My husband sometimes complains that there’s never anything to eat in the house. If you examine my pantry, the only option might be eggs and those take a bit of effort. I can remember desperation crackers, smeared with mustard, during late-night cram sessions in my college dorm, but that’s not the point. This is not a list of what to eat, but what you must have to be primed to prepare something good.
My list of pantry staples, the nuts and bolts of daily cooking, has nothing that will make you think twice. But beyond them are ingredients I frequently turn to when trying to elevate a dish and give it that certain je ne sais quoi, even when it’s something like an everyday meat sauce for pasta. Here are my top 10 special go-to items in alphabetical order, not Letterman-style. I must have them on hand. Quality ingredients like these are often not cheap, but they are occasional worthwhile investments, a safe-deposit collection for flavor and panache.
Anchovy paste: The operative term is umami, the complexity that the Japanese call the “fifth taste.” A squiggle of anchovy paste will elevate a quick chicken liver pâté Tuscan-style (or my mother’s sublime chopped liver), give depth to a meat sauce for pasta or enrich a vinaigrette as an alternative to mustard. It’s more convenient to use than whole anchovies.
Arborio rice: There is such a thing as an easy, convenient risotto made in 30 minutes, start to finish, in one pot. That also goes for a quick paella supper in the same time made with sliced sausages or vegetables. Short-grain rice is required for either dish, and I prefer to keep Italian Arborio on hand.
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Scallions: I cannot imagine cooking without fresh scallions in the refrigerator to mince and enliven a salad; to garnish a platter; to add to a stir-fry, an omelet or a baked potato; or to float on bowls of soup.
Canned cannellini beans: Need a starch for that dinner? Some heft for the pasta or a salad? Some substance in the soup? A can of white cannellini beans comes to my rescue on many occasions, even to purée and season for a dip or thin out to turn into soup.
Capers in vinegar: Few ingredients will dress a fillet of fish, a chicken breast, hanger steak, pork loin, vegetables like cauliflower, or a salad, like a random scattering of capers. For eye appeal, I prefer the small ones in vinegar.
Dried mushrooms (preferably porcini): Soak dried mushrooms, porcini or morels in warm water, pat them dry, and you have a straight path to an elegant sauce for pasta, or a glorious addition to a braise or stew. Strain the soaking liquid to use in the sauce.
Good-quality canned tuna: Whether your goal is simple tuna salad, salade niçoise, pasta to evoke southern Italy, or a weeknight casserole, try to find imported tuna in olive oil. It’s a treasure of flavor and texture.
Pitted prunes: Poaching prunes in lightly sweetened red wine with a couple of cinnamon sticks is my go-to emergency dinner finale, but one you will often see on dessert trolleys in Europe. Serve the dish at room temperature, embellished with some heavy cream, crème fraîche or vanilla ice cream. Use wine goblets for serving, to add glam to the weeknight.
Red miso or black olive paste: Miso or olive paste are ingredients I need to thicken soups, stews and gravies, and to add complexity to their flavor, as they unpack their umami when warmed (see anchovy paste).
Sliced almonds: These are the most versatile nuts to keep on hand. Toast them to use as a garnish, to add to a salad, or to scatter over a cake, panna cotta or ice cream. You can grind them for emergency almond flour. Because they have less fat than pecans or peanuts, they are not likely to go rancid, though they are best kept in the freezer.