Can-venience Cooking

A robust pasta dish which makes good use of canned smoked mussels

A robust pasta dish which makes good use of canned smoked mussels (the full recipe is at the bottom of this post).

I get great pleasure from keeping our pantry shelves stocked with packages and containers of dry goods, filled with bottles and jars of oils, sauces and seasonings, and stacked high with cans of food. It gives me a sense of power (and peace of mind) to know that, within arm’s reach, I have the basic ingredients to create delicious and varied meals at a moment’s notice without having to leave the house.

I find canned foods particularly useful because they’re not only easy to stock up on and have a long shelf life, they’re also affordable and tasty. Canned ingredients are especially convenient when you’re busy, and can save you a lot of time and effort in the kitchen. Preparation is minimal because the food has been pre-cooked in the can so only requires heating up (or not if you prefer to eat the contents cold straight from the can). Also, the variety and quality of canned foods available these days is amazing. Supermarket shelves are packed with a huge range of canned goods from around the globe including tomatoes from Italy, kalamata olives from Greece, coconut milk from Thailand, sardines from Spain, and bamboo shoots from China, that allow you to experiment with different ethnic cuisines.

These are the canned foods we always have on stand-by in our pantry and some ideas on how we use them:

Canned fish and seafood: With their high protein content, canned tuna, salmon, sardines, mackerel, anchovies, baby shrimp, crab meat, smoked mussels and oysters provide nutritious meals and snacks. Toss a can of tuna or some anchovies into a simple tomato-based pasta sauce; stir salmon or baby shrimp into a risotto, add mackerel to a kedgeree (an Indian rice dish), mash sardines with lemon juice and capers and spread on lightly buttered whole grain toast; use tuna or salmon as a filling for sandwiches and wraps, toss into salads, or make into fish cakes; top a pizza with smoked mussels or oysters or enjoy them by themselves as a simple snack.

Canned beans and lentils:
The best thing about legumes from a can is that there’s no soaking required — just drain and rinse before use. Combine a can of chickpeas with tahini, lemon juice and garlic in a food processor to make hummus for dipping or spreading on wraps, or add whole to Indian curries or Mediterranean stews; use canned lentils to make dhal or vegetarian bolognese sauce or scatter them into salads; and add white beans to pasta dishes or soups like Minestrone or Soupe au Pistou.

Canned vegetables: When fresh vegetables are out of season the canned varieties are indispensable. Canned tomatoes (whole, chopped and puréed) make an excellent base for pasta sauce, soups, stews and curries; canned Asian vegetables including water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, and straw mushrooms make quick and easy additions to stir-fries, braises and noodle dishes; canned corn (kernels, baby corn, and creamed), artichoke hearts and asparagus are acceptable alternatives to fresh and work well in dishes like frittatas, pizzas, pastas and risottos; and canned beets are great on sandwiches and salad plates.

Canned fruit: A lot of fruits, especially short-season varieties which aren’t available year round and the more exotic fruits grown abroad, are handy canned. Apricots, peaches, plums, pears, cherries, lychees, mandarins and papaya are ideal served with gelato, sorbet or yogurt and can also be mixed with fresh fruit to bulk out fruit salads. Canned pineapple is also tasty in Chinese sweet-and-sour dishes, Thai curries and, albeit unauthentic, as a pizza topping.

Miscellaneous: Canned coconut milk can be used in a wide range of Indian and Southeast Asian dishes like curries, laksa and peanut sauce. We buy fabulous canned kalamata olives from Greece, and anchovy or pimento-stuffed green olives from Spain which are divine in pasta dishes, stews, salads, risottos, sandwiches, on pizza, blended into tapenade, or simply eaten by themselves.

To further demonstrate the convenience of canned foods, here’s an easy to make and delicious three-course dinner using five cans of food – white beans, tuna, smoked mussels, tomatoes, and fruit – combined with vegetables, herbs, grains, and dairy to extend the meal and add fresh flavors to the canned ingredients.

Starter: Italian tuna and beans (Tonno e fagioli). Simply toss a can each of tuna and white beans together with some thinly sliced red onion, finely chopped fresh basil, and dress with lemon juice or white wine vinegar, minced garlic, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper.
Main: Spaghetti with smoked mussels and red pepper (see recipe below).
Dessert: Canned fruit of your choice (peaches, apricots or pears) served with sorbet or gelato.

Spaghetti with smoked mussels and red pepper

This is a simple pasta dish with a slightly smoky flavor imparted by the canned smoked mussels. This dish also works well with other canned fish and seafood such as smoked oysters, tuna, sardines, or anchovies. You can also use fresh basil instead of parsley.

Serves 2

7 oz (200g) dried spaghetti
3 oz (90g) canned smoked mussels — drained
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion – finely diced
1 red pepper — diced
2 cloves garlic — – minced
14 oz (420g) canned tomatoes — chopped
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly grated black pepper
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a frying pan over a medium heat and cook the onion and red pepper for 7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and cook for a minute. Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 8 minutes. While the sauce is simmering, bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil and cook the pasta according to package directions. Add the mussels, parsley and reserved tablespoon of olive oil to the sauce. Drain the cooked pasta into a colander and put the sauce in the bottom of the pot. Top with the hot pasta and toss together gently to combine.