Sort of Convenient

A Twist of the Wrist
By Nancy Silverton
Knopf, 2007; $29.95

I was somewhat flabbergasted to read a couple of years ago that Los Angeles restaurant potentate Nancy Silverton—her most recent project is Mozza with partners Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich—was writing a book on the virtues of cooking with jarred, canned, bagged, and boxed foods.

In addition to Mozza, Silverton founded the La Brea Bakery and Campanile (with ex-husband Mark Peel). My first job in the kitchen was at Campanile, working for Silverton, Peel, and Chef de Cuisine Suzanne Goin (who left to start Lucques, and eventually AOC). With Silverton, I learned to shop at a farmers’ market, tasting Blue Lake beans from every vendor in the huge Wednesday Santa Monica market before deciding which batch to buy. It was under Goin, Silverton, and Peel that I learned to make mayonnaise and pesto and green goddess dressing from scratch—the mortar and pestle was my nemesis, but one I grew to love over the years. I couldn’t really believe that Silverton’s heart was in a book of shortcut cooking.

The resulting book debuted this year. A Twist of the Wrist, cowritten with Carolynn Carreño, isn’t quite the straightforward, quick-and-easy cookbook I was dreading. It’s a cautious celebration of less time-intensive cooking, and implicitly a rebuke to those who compromise too much in the name of convenience. “We’ve moved so far from the kitchen,” Silverton writes, “that I felt that what people needed was a gentle, realistic way back.” She presents herself as the anti–Sandra Lee, giving her readers relatively simple recipes made from prepackaged ingredients, but only prepackaged ingredients that have met with her finicky approval. That means a sort of surprising yes to canned potatoes and bottled stuffed grape leaves, but a resounding no to bottled vinaigrettes and marinades (use dried meat rubs instead, she suggests). Many of the jarred and canned goods she recommends are already chef-approved imports with Mediterranean or Mexican origins, like chipotle chiles, Spanish ventresca tuna, anchovies, and piquillo peppers. The book is lean on East and South Asian flavors—too bad, since there are so many brilliant packaged foods from that part of the world.

I can’t help including a few of my own favorite quicky ingredients that Silverton did not mention in her book:

Peanut butter: to fake my way to an approximation of dan dan mian

John Cope’s dried corn: for corn puddings near the holidays

Dill pickles

Frozen baby lima beans: straight up or puréed into a bread-spread

Dried salted black beans: umami bombs great for seasoning stir-fries or even blending into vinaigrettes

Jarred chestnuts

Silverton’s got a section of traditional entrées, but the book favors snackier meals—ones that revolve around soups, salads, crostini, and egg dishes. Although many recipes echo classic Campanile/La Brea preparations, Silverton also solicits quite a few contributions from chef friends like Goin, Gale Gand, Charlie Trotter, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. The chef contributions help fill out Silverton’s Cal-Med-centric focus. The guest chefs are also more willing to get a little trashy with the packaged-food concept: Take Tom Douglas’s (of Seattle’s Dahlia Lounge) stir-fry of Costco gyoza, or Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani’s (of Napa’s Terra) recipe for a spaghetti sauce made of canned tuna and V8.

Silverton has two great gifts. One is a knack for maximizing flavor from relatively simple ingredients: braising leeks, cultivating sourdoughs, using caramelized sugar as the basis of a pie filling rather than just plain sugar. Most of these flavor-enriching processes take more time than can be spared in an easy-weeknight cookbook; her previous cookbooks are full of them, though (Nancy Silverton’s Pastries from the La Brea Bakery, Nancy Silverton’s Breads from the La Brea Bakery, and Nancy Silverton’s Sandwich Book). But Silverton also has a superb palate (I remember her as a great nibbler of mise en place, making sure that every element going into a dish was just right), and for this book she clearly sampled almost every prepackaged ingredient under the sun. One can trust implicitly her conclusions about which to use. If she says not to use jarred chopped garlic—”It ruins any dish you add it to,” she would say—don’t do it.

Silverton’s attention to process pays off here. After all, it’s the prep for dishes that takes up most active cooking times. She doesn’t include any greens that are hard to wash, just bagged greens, hydroponics, or tightly wrapped heads like endive or radicchio, which she doesn’t wash. Same goes for meats: She only picks cuts that can be relatively quickly seared or pan roasted, not sinewy braising meats.

