Life

Jack Monroe on a mission to give canned food a make-over

Think tinned food can never be good or fancy? Prudence Wade talks to Jack Monroe about her can-do new recipe collection

Jack Monroe admits that canned food suffers from a 'definite PR problem'
Jack Monroe admits that canned food suffers from a 'definite PR problem' Jack Monroe admits that canned food suffers from a 'definite PR problem'

FOOD writer Jack Monroe's enthusiasm is clear: It bubbles out with every word she speaks – which is a lot, because she sure speaks quickly.

So what is she so excited to talk about? The answer might surprise you – it's canned food. Monroe really isn't picky when it comes to tins – whether it's beef stew, Spam or canned mandarins – and she showcases them all in her new cookbook, Tin Can Cook.

This is Monroe's fifth book, and by far her boldest. She's always focused on cooking on a budget of course, and this one is an extension of this theme– born out of her experience as a food bank-user, when all she had to cook with were tins. Now, Monroe wants to overturn misconceptions around cans, which she thinks suffer from a "definite PR problem", all tied up with deep-rooted classism.

She's well aware of canned food's dodgy reputation. "You say tinned food to people and they think of postwar rations, Brexit stockpiles or the stuff your nan has at the back of her cupboard," she says with a groan.

Through developing the recipes for this book, though, Monroe realised she too was holding on to a fair few misconceptions of her own. Take canned steak: "I thought I wasn't going to eat or cook it, because I had these horrible memories of stewed steak," she says. "But actually, I took it and turned it into this tender barbecued beef, and then I put it in a curry– because it's just slow-cooked tender beef underneath all that sloppy gravy."

Changing her own perception was crucial to pulling off the project. "Once I'd got over my own initial childhood phobias of stuff I'd eaten as a kid and not particularly enjoyed, there was a whole world open to me and I wanted to invite other people into it," she explains.

So why do tins have such a PR problem? Monroe reckons it's "definitely a class thing".

"My parents were both working class and we used loads of tins as kids. I didn't think it was anything weird, until I started mixing in the food world and every recipe book includes fine grass-fed beef that's had a massage, extra virgin olive oil or fresh tomatoes," she says. "The only time you really see tinned food in a cookbook is the occasional can of chopped tomatoes, and even then it's with the caveat that chopped tomatoes are 'fine'."

What Monroe wants to do with this book is show that no food is only for higher-income people. For her, the defining example is the cannellini beurre blanc, which she says is "a recipe I'd not cooked myself in seven years as a food writer, because I thought I was too working class to make beurre blanc– I thought beurre blanc was for other people".

At this point, Monroe becomes so impassioned she's fighting back tears. Including a tin can recipe for beurre blanc is, for her, a way to "sum up my whole ethos behind this book" in making food for everyone– no matter how 'fancy' it might seem.

The chasm between what people think is food for the sophisticated and wealthy and for everyday people is, she says, "deeply ingrained".

"I felt I wasn't good enough to make this fancy food, when actually it's people's attitudes that aren't good enough," she adds. "I want to make the best of everything accessible to everyone, no matter how small their kitchen or how small their budget is."

To achieve this, Monroe steeled herself for a lot of hard work to dress up cans. But in fact, it was a whole lot easier than she anticipated. "What surprised me was the sheer scope of possibility once I started to– no pun intended – crack into the tins and start to throw things together," she recalls. "I'm never short of ideas for even more recipes from cans."

In fact, she discovered that they can be broken down and "used as the building blocks to make delicious, restaurant-quality meals – and that's not a term I use lightly".

Monroe isn't the only one who was blown away by her tin-based adventures. She started making the recipes for friends and family, without telling them what they were made out of – and "they never would have guessed".

The book features plenty of what Monroe's perhaps best at too: creating weird and wonderful combinations that work.

This is obviously her favourite part of cooking. "I do just sit in my kitchen and feel like a mad scientist sometimes, hurling things together and making them work," she says. "It's never been more fun than when I'm standing there with a can of steak in one hand and a tin of mandarins in the other, thinking 'you've gone too far this time...'!"

She credits her unusual way of thinking about food and flavours to her autism. "I don't approach recipes like other people do," she says. "I'm always throwing ingredients together that other people may not have thought of, or would initially say didn't work, and somehow 99 per cent of the time manage to pull it off. It's just how my brain works."

:: Tin Can Cook: 75 Simple Store-cupboard Recipes by Jack Monroe is published by Bluebird, priced £6.99. Below are three recipes from the book for you to try at home.

BRAZILIAN FEIJOADA

(Serves 4)

1 x 400g tin of black beans, drained and rinsed

100g frozen sliced onion or 1 small onion, finely sliced

2tbsp garlic paste or 4 fat cloves of garlic, crushed

2tbsp tomato puree or ketchup

1tbsp paprika

1 chicken or beef stock cube

1 x 300g tin of mandarins, drained

1 x 400g tin of stewed steak, drained and rinsed

A few pinches of dried chilli flakes

Method:

Tip the black beans into a large saucepan. Add the onion, garlic, tomato puree and paprika. Cover with 700ml water and crumble in the stock cube, then bring to the boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes, until the beans have started to soften.

Add the mandarins and stewed steak to the pot. Cook for a further 20 minutes, then finish with dried chilli flakes to taste, and serve.

CANNELLINI BEURRE BLANC

(Serves 2)

1 x 400g tin of cannellini beans or haricot beans, drained and rinsed

800ml vegetable or chicken stock

120g small pasta shapes

Pepper

For the beurre blanc:

4tbsp white wine or cider

4tbsp white wine vinegar or cider vinegar

1tbsp garlic paste or 2 fat cloves of garlic, finely chopped

25g butter

Method:

Pop the beans into a large saucepan that will easily hold three times their volume; you will be adding pasta to this later. Cover with the stock, and bring to the boil. Reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes; the longer the cooking time, the softer and creamier the beans will be.

While the beans are cooking, make the beurre blanc in a separate small pan. Combine all of the ingredients and cook on a low-medium heat for 15 minutes, to reduce the volume and combine the fat and acid together. You will need to keep an eye on this and stir it fairly continuously, as I have burned and lost many a beurre blanc sauce through a moment's distraction. Turn off the heat and allow the beurre blanc to settle.

When the beans have cooked for 20 minutes, add the pasta. Cook the pasta for 10 minutes (pasta cooked in sauce always takes a little longer than the packet instructions specify). When the pasta is soft, combine with the beurre blanc sauce. Season generously with pepper, and enjoy.

FRUIT COCKTAIL CAKE

(Serves 8)

250g butter, plus extra to grease the cake tin

200g caster or granulated sugar

3 eggs

200g tin of fruit cocktail, drained

200g self-raising flour

Method:

Preheat the oven to 180C (fan 160C/350F/gas 4) and lightly grease a 20cm round or square cake tin. Beat the butter and sugar together in a mixing bowl with a fork or wooden spoon until well combined. Break in the eggs and mix together, beating until smooth.

Add the fruit cocktail to the mixing bowl and stir through quickly. Add the flour, and mix well to combine into a soft, sweet batter.

Pour the batter into the tin and bake in the centre of the oven for around 45 minutes – depending on the size of your tin. A shallow tin will cook faster, whereas a deeper tin will take its time. To check if it is cooked through, insert a sharp knife into the centre of the cake. If the knife comes out clean, the cake is ready. Allow to cool in the tin for 10 minutes before turning out and slicing. The cake can be enjoyed hot or cold. Leftovers freeze well for up to three months, wrapped in foil or popped in a freezer bag.