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May 24, 2022

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Cans that stack up: These basic canned goods offer versatility, frugality, flavor

By , Columbian staff writer
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Every delicious thing that comes from my kitchen (and every not-so-delicious thing, as well) starts with a trip to the grocery store.

I love shopping for food. To use the language of unabashed positivity, it’s an occasion for joy and gratitude and a bit of an adventure. What will I find? What will I make with what I find?

I didn’t always love grocery shopping. In the first decade of our marriage, when we were living in Southern California, it was just another chore, though circumstances conspired to alter my view.

After our daughter was born, we wanted to raise her away from smog, traffic and noisy city life. We wanted clear skies, mountains and trees, sledding in winter and lazy lakeside summers. We started saving to move to Vancouver, where I’d grown up and had deep ties. After several years, friends in Orchards offered us their rental house, so we jumped at the chance and lined up job interviews.

We arrived with high hopes that were soon brought down to sea level when none of the jobs panned out. My husband started a video production business with just enough clients (we thought) to scrape by. I kept interviewing, but when we realized that child care would eat up most of my salary, I decided to throw in the career towel, at least for a while, and be a stay-at-home mom.

It was nerve-wracking as all get-out, the kind of anxiety that jolts you awake at night, crying “What have I done?” We struggled to make everything last until the next client paid us (which was never on time).

A full-on grocery shopping trip, just waltzing into the store and buying exactly what we needed and even a little extra, became an obsessive daydream.

Actual shopping trips involved $32, minus money for gas.

I never knew when, exactly, I’d have the money to buy food again, so I bought staples like pasta, peanut butter, oats and flour. I baked terrible bread and planted tomatoes. I plucked dandelion greens for salads. I made freezer jam from wild blackberries and rhubarb from our garden. I came to appreciate the scrappy resourcefulness that it takes to live on a wing and a prayer.

Our financial situation eventually improved, but I’ve never stopped shopping like I’ve got to stretch a dollar from here to Kalamazoo.

I thought it might be timely, in this era of inflation and bare shelves at the grocery store, to focus on inexpensive canned goods that have served me well, in terms of flavor, versatility and economy. They’ll likely be familiar to you, especially if you’ve ever had to get by on little more than wits and cents.

Canned tomatoes: Canned tomatoes are the foundation for pasta sauces, hearty soups, stews and chili. I use them in enchiladas, as a topper for homemade or frozen pizza and in beef casseroles. Use the juice or freeze it to use in your next sauce or stew. I prefer the diced, fire-roasted variety, but you do you.

Roasted red peppers: I absolutely love the sweet, intensely peppery taste of these jarred red beauties and I use up all the liquid as well. These are marvelous in tortilla soup and pasta sauces, as a pizza topper and quiche enhancer.

Pimientos: You might wonder why pimientos are on the list in addition to roasted red peppers. Aren’t the essentially the same thing? Yes, but pimientos are fantastic because they’re already chopped very fine. Toss a whole 4-ounce jar into your soup or sauce, liquid and all. Pimientos also add pizzazz to tuna salad, chicken salad, macaroni salad and potato salad.

Canned mushrooms: There’s nothing better than the rich, earthy flavor of mushrooms, but I don’t always have fresh ’shrooms. Canned mushrooms may be second best, but they’re handy in a pinch with stew or stir-fry. They can be just the thing that takes a dish from meh to mmmm.

Cream of mushroom soup: This is the most versatile item in my arsenal of inexpensive but flavorful canned goods. Pour it over baked chicken, put it in casseroles, mix it with mashed potatoes, use it for creamy pasta sauce and quick beef stroganoff, add it to stew and chowder. Serve it as soup with grilled cheese sandwiches. If you’ve got a can of cream of mushroom soup, you’ve got a meal.

Canned tuna and chicken: Use them as sandwich filling or in casseroles, soups and stews. Make a buffalo chicken dip with some nacho cheese. Make tuna croquettes by mixing the tuna with breadcrumbs and eggs and frying the patties in oil. Add tuna or chicken to pasta salad for extra protein, or add them to green salad for a light lunch or dinner.

Beans: Beans are such a cheap, ubiquitous form of protein that I imagine nearly every pantry in the world has at least one can of beans. That’s because beans go with everything from soups to salads to nachos and dips. Beans in a tortilla make a burrito. (With scrambled eggs, it’s a breakfast burrito.) Cook beans with peppers, onions and tomatoes for a soul-warming chili. Beans and rice together contain all nine essential amino acids, making a complete protein.

By combining these basic canned ingredients with fresh vegetables and other staples like pasta and rice, you’ve got an inexhaustible supply of mealtime options. Well, it will be exhausted when you run out and must return to the grocery store. When you do, remember: You’re living the dream.

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