Wednesday, March 7, 2012


CANAL HOUSE COOKING has just published their seventh cookbook.  It's called La Dole Vita (Distributed by Andrews McMeel Publishing; January 2012; $19.95).  Canal House Cooking is the creation of Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer.  A little background:  When I was a young man, I had a long-time subscription to Metropolitan Home magazine.  Ms. Hirscheimer was familiar to me as the food and design editor.  Her work as a founding editor and her wonderful pictures for Saveur magazine in its first decade, made me more familiar with her superb skills.  Her vivid photographs of food have always captured my imagination.  Melissa Hamilton co-founded Hamilton's Grill Room in Lambertville, New Jersey, where she served as executive chef.  She has also held positions at Martha Stewart Living, Cook's Illustrated, and at Saveur as the food editor.

Melissa and Christopher escaped the frenetic world magazine publishing world for a more measured and less stressful existence, living on opposite sides of the Delaware River. Now they cook together each weekday in their rustically attractive New Jersey studio. They have two apartment-sized old school stoves which are set next to each other and this is where all the gorgeous dishes you see in the books are cooked.  Each of these jewel-like cookbooks are devoted to seasonal cooking using fresh ingredients, and are designed for cooks at every level of expertise. Their six previously published Canal House cookbbooks have received ridiculously extravagant praise from all areas of the culinary world.  This isn't hype.  You will want each of these lovely volumes in your collection and in a few years, you're going to find out this is one of the most collectible series ever.

La Dolce Vita came about over a lunch of cannelloni.  "We'd gotten into a long conversation about why Italian food tastes so damn delicious," the authors write in their Introduction. Even though they were adept at cooking Italian food, a decision was made. "We rented a farmhouse in Tuscany--a remote, rustic old stucco and stone house at the end of a gravel road, deep in the folds of vine-covered hills. It had a stone terrace with a long table for dinners outside, a grape arbor, and apple and fig trees loaded with fruit in the garden. There was no phone, TV, or Internet service, just a record player and shelves and shelves of books. It had a spare, simple kitchen with classic waist-high fireplace with a grill.  It was all we had hoped for.  It was our Casa Canale for a month."  They would start their meals and writing in the mornings, then set the table for dinner and head out to look for a place to have lunch. How many of us have imagined doing just this?  Reading about it here is almost as fun as their living it one day at a time in Italy.

The Tuscan farmhouse outdoor table where Hamilton and Hirscheimer ate, drank and 
communed for one month about the their latest Canal House cookbook.  

The recipes are simple. Using ingredients of impeccable freshness and quality, you'll find tramezzini and panini (sandwiches), suppli al telefono (fried rice balls), prosciutto and figs to start the meal, or for a light bite.  There are good soups here, such as Capon broth with Anolini (small stuffed pasta from Parma), then pastas (Spinach Tagliatelle with Simple Tomato Sauce and Ricotta or Gnocchi Verdi, or Risotto Milanese).  A Tummala Di Risotto E Spinachi can best be described as an igloo of rice molded around a savory combination of sausage, spinach and pecorino and baked. It is then un-molded and served in wedges--an impressive as well as delicious presentation whose culinary roots stretch back to the aristocracy of the Italian Renaissance.  Fish follows with a sensual Oil-Poached Swordfish and Branzino with Shrimp and Fennel, or the sublimely easy Squid and Potatoes.  The emphasis with Hamilton and Hirscheimer is always on the integrity of the ingredients. Keeping it simple pays off in huge flavor dividends.

La Dolce Vita continues with sections on poultry (glorious Capon, two ways), Braised Rabbit with Capers and Pancetta, then meat--Braised Lamb and Green Beans, Meatballs with Mint Parsley, some vegetable sides--Peppers in Agrodolche (sweet and sour), and Stuffed Onions Piedmontese. The final pages of this culinary diary of life lived well in Italy are devoted to a few outstanding desserts such as Cheesecake from Rome's Jewish Quarter, and Gelato di Gianduia (the divine combination of toasted  hazelnut and chocolate from Turin).  The photos of the recipes and Italy are expectedly gorgeous.  This and the other books are small--some 124 pages, and while I have many Italian cookbooks in my collection, I've come to the conclusion there is always room for another Italian cookbook.

A superbly rustic Squid and Potatoes

Squid & Potatoes
serves 4

Grilled squid may conjure up images of Sardinia’s sun-drenched Costa Smeralda for some, but it’s a dish we prepare all year long. The Franklin wood-burning stove at the Canal House studio is outfitted with a removable grill that swivels and cantilevers over the fire, so when it gets cold outside, we grill inside, over wood coals. Patty Curtan, our Northern California friend, the exquisite printer, designer, and wonderful cook, grills tender squid from nearby Monterey Bay outside on her Tuscan grill. It’s from her that we learned the art of skewering squid. Instead of using two skewers to keep the squid from spinning around when they’re turned over, she just threads each one crosswise through the wide top of the body, lining them up on the same skewer like laundry drying on a clothesline. Leave it to Patty—so logical, so simple, so beautifully done.

2 pounds cleaned squid
1½ cups extra-virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
Big pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper
1 onion, halved and sliced lengthwise
2 russet potatoes, peeled and cut crosswise into ¼-inch-thick slices
1 lemon, quartered

Lay the squid in a dish and add 1 cup of the oil, half the garlic, the red pepper flakes, and some salt and pepper. Cover and marinate at room temperature for at least 1 hour and up to 8 hours in the refrigerator.

Put the remaining ½ cup of oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and the remaining garlic, and arrange the potatoes on top. Pour
½ cup water over the potatoes and season with salt and pepper. Cover and cook until the onions are soft and the potatoes are tender, about 30 minutes.

Prepare a hot charcoal grill. Thread the squid bodies onto metal or wood skewers about an inch from the top and the tentacles similarly through the round body end. Grill the squid over hot coals until opaque and well marked on each side, about 5 minutes. Discard the marinade.

Put the onions and potatoes on a serving platter. Slide the squid off the skewers and arrange them on top. Drizzle a little oil over the squid, season with salt, and serve with lemon wedges.

—From Canal House Cooking, Volume No. 7: La Dolce Vita by Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer/distributed by Andrews McMeel Publishing

Most of the other books in the series have a fabulous chapter called "It's always five o'clock somewhere...", with an appealing mix of cocktails for every season. The books are seasonal with appealing and simple recipes for every time of the year. Hamilton and Hirschheimer's style is spare and unfussy.  Volume six concentrates on foods Hamilton and Hirscheimer find in markets and how that dictates what they will cook. Personable, casual, unpretentious and all delicious, Canal House Cooking has earned its own section in my cookbook library. I can't wait to add more volumes.

You will want to have all the books in this series.  I'm thinking Canal House Cookbooks will be as collectible as the Time-Life cooking series was, or the splendid series of lifestyle cookbooks by Lee Bailey, published in the 80s and early 90s. All are available wherever cookbooks are sold, on Amazon. com, B&, etc.

1 comment:

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