All you need to shift your cooking from serviceable to superb
By now, you (hopefully) know the basic building blocks of good eating: fresh, in-season vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and — for the carnivorous set — lean, unprocessed meat and fish. Awesome. But unless you're an adherent of the new Paleo diet fad, which mimics the eating habits of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, it's going to take a bit more to transform this no-frills foundation into something you'd want to sit down to. Here are a few kitchen essentials that can quickly shift your cooking from serviceable to superb. (Emily Appelbaum)
Ancient Assyrian legend holds that when the gods assembled to create the universe, their drink of choice was sesame seed wine. And when Ali Baba needed to unseal a magic cave stocked with treasure, it was Sesamum indicum, which bursts open at maturity, that he invoked with the famous phrase "Open, Sesame!" If you're looking to introduce some similar magic into your cooking, sesame oil is a good place to start. The cold-pressed oil has a light flavor and high smoke point, making it ideal for fast, high-temperature stir fries and wok cooking. When toasted, the oil becomes rich, smoky, and deep. A few drops make salads and noodle dishes sinfully savory and create the perfect base for dipping sauces. For a decadent indulgence, try the following: spread hot toast with miso (fermented soybean paste), top with a slice of avocado, and a drizzle of toasted sesame oil, then close your eyes and float a bit.
Available at Ming Lee Trading Inc. 759 Jackson, SF. (415) 217-0088
Speaking of sesames, Bay Area veggies, vegans, and carnivores alike have been blending tahini, a paste made from hulled sesame seeds, into homemade hummus for years. When mixed with a little fresh garlic, lemon, and salt, tahini will make quick work of a can of garbanzos — but there are tons of other uses for this simple spread. Try branching out with bean dips. Include white cannellini beans, black beans, or even kidney beans, which are super-high in antioxidants. Ditch expensive bottled salad dressing in favor of tahini mixed with soy sauce, lemon juice, or cider vinegar, and any fresh herbs you like. Toss soba noodles with steamed veggies and tahini for a fast, healthy dish served hot or cold. Or, for a whole array of desserts, start by kneading tahini and honey into flour for a tender, pliable pastry.
Available at Semiramis Imports, 2990 Mission, SF. (415) 824-6555
If you haven't tried this indigenous staple from the Andes, you're missing out. Stocked with the full set of essential amino acids, these unassuming seeds may be the most complete protein source the plant kingdom can provide. Quinoa even made NASA's short list for crops to be included in ecological life support systems for long-duration manned spaceflights. It cooks in minutes and — with its mild, nutty taste and light texture — it's an ideal base for curries, stews, and cold salads mixed tabouleh-style. Unfortunately, the quinoa craze in wealthy countries has left the crop unaffordable in some traditional regions such as the Bolivian salt flats, where most cultivated quinoa is now grown for export. Be sure to look for quinoa from companies like La Yapa Organic that pay a fair price to farmers.
Available at Rainbow Grocery, 1745 Folsom, SF. (415) 863-0620, www.rainbow.coop