By Jill Erber
When time is plentiful, planning menus, shopping and cooking can be creative and blissful experiences. But when time is not plentiful, choosing a recipe and acquiring ingredients — not to mention actually cooking — can become just plain exasperating, especially when you’re feeding others.
This is where the thoughtfully-stocked kitchen comes into play. Consider these 15 must-have-on-hand ingredients your arsenal of dinnertime success. Each item has a long shelf life, is easy to procure and can be combined in multiple ways depending on your mood and what other ingredients you have.
In the fridge
Frozen crusty rolls: Nothing like “fresh-baked” bread to make you feel like a culinary god.
Anchovies in olive oil: When cooked into a sauce for pasta or vegetables, minced anchovies add an irreplaceably savory – not fishy – quality.
Cherry tomatoes: These little gems are tasty yearround. Plus, their small size and thick skins give any dish structure and much-needed acidity. Halve for a salad. Quarter for a sauce. Chop and toss with olive oil and garlic for a quick topping.
Bacon or pancetta: This is my go-to base for many sauces. Cook until almost crisp. Don’t dump the grease. Then add diced onion, garlic and quartered cherry tomatoes for a 10-minute pasta sauce.
Butter: Brown melted butter and add fresh herbs like sage to coat pasta. Use as a last-minute thickener for silky sauces. And of course, spread it on those crusty rolls.
Plain Greek yogurt: Top with honey, fruit and nuts for a snack. Create a marinade that maintains tenderness and moisture. Thin with water as a substitute for buttermilk. Give yourself a much-needed facial. It’s handy stuff.
Lemons: Zest the rind onto roasted vegetables. Use the juice in dressings, marinades or pan sauces. Nothing brightens like lemons.
Hard-aged cheese: Grate over pasta or vegetables to take it up a notch. Break into chunks and serve with jam or honey for an impromptu cheese board. Note: this does not have to be Parmesan. Most super-aged cheeses work splendidly, so branch out.
In the pantry
Dried pasta: Choose a long, thin cut like spaghetti, as it can be used more universally than shorter or thicker pasta cuts.
Canned white beans: The ultimate bulker-upper. Add to almost any soup or salad to make it heartier. Sauté with diced bacon, onions and paprika for a substantial side dish.
Low sodium chicken stock: Add volume and flavor to sauces. Make a super-quick soup by tossing canned beans and whatever vegetables you have into the pot. Don’t forget salt and pepper … and those crusty rolls.
Extra virgin olive oil: A good one, but not a fancy drizzling one. That way, you can use the same oil for dressings, marinades, cooking and finishing dishes.
Yellow onion: Not too intense but not too sweet, yellow onions are a must for giving sauces a solid flavor base. Plus, the smell of onions cooking in bacon fat is like no other.
Garlic: An essential for sauces, soups, roasted meats and compound butters. The list goes on.
Dijon mustard: This little secret weapon will leave people asking, “what is that yummy flavor I’m tasting?” Use it freely in dressings, sauces and marinades.
And finally, two bonus items
Everyday wine: Keep on hand Italian whites like Gambellara or Pinot Grigio and French reds like Côtes du Rhône or Red Burgundy. One of those will go with almost anything you cook. Make sure it’s at a comfortable price point so you won’t question whether to open the bottle.
Dark chocolate: Instant dessert. You deserve it.
It may sound impossible, but from these humble ingredients, you can assemble dozens of dishes. And sometimes, when you’ve had a long day and everyone’s hungry, you need a little help from your friends in the pantry.
The writer is owner and “Cheese Lady” of Cheesetique.