Like any food-lover, I have several things in my pantry at all times that allow me to whip up something tasty. Aside from the “staples” like flour, sugar, etc., here are the items I think are essential to have on hand at all times:
- Sea Salt and Kosher Salt – I never use plain table salt. I have a range of sea salts (varying in size, or fineness) from different locations, with different flavors or spices. Kosher salt is perfect for brining and is what I use on the table instead of table salt. I also love how the bigger pieces of salt give a little explosion of salty flavor in baked goods.
- Canned whole tomatoes – my favorites are the pricey San Marzano tomatoes, but any roma or plum tomato is good to have on hand. I can use them to make pizza sauce from scratch, or as the base for a pasta sauce. They also mix well into soups.
- A variety of raw nuts, especially pecans – I like the raw nuts best since I can toast or flavor them to meet the needs of the dish they’ll go into. Pecans seem to add a nice note to lots of dishes, from brussels sprouts to pumpkin ravioli to sweet potatoes to salads. Cashews are also great as snacks or added to dishes that have an African or Middle Eastern flair. Walnuts, pine nuts and pecans all go great in various pesto recipes.
- Dried fruit – cranberries, raisins, apricots, cherries or blueberries are great additions to muffins, cookies, tarts, salads, even dishes like rabbit, lamb or curries.
- Arborio rice – the staple rice used in risotto, which is easier to make than most people think. Risotto is a fabulous base – entree or side dish, flavored with nearly any kind of liquid (even vegan) and dressed up with vegetables, meats, mushrooms… the options are limitless. All it takes is a little stirring and patience.
- High-quality dark chocolate – chop a little and sprinkle over a bowl of ice cream. Melt with heavy cream for a luxurious ganache. Create an incredible mole – the deep dark Mexican sauce. Chocolate sauce. Chunks in cookies. Treats for the cook…. You get the idea.
- Dried beans – I used to think that making soup from scratch was laborious – but a bag of dried beans costs only pennies, and when you add broth, some odds and ends from the fridge, and maybe the rind from a parmesan cheese – magnifique! Soup. The only catch is planning ahead – set those beans to soak before you leave for work, or the night before, and you’re set.
- Dried mushrooms – usually I have shiitakes on hand. I buy bags of them at the Asian market where they’re a fraction of the cost of the specialty shops. Soak the dried mushrooms in hot water, and use in risotto, pasta sauce, or throw them in the roasting pan with your meat. The deep woody flavor adds tons of pizazz. You can use the soaking water in place of broth in your risotto, or to flavor a sauce or gravy.
- Pasta in various shapes – Pasta is my comfort food. With a couple of shapes on hand I can whip up nearly anything from a cream sauce to a meat sauce to a primavera veggie sauce. And those broken bits at the bottom of the box or bag? Great in soups.
- Oil – Olive, grapeseed, peanut, canola… I have more bottles than I can count. The olive oil is great for cooking, or for finishing foods. It can’t take high heat, though, so grapeseed is a better alternative. I use grapeseed to saute green beans – it’s also very light and neutral, so it doesn’t add much of its own flavor. It’s great in salad dressing. Peanut oil is an occasional splurge for frying. Canola is fine for baked goods or dressings. Specialty oils like walnut or truffle oil can take an ordinary dish to extraordinary in a flash.
I could come up with more, but I think you get the idea. What are the vital ingredients in your pantry?