Lucky 13: The 13 Must-Have Foods for My Kitchen

One of my favorite TV scenes came from the British comedy “Life’s Too Short,” with Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant and Warwick Davis. In a guest role, a dunderheaded Liam Neeson explains how he got the leading part in “Schindler’s List.” He approached director Steven Spielberg one day and told him he was perfect for the part because he “makes lists all the time.” To which Spielberg replied: “That’s exactly what we’re looking for!”

It was funny because A) Landing the part of Oskar Schindler because you like to make lists is like landing the part of Darth Vader because you like to wear masks; and B) Lots of people make lists, so it’s instantly relatable.

How popular are lists? Look at your web content sometime. Half the articles seem to revolve around lists.  They even have a name for it: “Listsicles.” I’ve written and edited numerous listcicles over the years – “10  Reasons to Start Saving Now!” “25 Great Side Gigs!” “15 Key Steps to Financial Freedom!” “12 Best Ceramics for Any Occasion!” – and they’ve all gotten better-than-average views.

There are plenty of psychological reasons people like lists. Lists are easy to digest, you know what you’re getting, they have a finite end point, etc. I personally seem to think in lists. They pop into my head constantly, whether I’m just trying to occupy my mind or fall asleep.

Anyway, I figure it’s time to take this list obsession to its obvious conclusion by doing list blogs every so often, starting today. My goal is to crank out at least one blog a week. But sometimes you just want to mail it in, not do anything too heavy, and have a little fun. Hence, lists.

Why a list of 13? I dunno. Why not?

Today’s listsicle is devoted to food and cooking. I cook all the meals at home. It’s one of the things I really enjoy in life – Coming soon, 13 Things I Really Enjoy in Life! – and I’ve been cooking for myself and others since college. I like to eat, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to eat takeout or microwave food the rest of my life. So, I learned to cook. A few years in the restaurant business taught me a few things, but much of what I know is either self-taught, by trial and error, or by watching cooking shows.

This list covers the 13 must-have foods I would keep on hand in case I could only have 13.

The Ground Rules:

  1. Foods have to be either in raw, unprepared or uncooked form and used in the prep and cooking process. So, no frozen tamales or canned soup. Ok, there are two minor exceptions; bread and pasta, mainly because making them from scratch means adding flour, eggs, dairy, etc. to the list. Store-bought bread is fine, but it has to be a specific kind of bread (e.g. sliced, rolls, biscuits, pita, tortillas). Same deal with pasta (spaghetti, penne, linguine, fusilli, etc.).
  2. In terms of protein: You can’t just say beef, chicken, pork and fish. You have to specify which kind (e.g. beef flank, chicken thighs, pork shoulder, shrimp, flounder, etc.).
  3. Any foods not on this list cannot be ordered from a restaurant, delivery or takeout. So if there are no scallops on the list, you’ll never eat scallops again.
  4. You can have any spices, seasonings, herbs, wines, condiments, juices and oils you want. They don’t have to go on the list.

So, on to the list:

The 13 foods I would have in the kitchen if I could only have 13:

  1. Ground beef
  2. Chicken thighs
  3. Kielbasa
  4. Onion
  5. Tomatoes
  6. Lettuce
  7. Banana
  8. Chickpeas
  9. Rice
  10. Pinto beans
  11. Peanuts
  12. Pita
  13. Spaghetti

I could cook and eat forever with these 13 foods, and here’s why: They cover just about every one of my favorite dishes. There are exceptions, so let’s start with what’s not included.

There’s no seafood, dairy, eggs, steak or pork (in non-sausage form). That means I’ll never have fish, sushi, steak, scrambled eggs or pulled pork again. Those, I will miss. But I don’t cook that much fish anyway because it’s expensive and not suitable for leftovers. About the only seafood I make anymore is shrimp. Similarly, I’ve learned to live without steak here in steak-challenged Europe. I can live without dairy – including cheese – because I’ve grown lactose intolerant in my advancing age. I long ago switched from butter to olive oil for cooking.

This list also provides no way to make tamales because there’s no corn flour for masa. I will miss tamales the most. I cry just thinking about it.

But….

I can make most of my favorite dishes – and not just the obvious American stuff, either, but more flavor-forward fare like Lebanese beef kofta, chicken biryani, chili, Chinese stir-fry noodles, chana masala, Cuban beef picadillo, spaghetti with meat sauce, arroz con pollo, enchiladas, tacos,  curry, jambalaya, fried rice, gumbo, paella.

I can make falafel and hummus using chickpeas, olive oil, herbs and seasonings. If I could pick only one food to cook, it might be chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans). They’re tasty, versatile, cheap and filling. Every week I toss them in olive oil, onions, chopped cilantro and bottled lemon juice for a cold chickpea salad. I eat chickpea salad with lettuce and tomatoes each weekday for lunch. It never grows old. I never tire of it.

Some notes:

Banana is the only fruit on here. I eat a banana for breakfast most days. It does the trick – fast, easy, filling enough. It’s not my favorite fruit. That would be cantaloupe, properly grown and ripened. Bananas probably aren’t in my Top 5 for fruits and berries. But they’re a quick and easy breakfast, and I’m not much of a breakfast eater anymore anyway.

Some of you may wonder why onion is on this list, when I could just use onion powder, onion salt or dried onion flakes. My answer: No, I couldn’t! I simply cannot cook without onion. I use it in just about everything. I can live without other aromatics like carrot, bell pepper and celery. I can get by fine with granulated garlic. But I cannot cook without onion.

Some might wonder why I don’t list a beef cut such as sirloin or chuck, because all I’d have to do is buy a meat grinder for ground beef. Nah, I’m too lazy. Cooking is also about convenience for us home chefs.

I chose chicken thighs because I like dark meat better than white meat.

I chose Kielbasa because it’s versatile enough to serve on its own, or as a hot dog, or to cut into jambalaya, gumbo, paella, beans and other dishes. Plus it’s a good flavor booster.

I eat a salad every day for the roughage and nutrients, so lettuce is a must. If I had to choose one variety, I guess I’d choose romaine. But in this instance you can use any you like. Lettuce is the only green veggie on this list, which is fine. The only other ones I’ll really miss are okra and cabbage.

I refuse to live in a world without tomatoes.

Rice over potatoes is an easy call for me. You can have any rice you want – brown, black, white, short grain, long grain, paella style, arborio style. If I get really ambitious I can take a shot at making rice flour and then use it to make rice noodles, so I can have some variation of Filipino Saifun (an old family recipe) and Singapore rice noodles.

I will miss grits.

I chose pita simply because it’s the one non-tortilla bread that could possibly work like a tortilla, but can also be used for sandwiches and dipping.

Pinto beans are on here to make refried beans. Otherwise I would have chosen red beans. But pintos are also good on their own or as a main dish over rice.

Peanuts? You need something to snack on, so I chose peanuts.

If I should ever decide to go vegan, this list would also work. The chickpeas and pintos should provide adequate protein, and they’re versatile enough to use in lots of stuff (veggie burgers, soups, stews, curries, sides, main courses).

I could probably squeak by without meat, if it came to that.

But not onions. No way.

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