Food

The best tinned food recipes, proving that store cupboard staples are more than just beans

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Jenny Tregoning
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More than Beans

Why it’s time to rethink store cupboard staples and put an end to tin can snobbery.

Baked beans on buttered toast. Steaming hot rice pudding with a dollop of strawberry jam. Tuna and sweetcorn, smothered in mayonnaise, piled on top of a jacket potato. They are universal childhood memories – evoking feelings of comfort and love. And the one thing they have in common? Tins.

I’ve always been an advocate of tinned food. Give me a can of tomatoes (always plum: they’re less watery and you can crush them satisfyingly with your hands) and I will happily rustle up a shakshuka, pasta sauce, curry… you name it. And canned beans are a vegetarian’s godsend – really, who is organised enough to soak them 12 hours in advance? A tin of black beans fried off with onion, chilli, cumin and coriander makes an ideal quesadilla filling, while harissa-roasted cauliflower with tinned chickpeas and feta is a failsafe throw-together dinner.

I know I’m not the only one: tinned food is in every cupboard in Britain, and chances are you cook with it on a weekly basis: from staples such as tomatoes, to sardines in brightly coloured tins picked up on holiday in Lisbon. But it’s had a bad rep in the past, often unfairly dismissed as lacking in nutritional value and certainly not something to own up to using at a dinner party, let alone celebrate. Just look at the outrage last year when Nadiya Hussain used tinned potatoes on her show Nadiya’s Time To Eat, or cast your mind back to 2008, when Delia Smith was vilified for making moussaka with tinned mince.

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Store cupboard staples

But the tide is turning. While many of us face weeks in self-isolation because of coronavirus, we’re likely to be relying on the trusty old tins at the back of the cupboard more than ever. Although, actually, this food trend has been on its way for a while: a number of new cookbooks are focusing on canned staples, showing just how versatile they are for putting together quick, easy and nutritious (yes, really) meals.

Jack Monroe’s Tin Can Cook, initially envisioned as a way of helping food bank users and those on low incomes to create healthy meals with very little, has been given a new lease of life in recent weeks as people stuck at home look for inventive ways to cook. “With coronavirus, we’re starting to realise [potential food shortage] isn’t a problem that’s going to go away, so if people are self-isolating or working from home, they’re going to be relying on pantry staples more than they used to,” says Monroe.

Meanwhile, recently released Tin Can Magic by Jessica Elliott Dennison and Take One Tin by Lola Milne show how simple it is to make tasty dinners from basic ingredients such as tinned lentils, sweetcorn and peaches. This year, Bart van Olphen, sustainable seafood entrepreneur and Jamie Oliver FoodTube contributor, will release The Tinned Fish Cookbook with recipes for turning canned mackerel, tuna and anchovies into desirable dishes.

And if you think tinned produce means lower quality, that’s not strictly the case. In January, organic farm Daylesford launched its first ever range of tinned goods – including kidney beans, lentils and sweetcorn – and sales have jumped 47% in the past two weeks. “Tinned tomatoes and pulses may not seem like the most glamorous items on your shopping list, but investing in these hardworking staples is the culinary equivalent of seeking out the perfect pair of jeans for the ultimate capsule wardrobe,” says a spokesperson for Daylesford. And two of the top-three bestselling items of last year at online grocer souschef.co.uk were tinned: Perello Gordal olives and San Marzano tomatoes. Even before coronavirus, shoppers were seeing the value of tins – especially for sought-after, speciality produce.

One category in particular that is growing is pulses. “Canned pulses are up 5% in volume in the last 12 months – part of that is due to awareness in terms of reducing meat consumption,” says Dave McDiarmid, corporate relations director for Princes, which owns Napolina. “We’ve been expanding our range for quite some time, taking things like barley, spelt, and even looking at drained quinoa in cans.”

And far from being a last-ditch meal after a long day, we now want to experiment with our tinned ingredients. “People increasingly want to cook more, so we’re trying to change perceptions and help people see canned food not just as a distress meal, but to tap into people’s desire to engage more with the food,” adds McDiarmid.

There’s a common misconception that canned food is lacking nutrients, but (again) the reality is anything but. Most produce is canned close to where it is grown or caught, meaning Napolina tomatoes can be in the tin within a couple of hours. Contrast this with the time a fresh tomato spends being stored, transported, then sat on the shelf, deteriorating by the hour. “I wrote a whole chapter on it called Cansplaining,” says Monroe. “Tinned fish like sardines are such a fantastic source of calcium and vitamin B12 – one can of sardines contains 100% of your recommended daily allowance and you can sling them in curry to give an umami flavour.” Similarly, you might turn your nose up at tinned fruit, but it packs a nutritional punch. “Tinned cherries are a source of fibre, potassium and vitamin C, which isn’t destroyed by heat treating,” says Monroe.

And as we cut down on single-use plastic, it’s worth remembering cans are one of the most eco-friendly types of packaging. “Tin cans are widely recycled and endlessly recyclable,” says Monroe. “Also with regards to food waste, with tins you’re using the whole thing – you’re not worried about stuff going off in the fridge or having to use something up. It’s a really eco-friendly way to cook and shop.”

Long-lasting, better for the environment and tapping into our meat-reducing ways: there’s a lot more going for tinned food than you might expect. So if you’re working from home or in isolation and raiding your cupboards in search of inspiration, take a minute to reconsider those neglected tins and embrace a can-do attitude.

