Doing the Can-Can
As a chef I typically abhor employing processed, boxed, frozen, or canned food. I normally strive to utilize ingredients that are as fresh as possible. It is a foregone conclusion that fresh food will virtually always taste better than its processed counterparts. Thus, professional chefs and ardent foodies make multiple trips to the grocery store each week to ensure their items are as fresh as possible. People who dislike cooking, or those whose demanding schedules prohibit them from expending protracted time on food shopping and preparation, endeavor to curtail their supermarket excursions. These are the folks most likely to depend on canned foods.
However, we all fall back on canned goods from time to time. I may be a chef, but I’m also human. There are plenty of instances where I don’t feel like whipping up an entire meal from scratch, am pressed for time, or just want a quick late night snack. These are the times when canned foods are indispensable. Let’s face it, canned foods are quick, easy, relatively inexpensive, and storable for long periods of time. But, and this is a big but, with only a few exceptions, the quality of canned foods is deplorable. Convenience always comes at a cost.
Of course the extent to which canned foods repulse you is contingent on your palate. For example, I find canned soup to be one of the vilest concoctions ever encased in metal. Yet there are those out there who relish it and even incorporate it into their dishes, such as the bilious cream of mushroom soup which is repugnantly mixed into casseroles. But I’m assuming if you’re reading this column, you are of a more discriminating culinary caliber and are not a canned food junkie. Nevertheless, as stated, we all rely on canned goods periodically. The issue is knowing which canned foods are serviceable, how to prudently employ them, and which ones render hunger a viable alternative.
It is generally agreed amongst chefs that canned tomatoes and beans, (not string beans), are pretty close to their fresh alternatives. This is to say that there is not a significant difference between canned and fresh tomatoes or beans as compared to the difference between canned and fresh peas or canned and fresh carrots. Canned beans are close enough to the quality of fresh that I seldom take the time to soak fresh beans overnight. I use canned beans for virtually all of my bean recipes. Canned anchovies, canned hot peppers (e.g., chipotle peppers), and some canned fruit are pretty decent as well.
As for tomatoes, some chefs even prefer the canned, especially depending on the season and the availability of premium, fresh tomatoes. Canned tomatoes are typically processed at the peak of their ripeness. I am referring however to their use in making tomato sauce or incorporating them into casseroles such as chili or braised dishes such as pot roast. I wouldn’t dream of using canned tomatoes for salads, salsas, bruschetta and the like.
Very generally speaking, a canned item is passable when it plays a minor role in a dish, or is one of many being incorporated, as opposed to when it’s the main ingredient and/or is being served unadulterated. Let’s take corn for example. If you were making a stew with multiple ingredients and threw a little canned corn in, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. But if you’re making a corn soup, or a fresh corn and tomato salad, I would forgo the recipe if fresh corn on the cob wasn’t available. (Frozen is a possible alternative for the soup but not for the salad).
Some canned items are horrible no matter how they are to be used. The aforementioned canned soup, peas and carrots are some of the ickiest but canned asparagus, spinach, string beans, and broccoli are all pretty nasty as well.
Then there are the canned goods which lie in the intermediate realm between the taste of fresh ingredients and dog food. These are often items that we’re willing to give up some taste for in exchange for the convenience they provide. Good examples are canned sauerkraut, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin. Unless I was working in a restaurant, I probably wouldn’t go through the trouble of scraping and cooking the flesh of whole pumpkins to make a pie at home. Other intermediate quality canned items are relied on when the fresh is not available, such as canned crab meat. I would always opt for fresh crabmeat but the canned is shall we say, tolerable.
That brings us to canned broths. I have a love-hate relationship with canned broths. They clearly aren’t as good as homemade stock but they’re just so damn convenient. Below is my recipe for beef short rib soup where I employ both canned chicken and beef broth. However, as you will note, we will cook them with other ingredients to boost their flavors and produce a delicious and hearty final product.
BEEF SHORT RIB SOUP
2 lbs. beef bones
2 (14.5-oz.) cans chicken broth
2 (14.5-oz.) cans beef broth
1 (15-oz.) can Hunts® Tomato sauce
1 pint water
3 lbs. beef short ribs
1 small batch of rosemary
1 small batch of thyme
6 garlic cloves
a light sprinkle of fennel seeds
Salt, to taste
1 large stalk celery, small dice
2 small carrots, small dice
1 medium onion, diced
4 oz. pasta (such as elbows or small shells)
Fresh parsley, to taste
Place the bones in a stockpot and add all of the fluids. Bring to a boil and then immediately reduce to a very gentle simmer whereby the bubbles are lazily breaking the surface. Simmer, uncovered, for about 3 hours, periodically skimming off any fat and scum accumulating on the surface. After 3 hours, trim the fat from the short ribs and add them to the pot along with the rosemary, thyme, garlic cloves, peppercorns, fennel seeds, and salt. Bring to a boil and then immediately return to the previous simmer. Simmer for 2 ½ hours, uncovered. Strain the soup into another pot or large bowl. Wipe out the initial stockpot. Set the short ribs aside but discard all of the other solids. In batches, pour the soup into a fat separator. Allow the fat to rise to the surface and then pour the broth back into the first stockpot leaving the fat behind. If you don’t have a fat separator you can spoon the fat off the top after straining the soup. When all the broth has been returned to the first stockpot add the short ribs and vegetables. Simmer the vegetables for a half hour or until soft. Meanwhile cook the pasta separately. To finish the soup, add the pasta and fresh parsley and additional salt or pepper if needed.