Over the years I have become very particular about the ingredients in my pantry. I have my favourite brands and I don't waver from them very often.
Someone recently asked me why it matters - isn't a can, a can? Yes and no. I would argue that there are pantry staples where grabbing the cheapest brand is not going to impact flavour and others where you can't cut corners - well you shouldn't at least, for flavour's sake.
These are my 10 commandments of the Kiwi pantry. The ingredients it is okay to skimp on and those you really, really shouldn't.
A few years ago I was chatting with a chef and we got on to the subject of tomatoes. We were talking about the popularity of the Mediterranean diet and how the lycopene goodness in tomatoes is thought to be a big part of the health benefits.
The conversation then somehow shifted to tinned tomatoes and I commented on what a great pantry staple they were because they are so cheap. There was a moment of silence before this well-known Kiwi chef told me that cheap "no-name" tinned tomatoes were a no go for anyone who takes their cooking seriously.
I tried to argue - because that's what I do – and he told me "go home, buy two tins of chopped tomatoes, one the cheapest and one top shelf, open them, pour each into a separate bowl and then call me and tell me what you see."
I did as I was instructed and I was amazed that I had never noticed the difference before. The cheaper tomatoes were almost pink in colour and came in a watery juice, while the more expensive were rich, blood red, with very little extra liquid. I have never bought cheap tomatoes again.
Verdict: Go top shelf with tomatoes every time.
Favourite brand: Mutti Polpa Finely Chopped Tomatoes, available at most major supermarkets.
When it comes to day to day flour use and a bit of baking here and there then cheap as chips plain all-purpose flour is the way to go. The only exception to this rule for me is bread and pizza dough.
I love making my own bread and pizza is a weekly tradition in my house. I was really struggling to get the results I wanted with my pizza dough, I ended up with a bulk bag of high-grade flour from Boric and a lovely nutty organic wholemeal flour from Bin Inn. I also go organic with flours that you use for big flavour, like rye, I like Ceres Organics Wholemeal Rye Flour.
Verdict: Cheap for day-to-day, best you can find for bread/pizza
Many years ago I had a friend who fell in love with mustard so much she bought a whole box and handed jars out to friends. That is the kind of passionate love that mustard should evoke.
I was recently at one of my favourite places, Cazador Deli, in Auckland buying some lovely deli meats, some cheese, crackers and bread to make a little platter of goodies at home. I love talking to the staff there, they are passionate foodies and really know their stuff. On this particular day, after chatting cheese at length, the lovely staff member (with a gorgeous French accent) said to me: "do you have the good mustard?". I simply replied: "no" as I really wanted to see where she was going with this.
She handed me a tiny little jar. It was French mustard, infused with yuzu and it was incredible. I loved it so much that I almost cried when I went back to stock up and they were out of stock. It is a tiny jar, it is imported and it is expensive, but it is oh so worth it.
You may already have your favourite mustard, but if you can find a jar of this, it is really worth a try.
Verdict: Mustard is always good, but some are exceptional and worth the extra money.
Favourite brand: Edmond Fallot Yuzu Mustard, available online or from Cazador Deli.
I am probably going to rub some people the wrong way but I firmly believe that for most pasta dishes the cheap $1 kind is just fine.
Carbonara, minestrone or a pasta bake – your cheapest dried pastas are fine here. The exceptions are ravioli, tortellini and lasagne. For these, more elaborate pastas I believe you need fresh, not dried. If you are thinking that dried is fine for lasagne, try it with fresh next time and you won't be saying that anymore.
Verdict: for most pasta dishes cheap is great, but do splurge on fresh lasagne sheets next time.
When I was on a work trip to New Plymouth I had the privilege of chatting to another wonderful Kiwi chef. We talked about pasta mainly and how simple things are often the best.
Then I asked him the question that I ask almost every single passionate foodie I meet: "What is the one ingredient you can't do without, the one thing you would never skimp on." He was so excited to share his answer with me he rushed off to the kitchen of his restaurant and came back with two large bottles of vinegar. "These are the only vinegars you should use," he said.
He handed me a spoon. I took a taste and I was converted. He warned me that these vinegars were imported and not cheap, but, as someone who uses vinegar a lot in my cooking to achieve depth of flavour, I was willing to pay. Forvm vinegars have been brewed by the same Spanish family for decades. I was introduced to their Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon Vinegar and, wow! Add some to a pasta sauce, drizzle over vege and when it comes to salad, a dash of Forvm and some good olive oil is all you need.
