Two recently released cookbooks, each with a cult following, reawaken home cooking. At first glance, they have little in common. “The Family Meal,” by Ferran Adrià, is big, glossy and well-funded, while “Canal House Cooking: La Dolce Vita,” is the seventh volume in a self-published, soft cover series by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton. But the two meet on delicious middle ground, nudging readers to take the time to make their home-cooked meals better, all the while ushering in the best, new classics.
In Adrià’s kitchen
Before the reader turns to the first page, a note tucked away on the inside cover of “The Family Meal” reads: “What does the world’s best chef eat for dinner?” As it turns out, he’s eating a lot of the same things that you are; his versions are just better.
Shuttered last July, elBulli, Adrià’s iconic Spanish restaurant that defined contemporary eating and reinspired the culinary pilgrimage, put out loads of books, many documenting the whimsical dishes served at the restaurant over its 25-odd years with Adrià at the helm. But in “The Family Meal,” Adrià and his crack team give adoring fans accessible recipes for the home kitchen. They succeed at it, too, albeit via a circuitous route past the foams and syringes, straight into their own bellies. The book is an account of what was served to those who made the restaurant run, during the 30 minutes religiously slotted each night for supper and coffee before service.
A staff that dines together …
The family meal is the universal term for the food that gets dished out to a restaurant’s staff before they start serving guests. Let’s be honest; most family meals are bits of leftovers scraped together, shoveled into the gullets of overworked line cooks while they feverishly continue their prep work. But remember the adage about judging a restaurant by the cleanliness of its bathroom? What about the respect with which its own cooks are fed?
“Ferran says that he learned the importance of the staff meal from his first cooking job, working for a chef named Miquel Moy at the Hotel Playafels, down the coast from the Barcelona airport,” says Colman Andrews, author of “Ferran: The Inside Story of El Bulli and The Man Who Reinvented Food.” “The idea behind feeding staff well is that they learn the importance of food on every level. One of Ferran’s basic tenets is that there is no innate hierarchy of ingredients: beans are worth as much as lobster.”
In photographs that induce palpitations in the hearts of true followers, “The Family Meal” peeks behind the proverbial veil to reveal a staff of 75 that supped together — in unison, of course — with scrumptious three-course meals that any of us would be thrilled to eat: tagliatelle carbonara, cod and green pepper sandwiches, and almond soup with ice cream for dessert, or vichyssoise, lamb with mint and mustard, and chocolate truffles. It comes as no surprise that the recipes were tested, photographed and documented as painstakingly as those on the restaurant’s menu, which ran upward of 30 courses at a sitting.
Get the squid ink ready
Organized as a sort of shell game, recipes are bundled into three-course meals, but can easily be rearranged to fit individual tastes. Forgive Adrià his occasionally faulty assumptions, like the idea that the layman’s pantry includes ras el hanout and achiote paste, and that homemade romesco sauce, squid ink and nougat ice cream are at the ready in freezers everywhere. Use the suggestions as a means to invigorate your daily chow. Sure, you’ve never kept a soda siphon in your kitchen cabinet, but what have you got to lose?
With curious revelations like potato chip omelets and watermelon with crushed menthol candies, the book is a page turner, evenly peppered with Spanish treats such as gazpacho and almond-flavored Santiago cake, and elevated versions of international comfort foods such as guacamole, burgers and caramel pudding. (The staff was culled from around the world, and Adrià gladly allowed their tastes to influence offerings.)
A note in the introduction reads, “If you leave out dessert, preparation times rarely exceed 30 minutes.” Let’s not go that far. Many of these recipes do take some time, but an hour or two set aside to cook on even a Wednesday night is never a bad use of time. Start with the simple, moan-worthy bread with chocolate and olive oil on page 274, because in Adrià’s world there’s always time for dessert.
A trip to Tuscany
The same line, “Welcome to Canal House … ” opens each volume of “Canal House Cooking.” It feels a bit like you’re a very lucky guest in a very special house. Writer and photographer Christopher Hirsheimer and her atelier partner Melissa Hamilton, a food stylist and chef, have worked together in one capacity or another for years. To say that time has been good to these women is an understatement. With each forkful of roasted guinea hen and sip of icy gin with lemon taken under the sunny windows of their New Jersey kitchen and workshop, they find something more to offer loyal readers. This triannual series, which debuted in 2009, continues to blossom with the seasons.
For “Canal House Cooking, Volume No. 7: La Dolce Vita,” the two gals set themselves up for a month in a rented country home in Tuscany. Their aim was simply to cook, embracing all things Italian, with local ingredients leading the way and no TV, phones or Internet to distract from their enviable goal. It sounds like a big-screen romantic comedy for lonely heart Americans. “We looked at each other and laughed, surprised that we could imagine doing such a thing,” they write. “But that’s just what we did.” In their case, the love interest isn’t some charming innamorato. It’s the food.
Photos to dine for
On the handsomely-designed, matte pages of this compact book, friendly faces peek out in Hirsheimer’s photographs: a mushroom vendor at the market, mustachioed butchers, fishermen arranging their nets. Big, warm hands present sheets of pasta, rice with roasted chicken and spinach, and a mountain of shaved chestnuts and bittersweet chocolate. Intimidating recipes like risotto or fresh pasta (and even intimidating ingredients like salt cod and fresh eel) are made simple through chatty, common sense instruction.
Maybe sensing that the previous volume or two in the series had inevitably begun to echo the first, the writers have switched directions, focusing on one cuisine. But smartly, the book’s small but eye-opening lessons translate to all manner of cooking. Grate fresh citrus zest into sandwiches, poach dense fish in olive oil to keep it moist, and let go of tired mealtime hangups, in this case a distaste for the maligned sparkling wines called Lambrusco. (Colman Andrews, quoted above in regard to Adrià, is also a longtime friend of Hirsheimer and Hamilton, and contributed their book’s essay, “Dazzling Italian Sparklers.” Play “Seven Degrees of Colman Andrews” and you can arrive at anyone in the food world.)
Plenty of cookbooks out there preach the simplicity and joyfulness of Italian food, but the handmade feel of this one reads like a private travelogue. Over this and the last six volumes of “Canal House Cooking,” the authors have been forthcoming with personal tales, unapologetic preferences and self-deprecating lessons, meaning that readers now know these formidable women as well as they know their recipes. Like a series of tasty novels, you’ll be drawn to go back to Volume 1 and get caught up.
Buy Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton’s ”Canal House Cooking: La Dolce Vita” Now!
Photos from top:
Photo composite: “Canal House, Volume No. 7″ and “The Family Meal.” Credits: Courtesy of publishers, Canal House and Phaidon Press
Slide show: Photos from the “Family Meal” by Francesc Guillamet; Canal House-related photos by Christopher Hirsheimer
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