How to make 100 dishes from 10 tins in your pantry

Everybody wants to eat fresh these days, and that's a good thing, but canned food doesn't have to be the bad guy. Cans can be a lifesaver when you haven't made it to the shops and still need to whip up something fast. Here's how to turn 10 canned pantry staples into 100 delicious dishes.

1. Tuna

There's hardly a household in Australia that doesn't have a tin of tuna in the cupboard somewhere. Tuna mornay pasta bake has fed Aussies for generations and needn't go out of style. Use pasta sheets and call it a "white lasagne" if it makes you feel fancy. Tuna chunks can be great braised in master stock or teriyaki sauce, or try cooking flaked tuna in a lot of butter, then mix through shallots, capers, cornichons and herbs and pack it all into ramekins as tuna rillettes. Combine it with boiled eggs, green beans and potatoes for a nicoise salad. With rice, tinned tuna comes into its own. Wrap some seaweed around a bit of tuna and vinegared rice and you have tuna hand-rolls, or just scatter it on top of brown rice, avocado and pickled ginger for healthy tuna sushi bowls. Mix with mayo and stuff it into tuna onigiri rice balls, or stir-fry it with leftover rice, lots of garlic, spring onion and egg, then scatter it with crispfried shallots for a Filipino ginisang tuna. For a European angle stir it through arborio rice for tuna and pea risotto, or even deep-fry crumbed risotto balls for tuna arancini the next day.

Pancakes with dulce de leche. A cheat's version of the caramel can be made with a tin of condensed milk.
Pancakes with dulce de leche. A cheat's version of the caramel can be made with a tin of condensed milk. Photo: Edwina Pickles

2. Condensed milk

My go-to emergency dessert involves a can of condensed milk and a can of evaporated milk for a quick two-can creme caramel (see recipe). Simmer an unopened can in plenty of water for 2½ hours for the easiest dulce de leche you'll ever make, or use it in Vietnamese iced coffee, or as a dip for steamed Chinese mantou buns. A can of condensed milk beaten with two tubs of sour cream (600 grams) can be frozen into a delicious no-churn ice-cream. Try it as the base for a delicious chocolate and caramel slice, or filling for a icebox pie, cheesecake or key lime pie. My mum used to put it on soft bread and grill it until it was bubbling and burnt for a brulee toast alternative to jam.

3. Anchovies

Even if you don't like anchovies, a can is worth keeping on hand. Emulsify them with olive oil and garlic cooked in milk for the classic Italian raw vegetable dip, bagna cauda. With mozzarella they're a simple topping for pizza, or try its French cousin, pissaladiere. Fry them with breadcrumbs, olive oil and a few herbs for pangrattato, the poor man's parmesan that's perfect sprinkled over pasta. Layer them into your favourite scalloped potatoes and you have the Swedish classic Jansson's Temptation. They're great for basting porterhouse steaks with anchovies and capers (see recipe). I like to start a simple vinaigrette by frying some chopped anchovies in a little of the olive oil for an umami hit to any salad. Blend them into cultured butter for an anchovy butter for steamed vegetables, or even chuck them on top of a schnitzel with a fried egg and Worcestershire sauce for the very much underrated schnitzel a la Holstein. But I think the best way to enjoy a good anchovy is just straight from the can, with grilled bread and just a little squeeze of lemon.

4. Corn

Combine canned corn and beans with chopped fresh tomatoes and capsicum for a New England succotash, or blitz it with some stock and cream intocorn soup. A bit of canned corn and a drizzle of Kewpie mayonnaise can give home-made pizza a Japanese twist, or cooked in together with rice it can be either Japanese takikomi corn rice or Indian corn pulao, depending on the spices you have to hand. The Japanese also fry it in tempura batter for incredible corn kakiage. Dress it with lashings of warm butter for a delicious snack as-is, or puree that into a great accompaniment for scallops or grilled fish. Even bake it into cornbread that's a perfect match with a one-pot chilli corn carne. It doesn't have to just be savoury either. Some sugar and flour and lots of butter will turn it into a sweetcorn pudding, or combine it with sago and coconut into Vietnamese che bap.

In the cooler months, a tin of peaches can be a lifesaver.
In the cooler months, a tin of peaches can be a lifesaver. Photo: Tim Grey

5. Peaches

Summer stone fruit is incredible in Australia but in the cooler months a tin of peaches can be a lifesaver. Modernise the Hawaiian pizza with prosciutto and peaches, or chop them with walnuts and bake into a gooey treat on top of a wheel of brie. Crumble and clafoutis are an easy dessert fix, or brulee with cinnamon sugar and serve with a dollop of cream. Some raspberries and ice-cream from the freezer can turn them into a peach Melba, or layer them into bread-and-butter pudding for a twist on a classic. Fold chopped peaches through some Greek yoghurt and add some sponge fingers for a peach Charlotte, or blend them into a vinaigrette that goes great with tomato, basil and bitter leaves. If it's still barbecue weather, puree peaches with onion and fish sauce for a sweet-savoury glaze for grilled chicken.

