How to Turn Everyday Canned Foods Into Exciting, Flavorful Meals

Cookbook author Lola Milne shares tips and recipes for cooking from the pantry
March 18, 2020 Updated: March 25, 2020
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There’s no doubt that canned foods are valuable staples to have on hand: they’re cheap, convenient, and long-lasting.

But delicious?

Absolutely, says Lola Milne.

In her new cookbook, “Take One Can” (or “Take One Tin,” in the U.K.), the London-based food stylist and recipe writer makes the case for all things canned, shining the spotlight on humble basics like beans, tomatoes, and fish.

These cans act as versatile “springboards” for quick and easy but flavor-packed meals: cheesy flageolet bean and artichoke heart gratin; hearty tomato and lentil ragù; pasta tossed in an umami-bomb sauce of melted anchovies and caramelized onions.

Flageolet Bean and Artichoke Gratin
Flageolet bean and artichoke gratin. (Lizzie Mayson)

Milne proves that with a little creativity, these back-of-the-cupboard staples are worthy of taking center stage.

For the best flavor, Milne recommends splurging a little on the good stuff, if you can: organic beans and lentils, and good-quality tinned fish packed in olive oil.

Here, she shares more about her book and how to make delicious meals from the pantry.

Epoch Times Photo
Author Lola Milne. (Courtesy of Lola Milne)

The Epoch Times: What was your inspiration for writing this book?

Lola Milne: Tins are such a wonderfully everyday thing; we all have them stashed in our cupboards and use them often, maybe even daily! They’re a brilliant way to eat fruit and veg that aren’t in season and that haven’t been flown thousands of miles. I hadn’t really seen them focused on, celebrated, or elevated before.

The Epoch Times: Why do you think canned or tinned foods sometimes get a bad rap, and how would you make the case against that?

Ms. Milne: I feel like tins seem old-fashioned to people, reminiscent of rationing, days gone by, not something you would actively choose to use. But really, the things that made them great then still make them great now: they are packed full of nutrients, they last for ages, they are pretty cheap when compared to their fresh counterparts, and actually they are also delicious.

I feel like they also mentally fall into the “processed” food category, which is so unfair, as most are just what they say on the tin.

The Epoch Times: What are some of your favorite tricks for making familiar canned foods feel fresh and exciting?

Ms. Milne: I am a tinned pulse devotee; I eat them all the time. An absolutely great dressing like my anchovy one works wonders on most; a bit of slow cooking is another great treatment. Whizz them into a dip or pop them into a pie. The opportunities are endless.

There are a few recipes in which I have used tinned plum tomatoes as if they were fresh, drained and chopped. You can use them at all times of year—much tastier than under-ripe, out-of-season, fresh tomatoes, and you can always have them in your cupboard ready to go.

The Epoch Times: Are there any underrated canned foods you think home cooks should be using more?

Ms. Milne: The tinned food that really blew my mind was actually smoked mackerel. I wasn’t really into oily fish, I am ashamed to say, but wow, it’s so yummy. Tinned fish in general is so, so good: tuna, anchovies, sardines—and crab is another great one, much cheaper than fresh, but still delicious.

Herby Tuna and Navy Bean Salad
Herby tuna and navy bean salad. (Lizzie Mayson)

The Epoch Times: Can you give us a snapshot of your pantry right now? What are your staples?

Ms. Milne: I always have a range of tinned pulses, some plum tomatoes, anchovies, tuna. A well-stocked spice shelf is a massive help when cooking on the hoof; I love Aleppo chili, fennel seeds, caraway, mustard seeds, a good curry powder. Pasta is my favorite carb, so I always have lots of that knocking about; it’s such an easy go-to thing to use as a meal base. I’m never without garlic, onions, and my large jar of sauerkraut.

The Epoch Times: Are there any recipes from the book you’d like to highlight?

Ms. Milne: A real favorite is the lentil, cheese, and onion puff pie—it’s an elevation of the cheese and onion pasty that I used to scoff on summer holidays in Devon. It is a great balance of savory, sweet, tart, and spicy, perfect for feeding a crowd or cooking as an alternative to a roast. Every time I make it, it goes down a treat.

lentil, cheese, and onion puff pie
Lentil, cheese, and onion puff pie. (Lizzie Mayson)

A dish that I cook often is anchovy pasta with sticky onions; there are so few ingredients and you will most likely have all of them already. It’s a great one for making when you get in from work.

Interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Get the recipes:

RECIPE: Tomato, Lentil, and Eggplant Ragù
RECIPE: Flageolet Bean and Artichoke Gratin
RECIPE: Herby Tuna and Navy Bean Salad
RECIPE: Lentil, Cheese, and Onion Puff Pie