I rarely plan menus for my family ahead of time. As I have written many times, I have a great reverence for the seasons and the food each season brings. I also have written about how much I hate the grocery store. I have a list of about 30 items I keep on hand so I can easily pick up meat or fish and some fresh vegetables and prepare a meal with little effort, and I am going to share that list with you.
I do refer to this as "spontaneous cooking" but let's be real here ... the only way you can be spontaneous is with planning. Spontaneous cooking is a lot like "spontaneous sex": I can guarantee someone has been planning to make it happen. In our crazy world, with all we try to fit in, it is good to have some planning to free us up for some of life's pleasures. Cooking should be a pleasure.
Here is my list of items to keep on hand to help you be more spontaneous in your cooking:
Dairy and eggs. These are essential. If I have eggs, I can make an omelet out of anything. I love omelets for dinner, and I even have done "dressed up" omelets for dinner parties. I also think a Italian dried cheese, like Parmesan or Romano, always needs to be on hand. Cream cheese is a bit sinful but can come in handy for a quick dinner. I love creamed spinach: if you add a little cream cheese it is rich, but it can be a wonderful filling in an omelet, or in winter you can stuff a tomato with it for a colorful and tasty baked tomato.
Pasta. I keep interesting pastas around. Not too many, but if I am at Dean & Deluca or any upscale food store I pick up a couple of flavored dried pastas to keep on hand. (With my list, you can always whip us a pasta dish, even if you don't make it to the grocery for meat or fish.)
Tomatoes. Of course I always have canned, diced tomatoes and sun dried tomatoes on hand. Whether I want to make pasta or a quick chicken breast with olives and tomatoes, in minutes I can have a light, quick sauce. Canned tomatoes are key in Creole cooking, so they are a standard in my kitchen.
Rice. You cannot live in the South and not have rice. Long-grain is a staple, but I love basmati and of course rice for risotto.
Oils and vinegars. All I keep in oils is canola or vegetable oil and a really good olive oil. If I want to economize, I cut the good olive oil with vegetable oil. Good olive oil is worth it. I also need three vinegars at all times: red wine, cider, and balsamic. This covers any dressing I want to make. (I just have gotten to the point in my life where I don't like clutter.) If I receive some exotic oil or vinegar as a gift, I love it and use it. But this is my "got to have" list.
Stock. When you are picking up pasta at a gourmet shop like Dean & Deluca's, be sure and pick up a few wonderful reductions such as ones made with veal and chicken. Stock is a great thing to have on hand. There are many quality ones on the market, and you can bring a dish to a higher level with a good stock. Make life easy for yourself.
Frozen staples. In my freezer, I have to have vanilla ice cream and two loaves of good bread ... really special bread. I have to freeze it because we do not have a bakery in Natchez. If I am traveling, I buy the best I can find and freeze it to share with company. I also love making flavored butters for good breads. With the sundried tomatoes or roasted red peppers, I can always whip something into butter and make the dinner seem more planned. I also keep green peas and spinach in the freezer because they are the only frozen vegetables I can tolerate and I can always incorporate them into a quick meal.
Bacon. I have to have bacon on hand. I am a Southerner, of course, but I use it for many Italian dishes, and as with many pleasures in life, a little is better than none. I dice it and freeze it to keep on hand to flavor pasta or vegetables. I also think a little bit of a higher quality brand is better than a lot of a cheaper variety. Applewood-smoked is my favorite.
This is a good time of year to clean out those cabinets and freezers. Even without fresh produce, you can create a few meals from this list with a quick run into the market for meat or fish and a few salad greens. I know you will be surprised to hear a Southerner say it, but "less is more."