Monday, March 21, 2011

How To Eat Groceries - Doing the Can Can

We're working our way through the groceries we learned to purchase earlier this year.  Now let's talk about the wonderful world of canned foods and how very versatile these are for our menus, okay? 

While I do love fresh produce there's a whole world of inexpensive, nutritious goods out there that go on sale routinely: canned goods.  The bonuses to purchasing canned foods?   Long shelf life, which means you can look to deepening the pantry with these items.   Nutrition, because the same vitamins and minerals are there and as much as I hate to admit it, unless you're gardening, you're likely going to get MORE from the canned items than from fresh.   Convenience, mostly open, heat and eat and some items are ready for consumption right away.   Variety, for nearly every thing imaginable may be bought canned.  And lastly, ease of storage.  Canned goods don't require a vast freezer or produce bin.  You can store them where ever you have space to spare, whether it's a pantry or a closet or garage.  You'll never have to worry about pests getting into those cans and jars, either!  Which is a sort of bonus of bonuses in my opinion.

So let's look at canned foods.

Based upon my walk through at my favorite grocery we'll start with coffee.  Vacuum pack bags are nice, it's true.  But many manufacturers also offer up canned coffees.  Maxwell House is in a sort of foil lined cardboard can that is pretty well impervious to moisture but some store brand cans of ground coffee are actually tin.  This coffee has a longer shelf life than freshly ground beans, often up to 11 months or more.  If you're interested in deepening your pantry then look here for the coffee to store.  As well, note that very often this is the least expensive option.  Typically Maxwell House brand coffee in the can goes on sale for $2.50 for 13 ounces (that used to be a pound but hey, we all know about the incredible shrinking items, don't we?) Okay just went to check my pantry and that would an 11 ounce can for Maxwell House...Some store brands are sold for just over $3 and the cans hold 12 ounces. 

We love coffee in our house but sometimes we have leftovers.  Let me encourage you to save that coffee!  You can make iced coffee at home and it is even more delicious if you freeze leftover coffee in ice cube trays.  This prevents watering down of your iced coffee as the cubes melt.  Leftover coffee may also be added to chili or a pot roast for deep brown rich color, or used in a chocolate or white cake mix in place of the water called for.  My favorite cookbook, The Culinary Arts Institute Encyclopedic Cookbook, suggests using leftover coffee to make coffee muffins (1 1/4 cups in place of milk) or to make Coffee Cream Pie or custard, subbing half the milk called for with cold brewed coffee.     Let me also encourage you to experiment however, until you can make just the right amount of coffee for your household.  It took some learning on  my part but I now know pretty much I need to make to satisfy Chance and I at any given time of day with nearly nothing left.

Canned syrup.  This may be a little difficult to find in some markets but indeed you can buy canned tins of molasses or cane syrup.  Growing up, we only ever had the canned cane syrup in the house because we used so much syrup that Mama and Granny and Grandmama just filled syrup pitchers to put on the table and when they were empty they refilled them.  You may also find Maple Syrup that is in cans as well.  I recall seeing one brand that is shaped as a little log cabin.  There's absolutely nothing wrong with bottled mind you, but I'm discussing cans today, remember? lol

Canned steel cut oats.  Not to be confused with rolled oats.  These oats are meant to be soaked overnight and cooked long and slow.  I'm told they are quite delicious and taste nothing akin to the rolled oats I grew up with.  Check expiration date and buy them if you are sure you'll use them.  I'm going to stick to my old fashioned packed in cardboard canister rolled oats.

Canned milk.  There are many varieties of milk available canned both cow and goat, sweet and unsweetened, whole or low fat.  The label generally reads as evaporated or condensed.  I've not tried goat's milk but I do know children who were raised upon it due to allergies.    I keep a few cans of evaporated cow's milk in my pantry at all times.  Once upon a time, powdered milk was an inexpensive alternative to dairy purchased milks.  Price wise these days, unless you're getting powdered for free, canned evaporated milk is a nice alternative. 

In Depression and WWII women's magazines, menus often were written out for the bare bones, thrifty and economical budgets.  Evaporated canned milk, diluted with water in a 1:1 ratio was often substituted for fresh milk to fit the nutritional needs of the lowest budgets. 

I often will substitute canned milk for half and half in my coffee (used full strength or mixed 1:1 with 2% milk for a sort of homemade half and half).  Mixed 1:1 with water it may be used over hot or cold cereals or as a substitute for milk in cooking.  A can of thoroughly chilled evaporated milk may be beaten to soft peaks just like whipped cream and is a very tasty substitute for the  more expensive cream.  And I find it versatile for making creamed soups at home from scratch, especially potato soup.  It may be used straight from the can as cream for coffee or hot cooked cereals.  Growing up we often ate a little canned milk over any cobbler or pie that came to the table (Granny would ask, "Would you like that with cream?") and yes, even over a bowl of jello or over fresh sliced peaches or berries.  So you see, to me this truly is a kitchen staple. 

