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Cutting corners on high-end food prep

Nancy Silverton and I have a very different approach to making a chicken salad. Silverton begins by roasting a whole chicken and whipping up a batch of mayonnaise from scratch. I begin by getting last night's leftovers and a jar of mayo out of the fridge.

There are clever uses of everyday pantry items, and of some less so.
There are clever uses of everyday pantry items, and of some less so.Read more

Nancy Silverton and I have a very different approach to making a chicken salad. Silverton begins by roasting a whole chicken and whipping up a batch of mayonnaise from scratch. I begin by getting last night's leftovers and a jar of mayo out of the fridge.

But the award-winning chef and seven-time cookbook author makes what she calls a "revolutionary" discovery in her new cookbook, A Twist of the Wrist: Flavorful Meals With Ingredients From Jars, Cans, Bags, and Boxes (Alfred A. Knopf). She discovers Hellmann's, along with frozen veggies, jarred sauces, and other packaged foods that most home cooks have been using for quite a while.

Even if she is a late bloomer, Silverton's personal revolution is noteworthy - and not only because it resulted in a fine cookbook. It shows that even the top of the food chain, a celebrated chef, is grappling with the shift in cooking toward prepared foods and frozen meals.

Of course, this cookbook is not in the same league with Rachael Ray's 30 Minute Meals or Sandra Lee's Semi-Homemade Cooking, or even Martha Stewart's latest offering, Great Food Fast. In other words, it is not quite as simple as its title implies.

Although some of Silverton's recipes call for everyday ingredients, such as Ritz crackers in the Salmon Cakes with Chipotle Mayonnaise, and Progresso Lentil soup in a dish of sauteed lentils with garlic and olive oil, she also uses a slew of high-end gourmet pantry items - such as the dried porcinis (than can run $40 per pound) in the Orzo with Dried Porcini Mushrooms, and a jar of preserved lemon in the Seared Lambchops with Artichoke Hearts and Fresh Mint - that make many of her preparations faster, albeit expensive and a little out of reach for the typical home cook.

But using anything "not straight from the earth" was a huge change for Silvertown, a breakthrough that may have been the result of her own increasingly hectic lifestyle working late nights slinging pizzas at Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles, her joint venture with Mario Batali, and one of the hardest reservations to snag in the country right now. No doubt the ready-made ingredients that form the basis of the 137 recipes in her book started looking good at the end of a long shift.

Silverton solicited recipes from other chefs and cooking friends and found they, too, had "quick and dirty" recipes with plenty of surprising ingredients. Who would have thought you could make a respectable pasta sauce with canned tuna and V8?

The reality is that fewer and fewer people are cooking on a regular basis. And if they are cooking, they are using shortcuts and time-saving ingredients to get in and out of the kitchen as quickly as possible. Cookbook authors such as Silverton are being forced to adapt to suit their audience's time and interest.

What makes Silverton's new cookbook stand out is that her inventive and delightful recipes take the quick and simple genre to a higher level. It's not just about getting a meal on the table before the clock runs out. These are gourmet recipes that happen to take a few shortcuts.

"I understand people have time constraints," the chef recently explained. "But I think cooking is a big part of eating, and spending time in the kitchen is a big part of eating, too."

She uses jarred onions as a timesaver in her Bacon, Onion and Gruyere Frittata, which delivers a meal as enjoyable as it is fattening and, like most recipes in the book, takes less than 30 minutes to prepare. The Creamy Corn Soup with Bacon and Cheddar Crostini is really just a doctored-up box of pureed Trader Joe's corn soup. But the addition of a floating sourdough crouton with melted white Cheddar, smoked bacon, and snipped fresh chives elevates the canned soup into a satisfying, even company-worthy entrée.

A recipe for Pulled Barbecue Chicken with Cole Slaw on Garlic Sourdough Toast is a smart reinvention of the roasted chicken found in most supermarkets. She throws away the skin and bones, shreds the chicken, and tosses it in a saucepan with jarred onions, garlic, cumin and - for a little kick - cayenne pepper, as well as bottled barbecue sauce (she recommends Stubb's Bar-B-Q Sauce).

Her version of coleslaw for the open-faced sandwich uses bottled sauerkraut to avoid the work of shredding fresh cabbage, along with crème fraîche, mayo, mustard, apple cider vinegar, lemon juice and garlic. It is hardly a conventional recipe - I am guessing very few barbecue joints use crème fraîche in their slaw - but the flavors work, especially piled with the chicken on top of the garlicky toast.

But it's in her abundant use of high-end ingredients like crème fraîche (in everything from the slaw to a homey orecchiette pasta dish with frozen peas and prosciutto) that Silverton reveals she doesn't understand the reality of most home kitchens. While she adamantly insists the book is meant to be accessible to all cooks, and to educate even "non-foodies" on how to assemble quality pantry items, only an obsessive gourmet would be willing to hunt down fennel pollen for a pork chop recipe, frozen truffle butter for a frittata, or tahini and pomegranate molasses for a 20-minute lamb-chop recipe.

Nor are most home cooks willing to fork over the money for fresh ricotta, balsamic vinegar aged for 12 years, or chestnut honey for a quickie weeknight meal.

But for those of us willing to trek to a specialty grocery store and shell out the cash, the book is filled with sophisticated recipes that a moderately experienced cook can prepare in a short time.

In other words, it is for the kind of cook who, like Silverton, would shop at a farmer's market and enjoy spending a whole day in the kitchen if only there was enough time.