But I have one plea: don’t stockpile. Panic-buying shelf-loads of tinned goods is only going to hurt those with the least. In fact, just two weeks ago The Guardian reported that food banks have seen a drop in donations since the coronavirus outbreak. We all have a responsibility to only buy what we need – and please donate a couple of tins to your local food bank as you go, if you can.

CAN COOK, WILL COOK

These three ingenious recipes are bound to win over any tin can non-believer.

  • Tomato, lentil and aubergine ragú

    Tomato, lentil and aubergine ragú

    Preparation time: 5 minutes
    Cooking time: 40 minutes

    INGREDIENTS: (serves 6)

    • 6 tbsps olive oil
    • 2 onions, finely chopped 
    • 2 aubergines, cut into 2.5cm cubes 
    • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped 
    • 1⁄2 tsp fennel seeds 
    • 2 bay leaves
    • Pinch of chilli flakes 
    • 200ml red wine 
    • 2×400g tins beluga lentils, drained 
    • 2×400g tins chopped tomatoes 
    • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

    METHOD

    Step 1: In a large frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil, add the onions and soften over a low heat for about 10-15 minutes.

    Step 2: In another frying pan, heat the remaining oil, add the aubergines and a pinch of salt, then fry for 5-10 minutes, stirring often until the aubergine cubes are golden. Set aside.

    Step 3: By this point, the onions should be soft and tinged golden. Add the garlic, fennel seeds, bay leaves and chilli flakes. Fry for 2-3 minutes, then tip in the wine. Boil until it has reduced by two-thirds (this shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes). Add the lentils, tomatoes and the browned aubergine cubes. Season and reduce the heat, then simmer for 15-20 minutes until the sauce has thickened a little and the aubergine is buttery soft.

    Step 4: Before serving, fish out the bay leaves. This ragù is great with soft polenta, pasta or served simply with a hunk of bread.

  • Mackerel tacos

    Mackerel Tacos

    Preparation time: 20 minutes
    Cooking time: 5 minutes

    INGREDIENTS: (serves 4)

    • 1⁄2 small red cabbage, thinly sliced
    • 1 tsp fine salt
    • 4 tomatoes, deseeded and roughly chopped
    • 1 small red onion, finely chopped
    • Large bunch of coriander, roughly chopped 
    • Juice of 2 limes
    • 8 tbsps soured cream
    • 2 tbsps hot sauce 
    • 2 ripe avocados, peeled, de-stoned and sliced 
    • 8 small corn tortillas
    • 3×110g tins smoked mackerel fillets in oil, drained and flaked into chunks 
    • Freshly ground black pepper

    METHOD

    Step 1: Put the cabbage into a colander and sprinkle over the salt. Rub it all over the cabbage and leave to drain over the sink for 20 minutes.

    Step 2: In a bowl, mix together the tomatoes, onion, coriander and half the lime juice, then season with black pepper and set aside. In another bowl, mix the soured cream with the hot sauce. Toss the avocado with the remaining lime juice.

    Step 3: Squeeze any excess moisture out of the cabbage, then tip into a clean bowl.

    Step 4: Heat a large griddle or frying pan, then cook the tortillas for 30 seconds or so per side until warm and with brown spots. Stick the stack of warm tortillas on the table with the bowls of soured cream, salsa, cabbage, avocado and the flaked mackerel, then layer up and tuck in.

  • Cherry pie

    Cherry Pie

    Preparation time: 50 minutes
    Cooking time: 40 minutes

    INGREDIENTS: (serves 8)

    For the pastry:

    • 155g cold butter, cut into small cubes 
    • 285g plain flour, plus extra for rolling 
    • Pinch of salt 
    • 40g icing sugar
    • 2 eggs yolks, plus 1 egg, beaten, for brushing

    For the filling:

    • 2×425g tins pitted cherries in syrup, drained 
    • 2 tbsps cornflour 
    • Zest and juice of 1 lemon 
    • 340g cherry conserve

    To serve:

    • Ice cream or cream

    METHOD

    Step 1: You will need a roughly 24cm pie tin. To make the pastry, rub the butter into the flour, salt and icing sugar until the mixture resembles damp sand. Add the egg yolks and 1-2 tablespoons of cold water. Using the rounded side of a butter knife, cut into the mixture until it starts coming together. When it begins to form large clumps, bring together into a ball with your hands. Flatten the dough into a disc, wrap it in clingfilm and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes (to ensure it’s well chilled before you start rolling).

    Step 2: Meanwhile, to make the filling, combine all the filling ingredients in a large bowl.

    Step 3: Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan/gas mark 6 and pop a baking tray in the oven to heat up while you build your pie. Remove your pastry from the fridge and cut off two thirds. Lightly dust the work surface with flour. Roll this into a circle slightly larger than your pie tin, lower into the tin and gently press into the base and up the sides. Leave any overhang and brush the lip with the beaten egg.

    Step 4: Roll the remaining pastry into another circle that will be large enough to form the lid. Spoon the filling into the tin, then press your second circle onto the egg-brushed overhang, squeezing together. Trim the two layers of pastry using scissors about 1cm away from the edge of your tin, then crimp in any way you like. Brush the top with beaten egg and poke a couple of holes into the lid.

    Step 5: Put the pie in the oven on the hot tray and bake for 30-40 minutes until the pastry is golden. Leave to cool for about 30 minutes, then serve with a generous scoop of ice cream or lashings of cream.

Take One Tin by Lola Milne (£14.99, Kyle Books) is out now

Images: Ellis Parrinder

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Jenny Tregoning

Jenny Tregoning is deputy production editor and food editor at Stylist, where she combines her love of grammar with lusting over images of food