E-Z Meals? Depends Who's Talking

In this week's chat, a reader asked about a new cookbook on the market, "A Twist of the Wrist" by Nancy Silverton that's getting some attention.

It's important to mention the subtitle here: "Quick Flavorful Meals With Ingredients from Jars, Cans, Bags and Boxes."

When you read that, what comes to mind? Balsamic vinegar, fennel pollen and mostardo, by chance? I know what you're thinking, I must have some of that easy-to-find burrata cheese to make my crostini sing.

All of the above-mentioned ingredients are highlighted in orange and listed in Silverton's "Twist Essentials," a detailed glossary at the book at the book.

Now, when I first heard about this book (and its premise), I thought of basics for the average home cook in need of inspiration and a few shortcuts. Even when I read Silverton's introduction:

The goal of my so-called mission is to show people a way to create satisfying meals with a minimum of effort and time so that they will be encouraged to cook at home more often.

I'm still thinking easy, uncomplicated, middle-of-the-road, but with a smidge of sophistication (after all, Silverton is the original dessert chef at Wolfgang's Spago, the founder of La Brea Bakery and author of four other respected cookbooks). I know I'm not going to find acronyms such as "EVOO" and wade through a sea of "Yummo!" exclamations, for example.

But as I work my way through the beautifully designed pages, I get confused. The very first recipe, "Butter Lettuce and Herb Salad with Borlotti Beans, Asparagus, Artichoke Hearts and Feta" takes 40 minutes to prepare. Is it me, or is 40 minutes a lot of time to make a salad?

For the "Spinach Salad with Lentils and Crispy Warm Goat Cheese," the message is mixed. In addition to a can of lentil soup (she mentions a preference for Progresso brand), the recipe calls for 11 ounces of fresh goat cheese and panko, Japanese bread crumbs. Forget it, Safeway shoppers; you aren't making this tonight. You'll be driving all over town looking for panko, which will take more time than it does to cook up a pot of lentils!

Similarly, for the "Butternut Squash Soup with Sauteed Farro and Pancetta, Wilted Spinach and Pumpkin Seed Oil," Silverton recommends a box of butternut squash puree doctored up with hard-to-find Italian grains and an expensive oil that has limited utility. Last time I checked, a chopped butternut squash can be microwaved or boiled in less than 30 minutes, while I wilt that spinach and sauté the pancetta and farro.

The implication that lies beneath the written word is that everyone shops at Whole Foods or some fancy culinary equivalent thereof, that verjus, passato and saba are commonly used words and -- that money is no object.

What happened to the farmer's markets that Silverton was a champion of (she was one of the first chefs to shop at Santa Monica's market)? Why all of a sudden is that considered inconvenient and timely, particularly when she recommends sourcing locally produced vinegar and chestnut honey?

Hmm. Maybe it's all semantics. It's that darned subtitle again, giving me a headache. Or maybe it was just a great hook that caught the eye of a savvy book editor?

Weigh in, if you so please. And have a delicious, uncomplicated weekend.

By Kim ODonnel |  April 13, 2007; 8:57 AM ET Cook's Library , Kitchen Musings
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Where can you get panko?

Posted by: nova | April 13, 2007 12:55 PM

I've gotten them at Trader Joe's.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | April 13, 2007 1:21 PM

It seems a lot of chefs don't appreciate that most Americans have limited pantries and some have limited budgets. I saw the article about this book in the New York Times and had similar questions when I read the recipes. Seemed too complicated and had too many ingredients. I love to cook but...

Posted by: Deb | April 13, 2007 1:21 PM

Safeway carries panko in the asian food section. At least the one in King Farm does, since that's where I get mine for making chicken fingers... mmm...

Posted by: Jonathan | April 13, 2007 1:32 PM

I have had this book http://www.amazon.com/Pretty-Darn-Quick-Vegetarian-Cookbook/dp/1557884382 for some time and really enjoy the recipes. It is much more practical and realistic.

Posted by: George | April 13, 2007 1:56 PM

As much as some people are annoyed by Rachel Ray's acronyms for Extra Virgin Olive Oil and other items - I am more likely to find the ingredients of her recipes in my pantry than the ones mentioned in Kim's blog. She can be a bit annoying at times but you have to admit she cooks up a pretty good meal in a short time. I'm more apt to pick up a Rachel Ray cookbook at Border's than this one.

