I'm often asked what's my favorite dish to make in my kitchen and I never have a good answer. As someone who cooks and write about food for a living, I honestly love it all. During the week, I usually cook dinner 4-5 times and I'm not a fan of leftovers. That means there is a hell of a lot of experimentation and different cuisines that grace our table Monday through Sunday. That being said, I keep several staples in my fridge or in my pantry to make sure that I can pretty much manage any recipe I'm in the mood for.
I enjoy stepping out of my comfort zone in the kitchen which means that my collection of spices, sauces and condiments is...eclectic. I don't think you need to have nearly the amount of stuff I do in your pantry to pull off the vast majority of recipes that are on this site at least. Everything I'm about the list is something I use weekly if not daily. Also, I would never send you on a wild chase to score any of this stuff so most of it is available at your local grocery store and if not, you can get it from Amazon or the like with zero problems.
During culinary school, I worked in the kitchen of a restaurant that literally put this stuff in every dish that was on the menu. Fish sauce is unmistakable. This funky smelling thin liquid is the same color as a watered down cup of coffee but the flavor? Man think salty, savoury and meaty in all the right ways. I reach for it anytime I want a burst of flavor. A marinade for steak? YES. A splash or two in some salad dressing? You bet your ass. A few drops to season up fish? You're a genius.
There are several brands of fish sauce and I've seen bottles everywhere from Trader Joe's to Publix. My personal favorite however is what I was introduced to during my travels and my stint in a professional kitchen: Three Crabs Fish Sauce. A word of caution: A little of this stuff goes a long way. Try sparingly and then experiment once you've got a handle on the flavor.
Not to sound like a bougie bitch but unsalted butter is really the only butter you should be cooking with. Why? Well, because you want to be able to control the amount of seasoning in any recipe you make and using salted butter can honestly be the difference between a dish cooked just right and a salty inedible mess. I'm not picky on brands and usually just grab a few sticks from wherever I am. I love to use this butter in my favorite pork chop dish and on top of steamed veggies and anything I bake.
Anchovies are usually those limp tiny fish you ask a restaurant not put on your Caesar salad when you place your order but they are so much more than that. After years of avoiding these little filets I finally broke-down and gave them a chance when a friend from college (Thanks Julia!) told me about an amazing roasted chicken recipe that uses the canned fish as a flavor base. I've never looked back. I put anchovies in everything from my quick Caesar salad dressing to my take on dirty rice. It's so good. Looking for an easy recipe to use anchovies in? I got you: Olive Oil Roasted Chicken.
You can take the girl out of California but you'll never be able to stop her from squeezing lime all over her food. If you opened up my fridge right now and pulled out my fruit bin all you would see is an ignorant amount of limes, lemons and oranges. Not only do I squeeze the juice for use in my margaritas (as any good California girl worth her salt should) but I also use the zest from the skin and and the juice from the fruit to brighten up whatever I'm making. Keep a few on hand to use in homemade salsas, to thin out sauces like tzatziki or squeeze a bit in your chili like I like to do.
Call me crazy but I think that the vast majority of flavor in any savory dish should come from as many fresh ingredients as possible i.e., herbs. In my garden, on my countertops and within the shelves of my refrigerator you bet your ass there are some herbs. I love cooking with rosemary, thyme, oregano, parsley, chives, cilantro, dill and basil. Personally I think the fresh stuff is way better than anything you can get dried and it really does add something to a recipe that you would otherwise miss out on. If I want something that I'm not currently growing in my little city garden then I usually get some herbs from my local farmers market (you get way more for way less) and if all else fails, the grocery store.
Fundamentally I believe that garlic should be in everything you cook. Like...I go through so much garlic in a given week that I had to start buying restaurant containers of the pre-peeled stuff just to keep up with my needs. When I cook with garlic I like to use whole cloves so that means none of that pre-minced jarred shit that you can find on the grocery store shelves. You miss out on so much flavor when you don't just chop you stuff up fresh.
Parmesan cheese is so versatile. Shave it in ribbons and it makes a perfect nutty topping to salads, vegetables and of course pizza. When you buy a chunk of it with the rind attached, you can throw it in broths, sauces and braised meats to give them a creamy, salty flavor that it out of this world. Next time you're in the store, try to grab a slice and go crazy in your kitchen.