The Shoestring Chef: Stock your pantry for under $50

By Woven Society Team

We've all been there - staring into our kitchen cabinets, desperately needing to impress a date/in-law/mother/unexpected houseguest, only to find packets of ketchup, a bag of sugar, and a broken "I Don't Like Mondays" mug staring back. 

Pantry panic be gone! We've enlisted the help of our friend Chris Woehrle, one half of Kings County Jerky Co., for The Shoestring Chef - weekly recipes using basic ingredients to create fancy dishes. Even better, most cost less than $10 to make.  For our first installment, Chris takes a trip along what he calls the Spice Trail in NYC's Little Italy and Chinatown neighborhoods to pick up essential pantry items. Thank him later and throw out that broken mug now.

If you like to cook but time and cash are in short supply, here’s an easy way to make quick, cheap, and tasty meals. The trick is to stock up on high-octane flavor ingredients like spices and pastes, and use them to transform everyday staples into sophisticated meals. With few exceptions, each item here is just a couple of bucks and you can assemble a diverse enough flavor arsenal to make Thai, Chinese, Italian, Spanish, Middle Eastern, and Indian dishes.

Hong Kong Market 
First stop on The Spice Trail is Hong Kong Market, a sprawling two-floor supermarket in Chinatown that’s one of New York’s best-kept food secrets. They’ve got a mind-boggling array of groceries from across Asia (and plenty of Western fare too). 

Oyster Sauce: A few slugs of this savory sauce adds a rich depth of authentic Chinese flavor to meat and vegetables. Go for the East River Bridge brand ($2.29) – the least expensive with a refreshingly stripped-down list of ingredients (no MSG, no corn syrup).

Sesame Oil: Drizzle it on whatever you stir-fried in the oyster sauce to put your flavors over the top.  Mix with peanut butter and chile paste for a great cold noodle dressing or blend with rice vinegar to dress an Asian-inspired salad.  Japanese brand Kadoya Pure Sesame Oil ($2.39) is always reliable.

Thai Curry Paste: Made in Thailand, Mae Ploy Curry Paste ($1.99) is an all-natural curry base that couldn’t be faster, simpler, or more delicious: just mix it with coconut milk and whatever meat and vegetables you like, make a pot of rice, and you’ve got a Thai meal in less time than takeout or delivery.

Tom Yum Soup Paste: Add a few tablespoons of Maesri Tom Yum Paste ($1.99) to boiling water with any or all of the following: mushrooms, rice noodles, shrimp or chicken, cilantro and some spinach for a warming bowl of spicy soup. You can add coconut milk for a thicker, more velvety broth. 

Chile Paste: This simple chile sauce works well in just about any dish that needs a little flavorful heat – Sambal Oelek Chile Paste ($1.29) is the most versatile.

Di Palo’s 
Forget the overpriced mob scene at Eataly. Authentic Italian ingredients are only a few blocks away from Hong Kong Market at Little Italy food fixture Di Palo’s. This family-run store has served NYC with the finest Italian goods for generations. 

Parmesano Reggiano: Expensive, but worth every penny.  

Prosciutto: The secret is to check the refrigerator on the right when you walk in. There’s a tray of end-pieces that are every bit as tasty as the $18.99/lb prosciutto they come from, but at $5.99 lb., a way better deal for your pantry.

Head out of Little Italy and over to Despaña, where you’ll find a treasure trove of imported Spanish goods. For those of us on a budget, we’ll focus on just two items here:

Smoked Spanish Paprika: An all-star flavorizer that adds a smoky, sweet complexity to anything it touches.  SPP Pimentón De La Vera ($3.75) works wonders. Pan roast chicken thighs and potatoes with smoked paprika, salt, olive oil and garlic and you’ll be amazed at what it can do to $8 worth of basic supermarket ingredients.

Squid Ink: Don't be scared! If you like seafood flavors, this is black gold.  Tinta de Calamar ($1.50) will transform plain white rice into an absurdly delicious seafood experience. Add a few cans of Goya squid for an extra $6 (shockingly good, and available in most supermarkets). Replace the rice with spaghetti, and you have a fantastic pasta dish.

Dual Specialty Store
The last stop on our Spice Trail is Dual Specialty Store – a flavor haven for the home cook. The shelves are stacked floor to ceiling with whole spices, powdered spices, and ingredients from just about every food culture you can imagine. 

Masala Curry Powder: Dual’s Quick Masala Curry ($4.75) is a reliably tasty choice. Fry it up with onions, butter, ginger, garlic, and tomatoes – then add meats and vegetables. Toss in some coconut milk for extra richness.

Cumin: A supremely versatile spice that’s equally at home in Mexican, Indian, Middle Eastern, and Spanish food. Add some Cumin Powder ($3.50) to black beans, ground beef, or sliced chicken breast along with some Smoked Paprika for a tasty taco filling, or to your masala for some extra depth. 

Sumac: A tart, lemony spice from the Middle East, Sumac Powder ($3.75) has a rich burgundy color, and can be used anywhere you might squeeze a lemon. 

Harissa: This North African spice paste contains a blend of hot and sweet peppers, garlic, caraway, and coriander. Stir it into soups and stews for a Tunisian twist, or mix with a few pinches of sumac and cumin to marinate meats, like lamb.

Saffron: A sophisticated ingredient with a reputation for being expensive but actually isn’t.  A packet of Spanish Saffron ($3.75) at Dual is enough for 3 or 4 meals at a very reasonable price. Saffron is potent – you only need a pinch of the delicate strands to impart its signature flavor and yellow color - and at its best when used in rices, soups, and stews (like bouillabaisse and paella). Stir a pinch into chicken stock to make a golden elixir that will elevate any ingredients you drop into it.

Chicken Stock: Chicken stock is a non-negotiable necessity in the kitchen, but cartons are expensive and heavy, and bouillon packets taste lousy. Unless you’re a food nerd who makes their own stock on the weekends, you need a good alternative. Better Than Bouillon ($4.50) is an all natural paste you spoon into boiling water to create a flavorful stock – one jar makes 9.5 quarts of broth, so it’s also a great deal.

Fish Sauce: Fish sauce is a key ingredient in Thai and Vietnamese dishes. The biggest problem is that the bottles are huge and you only ever use a few drops at a time. Golden Boy Brand Fish Sauce ($0.75) solves the problem with a mini-bottle that’s just right amount.

Tune in next week for Chris's first recipe: Chicken & Autumn Greens in Saffron Broth. 

The Spice Trail illustration, Celia Helfrich