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There are Cans of Inspiration Hidden In Your Pantry

There are Cans of Inspiration Hidden In Your Pantry

Exploring the long life, and long list, of ideas on the shelf

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This article is part of our monthly issue “All That Inspires”, a playful look into how we bring inspiration from around the world and our immediate surroundings into our own kitchens—whether through specific ingredients or traditional recipes, new techniques or viral trends. Check out this link to find an overview of all our weekly topics, stories, and recipes—and don’t forget to follow us on Instagram for behind the scenes, extras, and more!

There are many challenges that my culinary curiosity and willingness to experiment with new recipes and ingredients regularly presents me with: What to do with the container of gochujang paste that’s three-quarters full? How do I use up the rest of the miso paste that I bought for those miso cookies I made awhile back? What can I make with all that garam masala, which I could have bought in a smaller quantity, but of course did not? And how do I make it all before the ingredients are resigned to a life in the back of the fridge or pantry, destined to be replaced by something new, shiny, and unfamiliar?

It’s completely against my beliefs to throw any of these things away just because I’m struggling to find something else to make with it or forgot about it as I find something new to inspire me in the kitchen. So this article is dedicated to those questions, and the various ways to find inspiration and find your own answers—no matter the ingredient.

Do you have an opened, half-used bag of spices or jar of paste and no idea how to use it up? Let us know in the comments below, we might have a tip if you share for your leftover ingredient in the comments below!

Sweetened condensed milk is always in my pantry

I'm going to make a bit of a rash, non-evidence-based assumption that everyone has an ingredient (or a few) like I mentioned above stashed away in their pantry or fridge. Maybe yours is made up of gifts, like an infused oil or homemade spice mix, or maybe yours is like mine—in addition to the aforementioned, I also usually hide away a tube of Milchmädchen (sweetened condensed milk, in a tube!) in the back of my fridge during strawberry season. I’ll then squeeze it directly from the tube onto a fresh strawberry, a trick passed down from my grandmother to my mom, and then to me.

I often find cooking inspiration from dishes and recipes that catch my eye (be it online or in a cookbook) and go shopping based on those recipes. But when I look at my pantry and fridge, full of things I desperately need to use up, I run this inspiration route the other way—the question no longer, “What am I shopping for today?” instead, “What can I cook or bake to use up those leftover tubes of sweetened condensed milk?”

Our communications designer Amina (who, by the way, not only gave me this gorgeous green hair in the cover photo, but also captured my condensed milk drenched-strawberry love) asked me directly, "Do you know condensed milk cake?" And thus one recipe was put on my list, an answer to a question I know will come up after strawberry season. I also have a recipe for Vietnamese iced coffee à la our junior editor Mary-Linh, a perfect use case that uses just enough to empty a half-empty tube. What's more, sweetened condensed milk can also be made at home, bypassing the packaging waste.

How to make homemade sweetened condensed milk

To make sweetened condensed milk, you need exactly two ingredients: whole milk and sugar. As with all things homemade, the ratio can be adjusted to your own liking. Some recipes use a 1:1 ratio, some use a 1:4 ratio of sugar to milk. To make it, bring the milk and sugar (you could even use vanilla sugar) to a simmer in a saucepan, stirring constantly. Continue stirring and simmering until the milk thickens. Once you've reached the desired consistency, you can pour your sweetened condensed milk directly into sterile jars and let it cool. It will keep for a few months in an airtight container.

Inspired by coconut milk

My colleague Xueci was the one who nudged me in the right direction for this article when she told me about her newfound appreciation for canned coconut milk:

"I've been incorporating more coconut milk into my cooking routine since the pandemic because I can't go to Southeast Asian restaurants regularly like I used to. It brings a rich texture to soups and curries and, of course, that great coconut flavor and aroma. The problem is, when I open a can, it's almost always too much for the amount a recipe calls for—at least for the servings cooked up in my single-person household. So, after making Alison Roman's chickpea stew one day, the leftover coconut milk in my fridge demanded that I start looking for a recipe to make use of the rest. Luckily, there are a lot of ways to use it. I ended up cooking fantastic marinated shrimp with sambal oelek (another great shelf-stable pantry staple) from our chef Christian, and Ruby's recipe for jammy eggs in a creamy turmeric sauce, which will also use up a bunch of seasonal Tuscan kale that I bought at the farmer’s market. It's such an interesting way to expand my cooking, and my coconut milk list continues with Devan's 5-ingredient red curry chicken soup and Tejal Rao's coconut rice. Now I think a little coconut milk on hand, even in an open can, is always a good thing!"

Inspired by harissa (and peanut butter!)

Our managing editor Devan feels the same way about harissa (a Tunisian chili pepper paste) and peanut butter:

"I could say so much about peanut butter—I use it for so many different things, whether sweet or savory—but we have a whole article (with 17 recipes!) dedicated to it, so I won’t go on. This article inspired me to rethink my use of harissa in cooking, and my cooking and eating habits in general. I always have a tube of harissa in the fridge, but I don't use it every day and generally not that often. The article covers the different ways harissa is actually eaten and used in Tunisian cooking and opened my eyes to other possibilities. Instead of using the classic Harissa Du Cap Bon (which I always have for marinades, sauces, glazes, etc.), I turned to one of my favorite restaurants in Berlin, Rocket + Basil, who actually sell their homemade rose harissa now—a result of the pandemic that I can truly be thankful for. I got hold of a jar and used it as best described in Taste's article: slather it on warm bread with olive oil and enjoy the complex flavors of the chilies and spices in their simplest form."

Need more pantry inspiration?

I always find it exciting how the topic of food never seems to get boring. You can always learn something new and your “to-cook” list can just keep getting longer and longer. And this formula, this "fridge to recipe search" method, can be used pretty much anytime and for any ingredient. Still have some dried chilies at home? Try your hand at homemade chili crisp! All those eggs need to be used up soon? Maybe this recipe (or this charming video) will inspire you. And there's certainly plenty of exciting ideas for canned tomatoes and chickpeas (and chickpea water, called aquafaba) that you might not know yet.

So go, look for inspiration in your own pantry and the back of your fridge, and let us know how it goes in the comments below. We’re here to help, so ask us any questions and we can offer our tips and recipe ideas, too.

Published on March 25, 2021

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