Clever cooking from cans

A member of staff stocks shelves at the Community Supermarket, in west Norwood, south London.

Frances suggests ways you can use canned food to make great recipes - Credit: PA

Did you stock up with cans before the first lockdown and don't quite know what to do with them?

Are you, like me, one of those people who swear by fresh food and rarely look at a can? The Spanish would think we are loco. Canned vegetables, fish and shellfish are considered a delicacy in Spain, not just for reasons of convenience but because of the quality of the produce being preserved.

I was once invited to canneries in northern Spain, to see vegetables and shellfish being prepared for preserving and was impressed at the artisanal approach. Peppers were roasted and skinned, asparagus was quickly steamed, clams were cooked in a light, herb-scented broth. Even so, the invitation to a lunch made entirely of canned food was not enticing, but the reality was something else. The smells were those of home cooking, and the flavours were pure and intense. Don't be suspicious of food in cans; there's some good stuff in there.

It is worth buying piquillo peppers, because it's such a bore roasting and skinning them. I use them to add texture and colour to gazpacho. A prawn and potato salad, diced quite small and mixed with a creamy, well-made mayonnaise flavoured with chopped fresh mint, makes a stuffing for the pimentos for a first course, tapa or salad component.

For a hot dish, mix cooked, un-dyed smoked haddock with mashed potatoes, plenty of chopped parsley, stuff the pimentos, spoon a creamy, light béchamel over them and finish under the grill.

It took a while to get used to the fact that canned white asparagus might be considered a delicacy, until it was served to us in a starry restaurant in Seville, dressed with extra virgin olive oil, freshly squeezed orange juice, and finely chopped mint. It is tempting to serve a garlicky mayonnaise or aioli but this overpowers the subtle flavours of the asparagus.

Artichoke, white bean and cimi de rapa stew at The Richmond

Artichoke, white beans can be made into a delicious stew - Credit: Archant

Fava beans and artichoke hearts can be combined in the most delicious vegetable casserole, layered with cooked, sliced waxy potatoes, cheese and beaten eggs and baked in the oven. Chick peas are now an essential in any food cupboard for one's own version of hummous; classic with lemon, tahini, garlic and olive oil; with beetroot purée, with peeled red peppers, with fresh peas... endless combinations. And the bonus in a can of chickpeas is aqua faba, the protein-rich cooking liquid which makes vegan meringue.

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Canned clams,  mussels and octopus enhance rice and pasta dishes. Try them, too, piled into baked new potatoes, mixed with parsley and garlic mayonnaise. Their sweet, tender briny quality is a perfect match for the earthy flavours and texture of pulses, so combine them with white beans in a salad, adding crisply cooked green beans for crunch and contrast.

I like to use anchovies in the same way as bacon, to add a sharp salty note where needed; a Caesar salad wouldn't be a Caesar salad without plenty of anchovy crushed with garlic. And folded onto a cocktail stick with a pickled green pepper, preferably a guindilla, and a green olive, preferably a manzanilla, the anchovy fillet makes the quintessential Basque pintxo, the Gilda. White tuna is excellent in all recipes where you might otherwise use cooked fish – kedgeree, omelettes, soufflés, fish cakes, stuffed tomatoes.

On the 'dessert' shelf of my food cupboard, alongside cans of pumpkin purée, I always have a few cans of evaporated and condensed milk; for pumpkin pies and Key lime pies, but also for kulfi, one of my favourite desserts in Indian restaurants, but of which I have come to prefer my home-made version, a richly flavoured, intense concoction of frozen milks.

Oysters and passion fruit possets make for a romantic Valentine's meal

Passion fruit with condensed and evaporated milk makes a frozen dessert - Credit: Frances Bissell

Kulfi-style Passion Fruit Milk Ice (serves 4)


3 or 4 passion fruit

100 g caster sugar

1 can (400 ml) condensed milk

1 can (200 ml) evaporated milk


Halve the passion fruit and scoop the pulp into a small saucepan. Add the sugar and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil and allow to cool.

Whisk the milks until foamy. Stir in the sieved passion fruit syrup and whisk again. Pour into individual pots or a plastic container, cover and freeze overnight, or at least 4 hours. Turn out, slice or scoop as necessary, and garnish, if you like, with a few reserved passion fruit seeds.

Cook's note: When choosing passion fruit, look for the smoothest fruit possible. Wrinkled fruit indicates that it is not that fresh and the juice will have evaporated to some degree.

©Frances Bissell 2021. All rights reserved.