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Food Fixings for a Complete Pantry

A well-stocked pantry can revolutionize your cooking world. With a pantry that holds the right ingredients, any cook can create a delicious meal in a moment's notice.

But what items should you always have in your pantry?

On Wednesday, as part of "The Early Show"'s "Early's Essentials" series, Gail Simmons, special projects manager of Food & Wine magazine shared a few favorite essential ingredients that every cook should keep on their kitchen shelves.

Simmons said no matter how big your pantry is you do not need a million different types of each item. A well-stocked pantry, she said, has two to three items in each of the categories listed below that are of a good quality, and should last as well as allow you to make many different fast, easy recipes all year long.

Different categories of items have different shelf lives, according to Simmons. Spices and seasonings, she said, should be replaced about every six months to a year. Honey, for example, can last indefinitely if it is stored properly and sealed.

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She added you should do a good clean out of your pantry every year at least and look at the expiration dates of all items. Also, Simmons recommended smelling and tasting items constantly to see if anything has gone bad or is just old and flat. Replace as necessary on an ongoing basis, she said.

Simmons offered her take on each of her essential pantry ingredients:

OILS and VINEGAR:

I always say all good home cooks should start with great oils and vinegars. Oils and vinegars are one area where you shouldn't try to save money or cut corners. A great olive oil or balsamic vinegar can transform a dish and you'll use them all the time.

• Grassy, spicy, good quality Extra-Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) - Spanish origin is my preference, most olives are grown there anyway, so why not keep it local? It's worth spending a little money. COSTCO Tuscan EVOO is super inexpensive and FANTASTIC (as is their Stravecchio parm). Oil is considered a low smoke point. It heats up very quickly.

Grapeseed oil - High smoking point, good for a saute pan. (Use this in lieu of canola or corn oil. It can get really hot before it burns, so it's good for quick "flashing" vegetables.

Sherry vinegar and a good quality aged balsamic vinegar - I use them in dressings, gazpacho, marinades, sauces, etc.

SPICES:

Now I don't generally keep a lot of dried spices in the house. They Lose their flavor within six months (quicker than many people use them). But there are a few essentials that I couldn't live without.

Salt: Kosher salt (which is coarse) and fine sea salt. What's the difference? I use kosher in cooking (meat, seasoning to seer), fine salt for fish or other more delicate dishes like salad or vegetables.

Flavored salts or single origin salts are trendy right now. But you never really want to use a flavored salt or expensive, fine salt for cooking. They should be used only for finishing a dish, which allows you to change the flavor at the end.

Additional salts: have a Sel Gris (gray salt) and a Hawaiian salt (red/pink) on hand for color.

Black and White Pepper - Buy peppercorns for grinding fresh. White pepper is probably not in as many pantries as it should be. I brought back incredible white pepper seeds from honeymoon in Vietnam, and cannot believe what a reinvigorating difference they make. White is the same berry as black, but it has a slightly different flavor -- plus for any light colored dish, such as a white sauce, it won't show black specks.

White pepper is a milder flavor. Use for fish and seafood. Black pepper is a bolder flavor. I use black pepper on meat, or if I want an aggressive pepper taste.

Chili flakes or cayenne pepper - Heat is must.

For spices: Consider building a basic "ethnic" pantry so that you can give something a flavor from around the world. Examples: Cumin - essential to make quick Mexican dishes, or Moroccan, Turkish; Smoked Paprika; Curry powder - If you want to make an Indian dish

• How do you know if a spice is bad? Smell it!

BEANS/GRAINS:

• For beans I keep both dried and canned on hand. Dried for a soup, a dish where it's the main ingredient, but canned for a quick night of solution (they are so much faster since you don't need to soak them overnight). Beans (garbanzo, pinto, cranberry): They are a great source of protein, can be used to make a full meal or added to salads. Use chickpeas to make up an instant hummus.

Tip: look for organic or low-sodium options. This will allow you to season on your own.

• Raw, unsalted nuts - walnuts are my current obsession but almonds or pistachios add tons of flavor, too. Bake with them or make a snack of them for a good source of protein. I toast them and add them to my pastas, salads. Or I make a quick dessert by grinding them up with a little sugar and spread them on frozen filo dough and combine them with any fruit that's in season.

Pasta: I like Barilla or Bertolli, in different shapes, as well as a whole wheat variety.

Rice: Brown and white (Jasmine or Basmati).

CANNED/BOTTLED

Honey - Honey's not just for tea. I use it in dressings, sauces, and desserts. Honey is one of the great wonders of the natural world. Honey doesn't go bad and is completely shelf stable. It's a great sweetener to sub in for sugar.

Canned Seafood - Imported canned Italian tuna packed in oil. Others I like: Spanish canned sardines, anchovies or smoked oysters. I love to combine: anchovies, olives and roasted red peppers on toothpicks for a last-minute appetizer.

Canned broth - Chicken for sure, and beef or vegetable - are great for a quick soup or for deglazing a pan. Swanson is my favorite, and chose low-sodium.

Tip: If you have an extra broth, pour into ice cube trays and freeze it. So you just have a little. The same goes for extra wine. It's perfect to keep in the freezer for a sauce, or to deglaze a pan.

Mustard (Simmons' #1 favorite condiment) - I like to have at least two types on hand, smooth Dijon and a whole grain option. Use mustard for burgers and sandwiches by spreading on the meat or chicken to do a crust. Also you can use mustard in vinaigrettes. It's indispensable.

• You should always stock tomato paste, tomato sauce, and whole canned tomatoes (preferably San Marzano). You can use them for making a sauce or adding to a sausage and peppers dish.

Hot sauce: I am the biggest fan of hot sauce. I recommend Sriracha, Tabasco or Cholula. Find the sauce that you love.