So per the request of a good friend, I'm putting together a basic pantry essentials list to stock a kitchen that you can use to prepare a fantastic meal without much forethought. I view my pantry as the nerve center of my kitchen and fully recognize that half the reason I need a kitchen as large as I do is because my spices, oils, vinegars and teas take up a cabinet that the average person would use for, oh, I don't know, dishes and glassware. I recognize the expansiveness of my kitchen "basics" and I've pared down that list so you can start to develop your own pantry with a collection of dry goods that will give you a great base of staples to work from.
Let's start with grains. Whole grains make a great base for any meal. You can take a multi-ethnic approach depending on the spices, meats and vegetables you add... think curry, stir fry, biryani, jambalaya, enchiladas, you name it. The three staples every pantry should have: brown rice, quinoa and cous cous. All three are versatile (think side dish or hot breakfast cereal) and relatively quick and easy to cook. I also like to keep a box of high quality rotini on hand for pasta salads.
Next, we move on to the canned goods shelf. Canned beans are a great value, incredibly easy to use and high in nutritional value. Every pantry should have a can of black and garbanzo beans on hand to make quick and easy hummus, stews and chilis. Dried beans are also a great, inexpensive option if you're willing to take the time to soak them. Beluga lentils are fantastic for soups and dips. I'm also a fan of canned water chestnuts to add to stir fry for some crunch and texture. Canned crushed San Marzano tomatoes are perfect for making simple marinara sauce and a box of low sodium chicken broth is the most versetile cooking liquid available. I tend to avoid canned vegetables in favor of frozen ones if fresh isn't an option to help reduce excess sodium.
In my opinion, anyone who tells you that all olive oil is the same has no taste buds. While I'm a die hard for the classic, fruity light flavor of a Tuscan extra virgin, I've recently started finding a love for Chilean pressings. They're significantly less expensive and carry a lot of bright richness in salad dressings and sauces. The basic pantry should have one bottle of extra virgin olive oil to make bread dippers and dressings, a bottle of less expensive, cold pressed olive oil (not virgin) for cooking, a vegetable oil for frying and baking, a nut oil for breads and desserts (I prefer walnut) and a bottle of white truffle oil (make sure it's blended with safflower or canola oil, not olive so the flavors aren't competing). I buy most of my oils at TJ Maxx or Home Goods. You get a great value and most of the time, they have a much better selection than your average grocery store.
I haven't purchased a bottle of premade salad dressing in over 10 years, nor do I ever intend to again. There is no advantage to buying a bottle of Wishbone or Good Seasons. If you try to convince me that your surrendering to convenience, that's a cop out answer. Making your own salad dressing literally takes less than a minute if you have the right ingredients in your pantry, which takes me to our next category... vinegar. Now this list may be slightly longer than some of my other categories, but trust me, each one has a benefit. Red wine vinegar for Caesar dressing, rice wine vinegar for stir fry and Asian inspired dressings, balsamic (make sure it's from Modena), malt vinegar (this one's only a necessity if your from New England and love malt vinegar on french fries... I'll share my malt vinegar aioli recipe at some point as well) and a fruit based vinegar for sweeter salads (I like pomegranate or pineapple).
To wrap up this entry, let me throw in some miscellaneous items that I feel no pantry is complete without... (1) panko bread crumbs, (2) rice paper spring roll wrappers, (3) cellophane noodles, (4) packets of tuna and salmon and (4) steel cut oatmeal.
Tune in to complete your well stocked pantry for Part 2 and a shopping list of staple spices no kitchen should be without.