Verdict: If you love vinegar, the best is worth the investment.
Favourite brand: Forvm, available from Farro and specialist food stores.
I toss seeds into every salad I make. I also love making seed loaves when I have the time. In order to be able to satisfy my seed love I buy them in large, resealable bags in bulk. I have also grabbed a spoonful or two from the supermarket pick and mix and there was no difference.
A seed is a seed, and they are delicious and good for you, no matter. Next time you make a salad, toast some pumpkin seeds, toss a little maple syrup into the pan and a pinch of cayenne pepper, and toss to coat. Then sprinkle on top and enjoy.
Verdict: Cheap is fine here.
New Zealand produces some wonderful local olive oils. One of my favourites is the award-winning Rangihoua Estate, on Waiheke Island. Their olive oils are delightful, but alas, are at a price range that puts them in the treat category for me, not for everyday use.
I use a lot of olive oil at home, so while I have tasted some wonderful boutique oils, I have also tried and tested the oils on offer in my local supermarket and I have one that I absolutely love. The Village Press has a range of oils catering for everyone, from those who prefer a mild taste, to those like me who want to be hit over the head with flavour.
They also have an organic olive oil, made in partnership with an olive growing family in La Mancha, Spain that is available in local supermarkets at a staggeringly low price (under $14 for 750ml) for how good it is. So, what am I really saying about olive oil is that it is a bit like shoes, you have to find one that fits.
Verdict: Don't go cheap, but you don't need to spend a fortune.
Favourite brand: The Village Press, Global Village Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
Cans of beans should be in everyone's pantry. They are delicious, good for you and bulk out meals. I tend to have chickpeas, black beans and red kidney beans on hand at all times. I sometimes splurge on organic but I have never noticed a big quality difference between the cheap and the more expensive. I could be missing something but I think canned beans is one area we can cut a corner or two.
Verdict: Cheaper is a-ok
If you are tossing a tin of apricots in to sweeten a sauce, it probably doesn't matter, but if you are using tinned fruit as the main event then it does matter.
I am a huge fan of clafoutis, a super simple dessert of fruit and a sweet batter, that takes no time at all and is delightful served warm with cream. If you are doing something like that you want a good brand. Also, if you are using tinned fruit to top off your morning cereal, again you probably want to go top-shelf.
I think the Watties, pick of the crop tinned fruits are great. They come in juice, not syrup, and the fruit is plump and flavourful, particularly their pears, peaches and apricots. Next time you grab a can of peaches, try this wonderful clafoutis recipe.
Verdict: Go top shelf if the fruit is the main event, otherwise skimping is ok
If you are putting oats in your baking – cookies, crumble topping etc – then you can probably get away with the cheapest bag of oats that you can lay your hands on.
But if you are planning to make a bowl of warming, delicious morning oats with just a sprinkle of brown sugar, then you need to fork out for the best. In addition, if you are into a thing often called "overnight oats" you will really notice the difference if you switch to a slightly higher calibre of oat.
Cheaper oats will be more course and you will find yourself coming across unpalatable hard bits, that are a bit too much like plastic for my liking. Yes, the ready to go sachets with flavouring are super convenient and I am in no way arguing against them if that is your thing, but if you want to try something different, I have included my absolute favourite morning treat that is actually really good for you: Apple Pie Overnight Oats (recipe below).
Verdict: Buy the best, unless you are baking with them.
Favourite brand: Harraways Extra Creamy Scotch Oats.
Apple Pie Overnight Oats
Makes 2 serves
Soaking raw oats overnight, rather than cooking them is said to make them much easier for our gut to digest, making this both healthy and delicious. There is some night-before prep, but it is well worth it, and once you get the hang of it you will be able to get into a speedy routine of popping this bad boy in the fridge just before you go to bed. You can enjoy this warm or cold, your call.
½ cup good quality oats
1 Tbsp chia seeds
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp honey or maple syrup
3/4 cup almond milk
½ an apple, grated
1 small handful of walnuts, chopped
1. Combine all of the ingredients, except for the walnuts, in a jar with a lid. Make sure that there is enough almond milk to cover the oats with a bit extra as both the oats and chia will absorb a lot of moisture.
2. Pop it in the fridge overnight.
3. The next morning, give it a stir, scoop half into a jar or airtight container, toss your chopped walnuts on top and hit the road.
- Feel free to omit the nuts if that is not your thing, but they add great crunch and healthy fats.
- Frozen raspberries also work brilliantly in this, although you will need to add them in the morning, not the night before.