Living in California means being surrounded by the best produce in the United States. Fruits and vegetables burst forth from every grocery store--even bodegas, long-scorned by New Yorkers on a rant about food deserts, have plenty of produce.
Nevertheless, occasionally, good things come from cans, even in this paradisiacal cornucopia we live in. Here are five canned goods that ought to be exempt from the hate heaped on their kind.
Call them chickpeas, call them garbanzo beans, call them pois chiches if you want, but they're indispensable. Sure, the right way to do it is to take the dried ones and soak them and make your own, but when you find out that three of the five people coming to dinner are vegetarian and you need to find protein quickly, this is a lifesaver--rinsed, tossed in olive oil and baked until crunchy at 400ºF, they're a great alternative to corn nuts.
One note, though: Any hummus made from canned chickpeas will be looser and goopier than hummus made from soaked, dried chickpeas--and don't forget to rinse off that disgusting starch gel before using them!
2. El Pato Sauce
Specifically, the kind in the yellow can, a mild tomato-chile sauce. It goes into taco filling with beef and potatoes. It goes into picadillo with dried fruit, peas and corn, and it's used as a stuffing for chiles rellenos. It gets painted on whitefish fillets destined to be wrapped like tamales and cooked on the grill (try it!), and when desperate for an immediate meal, it makes a quick stand-in for enchiladas (would those be enchilatomatadas?). In fact, the red can of El Pato is actually designated enchilada sauce.
El Pato Sauce, the miracle worker of the kitchen. It's an all-around great way to add a little bit of chile heat when there's no time or desire to lug out the blender and make a real chile sauce.
The Italian kind that comes in the pouch is much better, but it is so shockingly expensive that its use is reserved for items that really need it, such as vitello tonnato or salade Niçoise. The quick-and-dirty lunch comes from the same ol' canned tuna (is it chicken, or is it fish, Jessica Simpson?) that has been a mainstay of pantries for half a century.
Fact: Tomato sauce made with out-of-season tomatoes tastes bad. For those nine months a year when great tomatoes are not available, canned tomatoes are the backbone of any cooking that calls for the "love apple" in any of its forms. Tossed into a stew; combined with tomato paste, wine, garlic, olive oil and basil for a quick marinara sauce; or lobbed into a pot of simmering white beans for a little acidity, they're perfect.
While the cans of Italian San Marzano tomatoes are more expensive, when the main ingredient is tomatoes (marinara sauce, etc.), it's worth the added expense.
5. Coconut Milk
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There's nothing like the taste of freshly brewed (yes, brewed--it usually calls for hot water) coconut milk when making a Thai curry or a simple braising liquid for bok choy, and it doesn't take it very long. When dinner needs to be quick, though, the cans are very nearly as good. Treat them gingerly; the cream will rise to the top just like with homemade coconut milk and can be poured off to start the braise of curry paste or chopped aromatics. One caveat: The brands sold in mainstream markets are usually not nearly as good as what's in any Asian market and will typically cost three to four times as much.
Also, while the calorie count of coconut milk is pretty shockingly high, the "light" coconut milk that consists of the leftovers from the coconut-cream skimming process will not behave the same--it's too liquidy, will boil off too easily, and won't temper the flavors of strong seasonings such as fish sauce or shrimp paste.