I was recently asked what I considered to be my “refrigerator must-haves.” After I got thinking, I realized that beyond eggs, milk, and butter, there are several key items that enhance basic dishes. Maybe you travel frequently, work around the clock, or you’ve committed the nearest Chinese food takeout’s telephone number to memory. Whatever keeps you from cooking on a routine basis, don’t let it stop you from having the essentials at your disposal to prepare a meal well. The best food is often the simplest, unpretentious and unmodified.

Here are my refrigerator staples, most of which last forever, (or almost):

Parmesan cheese. Parmesan’s nutty yet intense flavor means it can really improve a dish without further embellishing. You can also keep Parmesan for up to 3 months after the package date. A hard cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano packs a lot of flavor while maintaining a lower fat content than softer cheeses. Add to pasta and grains like quinoa with a dash of salt, pepper and olive oil.

Olive Spread. This paste is so versatile. I know at least twenty uses for it off the top of my head, in fact. If you don’t believe me, check here. Also available for purchase here.

Mustard. I must admit, I love mustard. Organic Dijon, grainy, spicy, you name it. Mustard is another essential where a little goes a long way. It can add texture, spice, and even sweetness. Smear it on sandwiches as a condiment, of course. However, you can also use it in a quick vinaigrette, mix it into a marinade, or add to pasta. Definitely keep your refrigerator stocked with your favorite mustard.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Olive oil is an essential, and one that nearly everyone has on hand. However, I believe a good quality, organic olive oil is invaluable in the kitchen. My favorite comes from my friend Majid Mahjoub in Tunisia and it’s available for purchase here.

Anchovy fillets in olive oil. Anchovies often get mixed reviews and reluctant taste tests. If you’re an anchovy enthusiast already, or willing to take my word for it, anchovy fillets in olive oil are another great item to have stocked in the fridge. Again, they keep for a long time and add a unique saltiness and sharpness to many dishes. Try them on a simple flatbread or in a quick Caesar salad.

Capers in Sea Salt. Just like anchovies, capers too act as a flavor superpower. Their brininess and intensity works beautifully in sauces, pasta dishes, and close to any other application you see fit. Available for purchase here.

Harissa Spread. Its heat and depth from the smoky earthiness of coriander and cumin make it yet another spread with infinite kitchen uses. Irresistible in pasta, on vegetables, sandwiches, eggs and even fish, Harissa spread is a refreshing jolt of Mediterranean flavor in any dish. Mine is fresh from Tunisia and available for purchase here.

What are your refrigerator essentials? Share with us in the comment section below.

Image: Flickr, shutterbean