You can’t make Cheftovers magic without some must-haves. I’m not suggesting you take this list, and go out and buy everything up. However, these are the things I like to keep in my fridge, freezer and pantry, that allow me to successfully cobble together dinner or reinvent last night’s meal.
Pasta. Like any good Italian girl, I always have several pounds of pasta on hand. Short and long, frozen and stuffed. To me, pasta is the perfect canvas for a lot of things. Think you only have enough chicken for one serving? Not so, if you chop it up and toss it with a bowl of pasta and add a savory cream sauce or pesto. Have leftover Chinese food? Use some linguini to whip up a cold noodle salad/side for lunch the next day and toss in that excess beef and broccoli.
Tortillas. Another great blank slate. I love making a quick quesadilla for my kids. They also take the edge off when I get home from work and don’t plan on eating dinner for a while. So I always keep a variety of shredded cheese on hand to make ‘em melty, and marry the bits and pieces I have around from previous dishes. These Mexican staples can also serve as a vessel for MYOP, or make your own pizza pockets…again, using things like veggies you’ve got around.
Rice. White, brown, long grain and Arborio. I love making a risotto with the rest of the expensive asparagus or artichokes I purchased for a dish earlier that week. Sometimes I’ll stuff a green pepper when I’ve got a few extra in the produce drawer. Stuff a chicken breast with long grain or brown rice, onion, garlic and spinach. It’s tasty and filling.
Bacon. Wrap almost anything in bacon and it makes it instantly and infinitely better.
Produce. Not a day goes by when I don’t use several of the following: onions, celery, garlic, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, broccoli, spinach, lemon, lime, tomatoes, corn, peppers. Frozen: corn, peas, spinach, kale.
Dairy. Sour cream, cream cheese, and butter/margarine are “duh” items. I like to keep a lot of half and half in my fridge, not only because I like it in my coffee, but also because I can use it where you might want heavy cream in a recipe. Most of the time there is skim milk and whole milk in there too. Having a dozen eggs around opens up the possibility for a lot of delicious dishes. I like to concoct egg bakes using what I’ve got around…a little leftover ricotta from lasagna, sun dried tomatoes from a pasta dish, spinach from a stuffed chicken recipe. You get the idea.
Spices. Building a good spice cabinet takes some time. If a recipe calls for a spice I don’t have in stock, I’ll search for a substitute or I usually move on. Things like garlic salt, garlic powder, red pepper flakes, basil, oregano, cumin, chili powder, paprika, herbs de Provence, ginger, nutmeg, cayenne pepper, thyme, and parsley I always keep in my cabinet. It’s rare I find use for things like turmeric or saffron. But it depends on your taste.
Dressings/Condiments: mayo, mustard, dijon mustard, soy sauce, Worcestershire, hot sauce, peanut butter, salsa, and BBQ sauce. These items find their way into many sauces, marinades or dressings that change yesterday meal into today’s “original” offering.
Almonds. I use these as a nice substitute for most expensive and harder to come by pine nuts. They also serve as a delicious stand-in for bread crumbs when breading chicken or fish. But bread crumbs also make my list. Turn leftover salmon from a cook-out into salmon cakes you can freeze (with some of the above mentioned veggies like corn and peppers, plus some cayenne or Cajun seasoning)
Stock or broth. I go through this like water, literally.
Oils and vinegars. Make a one-time investment in some of these and you’ll open yourself up to different dishes that you wouldn’t normally make. I buy olive oil by the gallon sometimes. Canola or vegetable oil is a must. Sesame oil can is useful in many Asian sauces and marinades, plus you can make your own hummus with it. Balsamic, red wine and white wine vinegar are pantry staples. But cider vinegar makes its way into a lot of my recipes too.
Canned goods. Black beans can “pinch hit” for a protein in one of my quesadillas, or be added to white rice, leftover fresh cilantro and a squeeze of lime for a side dish, a la Chipolte. Various canned tomato products are enormously useful. I try to stock the cupboard with tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, crushed tomatoes and tomato paste. And because I’m part Mediterranean, I always like to have olives within reach. They’re like a great culinary accessory.
I’m always interested in an ingredient or tool to make things tastier, or easier? What are your pantry #musthaves?