Two To Buy, Keep and Use Often
I probably own too many cookbooks, although it begs the question of what is too many. I try to only have ones that I actually cook from, even if it's only one recipe, with a few others that are for reference or are sentimental. Like my mother’s 1950’s Betty Crocker, and my small collection of ladies’ fundraising self-published volumes, my favorite being Queen Anne Goes To The Kitchen from The Episcopal Church Women of St. Paul’s Church in Centreville, Maryland.
Most of the many new cookbooks published every year are good and many are tempting. But great cookbooks are infrequent. These are the ones that you cook from often, that maybe stay out on your kitchen counter for weeks at a time, with ideas that help you turn their recipes into yours, teaching you technique and cuisines that make you a better cook, producing splattered pages and meals that cause your friends and family to ask, “please, make that again, and soon.”
In the current crowded fall season of new cookbooks, I’ve found two that reach that high bar and make me very excited. I immediately began to cook from them and have already started to give them as gifts. I know they will help me do a better job in my kitchen, whether it’s making supper on a rainy Tuesday night or managing a special holiday dinner. And I think they can do the same for you.
Canal House: Cook Something. Recipes to Rely On by Hirsheimer & Hamilton
Canal House is a culinary studio in Milford, New Jersey where Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer create and produce books, write a blog (Canal House Cooks Lunch), and host the “Canal House Kitchen Hour,” a radio program. They describe themselves as “home cooks who write about home cooking for other home cooks.” If you know their work, I think you will agree that this is a modest statement.
Canal House: Cook Something. Recipes to Rely On (by Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer, © 2019, Voracious / Little, Brown and Company, photographs by Christopher Hirscheimer, illustrations by Melissa Hamilton, hardcover with color photography and illustrations, $35.00) is their newest production. It follows Canal House Every Day, published six years ago, which at the time I called “a new classic” and “a game changer.” I still feel that way. It continues to inspire me and I cook from it often.
But this new book is something else. It’s not a sequel. It’s not a simple brand extension with more recipes. Instead it is a modern master work written by these two women who have spent their culinary careers learning what works, and are sharing that wisdom with doable recipes, advice for buying the best and most flavorful and healthy ingredients, and a roadmap for how to put satisfying daily cooking into your lives, no matter how busy (or intimidated) you may be. These are what the authors believe are the essentials – the recipes, principles, pantry lists, techniques, and skills you can rely on to be a successful and happy home cook.
For those of you who love to read cookbooks, even if you don’t cook from them, I think you may especially love this one. (I’m not a spoiler so you must read for yourself their clever riff on Wallace Stevens, substituting a chicken for his blackbird.) Its voice, a meld of its two authors’, is optimistic, witty and even joyous, as it celebrates being in the kitchen. They tell stories, praise the quotidian, and give really helpful tips but do so in context, not just as a list of do’s/don’t’s because these women don’t preach. Instead this is a masterclass. And the book’s friendly design, with photography and illustrations by the authors (Hirscheimer shoots, Hamilton draws), adds both how-to’s and inspiration, as well as charm.
I would give this book to a young, new cook, as a new generation’s Joy of Cooking. I would give it to someone who has raised a family and is bored with having made thousands of suppers and now wants to cook in a new stage of life. I would give it to that person trying to get a grazing family to instead gather together at the same table. I would give it to a single person who wants to not just eat well but also have the sweet satisfaction of domesticity, expressed in the simple act of making dinner.
The book has twelve chapters: Eggs, Good Beginnings, Soup, Salads, Italian Gems, Fishies, Chicken & Other Birds, Braises & Stews (and a few roasts), Ground Meat, Grilling, Vegetables, and Sweeties. With over 300 recipes, there are options for making simple breakfasts (e.g., eggs poached, over-easy, sunny-side up, en cocotte, deviled 12 ways, and omelets); snacks (e.g., fried almonds, pimiento cheese, pickled carrots, gravlax, and twelve toppings for crackers); about 40 soups (spicy, vegetarian, noodled, beefy, chilled, and comforting); 25 salads and dressings (e.g., seven kinds of vinaigrettes, chopped salads, mayonnaises, salads for summer and winter); and 30 Italian recipes from sauces to pizza, risotto, fresh pasta, and ragus.