6. Chickpeas

Purists sometimes turn their noses up at tinned chickpeas, but when you've got a couple of screaming kids tearing up your kitchen the purists can go jump. Blend them into a smooth hummus that you can serve with raw vegetables, turn it into home-made falafel or mould them into delicious patties for vegie burgers or chickpea fritters. Pat them dry and deep-fry to add texture to salads, or blend them until smooth to add body to vegan soups. A vegetarian chickpea dhal makes for a great meat-free Monday, but if you really want to push the boundaries, turn your chickpea puree into cookie dough for chewy vegan chocolate chip cookies. The tinned variety also has the added benefit of aquafaba ("bean water" to you and me). The protein-rich water from a tin of chickpeas can be whipped with sugar into a vegan chocolate mousse or even baked into vegan meringues (yes, really).

7. Chipotle in adobo

Unheard of in Australia just a few years ago, this cult ingredient is fast becoming a must-have in the pantry. Slather it on a slow-roasted chipotle chicken (see recipe) and it'll change your Tuesday dinners, or braise with beef cheeks for a perfect smoky winter stew. Brush it on grilled corn with mayonnaise, cheese and herbs for a Mexican twist, or blend it into mayonnaise with some coriander for a dressing for smoky south-western sandwiches. Chop them into a salad or quiche, like a 21st-century sun-dried tomato, or make your own barbecue sauce for everything from chops to hamburgers. Brush the liquid on lamb ribs for something different, or even just add a few spoons into the meat sauce to give the family spaghetti bolognese a facelift.

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8. Coconut milk

Store cans of coconut cream upright and open them without shaking, skimming off the creamy plug to use for making Malaysia's incredible coconut jam, kaya and using the watery milk left over for Thai green curry (which is best when not too creamy). A can of coconut milk can be simmered with a tub of thickened cream and ½ a cup of sugar and churned into a simple coconut ice-cream that's great served with tinned lychees and torn mint. Cook beef and spices long and slow in coconut milk for a great Indonesian rendang, or infuse lemongrass into it for a delicious sauce for mussels with coconut and fresh herbs. One can of coconut milk and one can of tomatoes is the base for the African chicken curry, kuku paka (see recipe). Or just cook coconut rice for nasi lemak. It can be set with gelatine into yum cha-style Cantonese coconut jelly, or used straight from the can with some palm sugar syrup on top of sago gula melaka. Simply blended with a little icing sugar it makes a great coconut glaze for cakes, too.

9. Tomato

Is there anything a tin of tomatoes can't do? Pasta sauce is a given, but make a big batch and bake eggs in it for breakfast. Forget thick, cloying tomato paste, home-made pizza sauce is better when it's just bit of light pureed tomato spread on the dough. There's always the chilli con carne for the cornbread I was talking about before, too. I use a tin of tomatoes to add depth to ratatouille, or roast beef bones in tinned tomato puree until it's caramelised as the basis for a rich demi-glace. Make moqueca, a simple Brazilian seafood stew, or use them to cook tomato rice for a Malaysian meal. How about throwing some prawns and smoked sausage in and turning the rice into a Creole jambalaya? Or spicing up your standard tomato-y stew with cinnamon and paprika for a lamb tagine.

10. Tinned pineapple

A tin of crushed pineapple, syrup and all, is a great base for a Christmas ham glaze, or as the filling for Malaysia's incredibly moreish pineapple tarts. Pineapple chunks can add the necessary sweetness and tang to balance a creamy red duck curry, or blend it with mango and freeze it to be scraped into a tropical granita. Use crushed pineapple rather than rings in a good old upside-down cake and add shaved coconut to avoid it looking like it's straight from the 1970s, or go for a Chinese restaurant-style sweet and sour pork. Throw it in a burger with some beetroot while you're at it (I don't care what David Chang says, this is Australia), or make a salsa for pulled pork tacos like all those bearded fellows seem to be doing. It does make a fantastic chutney for roast pork, or you could try your hand at mam nem, a tangy Vietnamese pineapple sauce for grilled beef or fish.

Recipes to try

Slow-roasted chipotle chicken

Ingredients

1 small onion, peeled

3 cloves garlic, peeled

2 tbsp olive oil, plus 2 more tbsp olive oil for the vegetables

½ tsp salt

3 chipotles in adobo, plus 2 tbsp of the sauce from the can

1 whole chicken, about 1.6kg

1 sweet potato, peeled and cut into 5cm chunks

2 carrots, peeled and cut into 5cm pieces

1 red onion, peeled and cut into wedges

Method

1. Place the onion, garlic, olive oil, salt and chipotles and their sauce in a blender and blend to a smooth paste. Cut a few thick cuts into the thighs and drumsticks of the chicken and pour over the paste. Refrigerate for at least two hours.

