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Counter Intelligence: Must-haves for my kitchen

By April Hamilton

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I have assembled a list of must-haves in my kitchen. Every cook is different, but I wanted to share my favorite cookbooks, food magazines and pantry, refrigerator and freezer staples. Though it is nearly impossible to limit each category to 10 items, I find these to be the most indispensable for my everyday cooking and baking needs.

Cookbooks: I have cookbooks in every room of my house. They are always within easy reach in the kitchen or on my cookbook shelf. I turn to at least one of them daily and they show the wear of regular use:

"How to Cook Everything" by Mark Bittman

"In the Green Kitchen" by Alice Waters

"The New Basics Cookbook" by Julee Rosso and Shiela Lukins

"Back to the Table" by Art Smith

"Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen" by Rick Bayless

"Rick and Lanie's Excellent Kitchen Adventures" by Rick and Lanie Bayless

"Seductions of Rice" by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid

"The Greens Cookbook" by Deborah Madison

"The Bread Baker's Apprentice" by Peter Reinhart

"Baking From my Home to Yours" by Dorie Greenspan

Magazines: Back in the day, the hip food magazines were limited to Gourmet, Bon Appetit and Southern Living. Today, the choices are dizzying; specialized vegetarian, vegan, carnivore and mixology magazines are intermixed with the classics. There are possibly hundreds of issues on the shelf at a large bookstore -- and Gourmet is no longer published! I am guilty of buying on impulse any magazine with something delicious on its cover; however, I subscribe only to Saveur (Gourmet meets National Geographic).

In the pantry: Canned diced and whole plum tomatoes; dried pasta -- angel hair, linguine, penne; rice; canned albacore tuna; canned beans; marinated artichoke hearts; extra-virgin olive oil; sherry vinegar; yellow onions; heads of fresh garlic.

Baking pantry: Unbleached flour, whole-wheat flour, bread flour (preferably King Arthur flours), granulated sugar, brown sugar, honey, yeast, Ghirardelli double chocolate bittersweet chips, baking soda, baking powder and pure vanilla extract.

Spice rack: Penzeys.com is my favorite spice source. I always have ancho chili powder, garlic powder, telicherry black peppercorns, ground cumin, dried oregano, cinnamon, ground ginger, Cajun seasoning, curry powder and kosher salt and sea salt.

In the fridge: Salted butter, organic skim milk, eggs, lemons, organic romaine lettuce, Dijon mustard, soy sauce, plain yogurt, light sour cream and a wedge of Parmesan cheese.

On the counter: Fruit basket with apples, bananas, oranges, tomatoes, avocados, limes, dried fruits, nuts, granola and wrapped dark chocolates for nibbling.

In the freezer: Meats -- I buy nearly all of my meats from Sandy Creek Farms in Ravenswood; they deliver weekly in the Charleston area, and at least monthly to Teays Valley. I always keep boneless chicken breasts, ground round, sirloin sliced for Philly steak, "restaurant cut" sirloin steaks, ground pork, bacon and Italian sausage. Also frozen berries (preferably organic), ground coffee and sliced bread from Charleston Bread.

Vegetarian Chili

A jicama, watercress and red onion salad dressed with olive oil and fresh lime juice would be terrific with this meatless entrée. Serve with corn bread, if desired. Serves 3 or 4; recipe easily doubles.

     1     tablespoon olive oil

     1     medium onion, chopped

     2     teaspoons chili powder (I prefer pure ancho chili powder)

     1    cup canned vegetable broth or water

     1    10-ounce red-skinned sweet potato, peeled, cut into 3/4-inch cubes

     1    14 1/2-ounce can fire-roasted diced tomatoes

     1    15- to 16-ounce can pinto beans, drained

     3     tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

     1 1/2     teaspoons grated orange peel

HEAT olive oil in heavy medium saucepan over medium-high heat.

ADD onion and sauté until golden, about 5 minutes. Add chili powder and stir 1 minute. Add broth and sweet potato cubes.

COVER pan; reduce heat to medium and simmer until potato is almost tender, about 10 minutes. Add tomatoes with their juices and pinto beans. Simmer uncovered until chili thickens and potato is very tender, about 10 minutes.

MIX in cilantro and orange peel. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve.

Sara's (Almost Famous) French Onion Sandwich

The secrets of a great steak sandwich are the quality of the ingredients and the thinness of the raw beef. Sandy Creek Farms keeps me supplied with sirloin for Philly cheesesteaks, which is not only delicious and locally raised, but already sliced, which makes these sandwiches super-quick to make. I always keep a pound or two in my freezer. Thaw it overnight in the fridge.

Every Tuesday I buy a loaf (or two) of Blue Monday bread at Charleston Bread. They will happily slice it for you, and it is the perfect base for these tasty sandwiches. Actually, this is becoming a Tuesday-night staple at Casa Hamilton.

Makes about 4 sandwiches.

     1     large onion

     1     pound very thinly sliced sirloin

     2     tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

     Worcestershire sauce to taste -- drip 3 or 4 drops of it onto each slice of beef as it sears

     Salt and pepper, to taste

     1/4     pound sharp provolone cheese, thinly sliced

     Great bread for serving (if using Blue Monday, lightly toast a slice or two for each serving)

PEEL and halve onion lengthwise. Slice into thin, half-moon pieces.

WARM 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet over low heat. Add onions and cook 8 to 10 minutes, until golden and softened, stirring frequently. Transfer onions to a plate.

WARM in the same skillet the remaining 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat. Add half the beef. Season liberally with salt, pepper and Worcestershire. Cook until lightly browned and cooked through, turning often. Transfer to plate with onions.

REPEAT with remaining beef, adding olive oil to skillet if necessary. When second batch of beef is cooked, place all beef on a cutting board and coarsely chop. Return cooked onions and beef to skillet to heat through. Using a spatula, divide mixture into 4 or 5 portions in skillet and top each with a slice of cheese.

TO SERVE, scoop each portion of warm beef and onion onto a slice of toast, cut into 2 triangles and serve open-faced.

April Hamilton has always said, "Cooking is fun!" She shares her easy, practical recipes for delicious food through her cooking classes for kids and families. April's husband and three daughters help with testing and tasting in their Charleston kitchen. April would love to hear from you: Email aprilskitchencounter@gmail.com.


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