I believe in a well-stocked pantry, full of both staples and exotic items. And I consider my refrigerator, freezer, and spice rack to be part of the "pantry" as well. With a wide assortment of ingredients on hand, it's easy to put tasty and interesting meals together.
Some people consider Kraft Macaroni and Cheese to be a staple, along with canned corn and boxes of Lean Cuisine. I suppose that's fine for people who neither like to cook or to eat, but I'm not a fan of either. I do not advocate the lazy, "semi-homemade" style of mealmaking, using canned cream soups, canned chicken meat, artifical whipped topping, and instant rice. It's not difficult or time-consuming to make a proper bechamel, or to make a cream soup using actual cream. However, I am not above utilizing the convenience of rotisserie chickens, canned Thai red curry paste, and refrigerated tortillas rather than taking the far more-involved effort to make them at home.
I have a small galley kitchen with little storage space. When we moved in, there was no pantry to speak of. We bought a pine cabinet, about 6' high, 3' wide, and 15" deep, a perfect fit for the wall in our kitchen between the basement door and a cut-in corner, and use that for our dry goods. The shelves are always bulging with ingredients: boxes of tea; bottles of sauces; dried grains, fruits and nuts; boxes of stock; an assortment of curry pastes, coconut milk, and chutneys; bottles of various oils and vinegars. We fill it through trips to the local supermarket, plus visits to Asian markets and gourmet shops. On any given night, we can whip up some home-made soup, a nice pasta dish, or something more exotic, with what we have on hand.
Here are items I consider some of the most indespensible for my pantry.
This is pretty much a given, no? We always have a big bottle of extra virgin olive oil for salad dressings and to drizzle over pasta, but there's also a bottle of light olive oil for cooking. For instances when we want something less-flavorful with a higher smoke point, we also keep a small bottle of something neutral, like canola, on hand. Once in a while we buy a flavored oil and particularly like Golden Whisk Star of Siam Thai oil, deeply flavored with chiles and lemongrass. Truffle oil is nice to have around as well, but it goes rancid faster than we can use it.
My mom always bought Contadina brand, but I've found most brands to be uniformly good. I just make sure to buy plain tomato paste, not one flavored with garlic or basil or other herbs as the added elements tend to be bitter and somewhat overwhelming. Less versatile as well. Tomato paste can be put to work in sauces, marinades, dressings, and soups, and works as both a flavor agent and thickener.
I like to keep several different types of vinegar on hand. Not only are they good for making salad dressing, they are flavor enhancers for a wide variety of foods.
A splash of Balsamic vinegar can be added to a pasta sauce to brighten the taste. For instance, my friend Kate and I made an eggplant sauce from a cookbook by a certain un-favorite tv personality of mine. It was, of course, quite tasteless, but with a generous splash of balsamic vinegar and a pinch of sugar, the sauce became a Sicilian-style sweet and sour delight. "Yum-O" indeed.
In addition to the balsamic, I also like to have a bottle of rice wine vinegar around; it's an essential ingredient in dipping sauces and Asian noodle dishes and gets used more often than balsamic. There are also funky fancy vinegars in my pantry right now, including Golden Whisk Smoky Lapsang Souchang and Earl Grey tea vinegars, tomato vinegar, Chinese black vinegar, sherry vinegar, honey vinegar, strawberry vinegar, plus good old white and apple cider vinegars.
Hey, we like Jif, but it's ok if you would prefer to keep some natural style peanut butter in your pantry. Personally, I don't like having to stir in the oil, the gummy texture, or the fact that it gets rancid after a time. Give me chemicals, sugar, and stabilizers! Jif has good peanut flavor and its smooth texture blends well in sauces. Not only do we enjoy a schmear of it on toast in the morning, we also use it for Asian noodle dishes and for peanut soup. (Yes, I said Peanut Soup.)
Essential for baking (and for chocoholics), chocolate and cocoa products have a prized spot in my pantry. The Ghirardelli Sweet Ground Chocolate and Cocoa pictured makes some mighty fine brownies, and terrific hot cocoa. We also have regular cocoa, unsweetened baking chocolate, and semisweet chips on hand.
Lest you think chocolate and cocoa is only for sweet stuff, I also like to use it to deepen the flavors of a pot of chili, in mole sauce, and the occasional fresh salsa.
You can't make a good curried chicken salad without mayonnaise, nor a proper BLT. It's also important for dips and creamy salad dressings. Most people swear by Hellman's or Best Foods brand (although I've read that they're reformulating), but my favorite is Kewpie mayo from Japan. It's got a slightly thinner texture than jarred mayonnaise, but has a richer flavor closer to homemade than the usual commercial stuff.
My husband is a pastaholic, so it's imperative that we have several varieties of this dried starch on hand. His specialty is spaghetti and meatballs, but sometimes he'll whip up something he calls Pasta Verde, a broccoli-based sauce recipe found printed on a pasta box some years back. Of course we make our macaroni-and-cheese from scratch, and once in a while, I like to make an as-yet-unnamed dish of pasta tossed with Mexican chorizo, sundried tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, onions, and chicken.
Of course, there's plenty more in the pantry than the above items. And lets not forget the variety of meats in the freezer (as of today: a leg of lamb; pork tenderloins; boneless and skinless chicken thighs; salmon, sole, and halibut filets; and a bag of raw shrimp) and the selection of condiments in the fridge (Sriracha, Dijon mustard, pickle relish, Chinese bbq sauce, black bean sauce, mango chutney, brinjal pickle).
So what's for dinner tonight? I know we have a big slab of leftover flank steak, so my DH is going to make a homemade red sauce with canned tomatoes, tomato paste, and lots of fresh garlic, toss in the meat, and serve it over pasta. A green salad with a bit of vinaigrette (I put a half teaspoon of Dijon mustard into a custard cup with a squeeze of clover honey, a pinch of salt, a glug or two of Earl Grey tea vinegar, and a splash of olive oil--contrary to popular belief, a dressing doesn't need to have a larger proportion of oil to vinegar to taste good--and some freshly ground pepper, and mix vigorously with a fork) will make a nice accompaniment.
What's in your pantry?