There are ingredients and seasonings that I have to have on hand at all times or I get nervous. With them, I’m ready to make a meal out of whatever foodstuff comes to hand. All such lists are intensely personal and idiosyncratic and I make no claims for universality, just usefulness. Due to my very low-carb eating, staples like pasta and flour aren’t on the list for me.
1. Really good fresh olive oil. Olive oil oxidizes fairly rapidly and, in my opinion, should not ever be used if more than a year old. Rather than take chances on freshness, I belong to the Fresh Pressed Olive Oil club; every three months they ship you three (or more if you choose) bottles of olive oil guaranteed to have been harvested and produced within the last 3 months; sourcing from the Southern Hemisphere as well as more traditional source areas makes this possible. I have belonged for years and hope they go on as long as I live and cook. A wide range of olive varieties and oil styles is represented. Pour it over cooked vegetables, dress salads, drizzle it on meat dishes, use as a base for a sauté of veggies. The Cretans and Ikarians thrive on it and so can we. I also keep oil-cured olives around at all times for their meaty umami belt in mixed greens.
2. Red Boat fish sauce. This is not only the best fish sauce available for Asian cooking, but pinch-hits very nicely for Italian colatura (garum.) A dash in vinaigrette gives a wonderful savor.
3. Dried mushrooms. I keep dried shitake, maitake, and porcini on hand at all times, and others at times as the mood takes me. With them, I am always prepared to add texture and flavor to cooked veggies, give a fitting garnish to a good piece of meat by soaking and sautéing them, or make a really good soup on short notice. I am ketogenic and don’t use flour, bread crumbs, or any other starch product, so I intend to try grinding them to powder and using them to “bread” and fry chicken, but that’s still on my to-do list.
4. Eggs. The best eggs I can get. Most of the time I have eggs from my own chickens, and in midwinter when my hens take a rest, I buy from a local co-op. Beyond the obvious omelet, frittata, and scramble, a fried egg is a wonderful way to make vegetables into a complete meal, and egg yolks are a wonderful velvety thickener for sauces.
5. Grass-fed butter. Grass-fed because it’s better for the cows and the planet as well as for me. Butter because there is nothing like it for improving flavor.
6. Coconut milk, which in my book is a joint pantry item with Hand brand Thai curry pastes. On days when I am short of time, energy, and verve, I can pick up some fresh fish or thaw a couple of pastured chicken thighs, soak and slice a few shiitakes, and pull together a healthy meal in under twenty minutes.
7. Freezer item: Wild-caught Alaskan salmon. I pay whatever I have to pay to get good fish, and I always buy Alaskan because their fisheries are well managed. The fillets are thin and thaw rapidly when I haven’t thought ahead about dinner. After a workday that ran later and harder than I expected, I’ve been known to take a frozen fillet still in its vacuum seal into the hot tub with me. Fifteen minutes later, I feel rejuvenated and the salmon is ready to cook.
8. Freezer item: homemade broth from grassfed beef and pastured chickens. I have written at length elsewhere about homemade broth. I really feel that nothing else will do as much to instill food thriftiness and improve your soups and sauces.
9. Nuts of various kinds. Almonds and Macadamias always, others here and there. Because they taste good and you can run for hours on a handful of them if you need to and they add flavor and crunch and specialness to all kinds of dishes.
10. Freezer item: blanched and chopped greens. Mine are a mixture of whatever was fresh and vibrant in the garden and field on any given day. If I had no garden and didn’t forage, I would use mixtures of spinach, chard, and Tuscan kale, and blanch and chop them and vacuum-seal before freezing. I find that I eat a lot more greens if I have them available in a handy form, and can make horta or whatever in a matter of ten minutes rather than having a more prolonged process to go through.
11. Good red wine. Because life contains joy and is worth celebrating.