Tin Can Magic: Simple, Delicious Recipes Using Pantry Staples, by Jessica Elliott Dennison, photography by Matt Russell, Hardie Grant Books (2019), 160 pages
For the past few weeks, online culinary sites have been responding to the nationwide push to shelter at home and make fewer trips to the grocery store by telling home cooks “How To Get Big Flavor Out of Small Tins,” and touting “15 Easy Ways to Get Creative with Canned Tuna.” Even Serious Eats, a site normally dedicated to cooking complex dishes from scratch, has posted a recipe for spaghetti alle vongole that makes use of canned clams and bottled clam juice.
Food writer Jessica Elliott Dennison, author of Tin Can Magic: Simple, Delicious Recipes Using Pantry Staples, goes well beyond the fish to explore ways to bring out the best in nine different canned goods: green lentils, tomatoes, coconut milk, anchovies, butter beans (limas), sweet corn, chickpeas, cherries, and condensed milk. Conceived and written long before the novel coronavirus disrupted life around the globe, the 2019 book couldn’t be more timely. A former associate of Jamie Oliver and proprietor of 27 Elliott’s in Scotland, the author develops a weekly menu for the restaurant that follows the seasons and makes use of whatever is available from her local suppliers. But behind that fresh, seasonal face, she asserts, is “the trusty storecupboard tins and cans that form the backbone of my everyday cooking: both in the café and when cooking at home.”
A Brit who has also lived in Bangkok and Sydney, the tins in Dennison’s cupboard may not be the same as those found in ours: You’ll find no tuna here — and her favorite beans are not pintos but butter beans, aka lima beans in the United States. Her herbs and spices are international — Asian, Middle Eastern, and Indian, as well as tried-and-true savories like tarragon, basil, oregano, sage, and thyme. Many of the recipes are vegetarian or vegan. Most come together quickly, taking less than a half-hour from can opener to table. Four basic steps, Elliott Dennison says, underlie all the recipes: pick your tin; add two to three fresh ingredients (e.g., lemon zest, herbs, other greens); create some textural contrast (with cheeses or yogurt, for example); and give it some crunch with nuts, seeds, or whole spices.
There are cook’s tips to help you fix things that go wrong, like a broken aioli, or make creative use of leftovers, like a pasta sauce. To deliver on her commitment to make “the most of what’s already to hand,” each recipe also includes a list of ingredient substitutions. Want to make garlic mushroom lentils and fried eggs? You can add a splash of soy sauce to white button mushrooms when more exotic, deeper favored varieties are not available. No rosemary on hand? Try sage, tarragon, or thyme in its place. Out of Parmesan? Feta, goat cheese, and cheddar could stand in. Walnuts long gone? Almonds, hazelnuts, and pecans will bring the crunch. Even the canned lentils can be replaced by cooked pearl barley, spelt, or brown rice.
Lentils are clearly one of Elliott Dennison’s favorite canned foods, with more than a dozen recipes for the legumes in the first chapter of Tin Can Magic. Lentils leak into the tomato chapter, too, thickening a roasted pepper and tomato soup. Canned tomatoes, a valuable pantry staple even in good times, are cooked down into sauces for pasta, eggplant, lamb; spicy noodles with a Japanese accent offer a different take on the standards. Coconut milk is at the heart of three Indian-style curries, Vietnamese pancakes, an unusual muesli, and a more savory than sweet sorbet topped with peanuts and black sesame seeds.
If you hate anchovies, you can skip right over this short chapter. If you are a fan, as I am, you will find a recipe for the Italian classic bagna cauda (warm anchovy dressing) that combines the little fishes with garlic, milk, lemon, and oil to make a dipping sauce for toasted bread or any raw veggies you might have on hand. Other entries bring that umami hit to lamb and chicken.
Butter beans (limas) are another apparent favorite. The basic braised beans with sage, garlic, and white wine are the most requested recipe in the café, Elliott Dennison says, one which is almost embarrassingly simple. The key to its success is to cook the add-ins down very slowly — and to resist draining the beans. “It’s the tin juice that transforms this humble list of ingredients into a rich treat.”
Recipes in the canned corn chapter include cornbread, fritters, creamed corn warmed with Indian spices (easily accessible coriander, cumin, dried red pepper flakes) and tacos enriched with cumin seed, pickled red cabbage, and feta mayonnaise.
The standout in the chickpea chapter is not the beans — although she makes good use of those too — but the water in which they are packed. Known as aquafaba, the viscous liquid can stand in for egg whites to bind ingredients together or whip into a vegan mayonnaise. Elliott Dennison uses it to make meringues, a good option when cooking for vegans or when you are craving a light dessert and the egg carton is empty. Additional desserts come courtesy of canned cherries, which are sometimes folded into baked goods and sometimes pickled. Canned milk, a staple of WWII pantries that is likely less common in contemporary kitchens, makes a miso-salted caramel that will also use up that last bit of paste lurking in the back of your refrigerator.
A slim, colorful, and nicely illustrated volume, Tin Can Magic offers simple, flexible creative ideas that can elevate cupboard cooking from desperate to delicious — recipes we can use now and return to long after these dark days have passed. ◀
Brown Sugar Chickpea Meringues
Makes 8 medium
Chickpea juice, drained from 1 (15 oz.) can of chickpeas
1 tsp. sea salt flakes
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
¼ cup superfine sugar*
½ cup dark brown sugar
Preheat oven to 275° F and line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.
Using a mixer or food processor with a whisk attachment,** whisk the chickpea juice, salt, and lemon juice in a large bowl until very stiff peaks form — about 5 minutes.
Combine the sugars, then whisk 1 tablespoon of the sugar mix into the chickpea juice, ensuring it’s fully dissolved and not grainy. (Check by rubbing a bit between two fingers.) Repeat until all the sugar has been integrated and the mixture is smooth and glossy. Dot some of the mixture onto the baking sheets to help the parchment paper stay down, then spoon eight large mounds across the two trays and bake for 2 hours. Try not to open the oven door to prevent the meringues from collapsing. Cool completely before serving.
*To make your own superfine sugar, process ¾ cup granulated sugar in a blender for 2 or 3 minutes, until it looks and feels like fine sand.
**If you don’t have a powerful electric beater, add 1 teaspoon cream of tartar to the chickpea juice before whisking; this will help it hold its shape.
— Adapted from Tin Can Magic: Simple, Delicious Recipes Using Pantry Staples, by Jessica Elliott Dennison