Tins for the win: Three tasty, thrifty recipes to see you right until pay day

Crispy fish cakes, spicy pasta, chakalaka chicken — if you have canned goods in the cupboard, you have the makings for a budget-friendly meal

20 January 2021 - 12:12 By hilary biller
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Can you believe all these marvellous meals started with a tin from the pantry?
Can you believe all these marvellous meals started with a tin from the pantry?
Image: Craig Scott and Hein van Tonder

Januworry has been a very long month. Pay day may be on the horizon, but when the food kitty is low and it comes to putting meals together, it can feel like it is still many moons away.

Take heart. Remember those canned goods squirrelled away in the back of the store cupboard that didn’t get a second look at the beginning of the month? I hit on three in my pantry, and with a little inspiration they became the saving grace for a trio of meals.

They included chopped tomatoes, the perennial standby that can save many a meal; boring tuna that always needs a good makeover to make it feel like it’s not diet food; and a can of chakalaka, the spicy and colourful contents of which are like a magic wand bringing zing and pizzazz to any dish.

Using simple recipes and a few added pantry ingredients, I transformed them into thrifty and tasty suppers: crispy Asian fish cakes, spicy penne arrabiata and an easy chakalaka chicken casserole.


This is a great standby recipe because it takes a tin of tuna to another level of deliciousness, and any leftovers make a great snack or lunchbox filler.

If you prefer you can replace the tuna with a can of pink salmon, well drained and removing the skin and bones, or pilchards, the plain ones, well drained and mashed.

Crispy Asian fish cakes.
Crispy Asian fish cakes.
Image: Craig Scott

Makes: 12-18 fish cakes, depending on size


2 x 170g tins tuna chunks, drained

Handful fresh parsley or coriander, finely chopped

1 red chilli, seeded and chopped

60g (1 cup) fresh white breadcrumbs

15ml (1 tbsp) fish sauce

Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

Small knob of ginger, peeled and grated — or use 5ml (1 tsp) ground ginger

Salt and black pepper, to taste

Cake flour, for dusting

Sunflower oil, for frying

Sweet chilli sauce, to serve


  1. Combine the tinned fish, parsley, fresh chilli, breadcrumbs, fish sauce, lemon juice and zest and ginger in a bowl to make a batter. If too runny, add extra breadcrumbs.
  2. Season and shape into balls with wet hands. Flatten into discs, coat lightly in flour and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  3. Heat about 3cm oil in a pan and fry the fish cakes until golden on both sides. Drain on a paper towel.
  4. Serve with sweet chilli dipping sauce.


A spicy pasta dish featuring a handful of simple ingredients. The beauty of the recipe is its versatility. If you don’t have pancetta replace it with streaky bacon or chopped chorizo, as I did, or leave it out for a vegetarian option.

For the young ones, omit the chilli and serve it on the side in a little olive oil for chilli lovers to help themselves. If you don’t have fresh basil use parsley or origanum, add a teaspoon of mixed dried herbs.  

Penne arrabiata.
Penne arrabiata.
Image: Craig Scott

Serves: 4-6


30ml (2 tbsp) olive oil

1-3 chillies, seeded and finely sliced

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

60g pancetta, cut into strips

2 x 400g cans chopped tomatoes

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pinch of sugar

500g penne pasta

A handful of fresh basil, torn

Parmesan cheese, to serve


  1. Heat the oil in a large frying pan and fry the chilli and garlic for a minute. Add the pancetta and cook until crisp.
  2. Add the tomatoes, seasoning and sugar and simmer on gentle heat for 30 minutes,  stirring from time to time.
  3. Cook the penne in plenty of salted boiling water until al dente. Drain, saving a 30ml (2 tbsp) of pasta water.
  4. Add the basil to the sauce and cook for 3 minutes and add the reserved pasta water.
  5. Toss the sauce through the pasta and serve with Parmesan cheese.


With two cans — one of chakalaka and one of a tomato and onion mix — and chutney, you can turn dull chicken pieces into a saucy feast.

If you’d like to stretch the meal, add more can magic like baked beans, chickpeas or lentils, drained and rinsed.

Serve with a starch - a great filler - like rice, pap, boiled or mashed potatoes or crusty bread to soak up the tasty juices.

Easy chakalaka chicken casserole.
Easy chakalaka chicken casserole.
Image: Hein van Tonder

Serves: 4


1kg chicken portions, skin on

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 x 410g tin tomato and onion mix

1 x 410g tin hot and spicy chakalaka

2 tbsp chutney

Yoghurt and fresh coriander, to serve


  1. Preheat oven to 180ºC.
  2. Place the chicken in a baking dish and season with salt and pepper.
  3. Mix the tomato and onion mix, chakalaka and chutney together and pour over the chicken pieces.
  4. Bake for 45 minutes until the chicken is cooked.
  5. Serve the chicken topped with a dollop of yoghurt and garnished with fresh coriander. — Hein van Tonder

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