I stock up on canned milk during holiday baking sales, when it is most likely to be offered at $.50 a 12 ounce can.  I often get it for free or very nearly with doubled coupons in my local stores.  I literally can't beat the price of canned evaporated milk.  It does not have as long a shelf life as some canned goods so take note of the expiration date before stocking up too heavily and be sure to rotate when you are stocking up.  And plan to use it.  Canned evaporated milk does not sour but it does get darker, due to the natural starches in the milk.  I've used evaporated milk without any problems three or four months beyond expiration but I don't recommend you do that for liability reasons.

Sweetened condensed milk is also available in whole and low fat varieties.  Sweetened condensed milk is a nice staple to have on hand in moderation.  It's very good in coffee, chai or Thai teas.  It is most often used a base to make pudding, custard, pie, homemade ice cream, or confections with and if you're a baker you'd certainly be likely to have a can or two on hand, but it is not something I personally stock up heavily upon.

During holidays you may also find canned egg nog is to be had.  Bought on sale at end of season sales, this is a wonderful pantry item to use to make bread puddings, pancakes, muffins, doughnuts, cakes and pudding or custard.  A friend of mine seeks out the sales and stocks up with dozens of cans because her son absolutely loves it but abhors milk.  She feels she is giving him the calcium he needs with a small cup of this after school each day.  And she has her doctor's best wishes as her son was a little underweight until she stumbled upon this idea. 

And as we turn the aisle, we come to the fruits and juices.  I keep a good dozen or more cans of canned peaches on hand because my husband loves them so much and just as many cans of pineapple  (in chunks, rings and crushed) because I love that fruit so.  I prefer the fruit packed in pear juice.  Typically canned fruits go on sale (store brand) about three or four times each year and run around $.69 a can.  I usually buy pears, peaches, pineapple and a few of fruit cocktail.  You may also buy apples, plums, cherries and other berries canned in their own juices, but seldom are these priced reasonably.  However, if freezer space is limited and you are a baker of pies, you might well see the sense of keeping on hand several varieties of these items.

I like to use canned fruit as base for upside down cakes, fruit pies and cobblers.  However, I also use pineapple, pears, and peaches to make side salads for our meals.  These salads are simple to prepare, beautiful to behold and very tasty.  Typically, I'll place fruit half or ring on a plate lined with leaf lettuce, top the center cavity with cottage cheese and a cherry or nut half, or with a mixture of cream cheese and toasted nuts mixed with just enough mayonnaise to moisten, or just a dollop of mayonnaise and a spoonful of finely grated cheddar cheese.  You really wouldn't believe how delicious this is if you've never tried it!  I read a hint several years ago that to make a really good fruit salad or 'hash' to always use some canned and some fresh varieties of fruit together.  One of my children's favorites was a fruit salad made with canned fruit cocktail, a fresh apple and/or orange and banana, mixed with mini marshmallows and whipped cream or sour cream.  Even those of my children voted 'least likely to touch anything other than meat and potatoes' would eat up this fruit 'hash'!  And of course, you may eat the fruit straight from the can, chilled or not and if you've bought the juice packed variety of fruit, drink up the juice as well.  It's all vitamins and minerals!

Canned juices are not as popular as they were once upon a time.  I am not very fond of orange juice from a can but I do like canned pineapple juice and it has every bit as much vitamin C as orange juice, as well as being a great natural item to partake of when you have a nasty chest cold or sinus infection.  Pineapple is part of the bromeliad family which promotes respiratory health.  Isn't that a good fact to know?  Pineapple juice is good on it's own but may be used as basis for many fruit punch recipes and if you've no party to prepare for then by all means try these two refreshing summer coolers:  to one half glass of pineapple juice over ice, fill the remaining portion of the glass with chilled lemon/lime soda or ginger ale.  And if you're not a teetotaler you might try adding an ounce of vodka to the glass.     I find pineapple juice on it's own is a great pick me up on a hot summer's day when I've been working hard.  The natural sugars in the juice combined with the icy cold glass just are so restorative to energy.

You'll also find tomato and vegetable juices in this section.  I like canned tomato juice or vegetable juice occasionally.  Both as a drink (as a substitute for fruit juice at breakfast or as a refresher in the afternoon) as well as for cooking.  Canned tomato or vegetable juice may be used in meatloaf, soup, or stew and add a great deal of flavor to these dishes.

