12 Affordable, Delicious Meals You Can Cook With A Can Of Fish

From French bistro fare to delicious sauces, canned tuna and salmon are delicious (and cheap!) proteins you can cook with right now.
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If you think fancy chefs never reach for a can of tuna when they need to pull together a quick meal, we can’t help but say ”Sorry, Charlie.” We talked to chefs who regularly use canned tuna, salmon and other fishes as entrees and as ingredients in other dishes.

“I’m a big fan of conservas, which are preserved foods, such as pickles, jam or canned foods, which are ‘put up’ in jars or tins so the product lasts longer,” TV personality and chef Andrew Zimmern told HuffPost. “They’re often ounce-for-ounce less expensive than other comparable proteins. As meat and poultry prices continue to climb, home cooks can find tins of beautiful salmon, tuna — and mackerel, sardines, clams and mussels — in their local markets and save real dollars by incorporating them into their regular meal planning.”

It’s heartening to note that not only is canned fish often inexpensive, but it’s nutritious. “Canned fish contains omega-3s, with benefits include fighting inflammation, skin nourishing, gut healing, helping you feel full longer and more,” said Jen Smiley, founder of Wake Up & Read the Labels.

And then there’s the convenience factor. “The best thing about canned fish to me is that I can always have it on hand to make into a quick dinner,” said Christine Pittman, founder of CookTheStory.If I forget to take the chicken out of the freezer, or if I run out of time and can’t get to the grocery store, having some canned fish on hand always saves the day.”

It’s an affordable option that’s probably already in your pantry

Chef Rossi, owner and executive chef of New York caterer The Raging Skillet, credits canned tuna with helping her keep body and soul together during a cash-strapped time. “When I left home to be a starving artist, I swiped an entire pantry shelf of tuna, which my mother had gotten with coupons,” she said. “I took her Ragu tomato sauce and dried pasta, too. I survived on a concoction of tomato sauce, canned tuna and olives I swiped from the bar next door.”

“Decades later, when I became a chef, I needed to create pasta special one day, so I mixed tuna we hadn’t sold for the lunchtime tuna melt special, marinara sauce, capers and olives to make ‘Starving Artist Pasta Puttanesca.’ It sold out.”

Think canned fish is too fishy? Try these fixes.

“If you’re using a good-quality brand of canned fish, it shouldn’t be too fishy,” said Curtis Stone, chef and owner of Maude and Gwen Butcher Shop and Restaurant in Los Angeles. “I suggest relying on the acidity of lemon juice and zest and the brininess of capers to address any ‘fishiness’ issues.”

One tip is to pair canned fish with boldly flavored ingredients, chef and cookbook author Robin Asbell said. “There’s a reason they put mayonnaise in tuna salad, since it’s got an assertive presence and lots of tang,” Abell said. “Adding in spices, chilies, crunchy vegetables, cornichons and olives all work to play down the fishy qualities.”

“Really, the hidden secret is in the sauce, so I suggest you think about mustard,” Smiley said. “Pour some on top and it’s all you’re tasting.”

What’s best: packed in oil or water?

The great debate among tuna lovers still rages on — oil-packed or water-packed?

Rossi insists on white albacore tuna in water. “I think ‘light’ tuna tastes fishy, and to this day I can tell when my tuna salad was made with light, not white,” she said. “Even the smallest amount of fishiness and I’m out the door.”

Another member of the packed-in-water fan club is Robin Selden, executive chef and managing partner of Marcia Selden Catering. “I love Bumble Bee white albacore tuna in water. It’s not fishy, it never has that canned fish taste — and it’s what I grew up with,” she said.

On the other side of the debate is Davis, who loves Chicken of the Sea in oil. “It’s moister that way,” he said.

For Asbell, it depends on the dish. “If you’re using it in a pasta and want lots of fishy umami, buy it in olive oil and use that oil in the recipe,” she said. “If you’re emphasizing other flavors, buy water-packed, drain it well, and marinate it a bit before adding it to the dish.”

pan bagnat
Courtesy of Curtis Stone
pan bagnat

6 standout tuna dishes

Pan bagnat: “I love a good Niçoise salad, and this sandwich is all those great salad flavors packed into crusty and chewy bread,” Stone said. “It’s the perfect make-ahead sandwich to take to the beach or a picnic. The flavors marinate with a bit of time, but it’s just as delicious to eat straightaway.”

Tomato and tuna pasta: “I toss fresh heirloom tomatoes and oil-canned tuna into hot, drained pasta,” Selden said. “The pasta soaks up the olive oil, and the tomatoes almost blanch from the heat of the pasta. Hit it with some red pepper flakes, freshly grated Parmesan and freshly torn basil, and you’ll feel like you’re in Italy.”

Tonnato sauce: This classic Italian sauce is made with anchovies and tuna. “It’s one of the very best summer dishes,” Sandy Davis, chef for New York-based Roxo Events, said.

“I make the classic sauce for cold poached meat and a looser version to dress salads,” Zimmern said. While it came to fame as part of the dish viella tonnato, which is made with veal, you can swap out the meat in place of pasta, rice or beans, and you’ll still have a delicious meal at a lower cost.

Tuna croquettes: “One very nostalgic dish for me is my mom’s tuna croquette recipe, which involves mixing tuna, eggs and breadcrumbs, forming it into small patties, then sautéing,” Selden said. “It’s a very simple and delicious way to get kids to eat fish. It worked for my mom, and to this day we all love them.”

Tuna noodle casserole: “There isn’t a Baby Boomer around who isn’t familiar with good old tuna noodle casserole with crushed potato chips on top,” Davis said. “It’s fast, cheap and tasty. One can — or maybe two if you’ve got extra coins — will feed many folks.”

Tuna salad: “There are those times when comfort is needed, and you just have to break down and make the tuna salad of your grandmother,” Davis said. For me, that means using Miracle Whip, boiled eggs and sweet relish.”

Selden has a different take: “My go-to tuna salad uses Hellman’s mayonnaise — just enough to bind it together — freshly squeezed lemon juice, diced celery, sweet onion, green apple and lots of freshly chopped dill. The addition of tart, crunchy apples and savory dill really do the trick. Slap that between two pieces of yummy bread and add some potato chips to your sandwich for even more crunch.”

Don't bother cooking fresh salmon for salmon burgers -- canned works perfectly.
Manny Rodriguez via Getty Images
Don't bother cooking fresh salmon for salmon burgers -- canned works perfectly.

6 superstar salmon dishes

Appetizers: “This simple canned salmon dip is always a crowd favorite,” Pittman said. “Another party treat is my lox dip recipe. I add canned salmon along with the lox (smoked salmon), so there’s a lot of salmon flavor, but at a lower cost.”

Creamy pasta sauce: “Warm up sour cream or crème fraîche with dill or parsley, garlic, salt and pepper,” Pittman said. “Then add canned fish until just heated through before tossing with cooked pasta.”

Salmon loaf: “If you want to dress up canned salmon, there’s a Great Depression favorite that my paternal grandmother used to make — salmon loaf with mustard cream sauce,” Davis said. “Use canned salmon, crushed saltines, eggs and mayo.”

Salade Niçoise with salmon tonnato sauce: “Trust me on this: Make a traditional Provençale salade Niçoise with salmon instead of tuna,” Zimmern said. “Dress the egg, tinned fish, potatoes, greens, tomatoes and olives with a tonnato sauce made with salmon instead of tuna. You’ll have your mind blown.”

Salmon burgers

“Mix together a can of salmon, two eggs, breadcrumbs, dill and lemon juice,” Pittman said. “You just need to heat the patties through and then pop them into buns, along with your favorite burger toppings.”

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