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He was a semifinalist on the BBC’s MasterChef and is renowned for cooking Mediterranean-inspired “elegant village food” teeming with fresh ingredients. But Theo A. Michaels rediscovered the joys of cooking with canned food during the pandemic lockdown when he created one of his newest all-time culinary favorites, Tray-Baked Spaghetti Puttanesca.
“Everything goes into the tray raw, including the spaghetti, and 30 minutes later dinner is done!” says Michaels. Among the dish’s ingredients: canned cherry tomatoes, canned pilchards in tomato sauce, and canned pitted/stoned black olives. “I invented a version of this during the first lockdown in the UK in March 2020,” he says, “when my kids and I hosted 36 live cookalongs and I was coined as the ‘UK’s home economist’ in the national and international press.”
His new book, Canned: Quick and Easy Recipes that Get the Most Out of Tinned Food, serves up this time-saving and budget-friendly recipe along with 64 other simple-but-savory dishes that highlight cooking with canned food—just in time for the kitchen-labor-intensive holidays. In about 30 minutes, readers can pull together everything from curries and stews to skillets and stir-fries, including can-to-pan oven bakes and sweet treats.
In this fresh take on cooking with canned food, nonperishables “are not used as a poor compromise to their fresh counterparts, but as ingredients in their own right, with their own unique flavors and textures,” Michaels says. “It’s the difference between fresh or canned tomatoes (or) fresh or canned sardines—both wonderful but totally different. In the Mediterranean, for instance, hand-salted anchovies preserved in cans and bursting ripe tomatoes and smoked oysters preserved in jars or cans are revered for their unique flavor. Canned showcases how so many of those wonderful nonperishable foods we have lurking in our cupboards and pantries can be used to make delicious meals that don’t compromise on taste or nutrition.”
BN: What are some key benefits of cooking with canned food?
TM: Convenience is a big part. They last forever—well, almost! Canned foods give you the ability to have a host of ingredients in your pantry ready to make a week’s worth of meals. Nutrition is also a big advantage. When we boil vegetables, we end up throwing most of the nutrients down the drain, but with canned vegetables, pulses, and fruits, those nutrients remain intact. (Opt for fruit in its own juice rather than syrup, due to the high sugar content).
I also really like how canned ingredients help you be spontaneous in your cooking. How great to grab a tin of lentils or pulses and throw them into a dish without first having to soak them overnight or cook them for a few hours. I also love that we are capitalizing on a method of preserving food that has been around for centuries and gives us the same benefits as storing food in the height of its season to be enjoyed in the depths of winter—canned cherries for my balsamic cherry tarte tatin, or puréed pumpkin for my pumpkin and almond cake, for example.
BN: Which new canned favorites grew from your work on this book?
TM: I’ve always been a big fan of canned fish, lentils, (and) pulses, but it was some of the tropical fruits and vegetables that I’ve really enjoyed after writing the book. Things like banana blossom or jackfruit, which I’ve been using as vegan alternatives, and bamboo shoots or water chestnuts, which instantly help elevate certain recipes.
BN: Which canned veggies and meats do you keep handy?
TM: Always tomatoes! Peas are handy and especially good in curries and dishes where they are cooked as part of a meal, as opposed to a simple side dish. Also, weirdly enough—and I was tempted not to admit this one!—Spam, or luncheon meat. It’s really good diced small and fried until super crispy as a bacon alternative. Again, great when a sudden craving of carbonara takes hold and you want that crispy saltiness but don’t have any pancetta.
BN: How did you develop your recipe for Broad Bean “Guacamole”?
TM: By total accident! I was planning on making a fava-type dish, puréed freshly blanched broad beans. But as soon as I tasted the purée from canned broad beans, it just hit me as avocado. The resemblance was uncanny. I was surprised but embraced it, and after a few tweaks, it naturally evolved into this guac that worked really well. Again, it’s great to have a couple of cans floating around for an impromptu smashed avocado on sourdough with a poached egg when there are no ripe avocados at the local market.
BN: What canned and fresh ingredients go into your Succotash?
TM: Canned cherry tomatoes are a revelation. I highly recommend trying them … much sweeter and less acidy than regular tinned tomatoes. I also use canned broad beans and sweet corn. Stored cupboard items include olive oil, maple syrup, and cider vinegar. The only fresh ingredients are onion, garlic, and fresh herbs. I love fresh herbs.
BN: Holiday cooking can often be an arduous, all-day event. What are some easy comfort-food recipes that save time and keep cooking fun?
TM: You’ve got to go either long and slow—put it together, put it in the oven, and forget about it—or something fast. Both offer minimal hands-on time. That, or do as I do and invest in a good local wine and take my time cooking!
Some of my favorites from Canned for minimal fuss are Gnocchi, Blue Cheese and Asparagus Bake (so good and literally five minutes hands-on time), Smokey Black Bean Stew with Sweet Potato, and Minted Yogurt, and Lentil and Roasted Frankfurter Stew.
BN: What sweet and spicy Canned recipes make for creative holiday extras?
TM: Blackbean Brownies or Chai-Spiced Canned Rhubarb with Creamy Coconut Rice—you can’t go wrong with either of those! Or for something with a kick, my Paps’ Speedy ’n’ Spicy Curry Skillet. I lived in New Jersey as a kid for about four years and we started calling my dad ‘Paps,’ and it’s stuck ever since! That recipe was inspired by one of his lunches.
BN: Any tips on buying ingredients for cooking with canned food?
TM: Like most ingredients, get the best you can afford—all canned foods are not equal! For some reason, I always find beans and pulses in jars more plump and enjoyable than those in cans.
BN: What’s your favorite Mediterranean-influenced Canned creation?
TM: Griddled Apricot and Grain Salad just sings of a Mediterranean summer. And the beauty of canned peaches is that you are guaranteed they’ll be sweet and delicious, the perfect complement to the sharp dressing and yogurt. And of course, the grains are bought pre-cooked and packed!