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Acquainting Myself With the Kitchen After Years of Neglect

By , Alicia Capetillo, Staff Writer
"Hello, kitchen, such a pleasure to meet you. My name is Alicia." So began week two of the grand delivery detox experiment. The kitchen, to this point, has been a kind of love-hate relationship. I love it for its potential: Brownies and roast turkeys both come out of those swinging doors. On the other hand, I hate the impending dangers lurking around every corner. Burns from the stove, dropping a knife on my toe, accidentally getting a jalapeno pepper seed in my eye are all things I have worried about happening on my few run-ins with this room.

That said, with a few recipes under my belt and not a singed eyebrow in sight, I was feeling almost confident. Meaning it was time for a facelift and some serious grocery shopping.

Getting to Know You, Getting to Know All About You

The first step in getting to know my kitchen as a functional space (as opposed to the place I stroll through once a week on my way to taking the garbage out the back door) was tossing last year's Valentine's candy and two near-empty jars of peanut butter, and restocking my otherwise barren shelves. A huge cooking annoyance is having to make multiple trips to the grocery as you try to create a dish that the cookbook swears takes just 20 minutes. There is nothing worse than cursing to yourself about forgetting the darn parsley as you stomp out to your car at 8 p.m. on a Tuesday.

"[As] much as shopping can be a chore, if your cupboards have some staples to get you started, there's an awful lot you can do with a chicken breast, tuna steak or box of eggs picked up on your way home," "Healthy Speedy Suppers" author Katriona MacGregor advises.

The Kitchn offers a list of just under 50 pantry, refrigerator, freezer and spice cabinet items that are a must for starting out. Daunting as it was to look at the list in full, most items make a lot of sense.

Thanks to my mother's Italian roots, I already knew the value of having a nice extra-virgin olive oil on hand. Many of the canned and freezer items, though, were things I had never considered keeping stocked as recipe staples, simply because I associated them with lazy or unhealthy eating. While I'm still staying away from high-sodium canned soups, keeping beans, tomatoes, tuna and frozen vegetables means sides, salad toppings and pasta sauces are just a few steps away. Envisioning future Alicia stocking up like a responsible adult, only to then forget when she used her last box of quinoa, I even started keeping a list on the cabinet to keep track of my can storage. One can out, one can in equates to no starving Wednesday nights!

Having those basic items found in most recipes on-hand significantly cut down on my stress about making a list and checking it twice. As a result, my post-work trip to the grocery became a quick in, around the perimeter and out, rather than an hour of bouncing from one end to the other in search of my ingredient list.

"If you've got these basics in stock, then you can add fresh herbs, chargrilled meat and fish, oven-roasted vegetables and all sorts of complimentary seasonal flavors," MacGregor recommends. "Whilst no one has the time to go shopping every day, it's nice to buy ingredients when they're fresh, rather than long-life or frozen products."

Spice, Spice Baby

Occasionally people perform magic in the kitchen. You've probably witnessed it: They wave their hand in a sweeping motion over whatever is in the stove, breath in deep, look pensively into the pot and then, bam! Inspiration. "Clearly this needs a touch of paprika." But how do they just do that? I tried once, but after inhaling deeply all I could come up with was that my chicken needed a dash of—nothing. Because what I was smelling was burnt chicken.

Despite my past failings in the kitchen, mastering that art of understanding how to flavor and spice my protein and pasta dishes by smell, has always been an elusive goal. Where to begin? How to learn the essentials?

"Spices can be a bit overwhelming when you first start. There are so many to choose from and most can really overpower a dish if you use too much of one," MacGregor says. "Approach them like you would salt and pepper—use a little to start with and remember you can always add more or change the quantities next time you try the recipe."

Lucky for me and every other rookie out there, the culinary geniuses over at Cook Smarts took out the guesswork for some of the most commonly used spices. Each spice listed includes a key that identifies the fruits, veggies and proteins that pair best, plus dishes the spice is commonly used in and the other spices that combine to create flavor sensations, making your taste trials a bit more calculated. The simple combinations are easy to read and understand, plus having the taste outlined right underneath the spice's name makes that magic "Tastes like this needs a bit of peppery flavoring? Bam! Here comes the coriander." a reality.

Already well-acquainted with the heavenly smell and taste of rosemary (come at me, rosemary focaccia) and with spice key in hand, I took the plunge and made a rub of rosemary, garlic powder, basil and just a bit of salt and pepper for some chicken breasts. Tossed in pan, baked, verdict? Actually pretty tasty. Obviously, there will be some misses along the way, but no one said getting acquainted with spices was going to be easy.

"It's all about experimenting and getting to know which flavors go together well and which you particularly like," MacGregor says.

Armed with a practical kitchen literally for the first time in my life, next week I take on meal planning. This Pinterest sensation is sure to be a true test of both my ability to read recipes and maintain my cool while supervising multiple cooking and prep steps, all at the same time.

What is the one convenient item that you always have stocked in the pantry? How are you able to use it in a variety of dishes?