Five Foods You Can Do Almost Anything With

If you’re just learning how to cook or are on a tight budget, it’s a good idea to have a pantry stock of ingredients that you can mix and match in multiple dishes without getting bored. They don’t have to be an important part of every meal, but they can offer you enough flexibility that you never run out of food ideas. Here are some of them.

Essential starches such as rice, potatoes, and ramen

Starch such as rice, potatoes, and pasta can be both the base and filler in a number of dishes, but you don’t have to take them at their face value. Here are a few of our favorite base starches to mix and match in unusual or interesting ways:


If you think that the only thing you can do with the most consumed food on the planet is toss it in a saucepan and eat it with your meal, then you are wrong. Rice is extremely versatile, but before you can really learn what to do with it, you need to understand the different types of rice and what makes them different from each other.

Usually in grocery stores you will find short-grain , mediumgrain and long-grain rice, as well as “wild rice”:

  • Short grain rice , as the name suggests, has visually finer, almost round grains and is often used in more sticky foods like rice puddings or rice molds because it tends to clump and becomes slightly chewy when cooked.
  • Medium grain rice is probably the most common grain on the market. You will find tons of different types of rice in this grain (more on that later), and since it is soft and sticky but not as hard as long grain or moldable as short grain, it is also the most versatile. If you are buying for the greatest possible application, we recommend this.
  • Long grain rice is cooked firmly. It stays separate when cooked, does not stick or stick together, so it retains a very grainy, individual texture when eaten. Long grain rice should only be used in meals that require single grains, such as pilaf.
  • “Wild” rice is not rice at all. These are high protein grass seeds that are cooked like long grain rice and have a nutty flavor. It takes a long time to cook, and while delicious, it’s not overly versatile and is almost always a side dish.
  • “White” versus “brown” rice are phrases used to describe the degree to which rice is minced and polished. Brown rice has the shell removed, but it retains the rice bran layer and germ, which gives it a nuttier flavor and denser texture, as well as some nutritional benefits, since the bran layer contains most of the vitamins and minerals that rice has, and has more low glycemic index. It also takes longer to cook. White rice has these layers removed and polished and is more widely used (and more flexible in recipes). Aside from nutrition, most of the rice you’ll see is white rice because it cooks faster and can be applied more widely.

In general, we would advise you to get a good medium grain – it is the most versatile. Even so, don’t be fooled into thinking that there is nothing else in rice but the length of its grain. Don’t buy Uncle Ben and Instant Rice and look for some of these words on your store shelves:

Flavored rice includes most types of rice that have a fragrant or nutty smell when cooked. Jasmine rice, basmati rice, Vehani rice and so on. Most are medium to long grains, and I personally find jasmine and basmati rice incredibly versatile and useful in a variety of cooking methods. Give them a try. Also, look for glutinous rice if you want it to get sticky and lumpy. Sticky rice or sweet rice falls into this category, as does “waxy rice” , and they are not called that because they are particularly high in gluten, but only because of the consistency they take when cooked. For example, risotto, a creamy Italian dish that comes in many flavors and styles, is made with Arborio or Carnaroli rice, both of which are glutinous. Look for them too.

You will see other words used to describe the types of rice, such as ” japonica ” and ” indica “, which do refer to the original point of rice cultivation. If this all sounds complicated, it is! There are over 40,000 varieties of rice, and that doesn’t even include things like couscous (actually a dish made with semolina, not rice at all) that people often confuse with rice. For more information on the different types of rice, check out this list of varieties and this glossary on the different types of rice . In both cases, the detail is much greater than we have time.

In short, take some of the names mentioned here with you to the grocery store. Look for medium grains. Flavors like jasmine and basmati tend to add a touch of zest to standard rice dishes. Brown rice is healthier, but takes longer to cook and is less elastic than white rice. Glutinous rice such as “sweet”, “sticky” and “sushi” go well with each other and still be flexible. With so many options available, there is no reason to buy small rice again.


Potatoes can be as tricky as rice, but luckily they are a little easier to cook. They’re just as flexible – you can boil, crush, chop, and more, and the ways to cook potatoes are almost limitless, especially when you consider how many varieties there are:

  • Reddish brown potatoes are your traditional bake potatoes. It is best to cook them whole, bake them, they turn out fluffy and light inside, and on top of them – with a dense skin. Their fluffiness makes them great for mashed potatoes too. If you’ve been looking for a versatile potato, red is a good choice.
  • Red potatoes are usually smaller in size and, as the name suggests, have red skins. They are waxy potatoes and serve well for stir-frying or mashed potatoes, and also sliced ​​for soups or stews. Their waxy nature means they tend to retain their shape even in liquid. This is usually my favorite potato when I don’t want the russet of reddish brown.
  • White potatoes are waxy and retain their shape like red potatoes. They are great for potato salads or grilling, and can also be used in the same dishes as red potatoes. However, they are slightly more starchy than reds, so they will turn out a little fluffier with some cooking.
  • Yellow potatoes and Yukon Gold tend to fall apart when cooked, especially in liquid. If you need to boil them, watch them closely, take them out, drain the water, and then knead or press them down and use them for pancakes. Otherwise, grill them, bake them, or bake them.
  • Purple / blue potatoes are easy to spot by color, but they also have a unique nutty flavor that you may not be familiar with. They can be expensive and are definitely not versatile potatoes like russet, red, or even yellow potatoes, but they make a great addition to salads and are great for grilling. But they don’t bake or mashed potatoes, really.

