In praise of tinned tomatoes

Tinned tomatoes belong to that category of things that you take completely for granted. You always have at least one tin in the cupboard somewhere, don’t you? Everybody does.

Well, I thought I did. It was mid-afternoon, and I’d been working to a deadline and hadn’t really spent much time thinking about dinner. I knew I had some frozen cod fillets that represented potential protein, and turned to a cookbook standby—Off the Shelf, by Donna Hay. It’s a book about cooking with what you have on hand.

I glanced through the recipe and thought, “Perfect. I have all I need,” and set out the cod to defrost.

A couple of hours later, I came down to get started. I went to the cupboard where I keep the tins to get the tomatoes the recipe called for—and nothing. Chickpeas: yes. Lentils: check. Tuna: enough to feed an army. No tomatoes.

Fortunately, there is a 24-hour convenience store at the end of the street. Most of the merchandise is heavy-duty junk food made from edible oil by-products sold at exorbitant prices, but they have a tiny shelf of real (albeit packaged) food, hidden at the back. I threw on a coat, ran down the street, and wonder of wonders, there were two tins of real tomatoes on that shelf. Evening saved.

I’ll get to the recipe in a minute.

The experience got me thinking. What are the absolute staples that I should always have on hand, no matter what? I did an inventory, typed up the result, and I plan to tape it to the inside of my pantry cupboard door. Next  time I am heading out to a supermarket, I will check to make sure that I actually have the things on that list, and if not, I will stock up.

The list was surprisingly long, and in certain categories there are several items (you can’t get by with just one type of vinegar, for example). So…what’s on your standby list? What has to be there to make you feel that you are ready for a siege? What are the must-haves versus the nice-to-haves? In what category do you put mustard? Artichokes in a jar? Tarragon vinegar?

All contributions welcome. Here’s the recipe, modified to suit my non-exacting standards.

Tomato and basil poached fish

A puddle of olive oil
2 onions, chopped anyhow
3-5 thinly sliced potatoes (I leave the peel on and use a mandolin to slice them)
½ cup fish stock
2 medium-sized tins whole peeled tomatoes (but diced is OK too)
2 firm white-fleshed fish fillets, enough for two people
Basil pesto, or fresh basil chopped, if you have it

Heat a deep frying pan. Add some oil, the onions and as much chopped garlic as you think is reasonable for two people. Cook the mixture until the onions wilt. Add the potatoes, stock, and tomatoes. Cover. Give it another 5 or so minutes.

Remove the cover and stir to break up the tomatoes a bit if you are using whole tomatoes. Let it reduce and thicken – this takes maybe 5 minutes. Maybe more. Put the fish on top. Give it a few minutes each side. When it starts to fall apart a bit, it’s ready.

Take out the fish, and stir the pesto through the tomato mixture. Put the tomato mixture on the plate and put the fish on top. Serves 2.


  1. This is exactly my kind of thing and I shall certainly try it next week and report back. My friend Gretel also vows that tinned tomatoes are essential in every kitchen arsenal. I would go further and add that one might want to have both the chopped and the whole peeled variety on hand. Here, we can get whole cherry tomatoes in tins but not sure if a small convenience store near you would stretch to that. Still, that place saved the day and your meal.

    Yes, let's all think about kitchen essentials. Please post your list when you think you've got it complete. I shall do the same when I can. And it will be interesting to see how different foods speak in various ways to us in our own kitchens.

    Thank you for giving me another great back-pocket recipe.

  2. My absolute must-haves are tinned tomatoes as well, onions, and packets of dry pasta and rice. We also make sure the sugar and flour are stocked up and that there's always SOME kind of spice. Crackers/dry biscuits and vegemite. Vanilla essence, gravy powder, stock cubes, frozen chicken - I like to keep the freezer stocked as well. And there's always a tin of pineapple in the cupboard for emergency fruit cravings.. :D

  3. Every member of this family would give you a different answer: for me it would have to be yes, the ubiquitous tins of tomatoes, tomato paste, vegetable stock granules, tinned tuna, beans (kidney, and a couple of others like borlotti, butter or cannellini), a tin of ratatouille, balsamic, olilve oil, chili oil and dried crushed chillies, white peppercorns, whole nutmeg, a jar of pasata sauce, Arborio rice, brown rice, dried pasta(not macaroni though), garlic of some description (cloves preferably but dried minced otherwise), chutney, herbes de Provence and chili or cumin powder or perhaps Cajun spice. Those are some of the cupboard staples. Is that enough to be going on with?

  4. My cupboards tend to be overstuffed because I have a fear of running out of crucial ingredients! But as for my absolute staples, those would be: fresh garlic, onions, some kind of cheese, tomato sauce, cherry tomatoes, olive oil, wholegrain mustard, bread of some description, potatoes, crackers/crisps, stock cubes, dried pasta, thyme, basil, maple syrup, butter and flour. That covers the savoury and the sweet!

    Oh, and the recipe looks great too - similar to something I used to make. Must try this one out soon.