I went to the farmer’s market this past weekend. It was depressing. The meats and eggs and prepared foods were all very nice, but the produce — the produce is dead: apples picked months ago, stored in giant industrial fridges; wrinkled, overripe pears; and a few sad, scattered bins of potatoes. It’s still possible to eat seasonally, if you opt for stuff that’s in season in warmer parts of the world, but we’re mostly stuck eating subpar produce from the grocery store. This time of year, we have to look elsewhere for produce.
Instead of eating awful hot-house tomatoes, yellowed cucumbers, and flavorless blueberries, winter can be a time to experiment with preserves: shelf-stable foods sitting in jars or cans, which, admittedly, have a lousy reputation thanks to a couple of decades of American cuisine that relied too heavily, and not smartly, on them, giving us the wonders of bland potatoes, grey-green beans, and mushy peas. But canning can be a way to bottle in flavor at its peak to keep for the entire year, and when canned foods are used properly, they can be much more flavorful than the bland, pale — or suspiciously vibrant — vegetables available in the middle of winter.
Most canned green vegetables simply aren’t worth bothering with; some of them, like peas and spinach, freeze well, so you should buy frozen. Others you’ll have to wait until they’re in season to enjoy them. Below is a list of reliably good canned products; most brands will be anywhere from fine to excellent, as long as you stay away from dented cans. Tomatoes vary the most, but for everything else, I tend to just buy whatever’s cheapest. Goya makes nice stuff. Even the Jolly Green Giant makes some good stuff, as long as you buy the vegetables that work well in cans, rather than the ones you wish worked well, like peas. And in terms of cooking, I tend to rely on long cooking methods, especially soups and stews, for canned goods. You don’t necessarily lose flavor in the can, but you definitely lose visual appeal, so you’ll have to set aside salads and other fresh presentations.
The king of canned plant products is the canned tomato. Tomatoes are the ideal use case for canning: a product with a very minimal harvest time is picked at its peak and preserved, so I use canned tomatoes ten months a year, happily. The only time I opt for fresh tomatoes is during the tiny window in summer when the New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania fruits are at their peak. There are lots of variation in canned tomatoes. They usually come in either whole, chopped/diced, crushed, and pureed/sauce. Go for the whole ones and cut to your liking. My favorite trick for turning whole canned tomatoes into a puree is to jam my immersion blender right down into the can and go nuts. No extra cleanup!
There are also lots of different flavor options; some will have herbs like basil or oregano added, some will have mushrooms or garlic or onion or who knows what. Don’t bother with any of that. You just want plain, whole, peeled plum tomatoes. One exception would be the “fire roasted” varieties, which are usually pretty tasty. As far as branding, some people like to buy the tomatoes that say “San Marzano” on them. The San Marzano tomato is a plum tomato, a little thinner and longer than most, and prized for its meaty texture and high levels of both sweetness and acidity. The Italian government keeps as close a watch on tomatoes being labeled “San Marzano” as they can; a true authentic San Marzano tomato will have a big logo on it that says “DOP,” the EU’s shorthand for a product that is guaranteed to come from a certain place. These tend to be more expensive and are prized by foodies. In reality, a can that says “San Marzano” isn’t guaranteed to be any better than a can containing tomatoes grown in, say, Canada, which a Serious Eats blind taste test found to be the tastiest. I usually by the Cento brand. They’re cheap and good.
Canned corn — not creamed corn, but just straight up corn kernels in water — is almost uniformly fantastic. It’s sweet and crisp and sometimes even better than fresh summer corn. Drain it thoroughly and it’s good in any situation that calls for whole corn. Frozen is perfectly fine too, but I find that frozen corn tends to break down over heat, while canned retains its shape. For corn purees, frozen might be better, but for a corn salad? Go for canned.
Purists will tell you that canned beans will never boast the flavor and texture of dried beans, and, like, they’re sort of right but also dried beans are a real pain to cook, requiring either overnight soaking or at the very least a couple hours of stewing, and canned beans are readily available, still very cheap (though not as cheap as dried), and taste great. Canned beans are especially good for purees like hummus that are going to be heavily flavored. (The only legumes I do not recommend buying canned are lentils, because lentils, being much smaller than most beans, cook so quickly from a dried state that you don’t save all that much time by opting for canned. And I find that canned lentils can be a little mushy.) I usually get Goya brand, because that’s what they have near me. They’re good.
