The millennial pantry: 5 must-haves to keep takeout at bay

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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.)

• 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 purée them, then stir in olive oil and your favorite spices. Shape that mash into patties that can be sautéed 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 accompanying recipe.) 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.

• 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 purée, 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.

• 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.

• 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 your possibilities if you stock up on 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 accompanying recipe), they class up a combination of rice stick noodles and vegetables.

• 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.

Pumpkin Tortilla Soup

3 to 4 servings (Makes about 5¼ cups).

Corn tortillas, fresh or slightly stale, thicken this soup in a flavorful way.

If you open two 15-ounce cans of pumpkin purée for this recipe, you’ll have a little left over; stir it into store-bought hummus or your favorite chili or muffin recipe. To omit the alcohol, substitute fresh, unsweetened apple cider or sparkling cider.

If you have the inclination to make a crunchy garnish, cut 1 or 2 additional tortillas into thin strips and lightly fry them in oil until crisped. Or you can crumble a few store-bought tortilla chips.

MAKE AHEAD: The soup can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days or frozen flat in zip-top bags for up to 6 months. Adapted from a recipe by Emily Ho on TheKitchn.com.

½ medium white onion, coarsely chopped

1 or 2 cloves garlic, smashed

½ cup packed cilantro leaves and tender stems, plus a few cilantro leaves for garnish

2 tablespoons olive oil

Six 6-inch refrigerated corn tortillas, cut into strips, then into ½-inch pieces

½ teaspoon ground cumin

Ground cayenne pepper (may substitute hot sauce)

1½ cups canned pure pumpkin purée (from two 15-ounce cans; see headnote)

1 cup brown ale or hard cider (see headnote)

1½ cups water, or more as needed

¼ teaspoon kosher salt, or more as needed

Toasted hulled pumpkin seeds, for garnish (optional; see NOTE)

Flesh of 1 ripe avocado, cubed, for garnish (optional)

Combine the onion, garlic (to taste) and cilantro in a food processor; pulse until finely chopped.

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the onion-cilantro mixture along with the chopped tortillas, stirring to coat. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring several times, until softened.

Stir in the cumin and cayenne pepper (to taste). Cook for 1 minute, then add the pumpkin purée, ale or cider, the water and salt, stirring to incorporate. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. The tortillas will break up and thicken the soup; add water to achieve the desired consistency. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as needed.

Divide among bowls. Garnish with the cilantro leaves, pumpkin seeds and/or avocado, if desired. Serve warm.

Note: Toast pumpkin seeds in a small, dry skillet over medium-low heat for a few minutes, until lightly browned and fragrant. You will hear them make popping sounds.

NUTRITION Per serving (based on 4): 180 calories, 3 g protein, 24 g carbohydrates, 8 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 140 mg sodium,5 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar

Rice Noodles With Shrimp and Zucchini

4 to 6 servings.

This recipe incorporates two of the five ingredients we have identified as must-haves for the millennials’ pantry: frozen, peeled and deveined shrimp and rice stick noodles, which require only a 10-minute soak. Miso paste is a must-have for lots of vegetarian kitchens; here, the optional tablespoon adds depth to the slightly sweet sauce.

If you plan to make this for dinner, transfer the shrimp from the freezer to a plate in the refrigerator to defrost during the day.

And if you’re not into chopping, pick up prepped zucchini and scallions at your grocery salad bar.

MAKE AHEAD: Leftovers are good cold; the mixture can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days. Adapted from “101 Recipes You Can’t Live Without: The Prevention Cookbook,” by Lori Powell (Rodale, 2012).

3½ ounces dried rice stick noodles (see headnote)

½ cup fresh orange juice

2 tablespoons honey

1 tablespoon white or yellow miso paste (optional)

1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce

2 teaspoons canola oil

1½ pounds peeled and deveined medium frozen shrimp (tail-on or -off), defrosted (see headnote)

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 or 3 medium (1 pound total) unpeeled zucchini, cut into 3-inch-long batons (about 3½ cups; see headnote)

8 scallions, cut on the diagonal into 2-inch sections (see headnote)

Crushed red pepper flakes, for serving (optional)

Boil a kettle of water.

Place the dried noodles in a deep mixing bowl. Pour enough of the just-boiled water over them to cover. Soak for 10 minutes, until softened but not gummy, then drain.

Meanwhile, whisk together the orange juice, honey, miso, if using, and soy sauce in a liquid measuring cup.

