Published on May 8, 2020

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Photography by Belle Morizio

You’ve long stocked up on pantry staples, and by now you’re probably growing a bit tired of beans and tomatoes. But that doesn’t mean the canned aisle of the supermarket has nothing left to offer—you just have to think creatively. 

As far as a chef sees it, unexpected canned goods like jackfruit in brine and Spam are definitely enough to make a meal out of—and a good one at that (though maybe not by pairing them). Here, chefs share the underrated pantry buys they keep on hand under all circumstances and how you can make the most of them. Prepare your palette.

Hearts of Palm

Elizabeth Blau, restaurateur and founder of Blau + Associates, has long loved this ingredient for its versatility and bright, zippy taste: “Just open the can, drain, and dice into any green salad; eat plain as a snack; or add to an antipasto platter.”

Spam

Jeff Chanchaleune, chef at Goro Ramen in Oklahoma City, has Spam on hand for whenever he needs a quick hit of protein—or a salty hangover breakfast. “I like to sear a thick slice and eat it with a fried egg over rice or diced into fried rice,” he says. “It’s not lavish, but it really brings me joy.”

Chipotle Peppers

No pantry is complete without these peppers, according to Sophia Roe, chef and wellness advocate. “They have a great sweetness, spice, and tang that works for so many different sauces, soups, and stews,” she explains. And the best part is that they’re widely available. She says you can usually find them canned in the international food aisle. 

Fermented Black Bean Paste

Mandy Dixon, owner of La Baleine Cafe in Alaska, is a big fan of this paste, which she usually picks up at her local Asian supermarket. Sweet and salty, she says just a teaspoon is enough to turn up the dial on so many different meals. “I love it sautéed with spinach, herbs, and mushrooms and stuffed inside of an omelet,” she explains. She’ll also throw some right on top of her noodles if she feels so inclined.

Young Green Jackfruit in Brine

Daisy Orlana Ramli Kirschen, chef and founder of Sayang in New York City, reserves this ingredient—which is less sweet than ripe yellow jackfruit—for savory meals like stews and curries. When she has the time, she’ll use it to make Javanese-style gudeg, a young jackfruit stew that can take all day to make. “It gets slow-cooked for hours with shallots, coriander seeds, candlenuts, galangal, palm sugar, and black tea until super tender,” she explains. But if you don’t feel like going to all that fuss, she says it’s also great to use as a meat substitute, especially in mock pulled pork recipes. 

Vourderis Masticha Preserves

Mina Stone, chef and partner at Mina’s in New York City, always has this canned Greek ingredient on hand, but not for cooking. “There’s a Greek dessert called ypovrixio, which means submarine,” she says. “You serve a spoonful of this mastic-flavored sugar ‘gum’ in ice-cold water in the summer.” 

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