We've all had our nothing-in-the-fridge moments -- not a problem when you're a block from Food Emporium or you're heading out to dinner later anyway. But languid summer evenings are best celebrated with a relaxed meal, made with fresh ingredients and, if possible, the congenial collaboration of your weekend guests. Still, spontaneous meals require advance planning -- and we don't just mean a stop at the local farm stand. A cleverly stocked pantry is necessary to make sure a casual meal is a pleasurable one. When you don't have your usual arsenal of spices and ingredients to draw from, you need a few key fixings to add flavor and variety to everything from pasta to the catch of the day. Herewith, our list of the essentials for creating easy, inventive summer meals:
Extra-virgin olive oil. Regular olive oil is good enough for cooking; save the extra-virgin to add pizzazz to just about anything before you serve it. Drizzle a bit over sliced tomatoes for a simple salad; mix it with balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper for a classic vinaigrette. A few drops are enough to enliven pasta dishes or enhance grilled fish.
Balsamic vinegar. If you're only going to have one kind of vinegar in your pantry, this is the one. One part vinegar with two parts olive oil, plus salt and pepper, makes the simplest dressing for summer salads and ripe tomatoes. For an impromptu side dish, sauté small white onions in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, which highlights their sweetness. Reduce this vinegar to a syrup, and you can serve it with grilled steak or vegetables. For an interesting dessert, drizzle strawberries with a little aged balsamic and ground black pepper. You can even try it on ice cream.
Dijon mustard. This classic condiment is also a necessity for quick, sophisticated dressings, marinades, and sauce. Add it to a basic vinaigrette and serve it with boiled potatoes for a hot salad. If you mix Dijon with heavy cream, you have a quick sauce for pork fillet or rabbit. Stir in a bit of honey and dill and serve it with gravlax. Counting calories? Try it instead of butter on baked potatoes.
Herbes de Provence. This wonderful, extremely versatile mixture of dried herbs from the south of France includes rosemary, thyme, savory, sage, marjoram, fennel seed, and sometimes lavender. It's a great addition to poultry and fish marinades and to practically any meat casserole. Roll your supermarket goat cheese in herbes de Provence for an instant gourmet starter.
Curry powder. Like Herbes de Provence, curry makes a fabulous dry rub for grilled chicken or lamb kebabs. Mix with mayonnaise to make deviled eggs or curried chicken salad. Or add cream to make a mild curry sauce for scallops or chicken breasts. If you're feeling adventurous, fry up a few onions, garlic, and ginger, add curry powder, tomatoes, and any meat you have on hand (leftovers are fine) for a more authentic curry.
Hot-red-pepper flakes or Tabasco sauce. A touch of either will perk up practically anything, whether it's a marinade, curry, or tomato-based pasta sauce. For a late-night snack, nothing beats the simple Italian dish spaghetti aglio e olio -- spaghetti, olive oil, garlic, and hot-red-pepper flakes.
Preserved lemons. A staple of Mediterranean cooking, salt-cured lemons have an intense citrus flavor without the acidity of fresh ones. Cook them with olives and chicken for a Moroccan-style stew, mix them with smoked trout and stuff them in boiled eggs, or whip them into a potato-and-mint frittata. You can make an easy relish to serve with meat or fish by combining them with diced tomatoes and chives. They're also perfect for sauces, marinades, and vinaigrettes -- anywhere you might use fresh lemons and salt.
French apricot preserves. Perfect for countless easy desserts. Put a few dollops on squares of frozen pastry to make tiny tarts, or try your hand at making a fruit soufflé, folding the jam into stiffly beaten egg whites, and baking in the oven for about ten minutes. Apricot jam is also terrific with ice cream and pound cake for a very down-home dessert. It can be used as a sweet glaze for grilled chicken, and, of course, you can't beat it on a piece of fresh bread with a cup of coffee.
Green-tomato or fruit chutney. Wonderful as an accompaniment for grilled chicken, steak, or sausages; even better spread on cold meats or in a baked potato. Serve smidgens of chutney on small pieces of Cheddar cheese with cocktails -- or make yourself a grilled cheese-and-chutney sandwich for lunch. Try blending it with cream cheese to serve with crackers.
Soy sauce. An essential for almost any Asian dish, especially quick meat or vegetable stir-fries, soy sauce is also great for grilling marinades. Mix it with a bit of ginger, mirin, sherry, and garlic, and use it for any meat or tuna. Add it to orange juice, garlic, and canola oil for an exotic salad dressing.
Parmigiano-Reggiano. Set out a large chunk for guests to hack off bits as they sip their cocktails; shave it over salads and pasta dishes. For a sinfully delicious canapé, bake little piles of grated Parmesan to make crisps.
Organic chicken broth. This is a base for any simple vegetable soup (add veggies and onions, boil till soft, and blend). For a change, boil it and swirl in an egg beaten with grated Parmesan before serving.
Valrhona dark chocolate. Melt the chocolate in the microwave or a double boiler to make a topping for ice cream or a fondue dip for fruit. Mix it with milk for hot chocolate or a rich, cold frappé. Grate Valrhona over practically any dessert to add an unexpected bit of flavor. Of course, it's also essential for baking chocolate-chip cookies and brownies.
Spaghetti. Getting to the country late on Friday night? For a meal in a pinch, mix spaghetti with garlic, anchovies, and toasted bread crumbs. Use leftovers to make a breakfast frittata (throw in a few herbs from the garden for color) or combine in a piquant vinaigrette with tomatoes, salami, and fresh herbs for a lunchtime pasta salad. Try topping spaghetti with two fried eggs, a shaving of Parmesan, and crispy fried sage leaves.
