5 must-have pantry items for the millennial cook

What distinguishes millennial cooks in America, from, say, the stirrers of any other generation? Not merely the drive to make something easy and in a hurry.

It might have to do with exposure — to a wider variety of ethnic foods than ever before, at an earlier age than ever before. Many 18-to-30-somethings logged lots of adolescent hours at ethnic restaurants that once seemed exotic, flavorwise. Their palates have helped expand the international aisles at grocery stores, especially in the Hispanic section.

And millennials know how to mine the myriad food blogs, online recipe databases and niche food magazines. Does the term Google cooking ring a bell? Think back, millennials, to the early 2000s, when stumped, Web-savvy cooks would create search terms of whatever ingredients they had on hand, however odd the combination seemed, along with the word “recipes.”

The approach we recommend is not like that. Having the following five ingredients on hand will provide a powerful launching pad. You won’t have to hit the tablet and search for ideas. These pantry items will save you time and (takeout) money. They can be deployed in ways that are fit for company. Sure, the case could be made for a different set altogether. We chose these for their practicality, budget-friendliness and range of use. (Note to non-meat eaters: Hope that four out of five will do.)


Five pantry must-haves — rice stick noodles, frozen shrimp, canned chickpeas, corn tortillas, frozen chopped spinach. (Deb Lindsey/For the Washington Post)

CANNED CHICKPEAS (a.k.a. garbanzo beans), preferably no-salt-added. Once they’re drained and rinsed, chickpeas can be eaten cold, hot or at room temperature. Add them to salads and soups and curries and chili and pasta. Roast them, salted with a drizzle of olive oil, for a snack. (Squeeze lemon juice on those; you can’t go wrong.) Mash or puree them, then stir in olive oil and your favorite spices. Shape that mash into patties that can be sauteed to a crisp golden brown in less than 10 minutes.

They’re famous for being the basis of various “hummi,” as British chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall likes to refer to the classic puree of chickpeas, tahini and such. Here’s an application that might surprise you: Dessert Hummus. (See recipe below.) You won’t taste the chickpeas, but you will be able to spontaneously produce a somewhat nutritious sweet treat that can stand at the ready, in refrigerator or freezer, for late-night spoonfuls. A millennial mom could pack this off in a lunchbox with pear slices or crackers and receive favorable reviews.


Dessert Hummus (Deb Lindsey/For the Washington Post)

CORN TORTILLAS, the six-inch size. You know about quesadillas, enchiladas, tostadas, tacos, mini-pizzas, chilaquiles, and layered Mexican dips and dishes. Cutting them into wedges and baking or frying into crisp chips or salad crunchies. Wrapping them in paper towels and microwaving just until pliable.

Now, think soup: Even the tortillas left open to harden in the refrigerator will work. Chop them up and combine them with a can of pumpkin puree, a little cilantro, onion and garlic. Add beer or cider, and water, and seasonings. In less than 40 minutes, you have a pot of something filling and fitting for fall — no blender required. Use leftovers as a sauce for pasta.


Pumpkin Tortilla Soup (Deb Lindsey/For the Washington Post)

FROZEN CHOPPED SPINACH. It has Superfood Cred. A green, 10-ounce rectangle of goodness is retro — in a good way. Once you have defrosted and squeezed out all excess moisture, you have omelet, frittata and/or quiche filling and the nutrient-rich part of a cream-cheesy or sour-creamy dip. Stir it into jarred tomato sauce. Stuff a portobello mushroom cap. Buzz it with cheese, garlic and olive oil as a pesto. Or simply add cheese and make alternative meatballs.

We’re also thinking casseroles. Specifically, an easy one with rice and scallions that serves just a few and bakes in less than 30 minutes.


Spinach and Rice Casserole (Deb Lindsey/For the Washington Post)

FROZEN RAW SHRIMP, peeled and deveined. This is a protein that you can build into any meal, at any time of day. It cooks quickly — and make no mistake, you will only be limiting possibilities if you go with cooked shrimp instead. American-caught shrimp are widely available in various sizes. Use them to top white pizzas. Allow them to luxuriate in olive oil and garlic or a combination of tomato sauce, parsley and feta cheese. Wrap them in summer rolls; wrap bacon around them and broil. Create a cool mayo-based salad with bits of celery and scallion.

Stir-frying’s a solid way to go; in a preparation with shrimp and zucchini (see recipe at right), they class up a combination of rice stick noodles (see next) and vegetables.


Rice Noodles With Shrimp and Zucchini (Deb Lindsey/For the Washington Post)

DRIED RICE STICK NOODLES (a.k.a. maifun, rice vermicelli). No stove top required; all they need is a soak in hot water. Fold crisp slivers of carrots and almonds into them. Sauce them any way you’d like. Riff on your own version of Singapore noodles or Filipino pancit. Drop them into a flavorful chicken broth, with slices of fresh ginger, fresh cilantro and a spritz of lime juice. When you ease a handful into a pot of hot oil, the noodles turn into a crunchy tangle of edible art, that, in turn, can serve as a plate for piles of whatever salad ingredients you like.

What other ways do you like to use these five must-haves? What other pantry items would you add to the list? Share your ideas during our Free Range chat at noon today: live.washingtonpost.com.

Bonnie S. Benwick has the job most envied among cocktail-party conversations. If they only knew ... Cook with her each week at Dinner in Minutes: washingtonpost.com/recipes.
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