I'm all for having the essentials onhand at all times - eggs, sugar, flour, cream of whatever soup, some sort of protein in the freezer for spur of the moment dinners. I've come to realize, however, that my pantry must-haves aren't quite so basic, but they get major use in my food prep.
1. Nutella - I read an article in Fitness, Shape or Women's Health recently (love all these magazines, though, sometimes I think they just trade articles) that one strategy to eat less bad food is to stock your cabinet with them rather than avoid them. The reasoning made sense - if you're used to them being readily available, you're less likely to see them as a treat and binge on them in one sitting. Instead, you just sort of forget that they're there. This can be said of Nutella. In years past I would get maybe a jar a year, and it would last roughly three days. I'd Nutella the crud out of just about anything. Then I started buying it more regularly, and I don't think about it a lot. BUT, I love adding Nutella to my baked goods. It's the perfect somethin' somethin' to swirl into my homemade chocolate chip cookie dough or smear on a graham cracker before making a s'more cookie. I reach for my Nutella often, but I never overdo my consumption anymore.
2. Hunt's Fire Roasted Tomatoes - If there is one product I use right now more than almost anything, it's fire roasted canned tomatoes. I swear these kick every single thing up a notch. Name an entree, and I can promise you that fire roasted tomatoes will make it better. Without a doubt I never leave Target or the grocery store without a can or three of these in my cart. Not only are the coupons readily available, but I probably use two or three cans a week. At least.
3. Kale - So, if there's one thing that I use more of than fire roasted tomatoes, without a doubt, it's kale. In the mornings I've been on a kale smoothie kick (frozen kale, banana, frozen berries, chia seeds, unsweetened vanilla almond milk, spoonful of Greek yogurt, peanut butter). Pretty much every night I'm making kale chips (kale, olive oil, sea salt, pepper, cajun seasoning, parmesan in the oven at 375 for 10-15 minutes or until crisp). Between Trader Joe's and Harris Teeter I nearly always have three varieties on hand - Trader Joe's chopped frozen kale (the best to throw into a smoothie), Trader Joe's bagged fresh chopped kale (the best for kale salads) and Harris Teeter loose leaf kale (big ole leaves that are the best to transform into kale chips).
4. Flavored Oils + Vinegars - On a whim a couple of weeks ago, and after a particularly stressful week for my main squeeze, I stopped at an olive oil boutique nestled beside Trader Joe's to scoop up a couple of luxe oils as a surprise. I'd passed it several times and considered popping in but always thought better of it. Y'all, I can't recommend these little shops enough. I left armed with coracina olive oil (a peppery variety), blood orange olive oil (to die for) and maple balsamic vinegar (heaven). Recently I've been toasting walnuts and throwing them, some feta, some dried cherries and kale in a big bowl, then mixing the blood orange olive oil, maple vinegar and champagne vinegar together and tossing it through the greens. The great thing about kale is that it's so hearty, the "dressing" can sit on it indefinitely without the kale burning and wilting. I like to make it at night then eat it for lunch. It gives the kale great flavor and softens some of its natural bitterness. If you have an olive oil boutique near you, definitely give it a whirl.
5. Tony Chachere's Cajun Seasoning - If you haven't tried it, you just need to. It literally makes everything it touches better. If it's not Tony's, it's not good. Don't try to fool me with other Cajun seasonings, y'all. I add this to every savory thing I make. Vegetables, meat, grains... everything.
What are your not-so-basic must haves?