Pot Luck

Hurricane Ike Cuisine: Gourmet Canned Goods

Back in 2003, when the Department of Homeland Security told us to stockpile canned goods in case of emergencies, I did a taste test of the best canned foods I could find in Houston. Since many of us are in the market for canned goods today, I thought it might be helpful to revisit that article of five years ago to get some ideas for the shopping list:

I went to Central Market, Whole Foods and Randall’s and spent a hundred dollars on interesting-looking stuff. Then I invited a friend over for lunch. To simulate the loss of power and water, the rules of our emergency food preparedness drill were: no heating or chilling anything, and no tools except a can opener and plastic utensils.

First we needed something to drink. And since Draft Guinness comes in a can, is extremely nutritious, and tastes best at room temperature, we voted it as our favorite emergency preparedness beverage. Petrossian Paté Maison on JJ Flats Sesame Crackers, both from Central Market, was our number one appetizer, although it was pricey at 20 bucks or more for a can of pate. If you really don’t care about the money, you can step up to a can of Petrossian’s pure goose foie gras for close to 60 bucks.

Did you think all canned food was cheap crap?

Dominique’s Vichyssoise seemed like the perfect way to start a civilized meal. You are supposed to eat the French potato and leek soup cold anyway. And talk about easy, you don’t even need to add water. But the white potage poured out of the can as thick as paste. And it tasted like pablum. Careful inspection of the label revealed that “non-dairy whitener” was one of the ingredients, and the leeks were dried. Scratch this one from your shopping list.

For me, the highlight of our repast was the canned lobster meat from Central Market artfully arranged on canned artichoke bottoms served over roasted tomato-stuffed eggplant. My friend thought it was pretty good too—for canned. But she preferred the silky Greek eggplant (Palirria, Aubergines Imam from Whole Foods) all by itself. “I’d buy this even if there wasn’t an emergency,” she said with her mouth full.

The biggest waste of five bucks was the Hagenborg shrimp paté at Whole Foods, a loathsome orange fish putty that I wouldn’t feed to a cat. Silver Creek Farms Gourmet smoked sturgeon from Central Market was equally disappointing. Blindfolded, I am willing to bet you couldn’t tell it from tuna.

Canned seafood was one area where our opinions differed. I loved the Eastern Harvest smoked oysters. She said they tasted alright, but they have the texture of liver. (And what’s wrong with the texture of liver?) Likewise we had different ideas about the Chicken of the Sea canned shrimp salad.

I think the shrimp salad was absolutely ingenious. I started by putting some canned Read Three Bean Salad and the juice in the bottom of the can on each plate. “I’m having grade school flashbacks,” she said when she tasted it. Granted canned three bean salad is nothing special. But it’s the vinaigrette it’s packed in that’s crucial. With Read Three Bean Salad, or Read Garden Salad in your emergency larder, you can make a lot of other vegetables palatable.

I added some Green Giant Mexicorn, a blend of corn, red peppers and green peppers to the bean salad and dressing, and then added a hefty helping of canned shrimp. Mixed all together, I thought it made a damn respectable shrimp salad. With the addition of some Silver Creek Farms Gourmet smoked trout, she begrudgingly agreed it wasn’t too bad.

“Give me a break, we’re working with nothing but cans here!” I pleaded.

“The more Guinness I drink, the better it tastes,” she allowed. We both agreed that in a crisis, beer is the most important canned good to have on hand.

The sardine taste test was enlightening. I have always wondered why King Oscar Brisling Sardines cost more than the rest. We compared them to two varieties of Bela Portugese sardines, one packed in hot sauce, the other in tomato. The sauces were fine, but the big Bela sardines were relatively tasteless. The King Oscar sardines were tiny and packed in mustard sauce. They had a distinct sharp flavor and a delicate texture that set them apart. So now I know why King Oscar rules.

Our dessert concept came from a Central Market employee who came to my assistance after he found me wandering the canned fruit aisle. “If you are going to eat fruit right out of the can, be sure to get it in light syrup or water,” he advised. “Fruits in heavy syrups are for pie fillings.”

Kiser suggested mixing cans of peaches, pineapple, mandarin oranges and tart cherries together. You have to break out the tupperware for this, but the resulting fruit salad is much better than “fruit cocktail.”

After the fruit, we were both full. And all in all, it was a pretty good meal. Our after lunch conversation meandered into a discussion of what you’d actually need to last three days. I confessed I’d either have to have some Starbucks Double Shots, the double espresso in a can, or deal with caffeine withdrawal. She figured she’d have to buy a whole lot of cereal and crackers if she was going to feed her picky-eating kids for three days.

Then there was a moment of awkward silence while the cloud of seriousness passed over. “How about another Guinness?” I said reaching for a can. – Robb Walsh

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