In revolutionary France, the newspaper Le Monde offered a reward for anyone who invented a method of preserving food for the hungry and impatient armies. If they were to offer a reward today for the person who figured out what to do with all those cans and jars the inventors came up with, Nancy Silverton would surely win it.
In her seventh cookbook, “A Twist of the Wrist: Quick Flavorful Meals With Ingredients From Jars, Cans, Bags and Boxes,” Silverton offers a primer for people with little time but a large pantry. It’s a radical change of pace for Silverton, whose previous books were filled with recipes that required three-day-long dough risings or overnight resting time. But it’s one that’s more reflective of the pace of most people’s lives -- and maybe even Silverton’s own. Between working the pizza station at Pizzeria Mozza most nights and getting ready to open Osteria Mozza this summer, Silverton is probably finding her can opener pretty useful these days.
Silverton’s smart cookbook contains page after page of mostly wonderful, often ingenious recipes. They’re easy and fast -- most clock in at about half an hour -- and enormously compelling. But the book hinges, ironically, on a kind of built-in Catch-22.
As California chefs have been saying for years, you’re only as good as your ingredients. And that’s especially true when they’re in a can. Liberating dinner by depending upon the often-mysterious ingredients inside a container of prepared food can be a profound success -- or an enormous disappointment.
Though Silverton provides a list of sources, advising the use of top-quality ingredients, both she and her readers are left, ultimately, at the mercy of what’s inside all those cans, jars, boxes and bags.
In a discussion of “Twist Essentials” at the back of the book, she mentions preferred brands for some of the ingredients (Nueske’s bacon, Aunt Nellie’s whole ruby red beets), but they’re not necessarily easy to find. Though you can shop for names you trust and check the labels for additives, most jars of fruit add sugar and most cans of beans come with salt. How much is actually inside and how it will affect the outcome of your dish is anyone’s guess.
Find a delicious ready-made tapenade or can of perfectly cooked gigante beans, and your dish will translate perfectly from pantry to plate. But use a jar of anemic pears or a can of over-salted lentils and you’ll wonder why you went to the trouble of dressing up the disappointing ingredients.
That said, many of Silverton’s recipes are quite good, as in a quick spinach and canned lentil salad paired with pan-fried goat cheese, or a one-pan dish of Italian sausage and wilted radicchio that relies on a can of white beans and a jar of onions.
Silverton’s gift is in knowing just what to do with those beans or onions. Most of us probably have a jar of artichoke hearts lurking in our pantry; it takes someone with Silverton’s terrific palate and imagination to know they will be wonderful atop crostini spread with fresh ricotta and accented with a currant and toasted pine nut relish.
A recipe for peppered balsamic vinegar ice cream with strawberries, which comes from Jody Adams of the Cambridge, Mass., restaurant Rialto -- one of the guest chefs Silverton asked to contribute recipes -- is brilliant for its flavor and its utter simplicity (though 10 minutes of mixing time is way too long).
Just take a pint of high-quality vanilla ice cream and mix in aged balsamic vinegar and freshly ground black pepper. Mix it, refreeze and pair with the freshest sweet strawberries, gently macerated in some sugar. It’s astonishingly simple, and the dessert is aromatic and beautifully nuanced -- and it takes all of about five minutes (plus chilling/macerating time). The brilliance is in the conception but also in the fact that aged balsamic vinegars and high-quality ice cream are so readily available. (Silverton likes McConnell’s and Graeter’s; I used Haagen-Dazs to marvelous effect.)
Silverton’s dishes can elevate packaged ingredients to surprising heights, but they’re also susceptible to failure if those ingredients don’t measure up.
A Tuscan bean soup with cabbage, prosciutto and Parmesan turned out far too salty. Silverton says not to rinse the beans, and those I used were pretty salty. The beans added too much salt to the 3 tablespoons called for in the recipe, which also calls for prosciutto and Parmesan, both salty in their own right. Using canned beans, which Silverton rightly notes are often better in texture and flavor than many dried, is a glorious idea, but, again, the success of the dish is dangerously contingent on the contents of the can. When made with rinsed beans (the bean liquid replaced by a little water), the recipe was phenomenal: smooth and rich, the creamy soup driven to a new level by the ingenious addition of fresh nappa cabbage.
Other recipes were hit-or-miss, again, depending on the packaged ingredients. A recipe for caramelized pears with mascarpone cream, brandy-raisin brown butter and biscotti was fantastic made with one brand of canned pears and bag of biscotti, but a disappointment made with others. It was easy to trade the tasteless biscotti I got at one store for a better brand from another. But the pears from one can were anemic in flavor and didn’t caramelize well, as their syrup turned out to be particularly watery and diluted the juices in the pan. Another can of pears, with a higher sugar content, caramelized much better and thus completely changed the character of the dish.
(This prompts the question: Did whoever tested these recipes use only Silverton’s preferred ingredients, ignoring what real-world home cooks would find at the supermarket, even a good one?)
A chicken salad made from a whole roast chicken, purchased at Pollo a la Brasa, a takeout place Silverton recommends, where the birds are roasted over a wood fire, was brilliant. Shredded and mixed with a chipotle mayonnaise made from a jar of Best Food’s mayo, canned chipotle peppers in adobo and a generous amount of fresh cilantro and garlic, the salad was spooned atop a bed of watercress.
It’s a blissful marriage of fresh ingredients and premade, and one emblematic of how fantastic Silverton’s recipes can be when the prepared foods measure up to her vision. But most readers, unless they’re in the neighborhood, won’t drive to one of Pollo a la Brasa’s three locations, so how is the recipe made from a roast chicken from Ralphs supermarket? Not nearly as good.
And some recipes needed more than the right jars: The recipe pictured on the cover photo -- pappardelle with bagna cauda, radicchio and olive-oil fried egg -- was saddled with far too much butter and oil. The bagna cauda component (Silverton writes that only one, from Ritrovo, is an OK substitute for the real thing) calls for a quarter cup of olive oil and a whole stick of butter for a dish that serves four, and the fat overwhelms it.
Still, there are enough winners to make the book a boon for time-challenged cooks -- and anyone with a secret siege mentality.
A dish of Italian sausage, canned white beans, jarred onions and radicchio was easy, rustic and wonderfully flavorful. Made all in one pan, the tart bite of the wilted radicchio provided a terrific backdrop for the spicy sausage and the creamy canned beans. And the onions, once caramelized, were a zingy, unexpected pleasure -- all the more enjoyable because they didn’t have to be peeled first but emerged precooked from a jar.
Silverton’s guest chefs bring a fun element too, making her point anew that all of us need shortcuts in the kitchen -- even luminaries such as Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl (a blueberry pie made from frozen berries and a premade crust) and Seattle star chef Tom Douglass (a stir-fry using a bag of frozen pot stickers).
If, by chance, you’re the kind of person who haunts the aisles of Surfas or Bay Cities, lusting after jars of piquillo peppers or tins of anchovies, this book was written for you. Buy and taste, then stock up on the brands you like (it’s easy to do this too online, with websites such as www.kalustyans.com) and make the most of Silverton’s book.
And unlike the French soldiers, you won’t need a bayonet to open the cans.