A New Classic For Every Day Cooking: Canal House

384 pages, 250 recipes by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton

A New Classic For Every Day Cooking: Canal House

A few years ago authors Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton co-founded Canal House Cooking in a warehouse loft on the Delaware River in Lambertville, New Jersey as a kind of working-kitchen-think-tank-publisher-media-company-with-an-appetite. The duo brought some very serious cred to their enterprise: Hamilton had worked at Saveur as its test kitchen director and food editor, and was previously in the kitchens of Martha Stewart Living and Cook's Illustrated. She's also been an executive chef and does the charming illustrations found in Canal House's books. Hirsheimer is a photographer, a founder and former executive editor of Saveur, the former food and design editor of Metropolitan Home, and among the books she's written is a winning small volume that for years I've kept near my kitchen desk, The San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market Cookbook.

Together the two women (yes, Christopher is a woman) write a column for Bon Appétit, write and publish books, take photos for ones written by others, and every day they make lunch, which they then photograph and post at their website.They also self-publish a series of small Canal House cookbooks, each numbered and themed, e.g., The Grocery Store, La Dolce Vita, or Farm Markets & Gardens.

A few weeks ago a friend gave me a copy of Canal House Cooking No. 5, this one about The Good Life. With the opening epigraph of, "it's always five o'clock somewhere," this 125-page lapis blue cloth hardcover begins with a riotous essay by Gabrielle Hamilton (sister to Melissa) about Christmas Eve, followed by a primer about grower Champagnes by Alabama chef and author Frank Stitt. It goes on to include advice and recipes for fois gras and paté, gnocchi, crepes, big birds, making sausage, serious meat (Roasted Pork Belly and Céleri Remoulade is just one), and holiday sweets. Within minutes of opening the book, I was stunned. Everything spoke to me. Its Red Cabbage With Apples & Chestnuts immediately joined my Christmas dinner menu (smart that I did as it was pitch perfect). But where had I been that I didn't know about Canal House?

And now there is Canal House Cooks Every Day. We all should take notice.

With a red cover and the heft of a doorstop, Canal House Cooks Every Day (published by Andrews McMeel) gives us a year of seasonal cooking. It inspires because it is filled with food we want to eat every day and it enables because it teaches not just recipes but how our ingredients -- and appetites -- vary as the seasons come and go. You immediately know you're in for something compelling as the book begins with Ithaca, a romantic and lyrical poem by the early 20th century Greek Poet Constantine Cavafy. Ithaca is about enjoying what the journey of life gives us, a fitting introduction to what this book strives to achieve, which is to show us how to appreciate the simple task of cooking our daily meals.

The book is intelligently functional. First there is an accessible recipe index, organizing everything in a familiar way -- soups, salads, eggs, pasta/rice/grains, pizza, fish/shellfish, birds, meat, vegetables/legumes, desserts, drinks, and finally what they call "Canal House Essentials," which is their idea of basics -- such as anchovy & lemon butter, browned flour, dill sauce, no-knead bread, red currant jelly, turkey gravy, and 34 others. Then there is a list of celebration menus; those you'd expect (Thanksgiving and Christmas) plus others that are a useful surprise, like March Meatball Madness and a meal for a Birthday Lunch, ideally in May, with Birthday Halibut With Beets & Asparagus Vinaigrette followed by Birthday Strawberry Pavlova. I wish I'd been born in May.

At the end of the book is a useful alphabetical index. But between these two lists are nearly 250 extraordinary recipes that follow the seasonal calendar. To remind us that this isn't some preciously curated collection, and to provoke us into remembering how the weather influences our food, there is a margin note for every recipe for the state of the day when it was cooked: a date, the temperature, and maybe some other environmental detail. Each month also has an essay on topics as varied as foraging for chanterelles or wearing kitchen aprons or picking a ripe tomato, essays that are a pleasure to read but can also give you more confidence as a cook.

Canal House Cooks Every Day is seasonal without any smug contrivance. The term farm-to-table appears nowhere. Nor does nose-to-tail. There's no need because the cooking in these nearly 400 pages gracefully and joyously follows the natural cycle of ingredients, appetite and cravings. Or as they write, "We cook seasonally because that's what makes sense." Some of what Hamilton and Hirsheimer suggest we eat is profoundly simple, as with summer tomato sandwiches or a mash of avocado spread on multigrain toast. They also respect the cost of ingredients by featuring less expensive cuts of meats, treating them with the same imagination often reserved for far pricier ones, as with a recipe for Breast of Veal Braised With Green Olives and Tomatoes.

Although some recipes are simple, others are more complex, requiring time, equipment and focus. But this is for the home cook so the essential equipment isn't a sous vide but perhaps a candy thermometer to heat oil to fry potatoes or a piece of fish. The demand for focus is when we need to have the patience to cut sheets of fresh pasta into tagliatelle or to let bread dough rise.

As for what you will cook, here are more of the book's recipes:

We've been given permission to share two recipes: Pimentón & Caraway Short Ribs With Egg Noodles and Borlatti Beans With Sautéed Baby Kale.  See our links.

The book ends with a recipe for Thin & Crisp Chocolate Chip Cookies. Perfect.

Throughout the pages we hear the authors' guidance but aren't interrupted by their stories; there are no gratuitous narratives about their dogs or babies or love of muffins. That's because this book isn't about them. Instead Canal House Cooks Every Day is about the satisfaction of fitting daily cooking into what matters, just as Cavafy's Ithaca is about enjoying the journey of life.  And the recipes are superbly flavorful, for and of every season, inspired by a global table, and ranging from simple treats to complex celebratory meals. As you turn each page you can't help but think, "yes, of course that's what I want to eat next."

The book is big and not inexpensive ($45.00 list). But it's got a beautiful generosity with a red hardcover, a turquoise grosgrain ribbon place-marker, 384 pages, lots of gorgeous color photos of cooking in process, plated food, as well as the Canal House kitchen and, since the book is a year's calendar of cooking, lovely seasonal still-lifes.

Our mission here at The City Cook is to help home cooking become an easier, more accessible, and more rewarding part of our busy urban lives. This is the best cookbook I've yet seen to help us simultaneously embrace that mission and have the tools to achieve it.

Canal House Cooks Every Day's publisher calls this book magnificent. And indeed, it is.



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