Can It!

By / Food / March 9th, 2011 / 1

When my daughter returned from her first trip to Hawaii a couple of weeks back, I asked: “Apart from the weather, the sunsets, palm trees, coconuts, pineapples, black sand beaches and terrifying rivers of molten volcanic lava sliding by your feet and hissing into the sea, what really blew your mind?”

“Sushi,” she said. “We ate sushi made with SPAM!” (And yes, I believe she actually made the point in capital letters, something that I understand manufacturer Hormel Foods really like us to do when SPAM gets a mention.)

“You must be kidding?” I said, immediately visualizing chunky jelly in alarming shades of pink. “You had sushi made with SPAM?”

Like many foods that come from cans, SPAM has had an on-and-off bad rap over the last 60-plus years — Something Posing As Meat was one cruel degustation of the acronym — even if many of us, from time to time, have fried up a slice or two to accompany a couple of farm-fresh eggs for breakfast. But learning that this staple of K-rations had ended up in that now-universal package of edible elegance blew my mind. No offence to SPAM’s ongoing meaty magic, but it simply didn’t seem to juxtapose well with slices of albacore, nori, wasabi and soy.

While I’ll admit to having been a maniacal canner of seasonal bounty for years, food from cans, despite a need for it now and then, has not been a big thing for me. I’ve had my share of beans, soups, sardines, water chestnuts and beer, but after that, the opener doesn’t get much of a workout in our kitchen. Even knowing that a ridiculous array of staples and over-the-top exotica has been packed into cans for years — it apparently started back when Napoleon needed non-perishable victuals for his armies “marching on their stomachs” — I tend to dodge the canned aisles and head for fresh. (Speaking of armies, apparently it was the Second World War that got the SPAM thing going in the Pacific. It was fed to American G.I.s in Hawaii, Guam and other Pacific outposts, and inevitably, the locals picked up on the taste. It has remained to this day. In the Mariana Islands, SPAM may still be on the menu at McDonald’s!)

But, before you start feeling that this piece has been nought but the kind of spam we all abhor when unwanted e-mails hit our computers, let me assure you that one of the biggest benefits of canned food is that it was “put up” at the peak of the season, it speeds prep time in the kitchen, and it’s there when we want or need it, invariably at a tolerable price. In today’s busy world, a tuna salad is a happening thing in minutes, the baby corn is all a-bubble in the wok, and the canned cling peaches are ready for a squirt of whipped cream for dessert — also from a can. It’s about taste, but it’s more about convenience, and probably price. In tough times, more of us eat from cans, and it’s happening once again.

Food from cans can be as up- or down-market as we make it to be. Its attraction is that it’s there to add to something bigger and better that we’re doing, or to open and eat, just as it is, for a quick and easy meal.

I won’t go into the bisphenol A (BPA) thing, a chemical used in plastics that line cans and may meddle with our hormones, but it’s yet another reason to keep abreast of the news, and to perhaps go easy on how often you make food from cans part of your diet.

hawaiian spam sandwich
Serves 4
If you’re interested, there are all kinds of SPAM recipes at This may be called a sandwich, but it will certainly end up looking like a hamburger. I fancied mine up with a slathering of mayo, and lettuce. Mighty tasty! Think palm trees, the sound of surf, and tall, cool drinks with excesses of garnishes.

1 can SPAM luncheon meat
4 hamburger buns, split and browned
Mayo or butter
4 slices American cheese
225 g can pineapple rings, drained

Brown SPAM slices in skillet. Spread mayo and/or butter on buns, and place two slices on each bottom half of the hamburger buns.

Top with a pineapple ring — warmed in a pan if you wish, and a cheese slice.

Do like the food stylists do and wilt the cheese with a hair dryer. Cover sandwich with the top half of the bun.

Enough for 6, with leftovers
I don’t get to use my 18-quart roaster oven too often. It’s simply too big. But when 23 family members got together for dinner this summer, an oven full of chili was one of the go-for-it stars at our buffet table. This forgiving recipe cuts the original by half, and has been adjusted a bit for that change. Beer was the accompaniment of choice.

