Christina's Pantry

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Agar-agar

Also called “kanten” in Oriental shops, agar is a gelatinlike food made from various types of red algae. Agar flakes contain concentrated bonding properties and are used to make various types of gelled desserts and terrines. Agar flakes can be quite effective in relieving constipation. Simply cook 1 teaspoon agar in 1 cup apple juice, stirring often, over low heat until the flakes dissolve, about 7 minutes. Drink warm before bed.

Apple Cider Vinegar

Made from apple cider or apple must, this vinegar is brownish in color and is best when sold unpasteurized and unfiltered. Its acidic flavor belies the fact that it’s quite alkalizing to the intestines and is used not only in cooking, but in remedies to improve digestion.

Arame

A large-leaf sea vegetable, arame is finely shredded and boiled before drying and packaging for selling. Since it is precooked, it requires far less cooking time than other sea vegetables and can even be marinated for salads with no cooking at all. One of the milder-tasting sea plants, it is a great source of protein and minerals like calcium and potassium.

Buckwheat (kasha)

Also known as Saracen corn, buckwheat was reportedly brought to Europe by the Crusaders, although it originated in the Himalayan mountains. In botanical terms, buckwheat is not really a grain; it is actually a member of the rhubarb family, with fruit or groats that resemble tiny, dark-colored nuts.

Grown under adverse conditions in cold weather, buckwheat contains more protein than most other grains as well as iron and B vitamins. A natural source of rutic acid, which aids in arterial and circulatory problems, buckwheat is used by many homeopaths for high blood pressure and other circulatory difficulties.

Cooked by itself, buckwheat makes a great porridge, grain dish, or even a salad. A very traditional recipe involves sautéing onions and noodles and then tossing them together with cooked kasha. Ground into flour, buckwheat is the chief ingredient used to make traditional Japanese soba noodles.

Bulgur (cracked wheat)

Made from whole-wheat berries that are cracked into pieces, enabling it to cook quite quickly. A great breakfast cereal, bulgur is most commonly associated with tabouleh, a marinated grain salad combining tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers with an aromatic olive oil dressing.

Burdock

A wild, hearty plant from the thistle family. According to traditional medicine, this long, dark brown root is renowned as one of nature’s finest blood purifiers and skin clarifiers. A strong, dense root vegetable, burdock is a rich source of folic acid and is most commonly used in stews, stir-fry dishes, and long-simmered sautés.

Chestnuts

Their rich texture and taste belie the fact that chestnuts are in fact quite low in fat, making them an ideal ingredient in many recipes. At their peak in the fall, fresh chestnuts are a wonderful addition to soups, stews, and vegetable dishes, and their natural sweet taste makes them a great dessert ingredient. Dried chestnuts are available year-round and, with presoaking, achieve as creamy and sweet a taste and texture as their fresh counterparts.

Coconut sugar

Coconut sugar is a relatively new sweetener to hit the market. It’s a natural sugar made from the sap of flower buds of the coconut. Also known as palm sugar, coconut sugar comes in crystal or granular form and is delicately sweet, sort of like brown sugar. Low on the glycemic index, it has high mineral content and is low in carbs and fructose. A sucrose-based sweetener, pure coconut sugar has ten calories in a teaspoon, almost identical to any other sugar.

Dulse

From the north Atlantic, dulse has a rich, red color, is high in potassium and comes packaged in large, wrinkled leaves. Its salty rich taste makes it a great snack right out of the package. Because it is so delicate, it actually requires little or no cooking, just a quick rinse to remove any debris on the leaves. It adds depth of flavor to hearty soups, stews, salads, and bean stews.

Kuzu (kudzu)

Kuzu is a high-quality starch made from the root of the kuzu plant. A root native to the mountains of Japan (and now in the southern United States), kuzu grows like a vine with tough roots. Used primarily as a thickener, this strong root is reputed to strengthen the digestive tract due to its alkaline nature.

Maple syrup

A traditional sweetener made by boiling sugar maple sap until it becomes thick. The end product is quite expensive because it takes about thirty-five gallons of sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup. The syrup is available in various grades of quality from AA to B: AA and A are quite nice for sauces and dressings, but I use grade B in baking. I have found the higher grades can result in hard baked goods.

I do not often use maple syrup, since it is a simple sugar, releasing quickly in the bloodstream, thus wreaking havoc with blood sugar. But it also comes in granular form that I sometimes use in baking.

Rice milk

A creamy liquid made by cooking ten parts water to one part rice for one hour, the resulting rice is pressed through a cheesecloth creating “milk.” It is also packaged commercially. Look for rice milk made from whole brown rice, not polished or white rice.

Semolina flour

Made from a yellowish-white whole wheat called durum, it is used in the making of pasta and in cakes to achieve a light, golden end product.

Soba

A noodle made from buckwheat flour. Some varieties contain other ingredients, like wheat flour or yam flour, but the best-quality soba are those made primarily of buckwheat flour.

Somen (Japanese angel hair)

A very fine, white or whole grain flour noodle that cooks very quickly, somen are traditionally served in a delicate broth with lightly cooked fresh vegetables.

Umeboshi plum vinegar

A salty liquid left over from pickling umeboshi plums. Used as a vinegar, it is great in salad dressings and pickle-making.

Umeboshi plums (ume plums)

Japanese pickled plums (actually, green apricots) with a fruity, salty taste. Pickled in a salt brine and shiso leaves for at least one year (the longer, the better), ume plums are traditionally served as a condiment with various dishes, including grains. Ume plums are reputed to aid in the cure of a wide array of ailments—from stomachaches to migraines—because they alkalize the blood. These little red plums (made red from the shiso, which add vitamin C and iron) make good preservatives. The best-quality plums are the most expensive ones, but they are used in small amounts, so one jar will last a long time.

Zest

Also called the peel, the zest is the thin, colored layer of skin on citrus fruit that imparts a fragrant essence of the fruit into cooking.

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