Pantry Staples: What can't you live without?

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There are some things chefs — home and professional — always have in their pantries.

All good cooks know the power of a well-stocked pantry. Being able to adjust ingredients and improvise with a few kitchen staples makes trying new recipes on a week night easier, and keeps you from picking up the phone to order take out.

We asked staff members and a few professional chefs what their must-have items were and why. Some of their answers might surprise you ...

All-purpose flour and crushed tomatoes

I keep a full pantry so I could look at this from many perspectives. If I am being basic I would say all-purpose flour and good olive oil. Flour is used daily in a myriad of ways from baking to browning and crusting meat, as well as thickening stews, gravies and cheese sauce. Olive oil can do anything from saute to making a vinaigrette. Nothing like the herbal grassy flavor a good olive oil can bring to a dish, as a drizzle over the top or incorporated into the preparation. If I am thinking about what I must have to feel stocked and ready to go, it would have to be canned crushed tomatoes and low-sodium chicken stock. I cannot live without a good canned tomato. Always ready to make marinara, chili, or a quick tomato soup. I have even blended them down to use as a base for Bloody Marys. I love sauces and besides canned tomatoes, I want a low-sodium chicken stock on hand. When I don't have the time to make my own, a nice stock to make a quick soup or sauce is invaluable. It also boosts the flavor of rice and beans cooked in stock. I even use it when marinating chicken to give it that extra boost of flavor. A special shout out should go to my back up jar of mayonnaise. I love mayo and use it often, so a back up in the pantry is a must. We all know it is great inside a sandwich, but have you tried mayo instead of butter on the outside of your grilled cheese sandwich? You should try it ... you really should. Not to mention the creamy goodness mayo brings to salads ranging from tuna to potato to macaroni.

— Paul Michael Brinker, independent culinary consultant and executive chef, The Next Chapter Caf , Manchester, Vt.

Rice and red pepper flakes

Rice is a must-have whenever I crave food from back home, especially Chinese food, since it's a staple in many Asian cuisines. I love spicy food, and red pepper flakes easily add spiciness to both Western and Eastern dishes that I make at home. I use it in cooking and to sprinkle over food at the dining table.

— Tiffany Tan, reporter, The Bennington Banner

Annie's Mac and Cheese and cream soup bases

My must haves are Annie's Mac and Cheese because my son loves it and it's healthier than Kraft. Also, I always have cream of chicken and cream of mushroom soups, on hand because you can use them to make just about anything taste better.

— Ashley Stone, business office associate

Marinara/pasta sauce and mayonnaise

I love to make a homemade meat sauce, so I stock up on my favorite sauces when they are on sale. The jarred sauce can be a plain, low sodium marinara or one seasoned with basil and/or garlic. The meat sauce I make is thick enough that my wife, Carla, eats it as is with mozzarella cheese melted on top. The mayonnaise is a must because I could live on tuna salad. The mayo has to be whole egg, no reduced fat, it lacks taste. The mayo is a must for tuna macaroni salad and homemade tartar sauce, which I made recently for the first time. Until I knew better, I used to eat mayonnaise sandwiches as a kid. Yup, just mayo between two slices of white bread. I eventually outgrew that dining oddity.

— Dick Lindsey, reporter

Chocolate chips and basmati rice

Aside from the salt, the pepper, the sugar, the flour, my home pantry includes some other sweet and savory staples. I always have a couple bags of chocolate chips on hand in both semi-sweet and dark chocolate varieties, so I can whip up some cookies or a ganache or a mug of hot chocolate whenever needed. Among my savory staples are basmati rice for soups, stews and entrees, and a variety of hot sauces to help kick everything up a notch, from eggs to macaroni and cheese.

— Jenn Smith, community engagement editor and education reporter

Pasta

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My two must-have pantry food items would be pasta and sauce ... always have those for a back up!

— Tonya E. Patriquin, classified advertising

Extra virgin olive oil and honey

I use them all the time ... not together, of course!

— Lisa M. Elias, ad fulfillment coordinator

Curry powder and quinoa

Curry powder perks up the dullest dishes. And quinoa, because it undergirds all kinds of throw-together meals and is healthier for you than rice.

— Chan Lowe, deputy editorial page editor

Cereal

At my house, I always have multiple boxes of cereal on hand, both hot and cold. I eat cereal for all three meals (usually not in the same day). It also works for dessert. I eat it from a giant bowl and drown it with about two cups of almond milk. I also have a finicky daughter, so we're never without her food pantry staples: baby green beans and baby oatmeal (the kid loves her gruel), mini Hershey's bars and veggie chips (there are three colors inside the bag, and she eats only the yellow one, skipping the orange and green chips).

— Noah Hoffenberg, website/online editor

Black beans

I absolutely must have black beans! For rice dishes and those homemade black bean burgers. Cannot live without them. Everyone should have a good olive oil in the pantry also for dipping gluten-free bread or drizzling on salads and antipasto. I live on olive oil — good healthy fats!

— Beth Maturevich, digital marketing specialist

Garlic

Garlic is so important. You can use it raw, or cooked. You can obtain a huge variety of flavors based on different cooking/prepping techniques. In a pinch you can roast it and have it as a snack all by itself. Garlic also is a super food, it contains numerous antioxidants and even helps boost the immune system to help fight off things like the common cold and the flu. And yogurt, full fat plain Greek style yogurt, because it is versatile, it can be sweet, it can be savory, it works for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert. Yogurt contains live active culture which helps promote a healthy digestive system.

— Hale Kiziltan, co-owner and executive chef, the Turquoise Grille, and the Tulip Caf , both in Brattleboro, Vt.

Stock and a Parmesan rind

As a busy working mom who swears by her crockpot and Instant pot, I always keep a few cartons of low-sodium stock on hand. Instant pot recipes require a certain amount of liquid to work and stock always tastes better than just using water. Canned beans and tomato paste are also must haves for those easy dump and go meals. I also keep a small Parmesan rind wrapped tightly in the freezer at all times. The rind has magical powers that take any kind of homemade soup from just OK to complex and flavorful.

— Lindsey Hollenbaugh, managing editor of features


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