Tinned foods often sit forgotten in the cupboard. But if your usual storecupboard supplies won't stretch to a meal, the tin can. Try our 10 tips for tins - and this sardine pasta recipe - and don't forget to share your ideas in the comments below.
Several of our early Leon restaurants were designed by a French woman called Bambi Sloane. Bambi is clever, funny and glamorous and obviously has the best name ever. She also has a dream. She wants to open a restaurant that only serves food from tins.
Bambi used to run a bar in Notting Hill and came to the conclusion (shame on her) that chefs are overemotional and unreliable. How much easier simply to employ tin-openers?
This idea is not as crazy as it seems. My elder sister often gives me eccentric tinned-food goods as Christmas presents. The range is so broad it could easily be used to create an exotic menu. My own recent tinned finds include: squid in its own ink, smoked oysters, kimchi (chilli-spiced fermented Korean cabbage), courgette flowers, pork brains in gravy, Chinese red bean curd, and Mexican corn smut (a foul-looking edible fungus that grows on the sweetcorn husk).
But it is the more prosaic items that are most precious to the domestic cook. The king of tinned goods, of course, is the tomato. Purists will tell you, rightly, that you should buy tinned whole tomatoes and drain off the juice they are sitting in. The juice is of a lower quality and has a noticeably metallic flavour. Chopped tinned tomatoes are also meant to be a no-no. But life is short, so both these rules are consistently ignored in my house.
After tomatoes, pulses are the most used item in our tin cupboard: chickpeas, butter beans, kidney beans, cannellini and flageolet. I use them to bulk out stews, pasta sauces and salads. They're also brilliant for those desperate moments when there's nothing in the fridge and the shops are shut. You can rustle up a decent stew out of nothing but onions, garlic, tinned tomatoes, a sprinkling of herbs and a tin or two of beans or chickpeas.
Here are some other tin-based dishes, all of them sumptuous enough to do Bambi proud. Please let us know your own ideas in the comments below.
Top 10 things to do with tinned food
Make a Spanish chicken casserole. Our most common tin-based staple, and a hit with the children. Fry some chorizo, garlic, onions, chicken thighs and carrots for sweetness. Add tinned tomatoes, tinned paprika and tinned chickpeas, then simmer for an hour and a half.
Create adressing of crushed garlic, tinned anchovies, tinned green peppercorns, red wine vinegar, dijon mustard and sunflower oil. Best on salads of bitter leaves (radicchio, rocket, puntarelle).
Bake a butter bean or flageolet gratin. Sweat onion, garlic and thyme, mix with the beans and put in an oven dish. Blitz garlic, olive oil and breadcrumbs in a blender. Scatter on top and bake in a high oven or grill.
Whizz up some hummus. Blitz chickpeas with garlic, olive oil, tahini and lemon juice. You can make it as smooth, rough, garlicky, or rich (more tahini) as you like. Butter beans also make a lovely dip, done in the same way.
Make a vitello tonnato. This classic Italian sauce is traditionally served on cold roast veal (you can eat rose veal with a good conscience) but it is also delicious on very finely sliced, cold, rare roast beef. Blitz mayonnaise, tinned tuna, some tinned anchovies and capers in a blender - add some of the roasting juices if you still have them. Season with lemon juice and pepper (you won't need salt).
Make toffee. Simmer a tin of condensed milk (with the lid still unopened) in a pan two-thirds full of water for 2-3 hours and turn into toffee sauce. An experiment beginner cooks should try once. Don't let the pan dry out, or the can will explode and you will have toffee sauce and tin shrapnel stuck to your ceiling.
Fry garlic and chilli (and basil if you have some) then chuck in loads of blanched greens/veg,such as broccoli, french beans, peas or spinach. Heat through and finish with bottled chilli garlic sauce, a few chopped tomatoes and a drained tin of tuna.
Try cold baked beans. Add Worcestershire Sauce and eat from the tin with a spoon...
Followed by cold creamed rice straight from the tin. Perfect when camping.
My friend, the chef Mitch Tonks, blitzes a tin of sardines with chopped onion, capers, gherkins, malt vinegar and butter, chills it and spreads it on hot toast. The contrast of temperatures and the deep savoury flavour is sensational.
Sicilian sardine pasta
This is traditionally made with fresh sardines, but the version made with tinned sardines is a lovely surprise and very close to the original.
2 tbsp sultanas
1 red onion, finely chopped
A pinch of saffron (optional)
1 tsp dried red chilli flakes
1 tsp ground fennel seeds
2 tbsp olive oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed
6 anchovy fillets
2 x 120g tins of sardines in olive oil
3 tbsp water
400g linguine or spaghetti
2 tbsp pinenuts (or flaked almonds), toasted
2 tbsp chopped parsley
Olive oil, for drizzling
Salt and black pepper
1 In a small bowl, cover the sultanas with boiling water and set aside.
2 In a large shallow pan, cook the red onion, saffron, chilli and fennel seeds in the olive oil over a medium heat for 10 minutes without colouring the onion. Add the garlic, then cook gently for another 5 minutes. Tip in the anchovy fillets and then remove the pan from the heat. Stir well until the anchovies have "melted" into the onion mixture.
3 Drain the tinned sardines and cut each of them into thirds. Add the sardines to the pan with the 3 tbsp water. Put back on the heat for a few minutes, stirring to combine, until heated through.
4 Cook the pasta, as per the instructions on the packet, in lots of boiling salted water. Drain and return to the pan along with the warm sardine sauce. Drain the sultanas and add them to the pasta along with the nuts and parsley. Mix well and season.
5 To serve, drizzle with good olive oil.
Recipe by Jane Baxter
What else you can doTinned sardines flavoured with fennel seeds, chilli and garlic can be used to top bruschetta along with sliced flavoursome tomatoes and good quality olive oil.
For showing offTop the pasta with pangrattato, or Italian breadcrumbs. Pour olive oil into small pan until 3-4 cm deep. Add a few cloves of garlic and heat gently. Remove the garlic from the oil with a slotted spoon when it starts to colour. Drop a handful of breadcrumbs into the oil. Fry until golden brown. Remove and drain on kitchen paper. When serving the pasta, finish with the crisp, flavoured crumbs.
Henry Dimbleby is co-founder of the natural fast-food restaurant chain Leon (leonrestaurants.co.uk). Get your kids cooking at cook5.co.uk
Photo: The tin can be more creative than you think. Photography: Tamin Jones for the Guardian