The answer varies depending on what you enjoy, but in general, this is what I wouldn't want to be without:
- several kinds of pasta, including long (like linguine) and short (like ziti) and whatever other kinds blow your skirt up.
- brown and white rice. I also include jasmine and basmati, just 'cuz I like 'em.
- several kinds of legumes (a.k.a. "pulses"). Lentils are the quickest-cooking and don't require soaking, so I keep two or three kinds on hand. Right now I have plain brown lentils and red split lentils. I also keep white beans, black beans, and chickpeas.
- flour. This is such a no-brainer that I hesitate to list it, but you ought to have at least All-Purpose flour on hand. You're fifteen minutes from biscuits, at minimum. I also have whole wheat flour, rye flour, and bread flour.
- sweeteners, including at least brown sugar, white sugar, and honey. I also keep molasses. I really love raw sugar in my tea, but it's a bit pricey, so I don't always keep it around. Real maple syrup is another rare indulgence.
- cornmeal. Being in the South, grits are also a pantry staple.
- rolled oats
- miscellaneous: I also keep steel-cut oats, walnuts, various breakfast cereals, and homemade baking mix (like Bisquick, but I make it). Onions and garlic are also absolute necessities that keep well for long periods of time -- they're halfway between dry goods and produce.
- Never, ever, ever let yourself run out of canned whole tomatoes. EVER!! They are the foundation for awesome and cheap Italian, Mexican, and Indian dishes.
- Canned meat, like tuna, salmon, and chicken. These are economical and incredibly versatile.
- Canned beans. If you can get these for a good price, they're really good to have on hand. Canned beans were some of the first "convenience" foods, and there's hardly anything else that you can use to make a ten-minute supper that tastes great.
- That's it. I don't use canned soup, I rarely use pre-made pasta sauce. I have other things on hand (coconut milk, canned pumpkin, etc.) now and then but I wouldn't call them staples per se.
In your freezer:
Spices, herbs, and flavorings. This is where you'll have to customize depending on what YOU like to make. In general, this is what I need, in order to be able to make what I like:
- A variety of frozen vegetables. Must-haves for me are spinach, green beans, and peas -- incidentally some of the most-delicious frozen veggies. Others I sometimes have (depending on price at the grocery store) include corn, broccoli, cauliflower, stir-fry or other blends, frozen hashbrowns, etc.
- A few frozen fruits. I always have blueberries, which I eat nearly every day. In warmer weather, I keep frozen strawberries and mixed frozen fruit to make smoothies and sorbets.
- Ginger root. Random, I know, but it keeps basically forever in the freezer, in a plastic bag or just tossed into the door, if you're lazy like me.
- Meat, if you're a carnivore. I happen to have a vacuum sealer, so I can keep things for a pretty long time in my freezer. The key for this is to PLAN to use EVERYTHING you freeze. Do NOT put meat in your freezer until you write on your calendar when you'll use it.
- Cooked rice. This is a lifesaver! Next time you cook rice, make a huge batch -- it doesn't take any longer. While still warm but not hot, put into quart-size plastic bags, flatten out, squeeze out as much air as you can, and stack in your freezer. Then when you need rice for a quick weeknight meal, there it is, ready to be nuked for 30-60 seconds. Sound lame? Masaharu Morimoto, the famous Japanese Iron Chef, uses this trick. Hugely credible.
- Your stock bag. Take what would otherwise be throwaway odds and ends of vegetables and meat and turn it into culinary gold that will take your cooking to a whole new level of deliciousness.
- The basics for cooking: dried oregano, thyme, rosemary, bay leaves, celery salt, red pepper flakes, black pepper and kosher or sea salt.
- Baking: cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, vanilla
- For Mexican food add: cumin, chili powder, cayenne pepper
- For Indian food add: coriander, cardamom, garam masala, hot and mild curry powders, turmeric
- For holiday cooking add: whole cloves, poultry seasoning and/or sage
Now, you can do just about anything.