The 9 Most Versatile Ingredients in My Kitchen

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Public Domain. Unsplash / Dragne Marius – Here you can see 3 of those ingredients in action.

I think of grocery shopping as a multi-tiered process. At the bottom are the basic ingredients, the building blocks of most recipes. Next are the second-tier ingredients, which are not crucial but lend flavor and variety to meals. Occasionally I buy top-tier treats for special occasions, but these are for pleasure, not nutrition.

Not all basics ingredients are created equal, however. There are some, like onions and celery and garlic, that usually serve the same purpose every time – to create an aromatic base for a recipe. But others are more versatile, capable of being transformed into a range of different dishes. These are the ones I want to talk about today, the shape-shifting kitchen helpers that spark numerous ideas whenever you're stuck wondering what to make. These are the most versatile ingredients in my pantry, and the ones that I make sure to buy week after week.

1. Cheese

I have young children who can't get enough cheese. We buy marble, old Cheddar, and mozzarella weekly. Cheese can be used for last-minute meals in the form of quesadillas or grilled cheese sandwiches. I add it to egg omelets in the mornings or sprinkle over huevos rancheros for a vegetarian dinner. I grate it and top flatbreads or pitas, cooking under the broiler for a tasty accompaniment to homemade soup. We make cheese pizzas and use it in layered nachos, tea biscuits, cornmeal muffins, and as a snack with crackers. When it's on sale, I buy multiple packages and keep in the freezer.

2. Black Beans

As we work on reducing our family's meat consumption, having a supply of canned beans is important. I do cook them from dried as well, but I'm not always on top of it, and sometimes we need them sooner than I can prepare. Black beans are the family favorite, delicious in burritos or quesadillas. My husband likes to sauté with onion and cumin as a base for fried eggs. I make a spicy black bean soup topped with yogurt, mixed bean chili, and often add a can to whatever other soup I'm making. We mix them into quinoa-mango salad and rice-corn-arugula salad in the summertime.

3. Tortillas

I buy at least 2 packages every week of ten whole-wheat tortillas. One goes into the freezer and the other stays out for immediate use. We use them for quesadillas and burritos for dinner and lunch, but the kids also love them for quick snacks. They spread peanut butter and jam, cream cheese, or shredded cheese on top, and roll them up. Sometimes I make breakfast wraps with fried egg, salsa, and avocado inside.

4. Potatoes

It has taken me a while to appreciate the versatility of potatoes, but they really are an amazing food for how little you pay. We make mashed potatoes, lemon roasted potatoes, scalloped potatoes, boiled potatoes with butter, cream of potato soup, potato salad, Spanish tortillas, latkes, and more. We add chopped potatoes to curries and soups, and serve boiled wedges with dip. Most recently, I cooked a bunch of potatoes to use in a recipe for homemade doughnuts.

5. Apples

Never be without apples! When I have apples in the kitchen, I feel like I can make any dessert or baked good. Apple crisp, pie, and muffins are the most commonly known, but I shred them and add to pancake and waffle batter, stuff and bake whole, and sauté with onions and cabbage for an unusual side dish. Obviously they're fantastic eaten raw, dipped in peanut butter for a mid-afternoon pick-me-up.

6. Rice

Oh, rice. I don't know what I'd do without it. We eat it steamed at least 3 times per week to accompany curries, stir-fries, and dal, but I often make biryani, spiced rice pilafs, and paella as main courses. I love homemade rice pudding and risotto; I add it pre-cooked to burrito filling, put a scoop under some bean chili, and add it to grain salads. I reheat leftover rice and top with fried egg for breakfast.

7. Canned Tomatoes

Canned tomatoes can be transformed into almost anything. In fact, you should just look at my post on 8 ways to turn a can of tomatoes into dinner.

8. Chickpeas

I love chickpeas and usually make mega-batches from dried form in my Instant Pot and stash them in the freezer. At least once a week I make chickpea curry (chana masala) with spinach, but I also add them to bean chili, mash them into bean-lentil burgers or meatballs, or make spiced chickpea patties (similar to felafel, which they can also be used in). Chickpeas are delicious in salad and, for years, were one of my go-to baby foods for kids learning to eat soft finger foods. They loved chasing the chickpeas around their highchair tray.

9. Bread

Whether homemade or not, having a loaf of bread in the freezer can make feeding the hungry masses considerably easier. I use bread for sandwiches of all kinds; grilled cheese; plain or toasted topped with salty butter, avocado, egg, or PB&J; French toast for a quick gourmet-seeming breakfast; and topped with shredded cheese and broiled for a hearty side to soup or salad.

There are more ingredients I could put on this list, but these ones take the prize for 'most versatile' in my kitchen. I'm sure everyone has a slightly different list, so feel free to share your favorites in the comments below.