It’s almost dinner time and you haven’t thought of anything to cook and haven’t been to the store or farm stand, so what do you do? Well, if you’re Jessica Elliot Dennison, a food writer and stylist as well as owner of 27 Elliot’s, a neighborhood café, workshop and supper club in Edinburgh, Scotland, you just open the pantry.
Since I’ve frequently been in that position, hungry people waiting and no prior planning, I was intrigued when my friend Grace Jensen sent me a copy of Dennison’s latest cookbook, “Tin Can Magic: Easy, Delicious Recipes Using Pantry Staples” (Hardie Grant 2020; $16.99). The premise is that a great meal is just a can opener away.
Sure, it helps that Dennison has quite a culinary background having been part of Jamie Oliver’s retail marketing team, responsible for his 1000-product food and homeware range and that her first cookbook, “Salad Feasts: How to Assemble the Perfect Meal” was a best seller. Indeed, the inspiration for “Tin Can Magic” came from repeated mentions by fans of her first book that the recipes they cooked the most frequently were the ones fans where the main ingredients were already on hand.
So, using nine different tins (that’s what they call them in the United Kingdom, we say cans) of such ingredients as tomatoes, butter beans, sweet corn, cherries, coconut milk, green lentils, anchovies, chickpeas and condensed milk, Dennison came up with more than 60 recipes. Since anchovies aren’t high on many people’s lists of favorite ingredients (I actually like them), I guess we could say there are really eight tins we can use to create meals—unless you’re willing to give anchovies a try.
Dennison doesn’t want us to have to run to the grocery store when making these last minute meals, so she offers lists of substitutions we can use. For example, in the introduction to her recipe for Tomato Butter Sugo with Fettucine and Feta, she notes that it’s the first sauce they teach at their pasta workshop evenings as a way of illustrating how even the simplest of store cupboard ingredients can be turned into something truly comforting and spectacular.
“Fettucine is my go-to pasta for this rich butter sugo,” she says. “But by all means, just cook whatever pasta you’ve got to hand.”
Sugo, In case you’re wondering as I was, is a traditional Italian red sauce and the word means sauce’ in Italian.
There’s an ethnic flair to many of her recipes such as Chili Ramen-Style Noodles with Spicy Tuna and Spring Onion, Crispy Coconut Milk Pancakes with Shrimp and Garlic Vinegar and Cumin and Sesame Roast Chicken Thighs, Silky Butter Bean Hummus, Charred Lemon and Toasted Almond and more familiar ones such as Roasted Pepper, Tomato and Lentil Soup, Cornbread Loaf with Cumin and Chili Loaf and Set Lemon Pudding , a four ingredient dessert made with condensed milk that’s similar to an Italian panna cotta only much easier.
INDIAN-STYLE CREAMED CORN with Naan, Coriander and Toasted Spices
“This is halfway between a dahl and a curry, where a few tins of regular sweetcorn are transformed into something fragrant and special by the help of the spices from the back of your cupboard,” writes Dennison in a forward to this recipe. “I’ve suggested using a stick blender to give your corn a nice creamy texture, but if you don’t have one, don’t worry, just mash some of the corn by hand using a potato masher instead.”
6 tablespoons rapeseed (canola), light olive or coconut oil
1 onion, peeled and finely sliced
3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced
11½ ounces) tins of sweetcorn, drained
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon curry leaves (optional)
½ – 1 teaspoon of dried chili (hot pepper) flakes (depending on how spicy you want it)
Sea salt flakes
1 large naan or 2 chapatis
Handful of cilantro leaves
Ground coriander: Garam masala
First, heat 4 tablespoons of oil over a medium heat in a wide pan. Add the onion and garlic, reduce to low, then fry for 15 minutes until soft and translucent. Stir occasionally and add a splash of water if beginning to catch.
Add half the corn to a jug with a splash of water. Then, using a stick blender or food processor, blitz into a rough pulp.
Add 2 tablespoons of oil to the onion, then add the spices and curry leaves. Stir for 1–2 minutes until fragrant, then add the creamed corn and reserved kernels. Add the zest of one lemon and the juice of half, plenty of seasoning to taste, and a splash of water to loosen if it’s too thick. Cut the remaining lemon half into wedges.
Meanwhile, use tongs to heat the naan bread directly over a gas flame for a few seconds until lightly charred. You can also do this in a hot pan or oven.
Divide the corn and naan between two plates. Roughly tear over the coriander and serve with a lemon wedge each.
Tomato Butter Sugo with Fettucine and Feta
Preparation time: 45 minutes
3 tablespoons rapeseed (canola), vegetable or light olive oil
3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced
14-ounce tin of chopped tomatoes
¼ teaspoon chili (hot pepper) flakes
½ onion, peeled (not chopped)
2 ounces butter (salted or unsalted)
1 teaspoon sea salt flakes, plus extra to taste
pinch of sugar (optional)
5 ounces dried fettuccine
2 ounces feta
Onion: Half a leek, banana shallot, red onion
Fettuccine: Whatever pasta you have to hand
Feta: Salted ricotta, Parmesan, halloumi, pecorino
Chopped tomatoes: Passata (sieved tomatoes), peeled fresh in season tomatoes
First, heat the oil and garlic in a medium saucepan over a medium heat for 1–2 minutes until fragrant and beginning to golden (take care not to burn the garlic). Add the tomatoes, chili flakes, onion half, butter and salt. Bring to a simmer, then reduce over a low heat for 25–30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Splash in some water if it’s sticking or reducing too much. Remove and discard the onion, then taste the sugo for seasoning. You may want to add a pinch of sugar, depending on the acidity of the tomatoes.
After 15 minutes of the sugo simmering, bring a large saucepan of water up to the boil and cook the fettucine until al dente (around 9–10 minutes – check packet instructions for exact timing), reserving a mugful of the starchy cooking water. Using tongs, transfer the fettuccine into the tomato sauce, stirring in spoonfuls of the reserved cooking water until coated in the sauce. Taste again for seasoning (bear in mind the feta will add saltiness).
Divide the pasta between two plates, then finely grate over the feta to finish.
Feast Tip: Roasted or charred little gem lettuce (bibb lettuce) topped with finely grated (shredded) Parmesan and a squeeze of lemon makes a beautiful side dish to this fettucine. Throw in some nice olives, a plate of burrata drizzled with the salsa verde (see the recipe below) plus a good bottle of red and you’ve got a full-on Italian-style feast.
1 small garlic clove
1½ tablespoons capers (baby capers) in brine, drained
Handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves
Handful of basil leaves
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Scant 1 cup) rapeseed (canola) or olive oil
¾ tablespoon cider vinegar
½ teaspoon salt
Pinch of sugar (optional)
To make the salsa verde, mince the garlic and crush the capers with a knife. Finely chop the flat-leaf parsley and basil, then add the garlic, capers and herbs to a bowl. Stir in the mustard, oil, vinegar and salt, then taste for seasoning. If it’s too punchy and vinegary, add a small pinch of sugar.
Vietnamese-Style Iced Coffee
“I became completely addicted to this way of drinking coffee on a trip to Hanoi a few years back – and as soon as summer kicks off in the UK, I get back into the swing of making them,” writes Dennison. “This isn’t a recipe as such, more of a guide for you to play around with the quantities of coffee and condensed milk to your taste. All I would recommend is to choose a coffee that’s pretty strong, to balance the sweetness of the tinned milk.”
Freshly brewed coffee (ideally quite strong)
Coffee: Strong chai tea, strong black tea
First, divide the coffee among glasses, top up with ice and milk, then stir in a spoonful of condensed milk. Stir then taste; adding in more condensed milk if you fancy.