The Most Important Ingredient in Your Kitchen Is

Photo: ThinkstockA Meal Extender for $1.49: Cannellini Beans
True story: We were once in the middle of throwing together an empty-out-the-fridge weeknight dinner for two that involved three-quarters of a box of pasta, some broccoli florets, garlic, olive oil and lots of Parmesan. A "be there in 10 minutes!" text showed up on our phone from a friend (oops, scheduling misfire), and we started ransacking the pantry to find something to turn the meal into a company-worthy dinner for four of us. A 15-ounce can of cannellini beans came to the rescue. The white beans added heft, provided a creamy contrast to the vegetables and turned pasta and greens into a one-dish, protein-rich supper.

RELATED: Taste Test: Canned or Homemade Beans

Photo: Lynn AndrianiInstant Crunch: Panko
Compared to other store-bought varieties, panko bread crumbs are more coarsely chopped, less toasted and lighter in feel and taste. They also have the power to transform whatever you're cooking--chicken cutlets, butterflied shrimp, a simple flounder filet--into crispy magic. Use them in Milanese preparations (whether chicken, pork or fish) or even in eggplant Parmesan. Or brown them lightly in garlic and olive oil and add to nearly any pasta dish right before serving for the most amazing carb-on-carb combo you'll ever eat.

Photo: ThinkstockThe Fridge Staple with 1,000 Possibilities: Eggs
Breakfast for dinner doesn't have to mean scrambled eggs and toast (not that there's anything wrong with that). Take this humble yet outrageously good meal: Toast slices of baguette or ciabatta, melt any cheese on top and place a lightly dressed handful of baby greens on top. Next, add a slice of prosciutto, and finally, the pièce de résistance, a runny, sunny-side-up egg. It's a ham, egg and cheese sandwich we'd serve to just about anyone.

Photo: ThinkstockSubtle Salty Flavor: Pancetta
If bacon makes any dish better, pancetta does that with an Italian accent. The cured meat still imparts that salty pork flavor, but it's subtler (and not smoky). Pancetta is often the reason Brussels sprouts haters become converts, but it can also turn universally loved foods, like spaghetti with tomato sauce, into something special. If your recipe starts with sautéing an onion, just add a handful of diced or sliced pancetta during that step and then proceed.

Photo: ThinkstockThe Indispensable Dish Finisher: Cream Cheese
Soft and spreadable cream cheese is essential to any bagel buffet, but this grocery store steal can also be an important component to many pasta dishes, balancing the acidity in tomato sauce, adding a creamy element to casseroles like baked ziti and lasagna, or thickening sauces made with white wine or chicken stock. You can also throw a dollop into scrambled eggs, whisk some into mashed potatoes or use it instead of mayo on a BLT.

KEEP READING: Pare Down Your Pantry in 30 Minutes or Less

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