Like many ingredient-obsessed cooks, I hit the farmers market once or twice a week. I eat my Brussels sprouts and squash in October, my asparagus and rhubarb in June, and not a whole lot beyond potatoes and onions in February. Fresh, local and organic is my kitchen 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 repertory 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 insistently hot and gooey that if you weren’t holding tight, your breadstick might snap and sink into the quicksand depths of the casserole dish.
Mrs. Ruby might be the reason that, as much as I worship the fresh and the local, I have an enduring soft spot for the can.
A safe and convenient way to preserve and transport food, modern canning was invented in France in the early 19th century as a way to feed the troops during the Napoleonic wars. Americans enthusiastically embraced foods in cans, and they have become so enmeshed in our national cooking identity it makes you wonder if Thanksgiving dinner would even exist without them.
But the joys of canned foods go beyond pumpkin pie and the convenience of being able to cook dinner from your pantry during a snowstorm.
The best canned foods transcend their fresh counterparts to become something completely different — and often superior. And when used with love and care, canned foods can turn the monotony of weeknight cooking into a semi-homemade form of art.
Some favorite hacks
Take, for example, canned seafood, such as 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 sweetened condensed milk. A syrupy alternative to fresh cream, it’s given rise to an entire genre of beloved desserts and beverages — Vietnamese iced coffee, no-churn ice cream and tres leche cake among them. Along those same lines is 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 that you can use in near endless variation. Add them to soups and stews, sauté them with vegetables, simmer them with tomato sauce, crisp them in the oven or purée them into dip or fritters or pasta sauces.
Of all the dozens of varieties on the market, 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 the chickpeas in hummus and curries, and roasted with vegetables and spices. More often than not, the black beans get stirred into my easy vegetarian chili, a weeknight recipe that is faster, more healthful and a whole lot cheaper than takeout.
Canned foods tend to be economical, but they aren’t always inexpensive. The chef Alex Raij, an owner of St. Julivert Fisherie and La Vara in Brooklyn, and Txikito and El Quinto Pino in Manhattan, 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 approach.
“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.”
But Raij, who grew up in Minneapolis, feels no nostalgia for the canned deviled ham her mother puréed and added, along with spinach, to ravioli filling.
“She was looking for that umami flavor,” she said. “I would use a chunk of puréed mortadella, but that wasn’t available to her in the Midwest when I was growing up.”
Not having been raised on canned meats myself, I have no deep-rooted affection for them. And although I can appreciate the soft, sausage-like brawniness of fried Spam, I don’t crave it the way I do that cheesy artichoke dip with all those sweet, crispy fried onions.
Which brings me to the singular merit of keeping canned artichoke hearts in the pantry: You can mix them with cheese and bake them at a moment’s notice.
This isn’t to say canned artichokes are better than fresh ones. But what are the chances that you’d want to slice up fresh artichokes that took you over an hour to trim, acidulate, de-choke and steam, and then bury them in a dish of hot cheese and fried onions?
But with canned artichokes, the more cheese and fried onions, the better. I think it’s even more perfect with cooked pasta stirred in, along with loads of fresh herbs to offset the richness, before the whole thing is baked into a golden, crunchy-topped casserole.
And you can even serve it with a fluffy green salad made from seasonal, organic, farmers market greens, if you like. Because there’s no vegetable from a can that will satisfy when you’re in the mood for a giant bowl of fresh, ruffle-edged red leaf lettuce or spicy, floppy arugula dressed with lemon, garlic and olive oil.
Happily there’s room at the table for all of it.