When you move to a small town after having lived in a city, you keep an ongoing grocery list humming in your head. Theres always an ingredient you cant buy locally.
Thats not so much the case in Durango in 2012, but I have a 32-year-old memory of my first Christmas in Southwest Colorado. A week before Christmas, I went to the seafood department at City Market and asked for squid. I was met with a blank stare. I should have known better. A month earlier when I went to the butcher asking for sweetbreads, I was directed to the bakery.
My familys Christmas tradition was a scaled-back version of the Feast of the Seven Fishes. My fathers ancestors were from the Adriatic coast of Italy, north of Bari, right at the heel of the boot. Squid, eel, buccala, mussels, smelts and more was part of our multi-course Christmas Eve dinner.
I still have trouble buying whole, uncleaned squid locally. But now I go to Asian markets in Denver and can easily find frozen squid in 3- to 5-pound packages.
Over the years I have ventured farther and farther into the grocery aisles and usually make a trip once a year to restock my pantry. Here are the items I never go without:
Top-quality fish sauce. Theres not a Thai recipe that cant be made better with good fish sauce. The darker the bottle, usually the more expensive and the better. I sneak fish sauce into most Asian dishes, peanut sauces and marinades. Sneak is the operative word here. It smells awful, but once combined with lime, sugar, soy sauce, whatever, it is heavenly.
Shoyu or similar soy sauce. Again, go for quality. Much less is needed to achieve good results and soy sauce is not limited to Asian food. Most meat marinades call for salt, but soy adds depth and full-bodied flavor. Use it instead.
Sesame oil. Buy this one in a small bottle because it goes rancid in a flash. Keep it cool and never cook with it. Drizzle a few drops toward the end of stir-fry preparation.
Big square rice wrappers for summer rolls (or cold spring rolls). The traditional round ones pale in comparison to the easy-to-use square ones that now are sold at Guidos. A favorite quick snack is to take leftover shrimp, julienned vegetables, cilantro, fresh mint and rice noodles. Roll all in rice papers and dip halved rolls in spicy peanut sauce.
Sriracha. Yes, you can buy it at any grocery store, but we can go through a case of it in no time. Good sriracha is not too hot, with just a tinge of garlic and vinegar. Try a dash in your rice vinegar and oil salad dressing and two dashes in your mayonnaise for a terrific potato salad. Rather than straight tartar sauce, try some sriracha-infused tartar sauce with fried seafood.
Hoisin Im not a big fan of Chinese five spice power, a key ingredient in this sweet-spicy condiment that I call the ketchup of Chinese food. But hoisin can add a great twist to chicken or pork and most things you love on a grill. The trick is to brush it on at the very end because it flames due to its high sugar content.
Enjoy! Not much pantry space is needed to expand culinary borders, especially with a few key condiments, oils and prepared sauces.