Like my Mommy before me, I like having a fully stocked larder. I don't have many prepared foods on hand. I won't keep a frozen Asian dinner in the freezer, but I will keep most everything on hand to make my own sesame noodles. Most weeks, I can make anything on my menu plan by just picking up a fresh ingredient or two because I keep a pretty well stocked pantry. What do I keep in that pantry?
Fire roasted dice tomatoes, Italian diced and Mexican. The fire roasted tomatoes have a nice depth that plays well in chili, Indian dishes and other savory dishes. The Italian seasoned tomatoes are great for pastsa sauces, lasagna, soups and anything where a hint of basil is appreciated. The Mexican tomatoes have jalepenos included and are great for Indian & Mexican food or anything you want to make spicy.
I am also crazy about tomato paste in a tube. You can easily use just a tablespoon or so at a time and reseal! Just a little tomato paste can make a big difference in a sauce or a stew. I also like anchovy paste in a tube. You can use just a bit for its wonderful salty (and decidedly non-fishy) flavor boost.
There's still room for tomato sauce in the cupboard and Ro-Tel's tomatoes with green chilies. They're a classic, just a little bit of spice.
I also keep salsa around. Not just for dipping with chips, but it's an important ingredient in my chili and my Mexican rice. Any time I want a shortcut to adding tomatoes, chilies and onions, there it is. I also keep liquid smoke around. It's nothing artificial, just water that's been passed through the smoke from a smoker. Used sparingly, it can give a great flavor to many dishes. I've used it to turn regular oil into smoked oil, regular shredded cheese into smoky cheese & to fake a pretty decent BBQ when the weather is not right to go low and slow on the grill.
Broth: I live and die by it. I always keep Swanson chicken and Kitchen Basics veal stock on hand. The veal stock has replaced beef broth in my pantry. It's no more expensive and absolutely delicious. I also keep seafood stock on hand as well. Not expensive and you're always halfway to a seafood soup, if seafood is something you enjoy. I've lately taken to replacing the water in taco meat and chili with the veal stock for a cooking liquid. It's absolutely delicious.
Vinegars, I absolutely love them. I keep cider, basic white, white wine, balsamic, red wine and rice vinegar on hand. I'm not suggesting going out to buy six bottles of vinegar. Start with a good basic like white vinegar (which is amazing for cleaning as well) and cider vinegar. Then add a bottle every couple of weeks. I'm fond of balsamic, though it is probably one of the most abused flavors in restaurants. It's tasty, but it doesn't go with everything. The rice vinegar is espcially nice to have to get into cooking Asian flavors.
Speaking of Asian cooking. These three things will get you closer to being able to season almost anything: Soy sauce, mirin (sweetened sake) and fish sauce. Don't get freaked out by the name. It gives an earthy saltiness to dishes.
Speaking of sauces, these two classic British flavors will do you a world of service. Worstershire is crazy versatile and dry mustard gives color, flavor and a different kind of heat to dishes.
My beautiful friend olive oil. I use it most for cooking, unless I need flavorless oil and then I go for canola. For frying, I love peanut oil. Sesame oil is great if you are into Asian cooking. Store it in the fridge though, it goes rancid fast.
I like to keep cans of these basic beans on hand: cannellini, kidney, garbonzo and black. I also have recently started using lentils quite a bit. Obviously, you'll stock your shelves with whatever kind of beans you like.
I keep all purpose flour, white sugar and brown sugar in large glass canisters. It's easier to get a cup in there to measure, you can see how much you have and I always like to keep an eye on flour to make sure it hasn't taken a turn for the buggy.
And don't forget the basics. I keep Kosher salt in a large container so I can dip in there an get it. And I keep a grinder of sea salt for the table. Of course all salt is sea salt. Some of it just came from seas that dried up eons ago and now they dig it out of the ground. I keep peppercorns on hand.
I have not even broached the subject of my spice collection. That's an entirely different post. One where you can laugh at me because I alphabetize. Happy cooking!