The chapter about fish and shellfish has meals that are as simple as a can of tuna with lemons and as complex as a poached sea bass in tomato broth. There are over 30 ways to cook chicken and 17 ways to braise, stew or roast meats. Ground meat, a kitchen staple for many of us, gets its own chapter with meatballs nine ways, meatloaf, and shepherd’s pie. I don’t have a grill but many of you do and their grilling chapter does chicken, lamb, fish, steaks, spare ribs, eggplant, and even a whole beef tenderloin, plus there are the accessories like rubs, sauces, and butters. The vegetable chapter has 30 ideas for year-round ingredients, including asparagus, collards and ham, legumes, potatoes, and mushrooms. And the final chapter has desserts that are both as simple as poached pears in red wine to a celebratory finale that merits a “the” in its title, as in “the chocolate cake.”
But a cookbook, a great cookbook, is much more than a list of its recipes. It also must have enthusiasm and a belief on the part of its authors that they have something to say that is either new or uniquely helpful. A manifesto, if you will. In the case of Canal House: Cook Something, it was only after I spent time with this volume that I understood its title, and its urgency. Cook Something. Clearly the Hamilton-Hirsheimer team believes that you don’t have to know how to cook everything in order to cook well and happily. They’re telling us to begin. And that they’re here to help.
We’ve been given permission to publish their recipes for Fried Almonds and Meatloaf. (see our links) I thought my meatloaf recipe, which I’ve made for years, was rather good. Theirs is better. Fabulous, actually.
From The Oven To The Table by Diana Henry
What is not to love about a cookbook that is solely about one-pan oven roasting and that has an entire chapter on chicken thighs? “My Favorite Ingredient, chicken thighs forever,” author Diana Henry titled it. Loving chicken thighs as I do and cooking them so often, I had found a kindred spirit. Only she roasts them with feta cheese and dill, or plums and pomegranates, or hot Italian sausages and red peppers, or Dijon mustard and crème fraiche, or bitter greens, or prunes and harissa. I was humbled and inspired.
In From The Oven To The Table: Simple Dishes That Look After Themselves (by Diana Henry, © 2019, photography by Laura Edwards, published by Mitchell Beazley, October 1, 2019, hardcover, color photography, $29.99, 240 pages) the chicken thighs are just the beginning. What Diana Henry has done in this, her twelfth book, is rather genius in how she has honed what is probably our oldest and most basic cooking technique into a modern solution for making dinner.
Henry is an English food writer and journalist who writes a weekly column in the Sunday Telegraph as well as for the BBC, House & Garden, and other publications, and has won a bundle of awards for her work. But she is also a home cook with a family and a busy life who has figured out, as she puts it, “how heat, on its own – without you directing it or supervising it very much – can turn simple ingredients into a meal.”
Just in time for fall and winter cooking, Henry gives us about 120 recipes, all of which are cooked in a single pot or pan, and made with efforts that vary from the very simple to a little complex when preparing and arranging ingredients in that single pan. When possible, she has included a starch in the dish, mostly grains or potatoes, so many of them are one-pot meals.
There are seven chapters: Simple Suppers, My Favorite Ingredient (those chicken thighs), Asparagus to Zucchini, Beets & Bitter Greens (autumn and winter vegetables), Cook Until Tender (grains and legumes), Weekends & Holidays (roasts, birds and whole fish), and Something Sweet. The book is handsome, with lots of appealing photos by Laura Edwards, and has a favorite touch of mine – a brown ribbon bookmark.
