The best part about cooking is being able to make it up as you go. I like deciding I'm going to have fish. "Fish" isn't much if you just have it by itself. Or it can, just grilled with a little bit of salt and lemon juice. Or marinated in honey and soy sauce. Or cut in chunks and roasted with cajun spice. Or blackened with paprika and cayenne pepper. Or raw with soy sauce.
Or sometimes "all" you have is pasta, and oh no! What can you possibly have for dinner? You only have pasta! Food crisis! But everything is nice in pasta. You can have pasta with tomato sauce, pasta with tuna, pasta and garlic butter with croutons, pasta in cheesy sauce, a veg pasta bake or even nice buttered pasta with a little bit of cracked pepper.
... Well I got distracted. I think I'm hungry.
Point is: it's good to improvise when cooking, but it only works if you can rely on some kitchen pantry essentials. I know there are many guides out there. I can particularly think of Jamie Oliver and Sam Stern whom I know have one in their cookbooks, but I found them a little bit unrealistic for students. My kitchen is tiny, my personal cupboard even tinier, and I don't even have my own drawer in the freezer.
Let's be serious for a minute, guys. This is business. No jokes in my kitchen. (Mostly because I'm terrible at them.) Two levels of essentials because I don't want to scare anyone. Bam! Now cook.
Basics: salt, ground black pepper, fleur de sel (or that kosher salt thing), chicken and vegetable stock, extra virgin olive oil, soy sauce, clear honey.
Spices: paprika, herbs (Italian, Provence or mixed), ground cinnamon, some form of chilli powder.
Baking: white flour*, caster sugar, baking powder and baking soda.
Alliums: garlic, brown onions.
Starch foods: spaghetti, basmati rice.
Tins: chopped tomatoes, tuna, baked beans.
*I also personally always keep wholemeal flour because I like cooking with it, but I wouldn't recommend it unless you like making bread or healthy baking.
Basics: Dijon mustard, balsamic vinegar, replace the ground black pepper with cracked black pepper (or an actual grinder), coconut milk, oyster sauce (stir frys are the basis of my alimentation.)
Spices: cajun mix (it took all I have not to put this in the level 1; it's the BEST), chilli flakes, ground nutmeg, four spice, curry powder.
Baking: brown sugar, chocolate, rolled oats.
Alliums: red onion.
Starch foods: another type of pasta, arborio rice, couscous, egg noodles.
Lemon, real butter that doesn't come in a box but in paper for goodness' sake, eggs, milk.
Basil, thyme, chives and coriander plants.
Also bread. People keep it in all kind of different places so it gets its own level.
BREAD LEVEL: bread.
And here you go, you're ready to cook! With level #1, there's already plenty enough to cook many a tasty dish and be sure to always have something on hand to give your food a little kick. These are my basics though, some others might pick very different flavours but these work very well for me.
Wondering what to do with some of these? I've obviously used many of these ingredients in the recipes on this blog, but I also encourage you to have a look at recipe websites with ingredient search (like here or here).
And for some more precise suggestions on how to use spices...
Fleur de sel: sprinkle on sliced tomatoes or on dark chocolate cookies.
Italian herbs: add to mushrooms, omelettes or mashed potatoes.
Soy sauce: makes a cracking fish marinade mixed with honey, or drizzle over stir frys.
Chilli powder + paprika: marinade meat or fish, add to tomato pasta sauce.
Cajun mix: roll chicken in then grill, add in bolognese.
Ground nutmeg: the thing to make your scrambled eggs and mashed potatoes 10x better.
Chilli flakes: sauté with onions as a basis for tomato or carrot soup.
Four spice: great in cakes and in curries.