Pantry essentials

Charles Silberstein loves black truffle oil so much he even puts it on his toast. — Photo by Laura D. Roosevelt

If there’s one thing I hate to run out of in my West Tisbury kitchen, it’s chicken stock. Of course there are pantry staples like salt, pepper, and olive oil, without which most cooks couldn’t function; but chicken stock, while not absolutely essential, makes so many things better. Cooking rice in chicken stock instead of water adds depth to an otherwise bland starch. Most soups are immeasurably enriched when chicken stock is substituted for water. In my homemade salad dressing, I replace much of the olive oil with chicken stock, which produces a dressing that is simultaneously relatively low in calories and more complex in flavor.

I asked other Island home cooks to name an item they always want readily available in their kitchens. My husband, psychiatrist Charles Silberstein, gave an answer I should have predicted: truffle oil. The guy is ga-ga for the stuff. He mixes it into pasta and drizzles it on lightly salted tomatoes and on sautéed mushrooms, especially the hen-of-the-woods mushrooms we find near our home in the fall. Sometimes he spreads a little on a piece of warm toast and eats it plain, though it’s better topped with slender slivers of a flavorful hard cheese like romano or manchego. My daughter, who’s caught the bug from her father, likes truffle oil on her popcorn.

“Hungarian paprika,” says West Tisbury farmer Debby Farber. “I have to have it.” Part of its appeal to her is sentimental, since her family is of Hungarian descent, and they all like to cook with paprika from the motherland. Debby’s current stock – housed in a little ceramic pot shaped like a drawstring bag – came home in her suitcase from a family visit to Hungary. “It’s sweet as opposed to hot,” she says. “It’s great for browning things like mac and cheese, sprinkled on top. And of course, there’s Chicken Paprikash,” (a rich creamed chicken seasoned with paprika.)

Stephanie Khurana, a former technology CEO and mother from Newton who summers in Edgartown, always stocks her Vineyard pantry with Old Bay Seasoning. “I grew up near Annapolis, Maryland,” she says, “where crabs are always prepared with Old Bay.” On the Vineyard, Stephanie and her family catch crabs in the pond near the house where they stay, bring them home, rub them liberally with Old Bay, and boil them. Alternately, Stephanie notes, you can cook the crabs, remove the meat, and make crab cakes seasoned with Old Bay. “I use it with almost any fish,” she says. “Sautéed or baked fish sprinkled with Old Bay is great in fish tacos.”

Household helper Tanya Roddy of Vineyard Haven can’t do without her sriracha sauce – a hot Asian red pepper concoction invented in Thailand as a dipping sauce for fish, but also used in Vietnamese and other Asian cuisines in sauces, noodle dishes, soups, etc. More a loose paste than a sauce, Sriracha is made with red chili peppers, vinegar, garlic, sugar, and salt. The brands most readily available in the U.S. (including at The Net Result and Cronig’s Market) register about half the heat intensity of a jalapeno. “I use it in everything,” Tanya says, “in meat loaf, in chili, in Bolognese sauce for pasta. My husband puts it on his French fries.”

Personal trainer Yvette Peterson grows plenty of fresh mint in her Edgartown herb garden, because she likes both to cook with it and to use it decoratively, arranging it in little vases on her breakfast table and kitchen counter. Her favorite minty dishes include an arugula, citrus, and mint salad; a salad of mango, radishes, and mint with lime juice; turkey burgers with mint and ginger; and turkey/date meatballs in a Greek lemon/yogurt/mint sauce – a list that made my mouth water.

Fresh lemons/limes are a staple in carpenter Doron Katzman’s cooking. “I can’t think of one thing I make that can’t take some lemon or lime,” he says. In his Oak Bluffs kitchen, he uses a simple reamer to squeeze lemon juice into a cup, or straight into what he’s cooking. “I don’t mind the pulp,” he says. Lemon juice is a key ingredient in a dish that Doron and his wife, painter Cindy Kane, often have around the house and frequently take to dinners at friends’ houses – tahini dip. Their dip is made by whisking together tahini paste (ground sesame seeds) with lemon juice and water until it reaches the desired smooth consistency. Cindy tops her tahini with her two must-have pantry items: Israeli olive oil (brought home from visits to Doron’s family in Israel) and za’atar. Za’atar is a Middle Eastern blend of herbs and spices that starts with sesame seeds and salt and goes on to incorporate some combination of thyme, oregano, savory, marjoram, sumac, coriander, cumin, and fennel. Middle Easterners snack on pita bread dipped in olive oil and then za’atar, sprinkle it on hummus and labneh (a soft cheese), and use it to season meats, vegetables, and salads.

Chess teacher Bonnie Waitzkin of West Tisbury and Manhattan names another herb blend – herbes de Provence – as her must-have pantry item. A combination typically consisting of thyme, savory, basil, fennel, rosemary, and sometimes lavender, herbes de Provence can be purchased online from for as little as $10 for a 16 oz. bag. “It’s basically like a much better version of Italian seasoning,” says Bonnie, who sprinkles it liberally on poultry, chops, and steaks before cooking, and uses it to flavor turkey stuffing and pasta sauces.

A third spice blend – Lawry’s Lemon Pepper — is always on hand in art dealer Carol Craven’s West Tisbury pantry. “Lawry’s is the only one I like,” she says. “I use it on everything. I don’t know what the hell is in it, but it pops with lemon flavor.” She sprinkles it on cooked chicken, fish, and salads. Especially great, she advises, is steamed asparagus drizzled with olive oil and tossed with a little Lawry’s. “It makes everything so delicious, I go into a decline when I can’t find it – I get very cranky at Cronig’s. So now I order it online by the case.”

Finally, I asked my 15-year-old son Oliver what he thinks is important to have in our kitchen. He didn’t hesitate. “You,” he said. He has a point.

Arugula and Citrus Salad with Mint

1 navel orange

1 blood orange

2 tangerines

1 ruby red grapefruit

1/4 cup roughly chopped mint leaves

1 1/2 7 oz. packages baby arugula

1/2 medium red onion, quartered and sliced very thin

2 Tablespoons olive oil

Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

Peel citrus fruit and remove sections from their membranes, working over a bowl so as not to lose juices. Strain juice from fruit sections. Drink all but 2 T. of the juice, then whisk the 2 T. with 2 T. olive oil, and add salt and pepper to taste. Toss dressing with all other ingredients, and serve.