Like many ingredient-obsessed cooks, I hit the farmers’ market once or twice a week. I eat Brussels sprouts and squash in October, asparagus in June, and not a whole lot beyond potatoes and onions in February. Fresh, local and organic is my mantra.
Yet when I start dreaming about the most delicious dishes I’ve ever eaten, Mrs. Ruby’s molten, cheesy artichoke dip, made with canned artichokes and topped with a spiky crown of French’s fried onions, is one of the first things that springs to mind.
Mrs. Ruby was a family friend when I was growing up, and while she admitted she wasn’t a great cook, she could wield a can opener like a Jedi master.
Her repertoire ran deep — canned cranberry and pecan cream cheese log, canned crab salad with curried mayo on tomatoes, classic Key lime pie — but my personal favorite was that artichoke dip, so hot and gooey that if you weren’t holding tight, your breadstick might snap and sink into the quicksand depths of the casserole dish. She served the dip over a can of Sterno, and by the end of the night the bottom was crusted and browned.
Mrs. Ruby might be the reason that I have an enduring soft spot for the can.
Modern canning was invented in France in the early 19th century as a way to feed the troops during the Napoleonic wars. Americans so enthusiastically embraced the concept that foods in cans are enmeshed in our national cooking identity. You’d wonder if Thanksgiving dinner could even exist without them.
But the joys of canned foods go beyond pumpkin pie and the convenience of being able to fix dinner during a storm.
The best canned foods transcend their fresh counterparts to become something completely different — and often superior. When used with love and care, canned foods can turn the monotony of weeknight cooking into a semihomemade form of art.
Take, for example, canned seafood like sardines, anchovies and tuna. The amount of salt and olive oil used in their preservation makes them seem closer to salami than to fish, and that’s all to the good. They are rich and complex, and indispensable for sardine and onion sandwiches, Caesar dressing and tuna melts, none of which would taste right made with pristine, fresh fillets.
Or take canned coconut milk, which is so vastly easier than finding a coconut and extracting the milk that only the most committed cooks even consider the idea of making it from scratch.
No ode to canned foods would be complete without beans, essential pantry mainstays. Add them to soups and stews, saute them with vegetables, simmer them with tomato sauce, crisp them in the oven, or puree them into pasta sauces.
Canned black beans and chickpeas are so vital to my sense of well-being that I get a little panicky when I run out. I love chickpeas in hummus and curries, and roasted with vegetables and spices. More often than not, the black beans get stirred into vegetarian chili, a weeknight recipe that is faster, more healthful and a whole lot cheaper than takeout.
Canned foods tend to be economical, but aren’t always inexpensive. New York chef Alex Raij has been known to use $50 cans of baby eels and $25 tins of anchovies at her restaurants. At home, though, she takes a less extravagant approa ch. “I think chefs get so wrapped up in talking about elite, fancy stuff in cans that we forget about all the normal things that you can get at the supermarket and use in clever ways,” she said.
Her favorite hacks? Mixing canned smoked mussels with white beans to add smoky flavor, and mashing up canned peas with Parmesan as a sauce for pasta.
“I grew up on canned Le Sueur peas sitting in sugar water,” she said. “I’ll still eat them directly out of the can. They are mushy and sweet, and I love them.”
COCONUT CURRY CHICKPEAS WITH LIME
By Melissa Clark
- 3 tablespoons neutral oil, such as sunflower or canola
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 2 jalapenos, seeded or not, thinly sliced
- 1 bay leaf
- 1-inch piece ginger, minced
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1-1/2 teaspoons garam masala
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 2 (15-ounce) cans chickpeas, rinsed
- 1 (13.5-ounce) can coconut milk (not light coconut milk)
- 1 (13.5-ounce) can pumpkin puree
- 1-1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt, more as needed
- 3/4 cup chopped cilantro, more for serving
- 2 to 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice, plus wedges for serving
- Cooked rice or couscous, for serving (optional)
Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high. Stir in onion, jalapeno and bay leaf. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is golden on edges, about 8 minutes.
Add ginger and garlic; cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in garam masala, cumin and turmeric; cook an additional 30 seconds.
Stir in chickpeas, coconut milk, pumpkin, 1/2 cup water and 1-1/2 teaspoons salt. Bring to simmer and continue to simmer 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, to let flavors meld. (Add more water if it starts to look too thick.) Stir in cilantro and lime juice to taste. Taste and add more salt if necessary.
Top with more cilantro and serve lime wedges on the side. Serves 4 to 6.
BAKED ARTICHOKE PASTA WITH CREAMY GOAT CHEESE
By Melissa Clark
- Salt, as needed
- 1 pound fusilli, farfalle or other short pasta
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for serving
- 1 large bunch scallions, thinly sliced, whites and greens separated
- 4 fat garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 1/4 teaspoon red-pepper flakes, plus more to serve
- 8 ounces cream cheese (1 cup), cubed
- 6 ounces goat cheese, cubed
- 2 (14-ounce) cans artichoke hearts (not marinated), drained and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 2 cups canned fried onions, divided
- 6 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese (1-1/2 cups)
- 1 cup EACH chopped parsley and dill
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Heat oven to 425 degrees. Bring large pot heavily salted water to boil. Cook pasta according to package directions until 3 minutes shy of al dente. Reserve 3 cups pasta water, then drain.
Meanwhile, heat oil in large ovenproof skillet over medium. Cook scallion whites until softened, about 5 minutes, then add garlic and cook another minute. Stir in red-pepper flakes; cook another 30 seconds.
Whisk in half reserved pasta water, cream cheese and goat cheese. Simmer, whisking, until smooth.
Stir in artichokes, half the fried onions, mozzarella, parsley, dill and reserved scallion greens. Stir in cooked pasta and black pepper. Add more pasta water if it seems dry; you want it loose, as the pasta will soak up the sauce. Taste and add salt if needed.
Top pasta with remaining cup of fried onions and Parmesan. Bake until filling is bubbly and onions are browned, 10 to 20 minutes. Serve drizzled with olive oil and with more red-pepper flakes on the side. Serves 6.
Nutritional information unavailable.