Welcome to Jenn de la Vega’s pantry! In each episode of this series, a recipe developer will share with us the pantry items essential to their kitchen. This month, we’re exploring seven staples for Jenn’s kitchen, which include Japanese, Caribbean, Southern, and Filipino ingredients.
I find it difficult to define the cuisine I cook. When confronted, I will stammer about being a Filipina from California and now living in Brooklyn, New York. If you ask what I do, the answer depends on the time of year. From January to June, I am a recipe developer and cookbook recipe tester. Between August and December, I am mainly a wedding caterer. I say “primarily” because there might be craft services for an independent film, food styling for a magazine, or a nonprofit fundraising dinner. On Tuesdays, I make the hot dogs at a local bar called Wonderville. We look to video games to inspire names. My current favorite is called “Pancit! At the Disco Elysium”, an all-beef hot dog with vegan stir-fried noodles and crispy lumpia chips on top. As a result of all these different jobs, I don’t just have one pantry; I have four.
Growing up between San Francisco and Palmdale, my large family got together frequently. Friends at school would ask me about weekend plans, and my constant response was “a family party,” which they were always invited to. Our pantry was constantly stocked since my parents’ generational habit of bulk buying at Costco. It was as big as a walk-in closet, which became a running joke when Great Aunt Pina gave my mom, Ditas, a white plastic sign with red bubble letters that said “Ditas’ Sari Sari Store” , a tribute to bodega-like convenience stores in the Philippines.
My current pantry reflects both my job and what it’s like to live in New York. For each cookbook project, I keep a plastic bin with a locking lid to represent each kitchen. This allows me to keep an accurate inventory (and stack the boxes). Right now I have Japanese, West Indian, South American, and Filipino. Before that, I had bags of wood chips for a barbecue book and various types of rice for an all-onigiri recipe collection. As I complete projects, I’m left with tons of options to improvise with: spices, grains, pulses, and flours from around the world. Hundreds of unique combinations are born. I feel great joy when I introduce a sauce like ajvar or ingredients like shiitake mushroom powder to my friends. The delivery mechanics I use are familiar vehicles balanced with surprising new concepts, like mango chutney hot dogs, gorgonzola nachos, colorado chili burritos, and ancho morita s’mores. I experience the flavors and textures of different traditions in a way that suggests living in a city where neighbors, friends and colleagues come from overlapping diasporas. My dishes stem from this intersectional reality rather than a goal of merging two cultures. A friend pointed out to me that my approach is very similar to that of an artist who presents sketches or work in progress to the public while he tinkers.
I am a culinary chameleon. It’s exciting to imagine and capture what’s possible in the kitchen. Developing recipes allows me to combine technical precision and creativity. Although I don’t have a single bright kitchen, my cooking style is rooted in comfort, joy and family.
My 7 Pantry Ingredients
1. Dried black beans
It is more cost effective to buy dried black beans in bulk rather than canned. I can passively soak them before bed and move them to the slow cooker before work. I make black beans with lots of dried chillies, garlic, a good broth and a cinnamon stick to flavor it. From there, I can make as many burritos as my heart desires and turn the leftovers into black bean soup.
2. Cream cheese (or Neufchâtel)
Cream cheese and its lesser-known cousin, Neufchâtel, are my go-to bases for spreads and sauces. The latter has much the same flavor, but is milder and contains 10% less fat. I use them to make fluffy green onion cream cheese or cinnamon-spiced black bean cream cheese that doubles as a dip for veggies and a spread for sandwiches, burritos, and homemade tlayudas.
I use grilled seaweed half-sheets to wrap onigiri or “kimono-style” rice balls. It’s when you place a triangular rice ball in the center of a half sheet of nori and fold the sides over it diagonally, forming the v-neck of what looks like a kimono. I like to have them with me so I can make hand rolls, sushi and kimbap. Any leaves I ruin are sliced to top cold soba noodles or tossed into my ever-changing homemade furikake pot.
4. Datu Puti Sukang Iloco
Datu Puti is a brand of sugar cane vinegar from the Philippines. The bottle of Sukang Maasim is white, fragrant sugarcane, a little more acidic than rice vinegar. Sukang Iloco native vinegar is darker, as it is made from molasses, and its flavor is closer to the depth of sherry vinegar, with the sweetness of balsamic. Use it to “adobo” anything, make dipping sauce for fried foods and mix a tropical base for North Carolina Whole Pork BBQ Sauce.
5. Dried chili peppers
Dried guajillo peppers always go in my black bean slow cooker. I love sniffing the pasillas as they toast for salsa macha with roasted peanuts. I mix and match varieties: fruity Scotch bonnets and bird’s eye Thai chilies go Chinese hot pot and smoky tasso chili.
6. Fresh curry leaves
I fell in love with fresh curry leaves when I tried a cashew curry recipe. They crisp quickly in oil or ghee. I started using them to garnish butternut squash soup and kitchen sink style salads, as well as a crispy topping for my adobong mani recipe.
7. Red Skin Spanish Peanuts
I don’t like buying roasted nuts because you can’t cook them much longer (but they’re great for snacking or adding extra protein to spicy fried rice with chorizo and cilantro). Raw Spanish peanuts with skin are the star of adobong mani, my father’s favorite street snack when he was growing up.
Recipe: Adobong Mani with Fried Curry Leaves
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