Canned pumpkin, which is actually usually Hubbard squash, is one of the few canned products that’s exactly what it seems like: a puree of vegetable, and nothing else. It’s ideal for pies and soups.
I’m sure you can buy coconut milk in jars or boxes or some other kind of container but I always get it in cans. Coconut milk is basically a puree of the meat of the coconut, unlike coconut water, and is tremendously rich and thick and luxurious and also not very healthy because due to its extremely high fat content. But it’s great for desserts, breakfasts, and curries.
Canned chiles are something else entirely; the goal with canned chiles isn’t to preserve their fresh quality but to add a totally new flavor thanks to, usually, a pickling liquid. Even in the peak of summer when the farmer’s market is full of fresh chiles, you may find recipes that call for chipotles in adobo, or pickled jalapeños, because they are packed with flavor and if you tried to make your own it would take you a long time and the best outcome would be that they taste like the canned versions anyway. I prefer the whole jalapeños to the slices, because pickled jalapeños tend to be tighter and more crisp when kept in their whole form, and because I use them for lots of different preparations. They’re great for building sauces or flavor bases, for stuffing, for frying, so many things. Get the whole peppers.
I sometimes get various Chinese vegetables canned, like water chestnuts (which I love! Did you know that many people don’t like these? How could you not like them? They have a supernaturally crisp texture and they soak up the flavor of the sauce, what’s not to like?), bamboo shoots, and baby corn. None of these are, like, super flavorful, but they’re nice to toss into stir-fries.
Canned olives are usually cheaper and not as good as jarred olives. I use them when I don’t feel like shelling out for a nine-dollar jar of olives. In stews, they work just fine.
Totally Inauthentic Esquites With Pickled Jalapeños
Shopping list: Canned corn, butter, leeks, cilantro (or frozen cilantro pesto), fresh limes, whole pickled jalapeños, cotija or feta cheese
Esquites are a Mexican corn salad, sort of like elotes, but in a bowl. They normally call for mayonnaise. I hate mayonnaise, so here’s a version without it. In a heavy-bottomed pot (an enameled cast iron is perfect for this), melt about a tablespoon of butter. Clean your leeks: chop off the tough green parts, slice in half lengthwise, wash thoroughly, then chop the white part thinly width-wise. Throw leeks into pot. Let them cook for awhile, getting soft and translucent. Drain a can of corn thoroughly and turn the heat up to high before tossing it in. Stir constantly; you want to get some browning on the corn but you don’t want the leeks to burn. When very fragrant and a little browned, turn the heat off. (If you’re using a frozen cube of cilantro pesto, throw it in now. If using fresh cilantro, hold off a sec.) Take one pickled jalapeño, cut off the stem, and dice. Toss, along with a bunch of crumbled feta or cotija cheese, into the corn. Salt to taste. Squeeze lime over the top, and add some chopped fresh cilantro if that’s what you’re using. Optional, but not really: a few dashes of Tapatío.
Ingredients: Can of chickpeas, tahini, lemon, garlic, olive oil
Drain can of chickpeas. Place in food processor. Drizzle tahini over the top; not too much, otherwise your hummus will taste like peanut butter. Roughly chop a clove or two of garlic and add it. Squeeze at least half a lemon’s worth of lemon in there, too. Put the lid on the food processor and blitz, pouring in olive oil into the hole in the food processor lid. The secret: water. Add a little bit of water and your hummus will turn super smooth instantly. Chill before eating.
Really Simple Caribbean-ish Coconut Curry
Shopping list: Can of coconut milk, vegetable or chicken stock, Jamaican curry powder, vegetable oil, eggplant, cauliflower, potato, scotch bonnet chile, onion, ginger, garlic, can of bamboo shoots, can of water chestnuts, can of baby corn, fresh or dried thyme, fresh cilantro
The basic structure of a Jamaican coconut curry is not that different from a Thai coconut curry, so you can kind of blend them together; bamboo shoots aren’t traditionally Jamaican, and scotch bonnet peppers aren’t traditionally Thai, but they work together really nicely. So! In a heavy pot over medium-low heat, pour in a bit of vegetable oil. When it’s hot, add in a chopped onion, a few cloves of minced garlic, a thumb-sized knob’s worth of chopped or microplaned ginger, and the chopped scotch bonnet. WARNING: Scotch bonnet chiles are ridiculously spicy. Be very, very careful with them. Wash your hands, your cutting board, and your knife immediately after cutting, using lots of soap. Do not touch any part of your body with your hands until you wash thoroughly. I have gotten scotch bonnet in my eye before and spent about thirty minutes thinking my eye was going to fall out of its socket and roll down the block towards the river in search of relief.
