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Canal House Cooking Number 8: Pronto

Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jul 30, 2014
Category: Food and Wine

Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton went to Italy, and all I got is this terrific cookbook.

For those who are new to Canal House, a quick history. They call themselves “home cooks.” That’s like Paul Simon describing himself in a song as “an ordinary player in the key of C.” Christopher Hirsheimer was one of the founders of Saveur Magazine. She has co-authored four cookbooks and taken the photographs for thirty more. Melissa Hamilton co-founded a restaurant, did a stint at Cook’s Illustrated and ran the test kitchen at Saveur before becoming its food editor. Together, they are a force; they won the James Beard Award for their magnum opus, Canal House Cooks Every Day.

What happened to Hirsheimer and Hamilton when they moved to little towns across the river from one another in New Jersey and Pennsylvania? Fresh produce, of course. But also a gentler pace. They found a loft overlooking a canal and opened a studio: Canal House. Their description is poetry:

Our loft studio is in an old red brick warehouse. A beautiful lazy canal runs alongside the building. We have a simple galley kitchen. Two small apartment-size stoves sit snugly side by side against a white tiled wall. We have a dishwasher, but prefer to hand wash the dishes so we can look out of the tall window next to the sink and see the ducks swimming in the canal or watch the raindrops splashing into the water.

The foundation of Hamilton and Hirsheimer’s success is their deep populist understanding of the unlimited bounty that America offers to those willing to embrace it, contradictions and all. In these 77 recipes, they display the same understanding of Italy. There is a formula and its simplicity is genius: quality produce + quality staples + home cooking. Which yields Porchetta-Style Chicken, Braised Pork with Romano and String Beans, Grilled Lamb Chops that never want to see a fork and Poached Vegetables with Savory Zabaione. And more — I dog-eared 20 recipes. The bonus: amusing cocktails, a great wine list and photographs to swoon. [To buy the paperback of “Canal House Cooking Number 8: Pronto” from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

A recipe is mandatory. Dare you to resist this — or any of FOUR MORE RECIPES.

Acqua Pazza

Serves 4

This classic Neapolitan fish preparation is both delicate and full of flavor. The term acqua pazza (“crazy water” in Italian) refers to both the dish and the poaching broth, which is stained red from tomatoes and aromatic with garlic and herbs. It’s one of those satisfying dishes, like San Francisco’s cioppino, created by fishermen who would make it on board with their catch of the day and a few other simple ingredients. We like to use black sea bass or red snapper, but any non-oily white fish will do nicely. 

1 pound ripe plum tomatoes
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 sprigs fresh oregano
1 bunch fresh parsley
Salt and pepper
4 black sea bass or red snapper filets (about 4 ounces each)

Quarter the tomatoes lengthwise. Working over a sieve set over a bowl, scoop out the tomato seeds with your fingers. Put the tomatoes in the bowl with any of the strained juice and discard the seeds in the sieve.

Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-low heat. Add the sliced garlic and red pepper flakes, and cook until the oil is fragrant and well-flavored yet the garlic remains pale blonde, 3–4 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juice, the wine, oregano, half of the parsley, and 4 cups cool water. Increase the heat to high and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium and simmer the broth until it is slightly reduced, 15–20 minutes.

Chop the remaining parsley leaves (discarding the stems). Add the parsley, a generous pinch of salt, and some pepper to the broth. Season the fish filets with salt, then place them skin side up in the simmering broth (the fish will not be submerged). Cook until the fish is opaque, about 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat. Remove and discard the sprigs of oregano and parsley.

Use a fish spatula to arrange the fish flesh side up on a deep serving platter or on 4 deep plates. Taste the broth and adjust the seasonings. Spoon the tomatoes and broth over the fish and drizzle with some olive oil.