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7 Pantry Staples Every Woman Needs

My Top 7 Cooking Essentials

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After graduating from culinary school, years of cooking on the line, collaborating on six cookbooks and dozens of food publications, I have quite a few kitchen tips and tricks up my sleeve. When it comes to the basics, I've found that these seven incredibly versatile ingredients are must-haves for any healthy pantry.

Here's the inside scoop on how to use them, as well as some delicious recipe ideas! Not only will they add deep, rich flavors to your meals, but each ingredient also provides tons of amazing health benefits.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

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The ultimate pantry must-have, extra virgin olive oil benefits both your cooking and your health. Research shows that a diet rich in extra virgin olive oil (approximately four tablespoons per day) can reduce your risk of heart disease. Plus, it's high in monounsaturated fats, the "good fats" that can help lower cholesterol and insulin levels in your body. Secret bonus: I use it to remove eye makeup, or rub a drop through my hair to ditch frizz and add shine!

This versatile oil can be used in dressings, marinades, soups, sauces, and to sauté fish, poultry, and vegetable dishes. It can also be used as a butter substitute when baking to enhance the taste of baked goods like this delicious biscotti. Check out these 5 Mediterranean Diet recipes for more tasty ways to use EVOO.

Cherry-Pistachio Biscotti

Makes: 2 dozen biscotti

Ingredients:
1⁄4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1⁄2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs
1 3⁄4 cups all-purpose flour
1⁄2 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon aluminum-free baking powder
1 1⁄2 cups raw pistachios
2 cups fresh or frozen pitted cherries, halved (if using frozen, do not thaw, discard liquid and toss in 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour)

Directions:
1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
2. In a large mixing bowl, combine oil and sugar until well blended. Mix in vanilla extract, then beat in eggs. Combine flour, sea salt, and baking powder; gradually stir into the egg mixture. Using a spatula, gently mix in pistachios and cherries.
3. Lightly flour your hands and a work surface. Divide the dough in half and shape it into two 10-inch x 2-inch logs on a baking sheet lined with foil. If your dough is sticky, lightly flour your hands again.
4. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or just until logs are light brown and slightly firm on top. Remove from oven and set aside to cool for 10 minutes.
5. Reduce oven temperature to 275°F. Remove logs from baking sheet, and, using a serrated knife, cut logs on a diagonal into 3⁄4-inch-thick slices. Lay them on their sides on the same baking sheet. Bake approximately 30 to 35 more minutes, or until dry and firm to the touch. Cool and serve with some hazelnut coffee or a spot of English Breakfast tea.

Recipe adapted from Cook Yourself Sexy by Candice Kumai, Rodale Books, 2012

Balsamic Vinegar

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Balsamic vinegar is the perfect low-calorie (just about 14 per tablespoon!) pantry staple to add a touch of acidity to salads, marinades, pasta sauces, and more. Vinegar contains polyphenols, antioxidants that can help lower cholesterol levels and improve your body's immune system. Your digestive system can also benefit from a dash or two of balsamic: Vinegar has been shown to boost the activity of pepsin, an enzyme that breaks down protein, regulates metabolism, and controls your blood sugar, which can increase the satiety of a meal.

Here's a secret tip I learned from a colleague: Finish off your marinara or red sauce with a little balsamic vinegar to amp up the flavor. Just a tablespoon or two will do the trick!

Dijon Mustard

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With only five calories per teaspoon, this pantry staple helps keep dressings, sauces, and sandwiches low-calorie yet still flavorful. Made from mustard seed and white wine, Dijon has a strong acidic flavor. It also works as an excellent binding ingredient, meaning it can help to hold and emulsify dressings, marinades, and sauces.

Not only is Dijon mustard the perfect topper for burgers, bratwurst, hot dogs, and sandwiches, but it also makes a delicious salad dressing. Here's an easy recipe for a light, citrusy vinaigrette. I like to serve it over a bed of greens and nectarines, pictured here.

Candice's Light Dijon Vinaigrette

Serves: 4

Ingredients:
1/4 cup Champagne vinegar (or apple cider vinegar)
1 tablespoon fresh orange juice
1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 ½ teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

Directions:
Place all ingredients into a small bowl and whisk well to combine. Add more or less Dijon or sea salt to adjust to desired taste.

