The first time I saw Volume I of the Canal House Cooking series, I was browsing in Anthropologie. It was the end of my day and I was tired, so I grabbed a copy off the pile and sank into the nearest couch for a quick rest. Half an hour later I was still there, lost in the world of summer kitchens where one can pour a Pimm's Cup before dinner and build a large fire in the backyard to cook paella. Everything, from the beautiful photographs and watercolors to the chapters on tomatoes and cocktails, spoke of an easy sophistication and a deep understanding of seasonal cooking. I wanted to crawl right in and live between the pages.
Title & Publisher: Canal House Cooking, Volumes I (Summer) & II (Fall and the Holidays), by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton. Published by Canal House, 2009.
First impressions: The books are full-color throughout, wrapped with a sturdy, coated paper cover and finished with a scalloped edge along the top and bottom. Volume I, with it's bright orange cover and matching tomato photograph, has 122 pages and 72 recipes. Volume II matches the celebratory season with a burnished gold cover and a stunning photograph of a large, well-used dutch oven. It has 134 pages and 72 recipes. (And a wonderful essay by Coleman Andrews called Getting Drunk.)
My impression is that these are truly favorite recipes, ones that have been used over and over again, tweaked and tinkered with depending on the season, the weather and the mood of the cook that day.
The angle: What a great idea! Grab a friend, find a space you can turn into a cooking studio and start working on a series of seasonally themed cook books that will be sold via a subscription program (as well as individually in select stores.) Ms. Hirsheimer and Ms. Hamilton are veteran cookbook writers and food magazine professionals (Saveur and Martha Stewart.) They know how to do it right, but this project is much more intimate, more personal than any glossy magazine. Plus, no ads!
The other stuff: The books aren't indexed but Volume II does offer a complete listing of recipes in the Table of Contents, which is helpful. They're also small enough to be easily browsed through which is in keeping with their casual, home cooking approach. These are not comprehensive cooking manuals, set up to give you the best and latest recipes and techniques. But they will teach you how to cook, how to taste, how to think about entertaining friends, use leftovers, shop the farmers' market and pour a nice cocktail.
The cookbook copy also promises an enhanced website which should be available in the new year.
Recipes for right now: Well, the entire Volume II is for Fall and the Holidays but to pull a few favorites: Fennel Gratin; Serious Ragu; Triple X Chicken Broth with Ricotta Ravioli; Bûche de Noel; and Bitter Greens with Sweet Grapefruit. From Volume I: Shaved Raw Asparagus with Lemon-Anchovy Vinaigrette; Poached Chicken en Gelee; Candied Bacon; Pork Lion Cooked in Milk; and Peaches 'Poached' in White Wine with Fresh Herbs.
Recommended? Yes! When I was ensconced on the couch in Anthopologie with Volume I, I thought "This is the kind of book that you bring with you to your summer rental (if you have a summer rental) and it will be the only cookbook you'll ever need." And even if you don't have a summer rental, I think you will find this series to be very useful, enjoyable and inspiring. I'm going to subscribe just for the fun of seeing what Ms. Hirsheimer and Ms. Hamilton have in store for Winter and Spring.
This would also make a wonderful gift to any passionate cook. Perhaps not for absolute beginners but many of the recipes are very simple, so you could risk it and inspire them to great heights. If you go the subscription route, they would keep receiving your gift all year long, which is always delightful.
• Buy the book: Canal House Cooking, Vols I & II by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton. Individual volumes are $19.95 (plus S&H); a subscription is $49.95 (plus S&H) for three volumes.