Posted by: Melanie | April 13, 2007 2:12 PM

Hi, I'm the one from the last chat who was wondering what to do with the leftover panko... actually, I DID find my panko at the Safeway on Columbia Rd! I can't speak for any of the other Safeways in the District though, I've only shopped at the one.
Speaking of which, I tried the chicken nugget suggestion from the chat last night, and it was delicious! Thanks so much, whoever posted it.

Posted by: Adams Morgan | April 13, 2007 2:33 PM


This would make a great blog entry - cookbooks that actually have easy recipes with easy to find items.

Posted by: vch0920 | April 13, 2007 2:35 PM

Must've skipped Jonathan's post... good to know that other safeways have panko as well. Was it you who suggested the chicken fingers? if so, thumbs way up.

Posted by: Adams Morgan | April 13, 2007 2:36 PM

I've shopped at different Safeways in suburban MD and recall seeing panko in their Asian food section. I don't think it's actually all that rare anymore.

Posted by: Kim | April 13, 2007 3:00 PM

Sometimes lists of ingredients have to be subsituted and cooks have to know what good alternatives are. If I came across a recipe that called for panko and it wasn't on hand, I'd just have to settle for regular bread crumbs. I pick up panko whenever I'm in an Asian store, but it's not a pantry staple. Maybe that's the cookbook that needs to be written: a kind of mix and match of different ingredients so that cooks can familiarize themselves with substitutions and variations. For example, my stuffed cabbage calls for bulghur, but I've substituted couscous, quinoa, cooked rice, etc. If a recipe calls for leeks, I'd still attempt it with some other alium such as scallions, onion, etc.

Posted by: Sean | April 13, 2007 3:16 PM

I tend to use recipes that call for basic ingredients most people have in their pantry. I doubt many of us have time to go scouting several stores to buy ingredients for a meal. One cookbook that is a good basic one is 'Taste of Home' looseleaf binder == I got one at Borders at Christmastime. It contains recipes from cooks all over the country. If somebody from Iowa or North Dakota can find the ingredients, I'll go with that recipe rather than one that needs exotic ingredients from 3 different stores.

Off topic alert -- A couple weeks ago you had an article about stewed tomatoes. I and another poster mentioned a tomato dish that had bread crumbs and a slightly sweet flavor bake in a casserole dish. My grandmother always called it stewed tomatoes. Now I've come across a recipe for 'tomato pudding' which is identical to grandmother's stewed tomatoes. Apparently we had the name wrong -- We were eating tomato pudding all along.

Posted by: Southern Maryland | April 13, 2007 4:12 PM

My Organic Market has a lot of these ingredients, including panko.

Posted by: Alexandria | April 13, 2007 5:41 PM

My Organic Market has a lot of these ingredients, including panko.

Posted by: Alexandria | April 13, 2007 5:42 PM

Is not where to get panko!!!

Posted by: The point | April 13, 2007 5:44 PM

Just discovered your blog and it's fantastic.
I always use Panko they are sensational crumbs.
So crispy and golden.
But the book sounds really expensive...we all need exclusive imported fabulous canned food in our pantry to round up a dish or salad.
But you're right...support your locals. The more we use them...the more they will continue to grow.

Posted by: Gilli | April 13, 2007 6:35 PM

We cook most nights, so quick meals are the rule at our house. My favorite source for fast meals is Cooking Light (magazine). Each month they have a feature called "Dinner Tonight" which includes 4 "meals" all can be made in about 30 minutes (even the first time). The main recipe is the entree, a sidebar includes ideas for sides or dessert (the healthier kind). It also includes a "game plan" which is great for the cook who is having a hard time with the timing to get all parts of the meal to the table at the same time or saving time by multitasking.

I tear mine out, slip them into page protectors, file them in a binder by main ingredient type (beef, chicken, fish, pork, vegetarian) and take them out when I am cooking. Family favorites include; Shrimp Pad Thai, Pork Medallions with Olive-Caper Sauce, Pork au Poivre, Pork Chops with Carolina Rub, Shrimp Cakes.