Honey

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You already know honey is an excellent natural sweetener for your cup of tea, but did you know it also packs a ton of health benefits into each tablespoon? It's chock full of antioxidants and boasts topical antibiotic properties, thanks to its ability to produce small amounts of hydrogen peroxide. So this pantry staple can even be used to treat cuts and scrapes!

Drizzle honey in coffee, tea, and granola, use it when baking, or mix it into dressings and marinades. Try brushing this simple glaze on salmon or chicken to make it shine with all the health benefits and natural sweetness of honey!

Miso-Honey Glazed Salmon

Serves: 4

Ingredients:
2 tablespoons organic miso paste
2 tablespoons rice or red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon reduced-sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons honey
1 1/2 teaspoons roasted sesame oil
4 6-ounce, 1-inch thick salmon filets
1 tablespoon black sesame seeds (optional)
2 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced
Nonstick cooking spray

Directions:
1. Heat oven to 350°F. Whisk miso with vinegar, soy sauce, honey, and oil to make a smooth glaze.
2. Spray a 9x13-inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Place the salmon filets skin-side down in the pan and brush with about half of the glaze. Refrigerate to marinate for 15 to 30 minutes.
3. Brush the salmon with any additional glaze and bake about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and cool for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and scallion.

Tamari Soy Sauce

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Used for centuries by the Japanese to enhance flavor, tamari is a variety of soy sauce made from fermented soybeans that's wheat-free. It's a great alternative to standard soy sauce for anyone with a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease. Even if you're not affected by these health issues, try using tamari in place of regular soy sauce in Asian dishes—it's higher in protein, smoother, and more flavorful than regular soy sauce. Tamari also contains tryptophan, an amino acid that helps your body produce niacin and serotonin, which can improve your sleep and mood.

Tamari is great in marinades, dressings, sauces, and soups, or to drizzle on some roasted vegetables. My favorite way to use tamari is to top off Asian noodle dishes, such as somen or soba noodles, with a few dashes.

Sriracha

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Declared the best tasting hot sauce in the market by Cooks Illustrated, Srirachra hot sauce is gaining popularity with its simple blend of jalapeños, vinegar, sugar, salt, and garlic. This authentic Vietnamese sauce adds a hot and spicy flavor that seriously boosts the taste of any dish with just a few drops. Plus, the capsaicin from the hot peppers can help boost your metabolism and rev your fat-burning engine!

From soups to tacos to eggs, you name it—you can put Srirachi on it! I especially love it on French fries or baked potatoes. Here's a quick recipe for a healthy dipping sauce that pairs perfectly with roasted kabocha squash.

Srirachi Dipping Sauce

Ingredients:
3/4 cup 0% Greek yogurt
1 teaspoon Sriracha hot sauce (use more or less, depending on desired heat)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt (optional)

Directions:
In a small bowl, combine 0% Greek Yogurt, Sriracha, and sea salt, if desired. Mix well.

Recipe adapted from Cook Yourself Sexy by Candice Kumai, Rodale Books, 2012

Flaxseed

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Flax is truly my new favorite seed. Full of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, flaxseeds also contain fiber for better digestion. What's more, the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3s help your skin look radiant. To ensure your body absorbs all these amazing benefits, consume flaxseed in ground or "meal" form.

Flax can be used in so many ways: Toss them in cereal, granola, or eggs, add them to recipes for baked goods, sprinkle them on yogurt or ice cream, or used them to coat fish or chicken. Here's my favorite recipe for flaxseed-crusted salmon.

Candice's Mega-Omega Flax Salmon

Serves: 4

 

Ingredients:
3/4 cup flax seed meal
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 lemon, halved
Four 8-ounce salmon fillets
1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Directions:
1. Heat oven to 350°F. Lightly coat a 9x13-inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray.
 2. Stir flax seed meal, basil, garlic powder, and cayenne together in a medium bowl. Squeeze a lemon half (save the other half for serving) over the salmon, season with salt, and then press a salmon fillet top-side down into the rub, coating both sides of the salmon. Place the salmon skin-side down in the prepared baking dish. Repeat with the remaining fillets.
 3. Bake the fillets until they yield only slightly to semi-firm pressure and they flake easily, 18 to 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, squeeze the remaining lemon half on top, and serve.

Recipe adapted from Pretty Delicious by Candice Kumai, Rodale Books, 2012