Elaine's Elaine Gruener

Elaine Gruener opened her sandwich shop, Elaine's, on Cherokee Street in 2015.

While doing their part to maintain social distance, home cooks everywhere are honing their skills in the kitchen. Feast consulted with some of St. Louis' finest chefs and business owners for their best advice on how to make easy, wholesome meals using simple pantry staples. Find out how to make the most of your groceries in this Q&A series, which outlines some pro tips for creating nutritious and comforting from-scratch meals, snacks and more.

Elaine Gruener is the owner of Elaine's, a classic American-style sandwich shop that recently reopened for business on June 12 following a nearly three-month long temporary closure. The restaurant is currently offering phone and online ordering. Delivery is also available via Doordash, Uber Eats and Postmates. Visit the Elaine's website for details and to view the menu of sandwiches, wraps, salads and soups.

What are some essential tools in your kitchen you can't go without? The most essential item in both kitchens (home and shop) is a sharp eight-inch chef knife. It is so important to keep your knives sharp. It really makes kitchen life easy. My favorite is a NHB and is made in St. Louis. One of the most essential items in my home kitchen is my Crockpot. The one I have was my grandmother’s, and it cooks better than any new one and is probably older than I am (I am 41). It is nice to have something ready after working all day. Beef and potatoes are my go-to with the crock. I usually put plenty of garlic, celery, onions and carrots in it, and serve it with crusty bread. Last week I filled it with chicken and taco seasonings and we had delicious pulled chicken tacos. There is no work to "pulling" Crockpot meats – typically they fall apart.

How do you like to make the most out of a loaf of bread or bag of tortillas at home? What are your favorite kinds? I really do love every type of bread; each one has its own great use. For sandwiches, I love brioche. Bridge Bread on Cherokee has an excellent one I use at the shop. Bread butts are perfect for croutons and bread crumbs – I just chop it up and stick it in the oven after I’ve cooked something and the oven is still hot but turned off. I usually just leave them in there a couple hours.

Tortillas are my tie over. I keep them on hand for when I am out of bread and I love to fry tortilla up! They're great salad toppers and chip dippers. I made a lot of burger burritos during quarantine. In my opinion, burgers are better on tortillas than buns; they don’t slide around. I like all the toppings on my burgs.

What is the best way to build a sandwich or wrap, and what components are necessary for a solid finished product? If you like all the toppings on your sammy, you have got to put the thick dressing on the bread and the thin one on the veggies. I think a toasted bread is a necessity on sandwiches – especially when you put a lot of ingredients on it. No matter if it is fresh or day-old bread, the toasting brings out a different quality in it.

What are some ideas for spreads or other components cooks can make at home to take their sandwiches to the next level? I love to make my own dressings. I am a mayonnaise fan! Sometimes I will come across a spice blend or hot sauce that I really like. Right now it is one called "No Shit." It is a salt-free spice blend that I got in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. I like to take a tablespoon of it to a couple tablespoons of hot water, let it sit for 20 minutes then add two cups of mayo (or plain yogurt or sour cream or cream cheese or a combo of any of these). Let it chill an hour or two – preferably overnight, as this always helps with bringing out full flavor. Then use it on chips, crackers, veggies, sammies, wraps, salads, whatever my or your heart desires.