Heat the oil in a large skillet or wok over medium heat. Use paper towels to dry the shrimp as much as possible. Once the oil shimmers, add the shrimp and stir to coat. Stir-fry for 3 to 4 minutes, just until opaque; do not overcook. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the shrimp to a bowl.

Add the garlic and stir-fry for about 20 seconds, then add the zucchini and stir to coat; stir-fry for 3 to 5 minutes, until it’s just starting to soften, then add the scallions. Stir-fry for about 20 seconds, then stir in the orange juice mixture. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until the liquid has slightly thickened (no need to stir), then return the shrimp to the skillet or wok along with the drained noodles. Use tongs to incorporate. Stir-fry until just warmed through.

Divide among individual bowls. Garnish with crushed red pepper flakes, if desired. Serve right away.

NUTRITION Per serving (based on 6): 250 calories, 25 g protein, 27 g carbohydrates, 4 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 170 mg cholesterol, 310 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 9 g sugar

Spinach and Rice Casserole

4 servings.

A box of frozen chopped spinach opens up a world of culinary possibilities — including this casserole of modest size. A bag of cooked brown rice in the freezer or a box of Minute Brand brown rice is great to have on hand as well.

Feel free to bulk up the dish with crumbled, cooked sausage or cooked, shredded chicken.

Transfer the package of spinach from the freezer to a plate in the refrigerator before you go to work in the morning; this will speed up preparation when you get home.

MAKE AHEAD: The unbaked casserole can be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and aluminum foil, then refrigerated for a day or frozen for up to three months. Adapted from “The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook,” edited by Sarah Roahen and John T. Edge (University of Georgia Press, 2010).

1 large egg

10 ounces frozen spinach, defrosted, then squeezed dry

3 scallions, white and light-green parts, chopped

1 cup cooked brown rice (see headnote)

¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for optional sprinkling

2 tablespoons crumbled feta cheese

1 cup low-fat milk

1 small chicken bouillon cube (may substitute a vegetable bouillon cube)

3 tablespoons unsalted or salted butter, melted

2 tablespoons flour

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Use cooking spray to grease an 8-by-8-inch baking dish or a casserole with a 4-cup capacity.

Lightly beat the egg in a mixing bowl, then add the spinach, scallions, rice and cheeses, stirring to incorporate. Transfer to the baking dish.

Heat the milk in small saucepan over medium heat. Break up the bouillon cube, then stir in until dissolved. Remove from the heat.

Whisk together the melted butter and flour in a cup, then whisk that mixture into the warm, milk-bouillon mixture to create a quickly thickened sauce. Pour evenly over the contents of the baking dish. If desired, sprinkle a little Parmigiano-Reggiano over the surface. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the top is golden brown in spots.

Serve warm.

NUTRITION Per serving (using unsalted butter): 260 calories, 12 g protein, 22 g carbohydrates, 15 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 90 mg cholesterol, 440 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar

Dessert Hummus

9 servings (Makes about 2¼ cups).

MAKE AHEAD: The hummus can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days. Adapted from “Peanut Butter Comfort: Recipes for Breakfasts, Brownies, Cakes, Cookies, Candies, and Frozen Treats Featuring America’s Favorite Spread,” by Averie Sunshine (Skyhorse Publishing, 2013).

15 ounces canned, no-salt-added chickpeas, rinsed and drained

¼ cup creamy low-fat peanut butter (may substitute tahini)

2 tablespoons low-fat cream cheese (optional)

¼ cup maple syrup or agave nectar/syrup, plus more for garnish

1 tablespoon packed light brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon, plus more for garnish

¼ cup canola or vegetable oil

Pinch kosher salt (optional)

½ cup semisweet mini chocolate chips (optional)

Combine the chickpeas, peanut butter, cream cheese, if using, the syrup, brown sugar, vanilla extract and cinnamon in a blender or food processor. Blend or pulse until well incorporated. With the motor running, pour in the oil in a slow, steady stream to form a fairly smooth hummus.

Taste, and add the salt, if desired, pulsing to incorporate. Add the chocolate chips, if using, and pulse to the desired consistency. Transfer to a bowl, or cover tightly and refrigerate. To serve, sprinkle lightly with cinnamon and drizzle with a little syrup.

NUTRITION Per serving (with cream cheese): 180 calories, 5 g protein, 20 g carbohydrates, 9 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 75 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 8 g sugar. Per serving (without cream cheese): 170 calories, 4 g protein, 19 g carbohydrates, 9 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 70 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 8 g sugar.