What all the recipes have in common is how they are cooked : in the oven. There are Baked Sausages, Apples & Blackberries with Mustard & Maple Syrup; Thyme-Roast Lamb Chops With Tomatoes, Black Olives, Potatoes & Goat Cheese (which I’ve made to raves); Whole Eggplants With Saffron, Black Cardamom & Date Butter; Chili-Roasted Tomatoes With Feta Cheese, Yogurt, Dill, Mint & Pistachios; Roasted Cauliflower With Prosciutto & Taleggio Cheese; Chicken (thighs) With Miso, Sweet Potatoes & Scallions; Chicken (thighs) With Lemon, Capers & Thyme; Baked Baby Pumpkins Stuffed With Wild Mushrooms, Scallions, Grains & Gruyere Cheese; Moroccan Roasted Vegetables With Labneh (we have the recipe); Arroz Al Horno (with pork belly and chorizo); Stuffed Greek Chicken With Cayenne, Oregano & Orzo (another recipe I tested and have since made twice more and it is now in my regular repertoire); Gigot of Monkfish With Roast Lemon Salsa Verde; Slow-Cooked Leg of Lamb with Sherry & Autumn Vegetables; Poussins With Black Olive & Anchovy Butter; Baked Rice Pudding With Quince Jelly & Blackberries; and Apricot & Almond Croutes.
If I don’t stop I’ll be copying the book’s index. But I wanted you to see the diversity of ingredients and how darn appealing these recipes can be. This is not just sheet pan cooking, although there’s nothing wrong with that. But what she has done is elevated the flavors and results despite using a very simple and familiar cooking method.
As part of the tutelage of this cookbook, Henry explains how cooking this way, meaning cooking very simply, requires big flavors added through spices and condiments like preserved lemons or miso. This leads to her description of a well-stocked pantry, which reads like a master list that you can then adjust based on the flavors you like best. She is also rather specific about cooking equipment, not that she demands fancy things, but we learn how to pay attention to the importance of proper sized pots and pans. Odds are that if you have a reasonably well-equipped kitchen, you will have most of the pans you’d need for any of her recipes.
The first recipe I made was her Baked Peppers Stuffed With Goat Cheese, Ricotta & Basil. It was late summer, and our farmers markets here in the northeast were bountiful with big red bell peppers and so this dish was a natural. Peppers are halved lengthwise and de-seeded and filled with a seasoned mixture of ricotta and goat cheese, plus an egg, that to my palate resembled the filling of a cheese ravioli. Roast at 375°F for about 40 minutes and the tops will be souffléd and golden while the peppers become tender. I served them alongside a plain piece of pan-cooked fish (cooked on the stovetop) and it was an amazing and simple supper. I was hooked.
I wish I had had this book when I was recently working my way through John Whaite’s new one that’s entirely stovetop cooking as his is the yin to Henry’s yang. I can imagine turning to Whaite’s book at the start of summer’s heat and then once the first cool day arrives, turning on the oven and reaching for Diana Henry’s recipes.
Her book made me recall some of what Barbara Kafka did in her classic Roasting: A Simple Art which I think belongs in every serious home cook’s library (her recipe for roast chicken deserves its place on Food52’s “genius” list). Many good cooks have successful ways to roast chickens but Barbara had a bigger and braver idea for how to make smart use of a very hot oven, as when she also defied convention by oven-braising lamb shanks with white beans at 475°F into something amazing (it's in her book).
I digress. Back to Diana Henry.
I love, love her book. I’ve had it less than a month and I’ve already splattered quite a few pages. What she does with vegetables is a leap ahead of the good but simple pans of roasted butternut squash or carrots that Ina Garten popularized. We’ve been given permission to publish Diana Henry’s recipes for Moroccan Roasted Vegetables with Labneh, plus Baked Rice With Green Olives, Orange, Feta Cheese, and Dill. See our links.
Fall is here. Enjoy these warm autumn days and the harvest. And “cook something.”