Cooking with Takeout

Part of being a l cook is rarely cooking for oneself. When you make food for hours on end, either as a student or professional, the process of shopping, cooking and cleaning seems like too much effort. Living in New York, it's tempting to slack on the couch and let someone else do the grunt work. Luckily for us, even the best restaurants deliver.

But being cooks, we're still a picky bunch. We want food the way we like it, and delivery often doesn't make the cut. The rice in an order of Afghan kebab is too mushy, the spice in a spicy tuna roll too mild. It's frustrating to face a plate of food when famished, and realize it's entirely mediocre.

Fortunately I found a solution, a compromise between delivery and a home cooked meal. I order the main component, i.e. sushi or even a steak, but stock add-ons in the kitchen for that personalized touch.

Below are a few key ingredients to have around when subsisting on the whims of other kitchens:

Salad Dressing

I can't tell you how many times I've ordered a salad, and there's a dressing debacle. It seems to be the highest gamble of delivery food: will it be in the order? If so, will it have spilled everywhere? And if not, will it be good? Dressing is tricky. I always keep a few salad dressings in the fridge, or quickly whisk up my own (1 minced clove garlic, 1 tsp mustard, 1 tbs vinegar: 3-4 tbs olive oil. Combine first 3 ingredients, and slowly whisk in oil to emulsify).

Cilantro
Cilantro is an herb that elicits a strong reaction: you either detest it, or sneak it into everything. I'm one of the cilantro fanatics, especially when it comes to Asian cuisines. Throw some chopped cilantro on a Thai green papaya salad, and it takes the whole dish up a notch. Same can be said for a spicy tuna roll (see "jalapeno" for more details).

Mint
If you like cilantro, you may want to experiment with mint. It's a natural fit with Vietnamese takeout, and certain Thai dishes. If not already present, throw it in a summer roll for a fresh burst of flavor. I also like adding chopped mint into Indian raita for a zesty kick.

Jalapeno
In my book, raw jalapeno serves one purpose in delivery cooking: sushi. A slender piece of this mildly spicy pepper adds both kick and crunch to any type of sushi roll. A personal favorite is the spicy tuna roll from my fave local joint, Natsumi, with small pieces of jalapeno and cilantro added on top. Just remember to seed, core and rinse the pepper before consuming! The seeds and spongy center are the spiciest parts.

Mustard
Or mayonnaise, or ketchup….whatever condiment you need to make your burger or sandwich palatable. It's another ingredient that's often forgotten, or there's just not enough of it.

Rice
I detest mushy rice, and mushy rice is a common evil in delivery cuisine. Indian rice is generally solid, but if you're going Greek, kebab or sometimes even Thai, you might want to boil your own. Nothing fancy – the Near East brands of rice are excellent, and simply involve boiling water.

Hot Sauce
It has the ability to make anything better. Need I say more?

Tzatziki
This one is a little left field, but the Greek yogurt sauce known as tzatziki is fit for Zeus. Lightly flavored with garlic and dill, crunchy with cucumber, you could put tzatziki on dirty gym socks and they'd taste good. Don't test that theory, but do try it on grilled meat or vegetables, roast chicken, tandoori, kebab etc. It's a staple on Greek menus, but to stock your fridge, try the Fage brand found in Whole Foods.

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