Real Simple readers share the go-to ingredients and products that help them put something tasty together.
Central Market Organics salsa. There are many ways to use this versatile condiment besides pouring it over tortilla chips. It can replace ketchup on a burger, or you can add a spoonful to the top of a baked potato as a healthy substitute for butter.
It’s a cereal called Oh’s. I still remember sitting between my grandparents at the kitchen table having my first bowl like it was yesterday. Now when I pull the box down off the shelf, I think of them.
Kashi Go Lean Crunchy bars in the chocolate almond flavor. I buy them by the case at Costco and toss them in my purse for a quick snack on the run or after a workout.
Martini & Rossi dry vermouth. If a soup, marinade, or sauce recipe calls for less than half a cup of white wine, I use vermouth instead and avoid opening a bottle of wine that I’m not prepared to drink. I also use the vermouth to deglaze a pan after cooking chicken, pork, or fish.
Cary, North Carolina
Indian spices—turmeric, chili powder, and cumin. I use this trio for almost all the Indian dishes that I make, from eggplant masala to baked fish.
North Brunswick, New Jersey
Crown Royal Whisky. If anyone in my family has a cocktail, Crown Royal with ginger ale and a slice of orange is the only choice. I knew my boyfriend was a keeper the first time he ordered one, unaware of my family’s affinity for the drink. I was right, and we always make sure to have it on hand.
I always have a jar of Cento pimientos handy to make pimiento cheese like my granny made for years. She didn’t pass down an exact recipe, but she would take pimientos, which you drain and pat dry, then mix with mayonnaise and shredded cheese. Next, add garlic powder and cayenne pepper for some heat, then chill it in a glass container for a few hours. It should have the consistency of pâté. We would slather the pimiento cheese on saltines or ordinary white bread. When I make it now, I’m overwhelmed with emotions.
Bronx, New York
My go-to pantry staple item is a bottle (or three) of Ravenswood Merlot. This affordable wine is great for adding flavor and depth to stews, chilies, and sauce reductions. Combined with extra-virgin olive oil and a few spices, it makes a great vinaigrette that helps me avoid the grocery store one more night by waking up the boring, eat-them-tonight-or-lose-them vegetables I dragged out of the crisper drawer. And, of course, you can never go wrong with a glass of Ravenswood Merlot before, during, or after dinner.
Vodka. Food can always be delivered.
Lisa Benter Rich
Marshmallows, chocolate bars, and graham crackers. Never be without s’mores supplies when you have a fire pit in the backyard.
Long Beach, California
Steel-cut oats, which have a slightly nutty flavor and are less processed than their rolled-oat cousins. Every few days, I make some for breakfast and top them with brown sugar and pecans. They’re also delicious with raisins, honey, and, best of all, leftover bananas Foster.
One of my best friends introduced me to Boscoli Italian Olive Salad. Packed with chopped marinated green and black olives, vegetables, and capers, this savory mixture is a flavorful topping for anything Italian, like pizza or pasta, and can be whipped into a mayonnaise-free tuna or potato salad.
Elisabeth Ehlers Auld
My family just loves trifle, the classic English layered dessert. And since my grandmother has designated me the official trifle maker for all occasions, I make sure to keep a tin of Bird’s Custard in the pantry and a sweet sherry in the wine rack.
Elaine Russell Reolfi
North Canton, Ohio
A jar of blue cheese–stuffed olives for dirty martinis, a cocktail I enjoy on my deck with friends. The olives add a tangy kick to my drink, and some substance, so I don’t get too tipsy.
Nancy Woodruff Premo
North Syracuse, New York
Hoisin sauce. When I use it in a salad dressing or a marinade, I feel as if I’m eating top-quality Chinese or Vietnamese food. It can make any basic dish, like roast chicken, feel special and different.
I like to sprinkle Casina Rossa Truffle & Salt on my popcorn to class it up a little. I don’t use too much, though—it’s powerful stuff!
Jennifer Dunham Luby
Homemade canned peaches, which we preserve each summer, in the form of jam or halves, and eat throughout the winter. My 81-year-old father picks the peaches from a wisp of a tree in his yard. He climbs a rickety wooden ladder and balances on the top rung with a small wire basket and then bats at the branches. I am always convinced he is going to fall, so I stand spotting him at the base.
Lori B. Horbas
Black mango tea, which has such a sweet flavor that it doesn’t need sugar. I find the process of making tea meditative and the aroma it produces evocative. Tea is also an elegant and comforting thing to serve friends who drop by for a chat.
Before I married a southerner, I didn’t think much of instant grits, but I’ve come to realize that they complement any meal. Many people make them with Velveeta, but I’ll throw in white Cheddar or whatever is left over from our most recent party.
A small vial of saffron strands. They have a woodsy flavor and give a rich orange yellow to vegetables and rice. When I add saffron to steamed cauliflower, I feel like a painter who also happens to cook.
Ancient Harvest Quinoa Pasta. It’s high in protein, so I just toss it with some vegetables, like peas, and I’m done. That’s a blessing on nights when deciding what’s for dinner is the equivalent of Chinese water torture.
My grandmother, a native of Abruzzi, Italy, made delicious cookies that were studded with toasted pine nuts. Now I toast my own nuts and roll ready-to-bake cookies in them. They end up looking far fancier than they actually are.
South Hempstead, New York
I grew up in New Mexico, where green chili sauce was part of everyday cuisine. At restaurants, our family would order chicken enchiladas “smothered in green.” Now that I live outside of Washington, D.C., I’m vigilant about having jars of this hot sauce on hand. My husband became addicted when we started dating, 14 years ago, and my nine-year-old son has started spooning it onto his breakfast burritos. I’m so proud that my family takes such pleasure in my culinary heritage.
I spread Amore anchovy paste on grilled ciabatta, stir it into mushroom soup, add it to a vinaigrette, and even drop a dollop into my Bloody Mary. It adds a briny richness and amps up the rest of the flavors, too.
Dill-pickle slices. I use them as a garnish, toss them into a salad, or just nibble on a few when I want a low-calorie snack. They’re tart, crunchy, and handily bite-size.
Linnea Carol Nydatich
Great Falls, Montana
Canned Kesar mango pulp, which is extracted from Kesar mangoes, a sugary variety native to India. In the summer, I enjoy mango smoothies topped with ground cashews and homemade mango chutney on a refreshing cucumber sandwich.
East Amherst, New York
I love when people who are eating my dishes say, “Wow, what is that?” My answer is always the same: grapeseed oil. It’s mild yet slightly sweet, and when it’s drizzled on a plate of avocado, orange slices, and dill, the result is mouthwatering.
Old Bay Seasoning. I refuse to eat seafood unless it’s topped with heaping mounds of this savory mix of herbs and spices. In fact, my husband has teased me for carrying samples of Old Bay in my purse! In my opinion, life just wouldn’t be the same without it.
Jo Anna Shuba