Such foodies will appreciate that her shortcuts, like using precooked shrimp, baby peeled carrots, and canned garbanzo beans in her Cumin Shrimp and Garbanzo Bean Salad with Roasted Carrots, do not shortchange the complexity in flavor. The salad layers a shrimp-garbanzo bean mixture that has marinated in an earthy, Middle Eastern-inspired cumin vinaigrette, with baby mixed greens and dollops of a garlic mayonnaise. It has a great contrast in texture and tastes - the roasted carrots are divine in this dish - and it's filling enough to be served as a main course.

Other recipes are clever in their surprising reinterpretation of everyday pantry items, such as vegetable juice in Spaghettini with Tuna and V8 Sauce. While V8 seems like an odd choice, if you look at the ingredient list on a V8 can - tomato, carrot, celery - it's the same ingredients as in many tomato sauces. The resulting pasta dish had a nice combination of saltiness from the tuna, capers and olives, and a bit of heat from chile flakes, which a tuckered-out cook could happily enjoy slurping after a hard day at work.

Blueberry Pie with Crumb Topping from Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl may not be a total knockout, but by using frozen berries and a premade crust, it took less than 15 minutes to assemble before baking. And my guests were none the wiser.

With A Twist of the Wrist, you will get back what you give in terms of great taste for the time invested in the kitchen. Just don't let yourself get caught up in trying to find which aisle has the fennel pollen at your local grocery store.

Go to for more recipes from "A Twist of the Wrist."


Spaghettini with Tuna and V8 Sauce

Makes about 4 servings


Kosher salt

8 ounces spaghettini (or


2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 small onion, finely chopped (about 1/4 cup)

1/2 celery stalk, finely chopped (about 1/4 cup)

1 large garlic clove, grated or minced (about 1 teaspoon)

Pinch of chile flakes

1 cup V8 juice

6 ounces olive oil-packed tuna, not drained

1 tablespoon capers

3 tablespoons small pitted green olives or black olives, coarsely chopped

High-quality extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzlingEndTextStartText

1. Bring a large pot of water to boil over high heat and add a generous amount of kosher salt. Stir in the spaghettini, return the water to a boil, and cook the pasta, stirring occasionally to prevent the strands from sticking together, until it's al dente. (Since cooking times vary, for perfectly cooked pasta, refer to the package instructions for the recommended time and taste the pasta frequently while it cooks.)

2. While the water is coming to a boil and the pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil and onion together in a large saucepan over medium-high heat and sauté until the onion is just translucent, about 4 minutes. Add the celery, garlic and chile flakes and cook until the garlic is softened and fragrant, about 1½ minutes, stirring constantly so the garlic doesn't brown. Add the V8 and bring it to a simmer. Stir in the tuna (including the oil it's packed in), capers and olives and reduce the heat to medium-low, and let the sauce simmer until the pasta is cooked.

3. Reserve 1/4 cup of the pasta water, then use tongs to lift the pasta out of the water and transfer it quickly, while it's still dripping with water, to the skillet with the sauce. Stir in the reserved pasta water and cook the pasta with the sauce over medium-high heat, stirring it to combine, for about 1 minute, so the pasta absorbs the sauce a bit.

4. Use tongs to lift the pasta out of the skillet and pile it onto four pasta or soup plates, dividing evenly and twisting it into high mounds. Drizzle with the high-quality olive oil.

Per serving:

410 calories, 18 grams protein, 47 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 17 grams fat, 23 milligrams cholesterol, 482 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber

Pulled Barbecue Chicken with Cole Slaw

Makes 4 servings


1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

5 small jarred onions,

quartered (about 1/3 cup)

2 large garlic cloves, grated or minced (about 2 teaspoons)

Kosher salt

1 1½-pound roasted chicken, meat shredded (3-4 cups)

1 cup barbecue sauce (Stubb's BBQ sauce is recommended)

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

For the Cole Slaw

2 cups sauerkraut, rinsed and drained (Bubbie's is recom         mended)

1/4 cup crème fraîche (or sour cream)

3 tablespoons mayonnaise

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1 small garlic clove, grated or minced (about ½ teaspoon)

½ teaspoon kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper


1. Heat the olive oil, onions, garlic, and a pinch of kosher salt in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat and sauté for about 1½ minutes, until the onions are soft and the garlic is soft and fragrant, stirring constantly so the garlic doesn't brown.

2. Add the chicken, barbecue sauce, cayenne pepper, and cumin, and stir to combine. Bring the sauce to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer the chicken in the sauce for five minutes, stirring occasionally to keep it from scorching.

3. Meanwhile, to make the cole slaw, combine the sauerkraut, crème fraîche, mayonnaise, mustard, vinegar, lemon juice, and garlic in a medium bowl. Season with the kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper and toss thoroughly to mix.

Note: To serve over toast, place four slices of 1/2-inch thick sourdough bread from a large round loaf on a baking sheet. Brush the tops with olive oil, and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, at 350°F until they're lightly toasted and golden brown. Rub the oiled side of the toast with a clove of garlic. After assembling the chicken barbecue and coleslaw, place one piece of toast oiled side up on each of four plates. Mount the coleslaw on top of the toasts with the edges of the toast visible and pile the chicken on top of the cole slaw.

Per serving: 436 calories, 33 grams protein, 24 grams carbohydrates, 13 grams sugar, 23 grams fat, 102 milligrams cholesterol, 1,641 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.EndText