2. Heat your oven to 150C. Place the vegetables in the base of a heavy roasting pan and toss in the oil. Season with a little salt. Place the chicken on top and roast in the oven for 3 hours. Remove the chicken and rest for 10 minutes. Turn the oven to grill and return the chicken to the oven for just five minutes to brown the skin, then serve immediately.

Serves 4

Kuku paka

This East African dish is one of the easiest "curries" you could ever make . Kuku is the Swahili word for "chicken", and paka is the Bengali word for "delicious".

Ingredients

1 kg chicken thigh fillets, cut into 5cm pieces

1 tbsp vegetable oil

2 onions, diced

4 cloves garlic, chopped

1 tbsp grated ginger

1 tbsp each of turmeric, cumin, coriander powders

1 tsp chilli powder

½ tsp salt

1 can diced tomatoes (400g)

1 can coconut milk (400ml)

juice of ½ a lemon

1 cup picked coriander leaves

Method

1. Heat the oil in a heavy pot over high heat and fry the chicken pieces, two at a time, until well browned and set aside. Reduce the heat to medium and add a little more oil to the pot if necessary. Fry in the onions until they are softened, add in the garlic and ginger and continue to fry until they are fragrant. Add the turmeric, cumin, coriander, chilli and salt, and stir well to combine with the contents of the pot. Add the tomatoes and coconut milk, stir well, and return the chicken to the pot, covering the joints with the rich curry sauce. Bring the pot to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer uncovered, for 15-20 minutes until the chicken is very tender, stirring occasionally. If the sauce thickens a bit too much you can add a little water.

2. To serve squeeze over the lemon juice and scatter with coriander leaves.

Serves 4

Porterhouse steaks with anchovies and capers

This is my favourite way of cooking mid-week steaks. The anchovies add a strong savoury hit, with the cut-through of acidity from the capers.

Ingredients

4 anchovy fillets

2 tsp capers

2 x 300g thick-cut porterhouse (sirloin) steaks

a little olive oil

½ tsp salt

25g butter

Method

1. Heat a heavy frying pan (preferably carbon steel or cast iron) until very hot. Roughly chop the anchovies and capers together. Brush the steaks with a little oil and season well with salt.

2. Fry the steaks to your liking, making sure to render the fat from the cap running along the top of the steaks. My preferred method is to flip them three3 or 4 four times in the pan so that they are well-browned and cooked evenly. Test the steaks by pressing them with your fingers. It takes some practice but it's the best way to cook steaks.

3. About 2 two minutes before the steaks are cooked, add the butter and chopped anchovies and capers to the pan. Angle the pan and repeatedly spoon the butter over the steaks while the anchovies and capers cook and infuse into it.

4. Remove the steaks from the pan and pour over the butter. Rest for about five 5 minutes in a warm, draught-free place and then serve with the butter. Rather than one1 steak per person, I prefer to slice them thinly and share.

Serves 2-4

Two-can creme caramel

Ingredients

¾ cup castor sugar

3 eggs plus 4 egg yolks

1 can evaporated milk

1 can condensed milk

1 tsp vanilla extract

Method

1. Heat your oven to 175C. Heat the castor sugar in a small saucepan until it forms a dark caramel. Pour the caramel into the base of six small ramekins.

2. Beat the eggs, egg yolks, evaporated milk, condensed milk and vanilla together and divide between the ramekins. Place on top of a tea towel in a deep baking dish and place in the oven. Pour boiling water into the dish until it comes halfway up the side of the ramekins. Bake for about 25 minutes until the custard is just set (tap the side of the ramekin and watch it wiggle – the less it wiggles the more set it is). Remove the creme caramels from the oven, cool to room temperature and then refrigerate for at least one hour.

3. Run a knife around the edge of the ramekin and turn the creme caramels out on to a plate to serve.

Serves 6

Canned guilty pleasures

Members of the Good Food team 'fess up to their favourite canned guilty pleasures.

Tinned pineapple: sometimes, when no one's looking, I like to drink the juice straight from the tin and use the rings on a burger (please don't tell Dave Chang). Callan Boys

Tomatoes (plus anchovies, capers and parmesan):From midnight puttanesca to pimping up a side of lamb, the power of these four ingredients means you can be the shelf-stable equivalent of Alain Ducasse. Myffy Rigby

Nut meat: love is the wrong word for this nut-based log of protein that slid from the can like Chum, but we were allowed so few processed foods it tasted good purely because we thought it was junky-bad. Gemima Cody

Smoked oysters: something changed when I discovered that Yotam Ottolenghi and Kitchen Cabinet host Annabel Crabb had confessed to a weakness for smoked oysters. I now eat them with pride (and maybe a little lemon juice and cracked pepper). Roslyn Grundy

Tomato soup: a can of Big Red condensed tomato soup adds sweetness to my spag bol. Thanks Nanna. Annabel Smith