Canned whole tomatoes. Or a good bottled sauce (Rao's, for instance). It's a cinch to transform a tin of tomatoes or a store-bought sauce into something special. Just add basil, black olives, sautéed mushrooms, eggplant, fennel -- or just about anything else you have lying around. Blend into a soup with sautéed onion and garlic and chicken broth. Serve scattered with basil leaves and grated Parmesan.
Frozen puff pastry. Thaw and bake it with summer fruits (peaches, apricots, and plums work particularly well) to make chic free-form galettes. For a savory pizza-style treat, top with tomatoes, zucchini, and a few fresh herbs -- or with caramelized onion, anchovies, and olives to make a Mediterranean pissaladière. Sprinkle with a little Parmesan to make quick cheese straws to serve with cocktails -- trust us, there is nothing quite like a freshly baked cheese straw.
Canned chickpeas. Make a quick, delicious hummus by throwing them in the food processor with garlic, tahini, cumin, and olive oil (leave out the tahini and add yogurt for a low-cal version); add puréed chickpeas and cumin to a vinaigrette for a Moroccan-style sauce to serve with grilled chicken. Top bruschetta with a mixture of chickpeas, garlic, rosemary, and olive oil. Add a little curry powder, onion, tomato, garlic, ginger, and cilantro for a veggie curry.
Italian tuna fish packed in olive oil. Forget water-packed tuna -- it doesn't have any flavor. Make your own salade niçoise by adding tuna to a salad of haricots verts, tomatoes, potatoes, black olives, and anchovies. For a Tuscan twist, toss the tuna with canned cannellini beans (well rinsed), sliced red onion, and a vinaigrette. It's also great with spaghetti and capers.
Thick-sliced smoked bacon. Unlike most meats, smoked bacon will keep in the fridge for over a week and for several months in the freezer. For an almost instant dish that is always popular, try spaghetti alla carbonara, made by mixing cooked bacon and raw eggs into hot pasta. Another option: spaghetti all'Amatriciana, a tomato-based sauce spiced up with with onion, bacon, cheese, and hot-pepper flakes. Add crisp bits of bacon to omelettes, soups, and salads. For an unusual hors d'oeuvre, try wrapping slices of bacon around individual scallops, prunes, or oysters.
Vanilla ice cream. Delicious on its own, this basic makes an instant party dessert if you serve it with fruit, maple syrup and walnuts, chocolate sauce, or any liqueur (Chambord, cassis, or Limoncello). Even more festive: Serve it slightly softened with chocolate wafers and gingersnaps, and let guests make their own ice-cream sandwiches. Layer with fruit and crumbled cookies and top with puréed fruit for a twist on the classic sundae.
The Kitchen Cabinet
Chefs share the contents of their cupboards.
Eric Ripert (Le Bernardin): La Baleine French sea salt ("The only salt I use in the restaurant"). Tabasco sauce. Saucisson. Parmesan cheese. Pepperidge Farm Brussels cookies. Lemon confit. "I cannot do anything without lemon confit -- I flavor sauces with it, I dice it and toss it with steamed vegetables."
Mario Batali (Babbo, Lupa, and Esca): Coach Farm goat cheese. Dry spaghetti. Tomato sauce (his own brand will soon be available at Trader Joe's). Extra-virgin olive oil. "And bread in the freezer for quick bruschetta."
Alfred Portale (Gotham Bar and Grill): Chilled champagne. Taramasalata from Agata & Valentina ("I usually add a little extra-virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon"). Frozen baguettes for French toast or crostini. Jars of porcini purée, artichoke purée, and black-olive purée. White anchovies from the Spanish Table. Spanish tuna in olive oil ("Sometimes I cook a little penne and toss it with tuna, capers, olive oil, scallion, and lots of black pepper"). Herb-marinated goat cheese. Dried apricots, dates, figs, and pears for dessert.
Serena Bass (Serena): Manchego cheese. Quince paste. Duchy Original crackers. "Large Manzanilla green olives make a great instant hors d'oeuvre for that unexpected guest."
Geoffrey Zakarian (Town): Canned Italian tuna. King Alphonso olives. Sherry wine vinegar. Canned anchovies. Capers. Sun-dried tomatoes. Coriander. French butter. Cheese (Saint-Marcellin, aged Gouda, Époisses). "You can build a whole menu around that -- and tons and tons of rose wine."
Charlie Palmer (Aureole, Métrazur): Frozen shrimp. Pork sausage from Scotto's in Hampton Bays. "I always keep veal demi-glace in the fridge to use as an instant sauce. For grilled tuna, I use it with sun-dried tomatoes, basil, and a splash of balsamic vinegar."
David Page (Home): Aldo's biscotti. Frozen local berries. Ice cream. Salami. Faicco's sopressata. Captain Kidd's Dairy goat cheese.
Wylie Dufresne (WD-50, opening this fall): "I'm a big fan of spices that start with c: cumin, cardamom, coriander, and cinnamon. In equal parts, they make a wonderful spice mixture." Chicken stock. Frozen edamame (for snacks or stocks). Vinegars (rice, red wine, sherry wine, and balsamic).
Rocco DiSpirito (Union Pacific): Lillet blanc to mix with cranberry juice and a slice of orange. Prosecco or champagne. Caviar. Eli's Bakery Parmesan crisps. Salami or sopressata. Girl Scout cookies. Champagne truffles from La Maison du Chocolat.