Once upon a time there was a sweet small saltbox. A perfect weekend house that, like so many others, became a year round residence.

Two major renovations later - the first being a new kitchen, foyer, and front porch; the next being a 2 story addition with a laundry room down and master bathroom up - we thought the house was complete…until now.

As we embark on our third renovation, and now that I work at home, I have had the luxury of observing and appreciating the actual steps that are required to build an addition.  This time around it is a spacious & light filled pantry and a charming powder room. And oh,  did I mention an entire kitchen renovation as well? Once concept and architect’s blueprints are complete, demolition takes place.

The next step is excavating the site making room for the foundation. Watching this process fascinated me. It made me think about the metaphor that everything great starts with a strong foundation, and how it applies to, well, just about everything. 

It got me thinking...

And, as a chef, it was only natural that I began to think about the ingredients that are the foundation of my cooking. I took a peek into my cabinets and the fridge to see what ingredients will be the first ones to get prime real estate on the shelves. In conjunction with the season, it seemed like a perfect time not just to take stock but do some spring cleaning. I cleared out expired or underused products, and took some time to introduce some new ones.  It would be like a breath of fresh air to see—and taste—what these seeds might sow.


My Essentials:



  • Olive oil (Virgin, Extra-virgin - EVOO, Drizzling)
  • Grapeseed
  • Vegetable

It is important to understand a few things about these fundamentals. Virgin olive oil is best for cooking because it has a higher smoke point.  EVOO is best for dressings or for use with low heat.  A drizzling oil is used for anointing a finished plate and is literally drizzled on to add a more full and rich flavor.  Vegetable oil has a neutral flavor & is best for baking & high heat cooking, for instance deep frying. Considered a neutral oil, grapeseed oil’s high smoke point makes it an alternative for high heat cooking, without adding any flavor.



  • White & red wine vinegar
  • Basic Balsamic
  • Aged syrupy balsamic

Like oils, vinegars each have their own personality.  Red and white wine vinegars add an acidic counterpoint to dressings and marinades.  They balance fats and can be used to tenderize.  Everyday Balsamic vinegar is thicker and fruitier than regular vinegar.  Aging it like fine wine mellows and softens its flavor, making it sweeter and less astringent than wine vinegars yet not as rich as the most mature balsamics are. The most condensed and syrupy of all, aged balsamics can be used to finish anything from grilled meats and vegetables to fresh fruits and berries.





  • Onions – Yellow and red
  • Shallots  
  • Garlic – as fresh as possible

When cooked, onions add a sweet, earthiness to many dishes whereas using them raw adds a spicy kick.  Shallots are the gourmet cousin of the onion family bringing softer flavors to the table.  Garlic, which is fundamental in world cuisine, has a distinct and identifiable flavor.  There’s no substitute for it!




  • Dijon mustard
  • Tomato paste
  • Mayonnaise
  • Tahini
  • Chicken and Vegetable Stock

Dijon mustard may be one of my favorite ingredients: it adds color, complex flavor and acts as an emulsifier.  Unlike some other Dijons, I find Gray Poupon is more balanced, it adds round notes to recipes.  Tomato paste is a richly flavored concentrated tomato juice, acting as a flavor enhancer for any savory dish. 



  • Kosher salt
  • Flaky Finishing sea salt
  • Fresh ground black pepper
  • Fennel seed
  • Cinnamon
  • Coriander
  • Smoked Paprika (also known as Spanish Paprika)
  • Cumin
  • Aleppo Pepper
  • Herbs de Provence

Kosher salt has a less intense and more pure salty taste than regular table salt.

The crunch of flaky finishing salt adds a delicate pop of flavor. 

Salt’s best friend, freshly ground black pepper, enhances our ability to taste foods more fully. It is more dimensional than pre-ground pepper since the moment the peppercorn is cracked open; it begins to lose its aroma and pungency. 


And finally from the FRIDGE & FREEZER:

  • Fresh herbs—flat leaf parsley, cilantro, thyme, chives, dill
  • Lemons
  • Vegetables - fennel, carrots, celery, baby spinach
  • Dairy- eggs, butter and Grana Padano
  • Phyllo dough
  • Puff pastry
  • Edamame & baby peas

Using fresh herbs in cooking imparts a bright fresh flavor. Soft delicate herbs like parsley, mint, basil, and cilantro, should be added at the last minute to cooked dishes, or sprinkled on top of salads or added to a finished dish.  Hard herbs like rosemary, thyme and sage, can be cooked longer because of the essential oils.  The citrusy flavor of lemon juice adds a vibrancy to all that you cook.  But let’s not forget about the zest!

My Go-To: Cheeses

Manchego, from Spain is made from unpasturzed sheep’s milk, aged 3 months this Spanish cheese has a supple and moist consistency, with a fruity & grassy tang. La Tur is from northern Italy, it’s made with a blend of pasteurized cow, goat and sheep's milk. It’s soft-ripened and creamy. Murcia Al Vino, a.k.a. Drunken Goat, a red wine cured semi-firm pasteurized goat from Spain. The rind takes on a violet hue while the cheese remains white sweet and smooth.  Grana Padano – see above.  French Feta is creamier than its counter parts, and it’s made with sheep’s milk. As American as apple pie - Cheddar - mild, sharp or extra sharp is an all time favorite.  The differences have to do with aging, from 2 months to 2 years. Sharper versions have a mellow tartness and creamy mouthfeel.  Click on each cheese to get full view.


In the end

This is a list of my essentials.  But like every foundation is unique to the structure being built, I am sure your list is different than mine.  I’d love for you to share any of your faves that we didn’t cover in the story. 

A few steps involved in building our foundation:


Thank you to…

Veronica Mezzina, as always many thanks to you for editing this spirited blog, and for your overall enthusiasm and collaboration.

Loaves & Fishes Cookshop for the for the many beautiful table top pieces used in this post. To Gerrit van Kempen for all his amazing ideas on props and photography.  Call 631-537-6066 for product information or visit  They sell Arlotta infused olive oils. 

Williams Sonoma - Bridgehampton, NY For allowing me to roam and shoot their wonderful products.  They carry a vast array of pantry items for every season.  Call (631)537-3040 or

Serious Eats - For their discussion on cooking oils and smoke points that I linked to in the oils section.