Canal House Cooking, Volume No. 1
Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton
Published: Jul 19, 2012
Category: Food and Wine
Remember May? You can’t forget it — it was the warmest May on record in our hemisphere (and the 327th consecutive month in which global temperatures exceeded the global average).
Remember June? Warm, wasn’t it? So warm it broke 3,200 heat records in the United States.
So why — when I am not simply surrendering and ordering Chinese takeout — am I cooking chicken with rosemary, wine and lemon juice from Marcella Hazan’s cookbook?
To a seasonal cookbook I must go. A summer cookbook. The first cookbook from my friends Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer at Canal House.
If you were assembling a cookbook of your favorite seasonal recipes — recipes for meals you’ve actually served, and served often —- it would be the size of Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton’s . That is, about 60 recipes. These recipes would offer the unique tastes of your “signature” dishes. They would be easy to make — this is a summer cookbook. And you’d have very few choices in each category.
That’s the key idea: choicelessness. As consumers, we are awash in choices. Most are false choices, so your mind goes blank. You don’t so much choose as surrender. And this is as true of cookbooks as it is of the hundreds of cereals that are basically just delivery systems for high-fructose corn syrup.
What we want, whether we know it or not, is an editor. Or, better, a curator — someone who knows our values and tastes and can reduce the world to the very few things we might like. HeadButler.com is built on this principle. So is Hirsheimer and Hamilton’s book. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
These women describe themselves as “home cooks.” That’s testimony to the enormous effort they have undertaken to liberate themselves from decades of professionalism. Christopher Hirsheimer was one of the founders of Saveur Magazine. She has co-authored four cookbooks and taken the photographs for thirty more. She knows from “high end." 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. Her bio does not mention a love for sliders.
Something 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. It has a dishwasher they don’t use and a wood stove they do. And in late summer they roll up their sleeves and preserve their bounty.
Volume 1 is their summer cookbook. It starts with seven kinds of drinks. (Did I say this is a summer cookbook?) They teach you how to hard-boil an egg. [For easiest peeling, use eggs you’ve refrigerated for a week.] A few nibbles. Tomato and crab aspic. Four soups. A sprinkling of salads. Enough ideas for tomatoes to make you less guilty about that big-eyed purchase at the farm stand. Three kinds of fish. Ditto for chicken. Just six vegetables. And modest desserts.
In short: the basics, the meals they love. Presented casually, just as you would. With gorgeous pictures and watercolors, just because. Hard to believe that something this useful could be this lovable. But the evidence that this is true is on each and every page.
POTATO LEEK SOUP
We both love this recipe but we finish it differently. CH usually likes to serve it puréed, hot or cold, depending on the weather and her mood. MH likes the gutsier texture of the crushed soup. Then sometimes we switch. The soup will be gray if you don’t trim off the dark green portion leaves of the leeks.
3 tablespoons butter
6 leeks, trimmed, washed, and thickly sliced crosswise
Salt and pepper
6 small russet potatoes, peeled and thickly sliced
6 cups chicken stock
2 bay leaves
Pinch of nutmeg
½ cup thick Greek yogurt
1 cup heavy cream
Fresh chives or chopped parsley
Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the leeks, season with salt and pepper (you could use white pepper if you prefer), and cook until the leeks have softened, not browned, about 10 minutes. Add the potatoes, chicken stock, bay leaves, and nutmeg. Cover and cook over medium to medium-low heat until the vegetables are soft, 20–30 minutes.
FOR THE PURÉED SOUP
Discard the bay leaves, add the remaining tablespoon of butter, and purée the soup in a blender. Adjust the seasonings. Serve the soup hot or cold garnished with a generous spoonful of yogurt and some chopped chives.
FOR THE CRUSHED SOUP
In the pot, lightly crush the potatoes into pieces using the back of a large spoon. Stir in the cream and adjust the seasonings. Add the remaining tablespoon of butter to the soup. Serve the soup garnished with fresh chives or chopped parsley.
SOFT ZUCCHINI WITH HARISSA, OLIVES, AND FETA
¼ teaspoon caraway seeds or a combination of fennel and cumin seeds
1 clove garlic
Salt and pepper
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons harissa paste
6 tablespoons really good
extra-virgin olive oil, plus a bit more for drizzling at the end
4 zucchini, sliced into thick rounds
Handful cured olives, a combination of oily and briny ones is nice, pitted
½ cup coarsely crumbled feta
Small handful parsley leaves, chopped
Rind of a quarter of a preserved lemon, chopped
Toast the caraway seeds in a small heavy skillet over medium heat just until they are fragrant, 1–2 minutes. Put the toasted seeds in a mortar and crush them with the pestle. Add the garlic and a good pinch of salt and crush the mixture into a paste. Stir in the lemon juice, harissa, and oil. Season with salt.
Bring a pot of heavily salted water to a boil. Add the zucchini and cook until very tender and soft but definitely not falling apart, about 5 minutes. Drain well, then put the zucchini into a wide bowl and gently toss with the harrisa vinaigrette while still warm.
Dress the zucchini with the olives, feta, parsley, and preserved lemons, finishing the dish with a good drizzle of olive oil.