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When Jessica Elliott Dennison first came up with the idea for Tin Can Magic – a cookbook full of vibrant, punchy meals using canned goods – she was thinking about recipes to help people in the UK navigate cooking after Brexit.
A year later, and her book has been released into a very different world – one facing worldwide quarantines and lockdowns; where a trip to the supermarket comes with a high level of personal risk. Against the backdrop of the global pandemic, what was written as a practically minded follow-up to her first book, Salad Feasts, has suddenly become a bestseller.
It's not hard to see why. Tin Can Magic builds its recipes around nine different commonly available canned goods: green lentils, chickpeas, sweetcorn, coconut milk, butter beans, tomatoes, anchovies, cherries and condensed milk. Recipes are simple, vegetable-focused and unfussy, and each provides a list of substitutions for key ingredients so that you can adapt them to whatever you happen to have on hand.
For Dennison, part of the reason for writing the book was to address the misconception that what comes out of a can is of inferior quality to fresh produce. "I think there's snobbery around tinned food – or there was, until very recently," she says, on the phone from Edinburgh. "For me, it's just the preservation method. If you put bad quality tomatoes in a tin, you'll get bad quality tomatoes. But if you put beautiful, Italian, ripe, at-their-peak tomatoes in a tin, you'll get something delicious out of it."
It's also hard to beat tins in terms of convenience, something Dennison embraces in her own life. "I run a restaurant in Edinburgh [called 27 Elliott's], where we change the menu every week depending on what's in season," she explains. "But when I get home and I've been working all day, I just want to make something quick and simple, like a curry or dhal. It's all those tins in the back of the cupboard that serve me really well."
Given the uncertain times, those tins have moved from the back of the cupboard to front and centre in many people's minds. Now the question becomes: what can I cook with a can of lentils? How can I make tinned sweetcorn into a meal? Flicking through the book reveals that with a few fresh ingredients and a handful of spices, it's not hard to transform a humble tin into a feast.
"When you start thinking about what's in your cupboard, there's so many things you can actually make," explains Dennison. "There's a butter bean dish I make with garlic, onions, a little bit of white wine, and sage or rosemary," she says. The trick to making it special is the secret ingredient included in every can. "If you add the butter bean's water, it becomes really luxurious and creamy. It tastes like there's lots of butter in it, but it's actually just the tin water."
Other recipes put a new spin on the familiar: "Most people know how to make a tomato sauce," she says. "But the tomato sugo in my book uses butter to make it a bit richer, and rather than chopping an onion, you infuse one whole in the sauce as it simmers away, which sweetens it."
As well stocking up on cans, Dennison recommends picking up a variety of fresh herbs, lemons and nuts when you're on your weekly shopping trip. "My team at the restaurant always mock me because I put lemon zest in most things. But it just lifts everything – a little grating of zest over the top is just transformative. I use so many fresh herbs too; they add freshness to everything. The same goes for nuts and spices: you can toast them whole and add them at the end for some crunch and texture, which adds a whole different level to each dish."
While Tin Can Magic has been released into a world where many eateries are shuttered and home cooks are looking to avoid unnecessary trips to the shops, Dennison points out that it's essential to the hospitality industry that people don't abandon restaurants and cafes altogether. "My biggest tip is supporting local, especially restaurants. If, after all this craziness, you still want to see those places operating, try to support them now."
In the meantime, her book will be a lifeline for anyone wondering what to do with all the canned goods lining their pantries. "It's been a project for the last year, but obviously I didn't know it was going to become such a hit," says Dennison. "What's nice about it is I can actually help people. It's really satisfying to know that I'm helping people get delicious food on their plates, even in this very weird, unsettling time."
Photo: Matt Russell
Indian-style creamed corn with naan, coriander and toasted spices
- 6 tbsp canola, light olive or coconut oil
- 1 onion, peeled and finely sliced
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced
- 2 x 340g cans of sweetcorn, drained
- 2 tsp ground coriander
- 1½ tsp ground cumin
- 1 tbsp curry leaves (optional)
- ½–1 tsp of dried chilli flakes (depending on how spicy you want it)
- 1 lemon
- sea salt flakes
- 1 large naan or 2 chapatis
- handful of coriander leaves
- 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.
- To assemble, divide the corn and naan between two plates. Roughly tear over the coriander and serve with a lemon wedge each.
Substitutes Onion: leek; Ground coriander: garam masala; Lemon: lime.
Photo: Matt Russell
Sage, garlic and white wine butter beans
- 150ml (⅔ cup) canola or light olive oil, plus extra for finishing
- 4 onions, peeled and finely sliced
- 8 garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced
- 1 large handful of sage leaves (roughly 5 stalks), leaves picked
- 2 bay leaves (optional)
- 3 x 400g cans of butter (lima) beans in water
- 500ml (2 cups) white wine
- 3 tsp sea salt flakes, plus extra to taste
- grated zest of 2 lemons
- toasted sourdough, to serve (optional)
- First, heat the oil over a medium heat in a deep, wide pan. Stir in the onion, garlic, sage leaves and woody stalks and bay leaves, reduce the heat to low and gently sweat for 20–25 minutes, stirring occasionally. You want the onion and garlic to take on a golden colour without burning. If they're catching, add a splash of water to loosen them.
- Add the beans (including the juice from the tin), crushing a handful as you pour them in. Add the wine, salt and enough water to cover, then increase to a rapid boil. Reduce to a simmer for 20–25 minutes then add in most of the lemon zest and taste for seasoning; depending on the acidity of your white wine, you may want to add some lemon juice from your zested lemon. As the beans are quite simple, you may find you need to be quite generous with the seasoning.
- Using a fork, fish out and discard the sage stalks and bay leaves, but you can leave in if you prefer. Crush a few more beans if you'd like a slightly thicker consistency.
- To assemble, ladle the beans onto plates, pop a slice of toasted sourdough on each, then generously drizzle over some oil and a bit more lemon zest.
Substitute sage with oregano, rosemary or thyme.
Photo: Matt Russell
Salt and pepper cherry crumble with toasted rolled oats and hazelnuts
- 400g can of pitted cherries, drained (juice reserved, don't throw it away!)
- juice of 1 lemon
- 2 tbsp dark brown sugar
- 3 tbsp blanched shelled hazelnuts, lightly crushed
- 4 tbsp whole rolled oats
- ½ tsp sea salt flakes
- freshly ground black pepper (or Sichuan pepper if you have it)
- a few spoonfuls of cream, lightly whipped with 1 tbsp icing sugar (optional)
- First, heat a small saucepan over a high heat, then add the cherries, 50ml of the cherry tin syrup, lemon juice and sugar. Allow to rapidly bubble and thicken for 10 minutes, then turn off the heat and set aside to cool slightly.
- Next, heat a wide non-stick frying pan (skillet) over a medium heat, add the hazelnuts and rolled oats and toast for 3–5 minutes, stirring regularly to make sure they don't burn. Transfer to a plate and stir in ½ teaspoon of salt and a few turns of ground pepper.
- To assemble, divide the warm cherries in their syrup between two small bowls, sprinkle over the topping, then eat straight away with the cream.
Substitutes Sugar: honey; Hazelnuts: almonds, walnuts.
This is an edited extract from Tin Can Magic by Jessica Elliott Dennison published by Hardie Grant Books RRP $24.99.