1 tbsp oil
1 lb beef chuck, cut into small pieces
1/2 lb hot Italian sausage, removed from casings
1/2 lb sweet Italian sausage, removed from casings
1 large onion, chopped
1 medium green pepper, seeded and chopped
1/2 tbsp minced garlic
2 tbsp canned, sliced jalapeno peppers
2 tbsp chili powder
1 tbsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp black pepper
500 g can kidney beans
500 g can diced tomatoes, undrained
170 g can tomato paste
425 g can chicken broth

Heat the oil in a large pan, add the beef and sausage and cook for about 20 minutes, stirring to prevent sticking.

Add the onions, pepper, garlic, and jalapeno and cook for another 5 minutes. Stir in the remaining ingredients.

Set oven temperature to 275˚F, cover and bake for 2 hours stirring after the first hour. Season to taste.


keg cheesecake
The legend is that Canada’s Keg Restaurants’ highly successful cheesecake recipe was originally purloined from the side of a can of Eagle sweetened condensed milk. I could never get anyone to confirm it, but on checking the Eagle recipe — and the taste of the cheesecake — it seems like a true story. But isn’t that what recipes are all about anyway?

1 1/2 cups graham crumbs
1/4 cup sifted confectioner’s sugar
6 tablespoons melted butter
Mix, flatten into a 9-inch spring-form pan and bake 15 minutes at 300˚F.

1 package cream cheese, softened (250 g)
1 can Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 tsp vanilla

In a large mixer bowl, beat cheese until fluffy. Add condensed milk and beat again at high speed until thoroughly blended.

Stir in lemon juice and vanilla with a spatula.

Pour into crust when it has cooled. Chill 3 hours or until set.

Garnish, if desired, with fresh fruit. For a really delightful presentation garnish with sliced kiwi fruit and piped whipped cream. People will talk about it for years.

quick tuna casserole
After an absence, this “excellent emergency dish” returned to the 2006 edition of The Joy of Cooking, the one I often use. Canned tuna, canned soup and canned peas mean it really will come together quickly, and serve 4 or 5 nicely.

340 g canned tuna
2 cups cooked egg noodles
300 g can condensed cream of mushroom soup
225 g can green peas, drained
3/4 cup milk
1/4 cup chopped pimientos or minced red bell pepper
2 tbsp minced scallions or onion
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce

Preheat oven to 375˚F. Grease a shallow 2-quart baking dish.

Place the tuna into a mixing bowl and break into chunks with a fork.

Stir in the remaining ingredients until just combined and turn into the greased baking dish. Mix together with the tuna and sprinkle on:

1/2 cup dry bread crumbs
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
2-3 tbsp melted butter.

Bake 25 to 35 minutes, or until the top is bubbling and browned.

My pick for a pairing would be a very cold Sauvignon Blanc.

pineapple upside down cake
I looked everywhere for a recipe for Pineapple Upside Down Cake, and finally found this one in an old Five Roses Flour book.
white cake batter (recipe below)

1/3 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 can sliced pineapple rings
Maraschino cherries

Prepare white cake batter (see below). Melt butter in a 9″ square cake pan; add 1 cup brown sugar and stir.

Drain canned sliced pineapple rings (or peach halves if you wish) and place close together on the sugar. Place a maraschino cherry in each ring or cavity.

Cover with the cake batter. Bake in a 350˚F oven 45 to 55 minutes or until the cake is done.

Allow to cool in pan for 15 minutes; loosen the sides of the cake, invert gently on cake plate. Serve warm or cold with whipped cream.

white cake

2 cups flour
3 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup shortening
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup milk

Stir the flour, baking powder and salt together. Cream the shortening; add the sugar gradually, beating between additions.

Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla.

Add the dry ingredients alternately with the milk, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Blend well.



Our West Coast wordsmith Duncan Holmes likes to cook all parts of the meal—hot and cold apps for the eyes; big, generous mains, where timing, color and taste come together on sparkling, white plates—and there’s always enough for seconds. But it’s at dessert time when he really shines. Not with precious fancy dancy, but with a melt-in-your-mouth-pastry apple pie. Granny Smiths, of course, and French vanilla ice cream.

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