Most ingredients are in my pantry, I need to make a weekly plan to be certain I have the fresh herbs on hand and any required veggies.

I also agree with the poster above about substitution. If it calls for something not in my pantry or produce crisper, I try to use something with a similar flavor and not stress about it.

And, while I know it is not about where to get Panko, I find more and more supermarkets have most of what you need even for more ethnic or world flavors recipes. We are in the south western suburbs of Baltimore and ethnic grocers are popping up all over, making it an easy stop while running errands to pick things up.

Posted by: late to the party | April 13, 2007 7:38 PM

Thanks very much for the review, I've been eyeing this book since it first popped up on Amazon. I'm crossing my fingers that the local library purchases a copy so I can try a few recipes out for myself. Perhaps with a bit of weekend planning they will be more approachable and easy to use?

Ari (Baking and Books)

Posted by: Ari (Baking and Books) | April 14, 2007 1:55 PM

In response to the comment by George above, i have read this book and really enjoyed it.. also another "must read" is "Diet For A New America" http://wwww.coloncleanse-blog.com

Posted by: ColonCleanseGuy | April 15, 2007 11:58 AM

Yeah, I'd find that cookbook intimidating and order take-out. I'm up for "unusual" ingredients and long prep times when I want to make something special. But after working a full day and commuting on top of it, I want to get dinner on the table in about half an hour without fuss. I want ingredients that I can get pretty much anywhere, stuff that I'm likely to have in my pantry (which would include basalmic vinegar, but not the other stuff), that doesn't cost much, and stuff that I know well enough to substitute for something I do have on hand. There are cookbooks like that out there, but this isn't one of them.

Posted by: DC Cubefarm | April 16, 2007 10:28 AM

Just a quick anecdote:

A while ago, I signed on to the online version of South Beach Diet. They had some message boards so I went there to get some inspiration for low-carb, whole food recipes (which is what is advocated by S.B.).

But what I found was that people were posting questions like, "What is 'natural' peanut butter?" "What is hummus?" and the follow up, "what are chick peas?" Much less, panko, farro and pancetta! I was really surprised that most people on those message boards had never purchased or cooked much beyond processed foods or very simple meat/potatoes meals. It was eye-opening for me.

Posted by: rainy day poster | April 16, 2007 11:37 AM

As a cook, you have to trust yourself to substitute when lacking ingredients. Cookbooks--and cooking shows--are like guidebooks, with helpful suggestions but that don't necessarily need to be followed to the last letter.

If you don't have what they call for, find a substitute in your kitchen and go with it!

That said, one of my favorite cookbook author's is Ina Garten. Her recipies are usually easy and fuss-free and while they may call for the organic or specialty version of an ingredient--you can usually find a low cost alternative in your local grocery store.

As a California resident, we've got Von's--Safeway's sister store--and I can usually find most ingredients I'm looking for. The local supermarket--is not just white bread and milk anymore!

Also, for a super quick dinner: Vons/Safeway has in-store gormet soups, which are good on their own--however the creamy tomato makes a killer pasta sauce. Heat soup on the stove, add some red pepper flakes, lemon juice and pasta water. When reduced down a bit, add to pasta (I prefer farfalle).

Posted by: Substitution | April 16, 2007 1:39 PM

Another thing we should think about is whether we need to eat a large meal in the evening.
When we decided to change our eating, we decided to have large breakfasts and lunches and smaller dinners. Two reasons -- we'd rather spend cooking time doing something else, and we don't NEED a lot of food when we're doing relaxing activities. It would be different if we exercised at night, but we don't. We play games or cards, read, listen to music or watch TV, and go to bed early.

So we have omelets one night, salad another, weekend-made low-salt soups, turkey, chicken, fish, and fresh or frozen vegs. Dinner is fast to make and healthy. This is working for us. No more hourlong cooking sessions at 8!!

Posted by: Van Ness, D.C. | April 16, 2007 3:09 PM

Rainy Day Poster: I once saw a letter to the editor of Bon Appetit magazine asking "What is lard?" I saw another that asked "What is a stick of margerine?" People in other countries don't have margerine that comes in 1/4 pound sticks.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 16, 2007 3:35 PM

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