I really believe that a well-stocked pantry is the key to making home-cooked meals. Some weeks my pantry is better stocked than others, but there are five items that I am never without: pasta, tomato sauce, canned beans, balsamic vinegar, and peanut butter. I typically don't use these ingredients all at the same time, although I guess that might be an interesting pantry challenge!
Pasta is the most versatile of these ingredients and when the pantry is not so well stocked, some pasta tossed with a little salt, pepper, and butter is a very satisfying meal. And it's even better if I happen to have Parmesan cheese in the refrigerator.
I often add tomato sauce or a jarred pasta sauce to the pasta, but I also spoon it on top of chicken, pork chops or fish, bake, and top with herbs or Parmesan cheese. (Perhaps I should have added Parmesan cheese to my list!)
Black beans are my favorite kind of bean, but I also like to have pinto, kidney and cannellini beans on hand to make salads and soups. I have been on a number of trips to Central and South American and am very fond of black beans and rice. Not only is is a hearty and filling meal, but it's also very cheap.
I like to use all kinds of vinegars in cooking, but my go-to vinegar is balsamic. I splash a bit on my salads and grilled veggies, use it in marinades, and also love to deglaze the pan with vinegar and broth and make a sauce for pork or chicken. The rich, sweet flavor of balsamic vinegar is hard for me to resist.
And my fall-back ingredient is peanut butter. Occasionallly I do use it in recipes such as a satay or a Thai dish, but mostly I put it on toast or waffles for breakfast, whole wheat bread for lunch, and on crackers for a snack. OK, I'll confess: sometimes I just eat it right out of the jar.
I would love to hear what ingredients you can't live without. Maybe I need to add some to my list.