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blog-red-pepper dip

The most efficient pantry I’ve ever had was in the smallest apartment I’ve ever lived in—a studio on the top floor of a brownstone on Berkeley Place, in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The kitchen, which was teensy but shipshape, boasted an old-fashioned porcelain double sink (luxurious suds up to my elbows was how a dinner party always ended), and, on the three-foot expanse of wall between the dollhouse fridge and doorway, narrow shelves from floor to ceiling. They were wide enough, just, for a 28-ounce can of tomatoes, which was absolutely brilliant: Everything could easily be seen and grabbed. My shortages of space, time, and money meant those shelves had to be tightly edited, but that was precisely why they were the key to many a great improv night.

These days, my nonperishables are jammed into a tall, deep kitchen cabinet. There are inadvertent multiples of those cans of tomatoes—”as well as pickled okra,” Sam muttered—but I still believe that a well-stocked pantry is the home cook’s greatest ally.

Jarred roasted red peppers are a perfect example of what I mean. They are typically red bell, pimiento, or cherry peppers that have been roasted, peeled and seeded, then bottled in an acidic brine. They add zest and a shot of color to an antipasto plate, and a suave, smoke-tinged sweetness to a tomato sauce or puréed soup. Top them with a few shreds of red onion and boquerones, the vinegar-cured white anchovies from Spain, for tapas; or pair them with fresh mozzarella on bruschetta or a sandwich. They are also an integral ingredient in the Turkish toasted-walnut and cumin spread called muhammara, which is a great thing to serve with drinks. Guests will take a smidgen of it of it on a pita chip just to be polite, and then devour the rest of the bowl in no time flat.

Now, muhammara is not difficult to make, but you do need actual walnut halves, which you then have to toast and chop fine. So I take the easy way out and rely instead on the dip below, which utilizes walnut oil instead of the nuts. I suppose you could call it a cheat, but I think it belongs in the genius category. It was developed by Gourmet food editor Shelley Wiseman (who is now senior food editor at Fine Cooking magazine) some years back. I asked her for an emergency hors d’oeuvre idea as I was rushing out the door one evening, and what she hollered after me was dead simple. I could easily remember it, in fact, until I snagged a seat on the R train and wrote it down on the dry-cleaning receipt I found in a coat pocket.

Walnut oil, by the way, is another terrific pantry standby, although after you’ve opened a tin, it’s best to keep it in the fridge. Its resonant flavor is fabulous combined with Sherry vinegar in a dressing for endive or asparagus. A little goes a long way: Especially now that the weather is getting warmer (well, hope springs eternal), think about cutting its richness in a vinaigrette with a neutral oil, such as grapeseed or safflower.

Roasted Red-Pepper and Walnut Dip

Bread crumbs give this dip body, and you’ll find that this recipe yields about 1½ cups. If there is any left over, add it to pasta or a sandwich.

1 jar (about 8 ounces) roasted red peppers, rinsed and drained

1 cup coarse fresh breadcrumbs (a baguette works the best)

1 garlic clove

2 pinches of ground cumin

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

¼ cup walnut oil

Put everything except the oil in a food processor and add salt (about ½ teaspoon) and pepper (about ¼ teaspoon). Purée until almost smooth, but not quite. With the motor running, slowly add the oil. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. See? I told you it was simple.

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