Lemons (and/or limes): "I love lemon" was the name of the tea I loved as a child and an idea I've taken on as an adult. Lemons, in all their glory, pull double-duty as both a cleaning agent and flavor enhancer. As referenced in Spring Awakenings, lemons are a great source of acid which means they can add zing to a hummus or cut through grime on your tea kettle. I've even seen them added as a side to a pasta dishes. A few key "recipes" featuring their unique abilities lie below...
Copper Cleaner: I used to have a copper pot before I destroyed it in a fit of carelessness (short and uninteresting story). However, before it became unusable, it became dirty most often from the oil and grime it would accumulate on the stove top. Ergo, I looked for a cleaning solution that wouldn't be to chemical-ly (pre the days of Coronavirus) but get the job done. Enter lemon and salt, a mixture with the acidity to cut through grime and exfoliate till your desired object is immaculately clean. Such natural cleaning agents leave your pots clean and your hands cleaner. And as I've come to rely on Clorox wipes more and more in the days of quarantine, I've found that cleaning soap scum is actually made easier through a mixture of baking soda and lemon juice. It also saves on Clorox wipes.
Any sauce or dip: As stated before, I've become somewhat of a goop-ie after purchasing Paltrow's The Clean Plate which has become one of my favorite cookbooks in or outside of quarantine. While the book's "pantry" section is quite small, she has a few recipes in the back which can be applied to numerous dishes and preferences alike. One of the recipes for aquafaba mayo (discussed more below) serves as the base for a myriad of dressings and sauces alike. However, whether you're making a garlic-y lemon sauce or homemade ranch, lemons will inevitably be involved.
Garlic: While not quite maintaining the bandwidth of lemons in their ability to extend from hummus to cleaning agents, garlic is a close second in its ability to enhance dishes ranging from pasta sauce, to guacamole, to salsa and (of course) hummus. Like lemons, they're pretty good in any sauce or dip and less expensive than their cousin, the onion.
Olives: I've become big on making a lot of my own panty staples. Ergo, I once googled ways of making your own oil on a bus trip from Connecticut to D.C. In many ways, it's very easy (if not a bit wasteful) to blend the ingredients for the oil you're making (whether it be sesame, peanut, olive, etc.) and strain the liquid through a cheesecloth. And while I'm opting for things a bit more shelf-stable these days, I'm thinking ahead to days when I have all this knowledge down pat and can apply it to my daily life. So, while in my limited experience, sesame seeds seem a bit prudish in their ability to emit liquid gold after a whirl in the blender, olives work quite nicely in producing a generous amount of liquid after being desiccated in the Vitamix. They're also pretty healthy according to Good Housekeeping.
Canned Chickpeas: I try to cook dried beans every once in awhile as I found a great recipe on The Kitchn. But at the end of the day, canned chickpeas take less time to prepare and are a little less money up-front. And both canned and dried chickpeas (once prepared) come with a unique ingredient called aquafaba or the liquid which remains in the can or Crock-pot. In her aforementioned book, Paltrow creates a mayo based on this prized ingredient (aquafaba mayo) which eliminates the use of eggs and makes use of an substance which would otherwise be tossed. And while the mayo is tasty enough, it serves as the base for the previously mentioned garlic-y lemon sauce and homemade ranch... two things which can be easily thrown over some greens or beans (see: Boiling A Calf In Its Mother's Milk) in order to make things a bit more interesting.
Canned Tomatoes: Once I began graduating from the ranks of hummus to that of a proper meal, I began to look for ways to combine my beans and greens in a way that would freeze a bit better. Enter: The New York Times. Back when we all had a bit more time to worry about what we were eating, the Times featured a multitude of recipes featuring beans and various ways in which to prepare them. And even now, as we enter the days of quarantine, various sites have been offering unique ways to cook up our canned friends. My favorite lies here. But whether we prepare a bean stew or a bowl of pasta, canned tomatoes help to enhance our veggies, beans and grains and even our meats dishes.
Almonds: In a perfect world, I'd buy pistachios and walnuts and almonds and even try my hand at farro and expensive coffee. But in a world where I keep on a budget, I generally try and whittle most things down to the essentials. And, luckily with food, it's relatively easy to find compromise at the center of the Venn diagram. As referred to in my statement about garlic and onions above, many of our foods are related (see: Food is Family) and so, in my experience unless you're hyper-sensitive to flavor, sticking with a few basics will give you the nutrients you need without filling your pantry space unnecessarily. In the case of nuts, almonds pack a nutritional punch with a somewhat benign flavor which can be used in almond milk or roasted with spices. And speaking of spices...
Cumin: A personal favorite. I pretty much am attracted to recipes based on their use of cumin.
Ginger: I didn't come around to ginger for a long time. But once I learned you could freeze it, all bets were off and I use it in my tea as well as dishes which call for cumin.
Jalapenos: I pretty much sub. these in for any pepper.
So there you have it. A seemingly small group of ingredients which can be expanded to make a shakshuka, harrisa or pasta sauce. Indeed, one must consider their own preferences in building an individual pantry but I find these ingredients to be relatively applicable to most diets and tastes. Buy some greens, buy some herbs... but do it in a few months. Until then, revel in the nostalgic goodness that is Chef Boyardee! Stay safe, my friends.