The problem with some of the recipes is the inconvenience of sourcing some of the ingredients. I loved the concept of an ice cream pie—a way to seriously but simply transform store-bought ingredients, and one that I think I’ll borrow for a long time to come. I made her recipe with dulce de leche ice cream and what was supposed to be cajeta (Mexican goat’s milk caramel) and Spanish peanuts; the only problem is that near me, the store that sells Häagen-Dazs dulce de leche ice cream and graham crackers is not the same store that sells cajeta and unadulterated, skin-on peanuts; I approximated with a regular caramel sauce and Planters peanuts that I reroasted for extra flavor. To really work with this book, I think you need to take a few focused pantry-stock-up trips: to the fancy-foods store, to the regular grocery, to the Latin and Asian groceries. Get a surplus of stuff, since most of the key ingredients are nonperishable, then after that, get your fresh ingredients for the meal at hand and start cooking.

Among the dishes I sampled, I thought a chipotle seasoned chicken salad (made with preroasted chicken and jarred mayo) was a pleasant cold supper. Ricotta crostini with a Sicilian condiment of currants and pine nuts in balsamic syrup was pretty good, but it made me regret not venturing downtown for higher-quality ricotta. And a pasta dish made with garbanzos, anchovies, and celery (see below) will probably enter my playbook for easy dinner pastas.

Although Silverton’s assertion that conscientiously produced food can be uncomplicated too is admirable, in the end I’m not sure I’ll ever really turn to her for convenience. I most admire her for the way she’s complicated my life in the name of flavor—how I cannot put an untoasted nut into any recipe I prepare, how I still feel a wince of guilt if I use a blender to make mayonnaise, how I learned that blanched broccoli is one thing but broccoli braised for two hours or more is something transcendental. Her sandwich book is probably the most complicated sandwich book ever written, but it produces fantastic results, even if you dismantle the sandwiches into their component elements and serve those elements on their own. I’ll happily turn to Mark Bittman for short, sharp quick-cooking ideas, but from Silverton, I find myself hooked on the arduousness of it all.

Here is one of the simplest recipes from the book, a contribution from Saveur cofounder Colman Andrews. It is seriously easy-weeknight food.

Rigatoni with Anchovies, Garbanzo Beans, and Celery

Kosher salt
8 ounces rigatoni rigate
12 anchovy fillets (including about 1 tablespoon of the packing oil or extra-virgin olive oil)
1 15-ounce can garbanzo beans, not drained
1 small celery stalk, trimmed and minced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Parmigiano-Reggiano wedge, for grating
Freshly ground black pepper
High-quality extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat and add a generous amount of kosher salt. Stir in the pasta, return the water to a boil, and cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until it’s al dente. (Since cooking times vary depending on the thickness of the pasta, for perfectly cooked pasta, refer to the package instructions for the recommended time and taste the pasta frequently while it cooks.) {This may be an easy recipe, but Silverton never slacks off when it comes to precise instructions; most recipes would have covered this step in 15 words or fewer.}

2. While the water is coming to a boil and the pasta is cooking, use a fork to crush the anchovies, with their oil, in a medium bowl. {If you have a pestle—and I do, of course, as a result of my Campanile tutelage—you might want to use this to get a little muscle on the anchovies.} Strain the liquid from the garbanzo beans into the bowl with the anchovies. {I don’t know why, but I’ve always treated canned bean water as quasi-industrial waste; I was pleasantly surprised to see how the starchy water worked its way into a nice clingy sauce.} Set the garbanzo beans aside and stir the liquid and anchovies together to form a thin paste. Stir in the minced celery. {I love how almost everything lands in one bowl here—the sign of an actually easy recipe.}

3. Drain the pasta and, while it’s still dripping with water, return it to the pot it was cooked in. Add the anchovy mixture and toss well. Add the garbanzo beans and olive oil, grate about 1 tablespoon of Parmesan cheese into the pot, and season generously with freshly ground black pepper. Toss to combine the ingredients and season with kosher salt.

4. Spoon the pasta out of the pot and pile it onto four plates, dividing it evenly. Drizzle with the high-quality olive oil, top with a few celery leaves, and serve with grated Parmesan cheese on the side. {This is a spare-looking dish; don’t skimp on the celery leaves—I chopped mine, and you might even want to add some chopped parsley too, but then it starts to get a little complicated and you don’t want that … I actually admired this dish for its plainness as well as its flavor: You can never go wrong with anchovies to deepen the palate of a dish. Although I like to serve pasta piping hot, I have to say the noodles that sat in the pan during dinner only to be picked out come dishwashing time had an even finer flavor—consider adding a 10-minute wait while the rigatoni takes a warm anchovy bath before serving.}