Next aisle and we find ourselves facing the canned vegetables.  I won't go into every variety of canned vegetable you can buy, for they are too too numerous to count.  Tomatoes alone are canned in sauce, paste, crushed, whole, diced, seasoned and unseasoned, spaghetti sauces, marinara sauce, etc.  I keep a variety of tomato products on my pantry shelf including cans of spaghetti sauce.  I prefer the canned over the jars in this instance for the extended life and the flavor.  I use canned spaghetti sauce as a substitute for pizza sauce very often. I freezer leftovers in a zippered freezer bag and lay flat to freeze solid then stack in my freezer.  Mark it for goodness sake, or do as I do and forget what it is, lol.   Do not hesitate to buy the larger cans of tomato paste, by the way.    They are often the better priced item for the amount you get.  I flash freeze dollops on a cookie sheet then bag or put into plastic containers and freeze.  I then need remove only one or two as I measure the dollops by the tablespoonful when I'm preparing to freeze the paste.  It takes only moments to thaw a dollop in a pot of bubbling sauce.

Canned vegetables have the bonus of being ready cooked, so it's essentially open, heat and eat. I love that when green beans, corn and such are not in season, I can have a taste very similar to fresh for pennies on the dollar of fresh out of season produce.  I usually stock up on several different canned vegetable varieties when the grocery has store brand  on sale for as little as $.40 a can.  Potatoes, carrots, peas, green beans, a variety of dried beans, beets, corn...I buy a dozen or more cans of each at a time.  One of our favorite soups is 'Can of' soup where I toss a single can each of several vegetables into the soup pot, add beef broth or bits of roast beef saved for just this purpose and simmer for a few hours.  It makes an awesome pot of vegetable soup for a cold and chilly day.

In my grocery, this same aisle also contains canned meats: tuna, salmon, other varieties of shell fish, sardines, and then the Spam (specially processed American meat) type products, potted meat, sausages, chicken, bacon, etc.  Depending upon where you shop and how prevalent campers are in your area will depend on whether you find a wide selection or just a few.  However, these meats are a bonus to the deepening of the pantry, handy to have on hand for all emergencies. I personally purchase the turkey Spam and find it quite tasty but I've always been fond of Spam since my youth, so there you go.  It's not for everyone.  Note that the sardines are high in omega fatty 3 acids which are good for promoting heart health. I'm not so keen on sardines. 

In the refrigerated section you'll find canned hams.  I realize we haven't yet left the canned vegetable/meat aisle but I feel these should be included here while discussing canned meats.  These are boned, fat removed and pressure canned hams that are very good value for the money.  Averaging about $4 a pound they are still a homemaker's bonus.  Most are best kept in the refrigerator if you've room to spare, but they have a long long shelf life (often two years or more) and as I said well worth it.  Once opened it may be served cold and sliced or heated and glazed.  I used to keep one of these on hand at all times for it was a homemaker's friend when unexpected guests stopped in.  I find the shelf variety (not refrigerated) hams are entirely too salty for my tastes.  Of course, these days, since we eat no pork, I don't keep these on hand but I do recall what a bonus they were!  Most canned meats may be used in any recipe at all that calls for cooked meat.  So feel free to use canned chicken in place of chunks of cooked chicken in your pot pie recipe or canned seasfood in your seafood casserole recipe.

Around the next corner we have canned potato sticks, onion rings and nuts.  The nuts are the only item you're likely to find in my home simply because they make a great snack and are easily made portable in snack sized portions.  Most nuts contain some protein and some fat and are considered good for those on a low glycemic diet. I find an ounce or so of nuts will keep my blood sugar from dropping when we're on the road and while I am not a diabetic I do occasionally have blood sugar drops.  It is far wiser to keep an ounce of nuts on hand than to end up a whining complaining 2, uhrmmm, 52 year old in the car!

There are without doubt a great many canned goods I left off this basics list.  I chose to dwell on those items I normally stock up on myself rather than the full realm of goods.  However, for a basic pantry these items would all be considered to deserve a place on the shelf if for no reason other than value and convenience. That many have a long shelf life and because they are impervious to most pests are wonderful for deepening a pantry for long term storage.   I purposely did not focus on jars in this section merely because of the price point difference, as well as the possibility that changing temperatures sometimes causes a jar to lose it's seal, which means spoiled goods... but a great many of the items mentioned may be found in glass or plastic jars.  Glass jars have the added value of netting a reuseable container so do take that into consideration as well if you are not merely focused on the lowest net price for an item.

I confess, I originally thought this would be a short series, but I've a half dozen or so topics to focus upon yet, so I hope you are enjoying this series!


lislyn66 said...

I loved this post! We use a lot of canned goods because I either get a great deal at the store or I get them from the food pantry. I have a jar related question for you the last rental house I cleaned they had 2 good sized, huge, glass pickle jars, do you get the pickle smell out of the lids?

Michele said...

I have learned so much from this series. Thank you for taking the time.