Cookbooks have changed in many ways over the years. There were tomes like Joy of Cooking, and even more recently, How To Cook Everything, that you could turn to for any recipe or cooking technique. My mother’s bible was Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook. We grew up on his basic recipes for Caesar Salad, Chili Con Carne, Breast of Chicken Florentine, and other exotic dishes. Hey, a barely cooked egg was exotic for the seventies.
Today’s cookbooks all seem to have a particular voice, heard through the text, the photography and even the organization of the book. Nigel Slater’s Tender, a recent gift from my sister in England, is a strong example of this. His love of the vegetable, the garden and the kitchen all meld together. In fact, sometimes it’s hard to find the recipe. It’s not that the older cookbooks didn’t have a voice, but it was much more subdued and behind-the-scenes.
So it’s no wonder that I enjoy the Canal House Cooking cookbook series, now in its second year of publication. In case you’ve missed these lovely, seasonal cookbooks, it’s time to get acquainted. They are written and photographed by Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer. Melissa is a co-founder of Hamilton’s Grill Room in Lambertville and former food editor at Cooks Illustrated, Saveur and Martha Stewart Living. Christopher was food and design editor for Metropolitan Home, and one of the founders of Saveur. The cookbooks come out three times a year, in tune with the seasons, each full of timely recipes, anecdotes and luscious photography. The books emerge from their food studio in Lambertville.
The voice is soft, warm and welcoming – kind of “come into our kitchen, pull up a chair and let’s talk food.” They support and cherish the same local growers and producers that many of us have come to know and love. It’s fun to recognize the places as you read through the books. Here’s a few lines from the introduction of this summer’s book, Volume No. 4, Farm Markets and Gardens,
All summer long, little farmers’ markets pop up like wildflowers around our county – happily, they seem to be spreading. It might be Thursday afternoon in the high school parking lot or Sunday morning in a field next to an old barn. One of our favorites, the Ottsville Farmers’ Market goes from Friday afternoon until sunset. It’s on a beautiful old farm, Linden Hill Gardens, that has blossomed into a nursery for rare plants. A local band jams as the farmers set up in the gravel courtyard next to the old farmhouse and its potager.
Or from Volume No. 3, Winter and Spring, as they describe that end-of-winter-but-not-yet-spring frustration, as we long for fresh vegetables again,
The farmstand market on the edge of town has closed for the season, so there is no sliding in on the way home at the end of the day to grab something for dinner. We can’t rely on vegetables we don’t have this time of year! … Now we’re in tomato-wilderness time, so we pull out our summer stash from deep in the freezer. It’s the ant and the grasshopper fable, and preserving last summer’s bounty is paying off big time. We stir pesto into penne. Spread herb butters on fish or roasted chicken. And oven-roasted tomatoes, tomato sauce, and rich tomato paste find their way into everything.
Ah…I know of what they speak! (I dug my last bag of tomatoes out of the freezer in May.) In the same essay, they mention the Stockton Farmers’ Market, Bobolink Dairy & Bakeyard, Metropolitan Seafood, and Illg’s Meats in Chalfont. All places and people close to my heart and stomach.
Hamilton and Hirsheimer set out to create cookbooks that are “home cooking by home cooks for home cooks.” They strive to include ingredients that can be found in local supermarkets (well, maybe Wegmans), and they keep the recipes pretty simple technique-wise. Still, in this day and age of convenience cooking I’m not sure if that mission can be accomplished. I only say this because what seems easy to me, I have sometimes found intimidates home cooks. It’s always a hard call.
What I do like about the recipes is their simplicity – in use of ingredients and technique. There is a certain elegance in keeping it to a few key, flavorful ingredients, and one or two time-tested cooking techniques. In the summer edition, there are two pages full of simple ways to cook summer vegetables. It’s a great resource when you have run out of ideas for zucchini or eggplant or corn.
As an experienced cook, I have also found myself surprised at some of the recipes. I’ll be reading one and think, “Well, so what? I make that.” But then there’s a different ingredient – one that makes me go, “Oh, now that’s interesting…” For example, Grilled Eggplant with Mint. We make grilled eggplant with herbs all the time in the summer, but I’ve never tried mint, or adding lemon, garlic and other seasonings after the vegetable comes off the grill. You learn something new every day.
This recipe for tomato tart is a great example of simple and great, in fact, I thought it seemed too good to be true until I made it. Now it will become one of my staple appetizers or simple dinners. Worth keeping puff pastry in the freezer just in case.
“We usually make this simple tart with large ripe tomatoes in season, tucking some halved supersweet cherry tomatoes in between the slabs. But we’ve found that using even those hothouse varieties – a little more acidic and certainly less juicy – can be quite delicious, too. Eat this tart warm or at room temperature, but definitely the same day you make it as the crisp, delicate crust becomes limp if left to sit too long.”
1 sheet puff pastry, defrosted
(Note: I found using just one sheet too small, and ended up using both sheets in the package)
2-3 tomatoes, cored and sliced
2-3 branches fresh thyme
Really good extra-virgin olive oil
Salt, preferably Maldon or other crunchy sea salt
- Preheat the oven to 375°.
- Lay the sheet(s) of puff pastry out on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Using the tip of a paring knife, lightly score a border about ½ inch from the edge of the pastry. Prick the dough inside the border all over with the tines of a fork to prevent it from puffing up too much during baking.
- Arrange the tomatoes on the pastry in a single layer (crowding or overlapping the tomatoes will make the puff pastry soggy).
- Strip the branches of thyme, scattering the leaves over the tomatoes.
- Drizzle the tart with some olive oil and season with pepper.
- Bake the tart until the pastry is crisp and deeply browned on the bottom and around the edges, 30-40 minutes. Season with salt.
If you are interested in purchasing the books, you can buy them individually ($19.95 each) or by subscription (3 seasonal books per year for $49.95). Visit the Canal House Cooking website. Some area bookstores carry the cookbooks too (Farley’s in New Hope, Doylestown Book Store and at Hamilton’s Grill Room in Lambertville).
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