because some items are shelf-stable and some can spoil.

The bulk of the secondary pantry occupies an increasingly crowded corner of one of my kitchen cabinets. Currently in rotation: breadcrumbs fried in extra-virgin olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper; orange rinds (shorn of pith) dried and pulverised into a substance that, once mixed with salt, pepper and toasted ground cumin, I call orange dust; white balsamic-pickled mustard seeds; pulverised toasted rice; a shake-on finishing sauce of smoked chillies, vinegar, oranges and oil; and something I call egg ‘floss’, aka that thin crusted-on layer you get from cooking eggs over high heat in a wok.

Items that would go bad if I left them out, I keep on a dedicated shelf of my fridge: a shallot vinaigrette that I make weekly; fried spiced chickpeas, which sometimes I use whole and other times I chop roughly; honey-pickled jalapeños; anchovy-lemon butter, and lightly pickled lemon strips.

The pickled lemon strips are a great example of an easy way to add a last-second brightness – over the top of, say, a plate of roasted asparagus or broccoli or fish tacos. To make them, remove the rinds from three lemons, making strips with a peeler. Cut away as much of the pith as possible with a knife. Julienne the strips. Into a small jar with a lid, add a quarter-cup of extra-virgin olive oil and one tablespoon each of fresh lemon juice and vinegar. Add the strips, making sure to coat them. Store in the fridge for about two weeks.

I’m at the point now where I tend to look first to the secondary pantry for inspiration, not to the meat or fish I buy. Several weeks ago, looking to do something with a butternut squash that wasn’t a soup or a stew, I scanned my collection. The dish quickly took shape.

I cubed the squash, drizzled the pieces with maple syrup and roasted them. When the cubes were done, I dressed them with a splash of shallot vinaigrette, sprinkled on a few spoonfuls each of crumbled spiced chickpeas and olive oil-fried breadcrumbs, and crowned the dish with a garnish of chopped celery leaves.

The result was at once sweet, spicy, crunchy and salty, and felt more like a main dish than a side.

In the end, that might be the thing I love best about my secondary pantry, that it provides me endless pathways to quick and simple dishes that, ultimately, make me feel a little less deprived, a little less stuck.

ROASTED BUTTERNUT SQUASH WITH CRUMBLED CHICKPEAS

One hour 15 minutes

Two to eight servings

Storage Notes: Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to three days. Heat in a shallow dish in the microwave on HIGH for about three minutes or on the stove in a pan over low heat.

INGREDIENTS

FOR THE SQUASH

Neutral oil, such as canola or vegetable, to grease the baking sheet

One butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut in half-inch dice

Two tablespoons maple syrup

Quarter teaspoon kosher salt

Coarsely ground black pepper

FOR THE CHICKPEAS

One-third cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed

One can chickpeas, drained and patted dry

One tablespoon ground cumin

One tablespoon smoked paprika

One teaspoon ground coriander

One teaspoon curry powder

Half teaspoon ground cinnamon

Kosher salt

Coarsely ground black pepper

FOR THE SHALLOT VINAIGRETTE

Half cup vinegar

Half cup extra-virgin olive oil

One large shallot, minced

Quarter teaspoon kosher salt

Coarsely ground black pepper

FOR THE BREADCRUMBS

Two slices stale or well-toasted bread

Three tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Quarter teaspoon kosher salt, or more to taste

Coarsely ground black pepper

One tablespoon chopped celery leaves or fresh parsley, for serving (optional)

DIRECTIONS

Make the squash: Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 425 degrees. Lightly grease a large, rimmed baking sheet with oil.

Add the squash to the baking sheet, drizzle with the maple syrup, season lightly with salt and pepper, and toss to coat. Arrange the squash in a single layer. Roast for 35 to 45 minutes, or until the squash turns light golden and can be pierced with a knife but isn’t soft.

Make the chickpeas: While the squash is roasting, line a plate with paper towels and place it near the stove.

In a medium, nonstick skillet over medium heat, heat the olive oil until shimmering. Add one chickpea to test the oil – if it sizzles, add the rest. Fry the chickpeas, gently tossing them and shaking the pan every 30 seconds, until deeper golden, about three minutes. Add the cumin, paprika, coriander, curry and cinnamon, one at a time, and continue tossing between each addition.

The chickpeas will absorb a good bit of the oil, so you may need to add more as they cook. Adjust the heat as needed to keep the chickpeas sizzling without burning the spices. It may take about 10 minutes until they look glossy, brownish and begin to crisp, so be patient. To test, take one chickpea out, let it cool a bit, and taste. The chickpeas should be almost crunchy, like corn nuts.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer the chickpeas to the prepared plate to drain. Season with the salt and pepper. When the chickpeas are no longer hot, roughly chop them with a large chef’s knife. Makes about one generous cup.

Make the vinaigrette: In a small bowl, combine the vinegar, oil, shallot, salt and a pinch of pepper and whisk to combine. Taste, and adjust seasoning as needed. Makes about one generous cup.

Make the breadcrumbs: Line a plate with a paper towel and place it near the stove. In a food processor, pulse the bread until you have small crumbs.

In a small pan over low-medium heat, heat the oil until just warm. Add the crumbs and cook, stirring frequently, until golden and crisp, three to five minutes. Transfer to the prepared plate, season generously with the salt and pepper and let cool. Makes about three- quarter cup.

To assemble: Arrange the roasted butternut squash on a large platter and drizzle with quarter cup of the shallot vinaigrette. Top with six tablespoons of the chopped spiced chickpeas, followed by two tablespoons of the breadcrumbs, and finish with one tablespoon of chopped celery leaves or parsley, if using. Serve family-style warm or at room temperature, with extra dressing on the side, if desired.

Nutrition (based on eight servings) | Calories: 283; Total Fat: 8g; Saturated Fat: 1g; Cholesterol: 0mg; Sodium: 134mg; Carbohydrates: 29g; Dietary Fibre: 5g; Sugar: 7g; Protein: 3g.