Want to shop less and save money? Lauren Taylor chats to food writer Lola Milne about the joys of food from a can.
It’s pretty much a given that at the back of most people’s kitchen cupboards, are several cans we’ve had for years and totally forgotten about. Perhaps a tin of tuna or some kidney beans you once had such good intentions for…they’re probably sitting next to all those spices you moved from your last house.
However, as we all seek to be a little more sustainable and less wasteful, canned food may be about to have its moment in the kitchen spotlight once more.
“I feel like tinned food sits in people’s minds in a time gone by when you were struggling, or rationing, when people turned to tins when you don’t have anything else,” says Lola Milne, author of new cookbook, Take One Tin. “It must be a UK wartime attitude.”
She says there’s a snobbery and “silly” perception around food that comes in a tin. In much of continental Europe, there’s a different attitude. “Especially with tinned fish; I was in Seville and all the tapas bars have huge sections of the menu that’s all to do with preserved fish. In Spain and Portugal, they’re a premium product and they go all the way down to being a budget product – there’s not really a judgement there,” she says.
Wherever our perceived scepticism comes from, it’s due for a shift, not least because our obsession with buying lots of fresh food – and then not eating it all before it starts to go limp and mouldy – is contributing to a huge food waste problem. The Food and Agriculture Organisation for the United Nations estimates that one-third of food made for human consumption is wasted, and fruit and vegetables have the highest wastage rates.
Milne thinks we’d waste less if we incorporated more tinned food in our diets. “I throw away very little food. I always have beans and fish already [in cans] and loads of different oils and spices, so I buy a few fresh things every week, but not that much on a regular basis.
“People will just go crazy and buy loads of fresh stuff and then they don’t know what they’re going to do with it. If you do that with tins, it’s fine, because they’ll be there in 10 years.”
The problem is, at the moment, most “people don’t necessarily use tins in overly creative ways”.
The 27-year-old’s debut cookbook is a collection of everyday and more inventive recipes – all using at least one key tinned ingredient. Think crab thoran, flageolet bean and artichoke gratin, and sweetcorn and cheese muffin loaf. It’s a colourful, refreshing take on ingredients we often think of as “boring basics you bung into a bolognese”, as Milne says, with a focus on beans and pulses, fish, fruit and vegetables.
There’s no meat, because she doesn’t think canned meat is as tasty as its fresh counterpart and tends to be “really highly processed and fatty”; in addition, “we should all eat less meat”, she says.
Milne wants us to know that cooking with tins isn’t just quick, easy and often more environmentally-friendly, it’s also packed with flavour. “Mackerel in a tin is really delicious, I actually think the texture of smoked mackerel in a tin is nicer – it’s softer, it’s oily, it’s tasty,” she says. “I would buy it because it tastes good, so why buy fresh stuff in plastic wrapping?”
Why indeed – when you can make her Sri Lankan mackerel curry, smoked mackerel kedgeree, and mackerel tacos with the tinned stuff?
Tinned crab is another ingredient we’re all missing out on, it seems. “It’s really tasty and way cheaper, and you can just have it in your house. You don’t have to go to a fish-monger and buy fresh crab and think, ‘I’ve got to use that this weekend’.
“Buy lump crab, not shredded,” she advises. “Shredded is the cheapest one but it’s got no texture. With lump crab, you get actual pieces of white meat.”
When it comes to pulses (Milne describes herself as a “true worshipper of the pulse”), the key is to pay a bit more if you can. “If you buy the cheapest tinned pulses, they are less tasty, the chickpeas are harder, the liquid is thinner and less starchy and has less flavour. If you can afford to buy organic pulses in tins, I would – the other ones aren’t bad, just less flavoursome.”
Tinned fruit meanwhile, has a definite 1970s image; remember fruit cocktail from a can, served with evaporated milk? But Milne’s pear and prune cobbler or pineapple, lime and coconut cake recipes might change your mind on that.
And for a seriously underrated tinned fruit, think figs.
“Often when you buy fresh figs here, they taste of nothing,” she says. “Tinned ones actually taste really figgy, sticky and firm all year round.” The same goes for tasteless tomatoes out of season; with tins, they’ll have been packed in season so they’ll always taste good no matter what time of year you open the can.
Cheap, long-lasting and time-saving (because more tins equals less shopping, and who wants to regularly traipse around supermarkets?), the humble tin deserves its place in your store cupboard – and it may be time to add a few more.
Take One Tin by Lola Milne, photography by Lizzie Mayson, is published by Kyle Books, priced £14.99. Available now.