If grocery shopping during a pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that simple ingredients are often the most valuable. Here, local food pros share their go-to pantry staples and the best ways to put them to work in your kitchen.

Crushed Tomatoes

“I use them as a base for so many things. Most often, I sauté chopped onions, garlic, and red bell peppers in really good olive oil before adding the tomatoes to the pan. It makes a quick sauce for polenta or breaded cutlets, which I like to top with melted Havarti cheese.” —Lorena Cantarovici, chef-owner, Maria Empanada 


“Pretzels are the best bread crumb possible, since they are already so crunchy and well-seasoned. I grind them in the food processor to my desired consistency then use the crumbs to make fried chicken or chicken piccata.”—Linda Hampsten Fox, chef-owner, The Bindery

Hot Sauce

“I have more than 20 different hot sauces at home; some favorites are Paddy O’s Potion, Sriracha, sambal oelek, Lingham’s, Crystal, Tapatío, Valentina Salsa Picante, and Tabasco Green Pepper Sauce. I like to take store-bought dressings, like Italian or honey mustard, and doctor them with different hot sauces to use on salads or as marinades.” —Blake Edmunds, chef and partner, Señor Bear and Mister Oso


“I almost always use ponzu when sautéeing mushrooms. To make the perfect side for meat and fish, I heat a skillet to a high heat, then add some olive oil and cook sliced mushrooms and some diced onions until they are soft. After five minutes, I add ponzu to caramelize the vegetables, toss in a handful of spinach, and continue to cook everything until the spinach is wilted.

—William Stuart, CEO and brewer, Colorado Sake Company

Raw Cashews

“Blended cashews create a rich, velvety texture in everything from vegan béchamel to keto cauliflower soup. For our cream of mushroom soup, we blend cashews with sautéed cremini mushrooms, onion, garlic, thyme, salt, and pepper to create the smoothest, creamiest version of that classic.” —Bridget Bagel, co-owner, Postcard Foods

Red Lentils

“For a quick soup, boil a cup of red lentils with chopped carrot, onion, salt, and pepper in about 2 1/2 cups of water for about 30 minutes, then blend together until smooth. In a separate pan, melt butter, dried mint, and a tablespoon of flour. Mix it into the soup and finish with red pepper flakes and lemon juice.” —Ismet Yilmaz, chef-owner, Istanbul Café & Bakery

This article was originally published in 5280 June 2020.
Patricia Kaowthumrong
Patricia Kaowthumrong
Patricia joined the 5280 staff in July 2019 and is thrilled to oversee all of the magazine’s dining coverage. Follow her food reporting adventures on Instagram @whatispattyeating.