Kosher salt and sea salt – Kosher salt imparts a nice earthy, mild, and sweeter salt taste than table salt. You need to use more kosher salt than you normally would for table salt. I like to have a variety of salts on hand for grilling meat, and adding to soups and stews. I also like to have a grinder of sea salt on the table to add to salads to give it a little crunch, and grind it onto meats for a great crust before cooking. I usually use regular table salt when I bake because it is easier to mix into batter and dough.
Fresh ground pepper – A must have item. You need to have a good grinder (Peugeot makes a good one), and a grinder that adjusts the grounds. I buy whole black peppercorns in the Mexican spice aisle at the grocery store or in the bulk herb section. It’s a little less expensive. I don’t recommend buying large quantities because they go stale quickly.
Panko breadcrumbs – Great for breading chicken and pork, topping for macaroni and cheese, and topping for halibut or salmon. Find it in the Asian aisle.
Pancetta cubes – Them come already cut up and in a plastic bag. I always store them in the freezer (no need to thaw) and it’s great for a quick addition to scrambled eggs, sautéing with vegetables (green beans, sprouts, cabbage), soups, stews, and pasta sauces.
Chicken and beef broth – I use the low sodium, low fat cans, and use them to make quick pan sauces, sauté vegetables, and soups for more depth of flavor. If I have any leftover, I freeze them in little containers for future use so I can quickly make a pan sauce.
Tomato and anchovy paste in a tube – It’s so much easier than having a whole can you have to open if you just want a tablespoon or teaspoon, and it allows you to always have it on hand. Anchovy paste adds a depth of flavor to a lot of pasta sauces, and it doesn’t impart a strong fishy taste, and of course, it’s always good to have on hand for a Caesar dressing.
Capers – I always have a jar of them in the fridge to add to salad dressings, chop them into sauces for fish, pasta sauces, and add them to mayonnaise to make various sauces.
Balsamic vinegar – You don’t have to buy the most expensive bottle for it to be great. I add it to soups, sauces, marinades, and vinaigrettes. Trader Joe’s also has a Balsamic glaze which is a very concentrated and syrupy glaze that is wonderful to drizzle over fish, salads or strawberries.
Assortment of wonderful vinegars – You must have a good quality red and white vinegar in your pantry as a staple, and then I always like to have a great assortment of vinegars like orange-muscat, sherry, champagne, fig balsamic, raspberry, and cider, to make interesting marinades vinaigrettes. I always have rice vinegar (unseasoned; which means it doesn’t have sugar in it) on hand as well. It’s great for vinaigrettes and marinades.
Assortment of mustards – I always have a good quality Dijon, honey mustard, and grain mustard in the fridge. I also like to have various flavored mustards to make quick vinaigrettes like tarragon, and raspberry mustard. I usually have a Dijon in a handy squeeze bottle as well as a jar.
Olive oil – I usually have a good quality extra virgin olive oil for salad dressings, and a medium priced olive oil to cook with.
Garlic olive oil – is great to have on hand for vinaigrettes, marinades, and brushing on bread for panini’s, or toasted cheese sandwiches.
Frozen basil and parsley cubes. I use my mini food processor and process fresh basil (or parsley) with a little water and place it in ice cube trays and freeze them. When they are frozen, I place them in a zip lock back in the freezer. It’s great to add to soups, stews, scrambled eggs, sauces, and marinades. They thaw quickly and you can use them right away. Trader Joe’s has little containers of them in their freezer section, which are really handy.
Dried Herbs – I have 3 drawers full of spices and they inspire me to try new dishes. I like to buy spice jars at Bed and Bath and then fill them at the bulk section of the grocery store and just refill my jars. It is a lot less expensive and usually the herbs are fresher. Thyme and rosemary are probably my favorite herbs. These herbs dry well and retain a lot of flavor. You can dry your own thyme or rosemary by loosely wrapping fresh thyme in paper towels, and placing it in the refrigerator for 2 weeks. I just run my fingers down each stalk, and place it in a spice jar, and store it. I keep a package of fresh bay leaves in the vegetable drawer and use them throughout the winter months in stews and pilafs. I figure they are fresher than the store bought and a lot less expensive.
Garlic – A must have. I use my micro plane grater and grate it into the dish or marinade to make it easy. I never use the garlic that comes in a bottle. I think there is a strange taste, and nothing beats fresh garlic. I love Trader Joe’s peeled garlic in the refrigerated vegetable section. I go through a lot a week and it is really handy.
Ginger – I put whole rhizomes of ginger in a zip lock bag in the freezer. You can use a micro plane grater when you need some in a marinade or vinaigrette, and it tastes fresh and you can always have it on hand.
Lemongrass – I also put lemongrass in the freezer and micro plane it into a vinaigrette or marinade when I haven’t planned ahead.
Gourmet crackers: Great to have on hand for unexpected guests for a quick hors d’oeuvre.
Wine – I always have a bottle of red and white wine opened that I can quickly add to the pan after I sauté meat or vegetables to make a quick reduction sauce. It adds more depth of flavor, and cooks the alcohol out if you let it almost evaporate before you add other ingredients for the sauce. You can also freeze leftover wine and use it in stews or sauces.
Assortment of nuts – walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, pecans, and pinenuts. I keep them in a zip lock bag in the refrigerator or freezer. I like to usually toast the nuts before I use them to bring out their flavor. Trader Joe’s has toasted pinenuts, pecans, and almonds which takes the toasting step out. I add them to salads, grind them for rubs for roasts, and I use them in baking.
Pastas – I love to buy interesting shaped pasta. They last a long time, and add interest to simple pasta dishes.
Shallots – Great to have on hand when you need a little bit of onion flavor, or a mellow onion in a vinaigrette or reduction sauce.
Assortment of rice – I always have jasmine, basmati, short Japanese sushi grain, brown rice, wild rice, and Arborio (for risotto) on hand.
Couscous – I love couscous. It is actually a type of semolina pasta that is so small it looks like a grain. It cooks in 5 minutes and makes a quick side dish. You can also add sautéed vegetables and make it in the pilaf style. Trader Joe’s has a whole wheat couscous that is delicious.
Canned Tomatoes – I have a variety on hand: diced, whole, tomato sauce, paste and 24 oz sizes as well if I am going to make a spaghetti sauce or chili. I use them in so many dishes and they are a staple.
Asian Flavorings – I love Asian food, and have soy sauce (dark and light), sesame oil, hoisin, oyster sauce, mirin (Japanese rice wine), Chinese vinegar, red curry paste, palm sugar, and dried shrimp in my pantry, so I am ready to make marinades and sauces. I also have toasted sesame seeds and keep them in the refrigerator.
Coconut Milk – Good to have on hand for Thai dishes, and wonderful rice puddings.
Evaporated and Sweetened Condensed Milk – Good to have on hand for baking.
Fresh Herbs – I love having fresh herbs on hand and like to grow them in pots on my deck or in my kitchen. They really add so much more flavor than dried, and are very easy to grow.