When the onion is translucent, dump a tablespoon or so of curry powder. Jamaican curry powder has a different blend of spices than Thai or Malaysian or Indian or Japanese curries, leaning toward some sweeter spices like clove and allspice and turmeric. Stir this all around to coat and toast. Chop up your eggplant, potato, and cauliflower into pieces no bigger than an inch cubed, and throw them in too. Stir these all around to get them coated in curry and onion and ginger and stuff; you may need to add more oil because the eggplant is going to suck up a lot of it. Then crack open your can of coconut milk and pour it all in, stirring to get everything that’s stuck on the bottom of the pot up, and pour in about as much stock as coconut. Add in your fresh thyme here. Bring to a light boil then turn down the heat and simmer until the potato and eggplant is tender, about twenty-five minutes. When tender, taste the broth and adjust seasoning; it’ll need salt, maybe sugar, maybe more spices. Right at the end, drain your cans of various Chinese vegetables and add them to the soup; they’re already cooked so you don’t need to do much besides heat them up. Serve over rice with chopped cilantro on top.
Shopping list: Ground turkey, chorizo, can of tomatoes (preferably fire-roasted), can of green olives, sweet pepper (like an anaheim or poblano), golden raisins, slivered almonds, red wine vinegar, brown sugar, yellow onion, garlic, oregano, bay leaves, cumin, cinnamon, allspice, vegetable oil, rice (optional: eggs, avocado)
So this might be the first meat-heavy dish I’ve had in Crop Chef, but, you know, just because you like vegetables doesn’t mean you only eat vegetables. To start: get a dutch oven on the stove over medium-low heat. Pour in some vegetable oil and add chopped onion, garlic, and sweet pepper; cook that down until everything’s soft.
In a separate pan, maybe a nonstick, doesn’t matter, crumble your chorizo into the pan over medium heat. Render out some of the fat and then throw in the ground turkey. Brown everything but don’t cook it all the way through. Turn off the heat when it’s browned, drain off the excess fat, and reserve for a bit.
Back to the vegetables. Add in some of your cumin, cinnamon, and allspice, and stir around to toast the spices. Then dump in your can of tomatoes, which you have either diced or pureed (I recommend puree, again. This is sort of a saucy dish so you don’t want big chunks of tomato.) Sprinkle in the dried oregano, throw in two or three bay leaves, stir it all up, raise the heat until you start to see bubbles and then turn it down to let it simmer. Let it do its thing for about half an hour or forty-five minutes.
In the meantime: Put your raisins in a bowl. Heat up some water (cool tip: use a kettle), doesn’t really matter how much, and when it’s just off the boil, pour it over the raisins. Cover the bowl with a plate or something and let the raisins rehydrate for about fifteen minutes. Also, open your can of green olives. Eat a few.
Go back to the pot of tomato-sauce-looking stuff. Taste it and adjust; it may need a little brown sugar, maybe some red wine vinegar, maybe some more herbs or spices. Play with it. When it’s tasting really good, add everything else: your turkey and chorizo, your rehydrated raisins, your olives. Let everything cook until the meat is cooked through and the stew tastes great. Serve over rice with, if you want, some sliced avocado or even a fried egg.
Most canned fruits and vegetables are offensive facsimiles of the fresh product they purport to be, the vegetables flaccid and flavorless, the fruits syrupy and artificial. But there are plenty that I use heavily in winter and pretty liberally even in summer. Far from the soggy grey of canned green beans, some canned products, like corn, tomatoes, coconut milk, and olives, are bright and fresh and taste the way they’re supposed to: like summer was trapped inside that little tin and brought to save you from the hell of winter.
Crop Chef is a column about the correct ways to prepare and consume plant matter.
Photo by David Nestor