You will also see “petites” or “fry” potatoes, which usually correspond to one of the above types, only smaller and can be used in a similar way. Small eggs are often very thin and for this reason they are best fried or broiled, while fry can be pan-fried, broiled, mashed or whatever. To learn more about potato varieties and details about them, check out this guide from Cook’s Thesaurus .

In any case, it is important to pay attention to the starch or water content in potatoes, which determines how best to cook it. The video above from America’s Test Kitchen explains well what to look for when picking potatoes at the grocery store. You can do almost anything with potatoes, but knowing which variety you have means you can choose the perfect application for it.


Ramen noodles may seem like a cheap meal to college students – and of course they are – but that doesn’t mean they’re not versatile in and of themselves. They’re not exactly nutritious, but when you ditch the flavor pack that comes with them and cook them properly, they can become real food and not just a late snack or something you eat for lunch when there is nothing else.

Rather than diving into the differences between Asian noodles , here’s a list of 30 different ways to make ramen noodles, courtesy of our friends at Serious Eats. If you’ve never bothered to take these bagged noodles, cook them in your own broth, and add some meat to the mixture, you’re going to want to. They even suggest making shepherd’s pie in a cast iron skillet with ramen noodles instead of potatoes.

Likewise, check out this guide to ramen dishes that aren’t soup . It offers creative preparations like ramen salad, grilled kimchi ramen cheese, ramen trail mix, and even ramen omelet, which is surprisingly good. They can be cheap and somewhat empty, but these are some of the most versatile things you can put in your pantry if you have a little imagination.

Fruits and vegetables: bananas and peppers.

Okay, we have starches, it’s time to move on to what’s best for you. Here are some healthy fruits and vegetables that you can mix and match to create fun and creative dishes that surpass simple slicing and preparation.


You might think bananas are pretty simple and straightforward, and they can be if you only ate them one way – peel them or cut them into chunks in a bowl of cereal. You probably also sliced ​​them into toast or a peanut butter banana sandwich, but swap out peanut butter for Nutella and you have a completely different experience. If this is too common for you, keep them with you to add to fruit smoothies – bananas can add extra thickness and sweetness to smoothies without adding too much of their characteristic banana flavor. They’re even helpful for thickening vegetable smoothies.

Likewise, while banana bread and banana pudding tend to bring a lot of their own banana flavor to the party, they are definitely transforming the way you use bananas without just eating them. If you don’t believe us, check out Endless Simmer’s list of over 100 banana recipes and preparations . Some are as sweet as Thai candied bananas , while others are as savory as fried pumpkin soup with maple-glazed bananas. If you don’t like it, just brush them with rum and honey and toss them on the grill .


The term “pepper” encompasses a surprisingly wide class of foods (from a botanical point of view, they are fruits, but in culinary circles they are often called vegetables). For our purposes, we’ll be talking about common peppers such as bell peppers, and some varieties of chili peppers, such as poblano and jalapenos, that are more versatile than their exceptionally pungent cousins. You might think peppers are peppers, but the number of ways peppers can be cooked and served is worth keeping in the refrigerator for a rainy day.

First, in order of business: green, yellow and red peppers are all the same, only the crops were harvested at different times. Each pepper starts out green and when harvested at this point turns crispy, slightly bitter, and lacks the signature sweetness that develops if you leave it to ripen. Over time, green peppers will eventually turn orange and yellow and take on more fruity and sweetness. If left even longer, they will turn completely red. Red pepper is the sweetest and most fruity, there is almost no green pepper bitterness in it.

For this reason, even people who cannot stand green peppers often fall in love with red peppers, especially when fried, to add even more sweetness. Roasting peppers practically creates a completely new vegetable , with new functions and properties, and you can do it at home.

These transformations – all on the same plant – make the peppers extremely pliable, even if you roast a few green peppers with some red ones and serve them together. In terms of preparation, bell peppers can be served raw as an appetizer, sliced ​​over salad, used for frying, sautéed with sausages or other meats, finely chopped and added to eggs, salad, rice, or just about anything you want. add freshness or sweetness to it. You can serve them whole and start with just about anything you like , or pickle them to preserve them for a long time.

On the other hand, chili peppers, like poblano and jalapenos, are just as flexible, and while they don’t change color in the same way, they can just as easily be stuffed or sliced ​​and used to add spice and warmth. to another dish. The fact that all of these peppers can be a main dish, side dish, or something else makes them useful far beyond the raw dish.

Additionally: many spices and flavor enhancers.

Finally, if you really want to be able to do incredible things with this – and any other flexible food you love – you’ll need ways to amplify and tweak the flavors so they don’t always look like what you ate. before. We’ve talked about how to make your own spice mixes and make “spice sets” with your favorite spices , but a well-stocked spice rack is the key to using the same foods in vastly different ways.

Keep a few flavor enhancers on hand while you do this to add zest or zest to your meals. When we talked about scientifically improving your home cooking , we mentioned keeping umami bombs such as soy sauce, anchovies, or marmie on hand to quickly spice up the piquancy when your meals need them. You can use the chili peppers we mentioned for spice, but a little cayenne pepper or hot sesame oil in the spice cabinet can also help. If you have one or two ways to add sweet, spicy, savory, or even bitter to the dish up your sleeve, you can do almost anything, even with takeout or other boring food.

This story was originally published in June 2013 and was updated on January 22, 2021 to follow the Lifehacker style guidelines.


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