You can tell a lot about a person from her pantry, I've found. I love a little pry into the pantry cupboards and freezers of other cooks - every good cook has some surprise staples - and friends have sometimes asked me what I regard as the essential ingredients of cooking. Here's my list. Apart from the obvious boring things like canned tomatoes, pasta and rice, these are the essentials I am never without.
IN THE PANTRY
Currants, dried cranberries
My friend Caro introduced me to dried cranberries and now I find them indispensable, plumped with vinegar, and in couscous and quinoa salads because of their ruby-red beauty and sweetness. Currants have a darker, more complex flavour and I put them in anything vaguely Middle Eastern. Plumped with vinegar or water, they are also lovely sprinkled through a green salad.
Cartons or cubes. Yes, it's too salty; yes, it's got preservatives in it; yes, making your own is far, far superior. But sometimes you just don't, and in that case packaged stock is completely fine. One or two little cartons are always in our pantry.
Turmeric, cumin seeds (toasting them for a few seconds and then grinding gives an amazing flavour), coriander seeds and ground, chilli flakes, cinnamon sticks and dried chipotle chillies.
The French-style blue lentil is a thing of beauty. Braise them for a dish in their own right, use in salads or simply turn a tablespoonful of olive oil through a cup of cooked lentils and toss into a pan of roasted vegetables. For dhal, I mostly use the satiny, creamy little moong dhal lentils, although they can be hard to find. Yellow split peas are almost as good.
I've become obsessed with the springy texture and nutty flavour of quinoa, mostly using it in place of couscous. It is a little pricey and can be hard to find, although even our supermarket now sells three varieties in the ''natural foods'' section. The red, black and white kinds cook at slightly different rates - but I mix them and cook together because I like the variable texture.
Capers and anchovies
Salt bombs. Anchovies soaked in orange juice for five minutes and chopped are incredible sprinkled through a green salad, and the little opened flowers of fried capers are beautiful not only to eat but to look at.
Chickpeas, cannellini beans and lentils, canned
For salads and beefing up soups when you are out of time or can't be bothered soaking the dried ones. Rinse and rinse before using.
Red wine, balsamic and raspberry vinegar
My friend Eileen converted me to raspberry vinegar - it is luscious in dressings on strong, peppery leaves. Eileen has a secret supplier of pure - not flavoured - raspberry vinegar and gives me a bottle every year.
For red meat, for adding to salad dressings, for adding sharpness to things that are too sweet, for smearing on ham sandwiches.
IN THE FREEZER
My chef brother-in-law Hamish is the person I blame for my chorizo addiction. A few slices fried in a pan (whole, halved or quartered) give a turbo thrust of flavour to soups, roast fennel, braised lentils, roast chicken.
I don't use butter much at all, which is why it stays in the freezer. But there's nothing more annoying than needing it and not having any, and it's easy to cut as much or as little as you need from a frozen block.
My friend Steph says there's nothing in life that can't be improved by bacon. I keep around half a kilo of bacon in the freezer at all times, leaving it frozen and simply hacking off as much as I want as I go. Fried bacon lends a luscious smoky note of flavour to everything from braised lentils to casseroles, pasta to risotto, green salad to quiches.
Keep the ends of parmesan in a bag and toss one in at the beginning of each pot of soup. It only partly melts, giving an indefinable richness to vegetable soup.
Pine nuts, hazelnuts, slivered almonds, walnuts, pistachios
Nuts are full of oil, and I learned from Maggie Beer that keeping them in the freezer stops them going rancid and also prevents ruination by pesky pantry moths. Toasted nuts lend a delightful crunch to dishes like quinoa and couscous that can otherwise tend towards monotony. Lightly bludgeoned pistachios and hazelnuts are wonderful in crumble toppings. I love toasted slivered almonds tossed through rice and in tagines, and pine nuts in a salad still feel like utter luxury.
For the whole orange cake made famous by Claudia Roden, on which there are a million variations. For other cakes and slices in place of flour, for frangipane tarts, and to add to fruit crumble toppings.
Lends flavour to everything - soup, braises, risottos, gravies, pasta sauces. Make a huge pot and then decant into containers (yoghurt tubs are good) for freezing. Include a few tiny containers for when you need only a smidgen.
Toast bread ends briefly in the oven and then use a food processor to chop them into rustic lumps. For use as cassoulet or vegetable gratin topping, or tossing through pasta dishes with cauliflower or broccolini and chilli.
The humble frozen pea, available in every crappy corner shop from here to kingdom come, is one of life's most versatile ingredients. Throw a handful into soups, shepherd's pie, fish curries; braise them with anchovy and mint for a soft, luxurious side dish; add a few to a creamy dressing for cured salmon; toss with chopped prawns through linguine - or make them the star by cooking in stock with softened leeks and shredded lettuce and whiz the lot into a soup of velvety divinity.
IN THE FRIDGE
Carrots, celery, onions
Soffrito or mirepoix - nothing more need be said (I find keeping onions cold reduces their tear-inducing impact when cut - but they soften more quickly this way, so keep the turnover high).
This honey is runnier and less sweet than ordinary honey, and I love the surprise sugar bomb of a pomegranate seed when it pops up in your spoonful of whatever it is. I use pomegranate honey wherever ordinary honey is used, but it only works with clear, not cloudy, honeys.
Thick, Greek-style yoghurt
Toss a spoonful into a fish curry or mix with finely chopped herbs, a little (pomegranate) honey and mustard as a dollopy sauce for grilled fish or barbecued chicken. And use with desserts - sweetened with a little honey if you like - in place of ice-cream or cream.
ON THE BENCH
I buy Australian olive oil in three-litre tins and refill a brown glass bottle that I keep on the bench. But oil is spoiled by light and air, so keep it in a dark-coloured bottle out of the sun, and keep it stoppered. This is for general cooking - in the pantry is oil for salad dressing.
A large ceramic tub of cooking salt, and a small one of the lovely pink Murray River flakes.
There is only one garlic harvest per crop per year, so even if you buy Australian garlic bulb by bulb, it will all have been harvested at the same time. I buy three or four kilos of organic garlic from patricenewell .com.au each November, and it lasts until June. We plant some of this, and then resentfully buy imported garlic unless we spot any more local organic stuff in markets or grocers.
At least one orange and two lemons.
For the juice, the zest, or whole strips of the skin - a little citrus peel brightens any dish.
Keep them out of the fridge - coldness ruins the flavour.
Woody perennial herbs
Thyme, rosemary, bay leaves, hardy as anything - for stock, soup and slow-braising bases.
A hardy, indestructible plant whose fresh leaves are a completely different animal from the dried. I never make a curry without the stunning aromatic pungency of two or three tiny curry leaves. But keep it in a pot - it can run away and become a noxious weed.
Edited extract from Love & Hunger by Charlotte Wood, Allen & Unwin, $29.99.
Charlotte Wood takes part in a Sydney Writers' Festival talk, Food and Culture in a Digital Age, at Carrington Hotel, Katoomba, on May 14. Email varuna@varuna .com.au.