My mom’s pantry looks like it was assembled by Andy Warhol. As in there is a huge mosaic of Campbell’s soup cans that confronts you when you open the door. I’m not sure if that accounts for my lifelong horror of Stuff In Cans or not, but even the most militant Grow-Your-Own-ist is at the mercy of the weather (100-year drought, anyone?), and it’s always nice to know you can throw together a decent meal at the last minute even when your CSA box was exhausted two days ago.
Here are some canned and jarred items worth keeping around. Their quality is dependable, and in some circumstances they trump the DIY version.
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first. Imagine life before this pantry staple. Not a pretty picture, huh? I always keep tinned tomatoes on hand because they are indispensable for vegetarian soups and stews, emergency pasta sauces, and other long-cooked applications. (They’re not your friend in a caprese salad.) Good news: canning does not deplete tomatoes’ nutrient content as much as it does some fruits and veggies. Kinda bad news: the acid in tomatoes can leach nasty stuff from the lining of some cans, so make sure yours are free of icky stuff like BPA. I like the diced fire-roasted tomatoes from Muir Glen. San Marzano romas (a variety, not a brand) are also good.
Okay, so about tuna. We are hearing a lot about its impending extinction as well as its potential for mercury poisoning, so you have to be careful here. Tonnino is a relatively safe brand if you are one to enjoy Poisson à la Jar. It’s yellowfin (which is not overfished in general; the Atlantic stock’s a little depleted but elsewhere in the world these guys are pretty stable), wild-caught, jarred by hand, rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and both dolphin-safe and low in mercury. Also: it’s jarred in olive oil, which makes its texture massively better. Tinned wild-caught salmon can be good, too, and surprisingly affordable.
Generally underutilized in this country, tinned Stinkyfish are an amazing source of calcium as well as protein, EFAs and all kinds of microgoodies. If you want to make a vaguely authentic Caesar salad, you need these. They are pizza standbys and commonly spotted in Mediterranean cuisines. And England. And Southeast Asia. In any case, they give a deeply salty and frankly fishy flavor wherever you use them (pasta puttanesca isn’t puttanesca without them).
In canned form, sardines were once more popular in America than canned tuna. What happened? Ignore the reputation sardines have as food for weird old men. Sardines canned in olive oil can indeed taste great straight from the can. If you’re on the adventurous side, try swap sardines for canned tuna in a pasta recipe. Eat them on crusty bread for a simple sandwich. The smoked ones are delicious, and any variety is high in calcium.
Marinated artichoke hearts
They’re just a totally different beast from fresh artichokes, and they add a wonderful note to green salads, pizzas and pasta dishes. I go for the ones that are jarred in something oil-based (you can rinse them if, if you like)—most water-packed brands I have tried are flavorless and mushy. Cara Mia was the brand I grew up with and still my go-to.
You don’t routinely eat chestnuts? You should. And you probably don’t because they are a bitch to prepare. I mean, they make prepping fava beans look like child’s play. You can’t even harvest them without special gloves because the hulls are like a little round angry cactus from hell. Once you wrangle them out of Spikytown, you have to take each one and score the shell, then roast them in the oven, then cool them, then peel them, which will, I guarantee you, leave you with hairline cuts all over your fingers. Jarred chestnuts are a miracle. Most of us associate them with Christmas cooking, I think—but they lend themselves to all kinds of dishes, both sweet and savory. Experiment, since you’ve now been liberated to enjoy them injury-free.
At some point in your life it is worth making a pumpkin pie completely from scratch, like buying sweet pumpkins and cooking and draining and mashing and straining them yourself just to see what it’s like. Thanksgiving isn’t the time to do it, at least not unless you have a really flipping serious Martha Stewart streak (or Martha Stewart is available to come to your house and help). Canned pumpkin can get a bit of a tinny flavor sometimes, but that’s easily dispatched by cooking the stuff before incorporating it into a recipe. In addition to the obvious holiday pie application, this stuff is great for muffins and quick breads, soups and sauces, and it’s a huge time-saver. Make sure you buy the versatile plain pumpkin puree, and not canned pumpkin pie mix, which is already sweetened and spiced.
Cheaper if you buy them dried, no question. And I usually do. But they take a super-long time to cook and require advance planning. Some other beans you can get away with sticking on the stove with minimal notice, but not these guys. Canned chickpeas hold their shape in salads, which not all beans do, and they’re still a bit toothy, which makes them a wise addition to pasta dishes. They also make homemade hummus accessible on a whim.
Again, I heartily support making your own broths (I have some simmering as I type this). But for last minute recipes it’s worth having tinned (or boxed) chicken stocks in your pantry. It gives an added dimension to all kinds of dishes and are very very useful when you have a hodgepodge of stuff in your fridge that’s begging to come together as a soup or risotto. Canned and boxed vegetable stock is oftentimes quite nasty and appallingly sweet, so use it with care.
Chipotles (smoked jalapeños) are also available dried, but it’s easier to gauge how much heat you’re dealing with when you use canned ones. They’re often packed in adobo sauce and give a distinctive spicy and smoky intensity to salsas, marinades, stews, and anywhere your imagination takes you. Many recipes only call for using one or two chipotles at a time, so you can puree the rest of the can and freeze small blocks in an ice cube tray to keep from wasting it.
Like most canned seafoods, canned clams are a fine supporting player in satisfying budget meals. Keep a few good-quality cans of baby clams around to quickly bang out fantastic linguine with clam sauce, or a clam chowder (New England or Manhattan).
An award winning poet and longtime food and wine pornographer, Amy Glynn was first accused of being a “food snob” by her parents at age 8. Her book “A Modern Herbal” was released by Measure Press in 2013. She lives in the SF Bay Area, Ground Zero of the “Delicious Revolution.” She thinks about apples a lot. Follow her on Twitter @AmyAlysaGlynn and on Facebook here.
Photo by Jose R. Aguirre /Getty