I figure it’s only fair to enlighten you to the staples of my cooking supplies in order that any recipes you try here will turn out as I intend.  I may have to update this post frequently as I think of more items…  Anyway, here are some definite things I consider necessary for kitchen survival:

Chocolate Chips:
I ONLY use Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate chips when I bake.  I am a dark chocolate freak, and these are simply the best as far as I am concerned.  There is simply no substitute for this brand when making a ganache

Whole Milk:
While I am generally a 2% kind of girl, my mom tipped me off to the trick of using whole milk as a substitute for the water called for in boxed cake mixes.  Whatever amount of water is called for, use equal amounts of organic whole milk instead. 

Cake Mixes:
Speaking of cake mixes, I often use the boxed kind when baking plain vanilla and chocolate cakes.  I am loyal to one brand only: Betty Crocker Super Moist.  Again, substitute whole milk for the water and you won’t be sorry!

I am ever-loyal to Driscoll’s Organic strawberries!  In the summer, they have the really big, beautiful long-stemmed strawberries, and even though these are not organic, they are the PERFECT berries for dipping in ganache and laying atop a chocolate cake!

Whipped Cream:
I have many favorite recipes that call for whipping cream.  Unless I know a recipe will turn out badly otherwise, I ALWAYS use heavy whipping cream whenever cream is called for.  I prefer it to any other thickener.  I am not loyal to any particular brand, usually settling on the store brand in consideration of the price.  If a recipe calls for a Cool Whip topping, I will substitute heavy whipping cream with sugar beaten in.  However, sometimes time and setting do not permit a full blown beating of the cream, so Redi Whip is an acceptable need-it-now-and-it-doesn’t-have-to-be-pretty substitute topping, given my allergies (which I still do not understand…)

I have, in my younger days, substituted whipped tub butter for stick butter in a pinch, and I suppose my non-discriminating taste of the time would have deemed it fine.  However, since my cake baking days I use only unsalted pure stick butter. 

I am fast becoming an herb snob, preferring my homegrown sweet basil to any other.  One of our diocesan priests who calls himself The Herb Whisperer gladly shares his surplus of thyme, oregano, parsley and bay leaves with me.  Since he started doing that, I have a hard time reaching for the store-bought jars.  Not sure where to start?  I recommend selecting the two herbs you use the most and starting a small pot of each. 

When my basil runs amok, I harvest 1/3 of the bush, wash, and freeze it in various forms: 1) I tear it into little pieces and place about a tablespoon of basil in each ice-cube slot in a plastic tray, then cover with water and freeze.  The cubes go easily into soups, stews and sauces.  2) Wash freshly harvested leaves and pat dry, arrange on a cookie sheet and freeze overnight.  Then, gather the leaves (quickly while standing at your freezer door so they don’t turn brown and ugly) and arrange into snack-size ziploc bags for freezing.  Pluck out only what you need for each recipe as you need it. 

I buy only organic eggs now, and started doing so just before the first recent “bad-egg-news-story” broke about the bacteria-laden eggs.   I buy small dispenser containers of Egg Whites for omeletes and those pesky recipes that call for egg whites but no yolks, causing me to waste good yolks.  

As important as water and bread, we have to have a steady supply of pasta in the pantry!  While I loved Ronzoni’s Smart Taste pasta for the added fiber, I found a preservative that I don’t like in their ingredient list.  So, we are loyal now to Barilla’s whole grain pastas, as much for price and availability as for health. 

Pasta Sauce:
My all-time favorite store-bought Marinara is Newman’s Own.  It’s a little on the sweet side (reminding me of Monjuni’s sauce, for those of you in Shreveport).  I prefer to make my own sauce when I can, but since I’m trying to avoid canned tomato products (and home-grown tomatoes are not in season), Newman’s does just fine in a pinch.   

Once we became an ingredient-conscious family, Uncle Ben’s became our brand of choice.  I like the Boil-in-the-Bag brown rice and the 90-second Basmati rice the best. 

I discovered Gold Medal Organic All-Purpose flour at Wal-Mart and have bought it exclusively since then.  I also buy Gold Medal’s bread flour based on price.  My second favorite would have to be Hodgson Mill brand for all the organic and stone-ground options they offer.

Once again, only organic will do.  Florida Crystals is sold at all the grocery stores I go to, including WalMart. 

Beer and Wine:
We keep beer and wine in stock at our house, mostly because we like to drink it.  But, occasionally I find the need to cook with it.  Here are some of my tips for making sure I always have it on hand when I need it. 

Because Dom is a domestic beer drinker, we usually have Coors Light in the fridge.  However, that does not mean that we have an extra bottle in there when I’m ready to add it to a recipe.  So, when the box of beer comes home, I grab a bottle, pour it into an ice cube tray, and freeze it for later use.  Dom isn’t as likely to drink frozen beer cubes. LOL! 

As for wine, I personally do not like dry wines, but they are great for cooking.  So, when Dom has exhausted the usefulness of a good bottle of dry wine, be it white or red, I will pour what’s left (once again) into ice cube trays for cooking use.  This prevents us from wasting the leftover wine and allows me the ingredients I need for recipes.

I usually insist on pure Mexican vanilla, so much so that I would have my airline-attendant-Aunt-Penny or mission-trip-organizing-priest buy me a bottle each time they went to Mexico.  This was of premier importance when I was baking cakes to sell, as vanilla went into everything I made.  But my last remaining LITER-SIZED GLASS BOTTLE of Mexican vanilla was recently knocked off the counter by a nosy Labrador Retriever, and I have been at a loss ever since.  I have found instructions for making my own vanilla, and I fully intend to use this recipe soon.