In one corner we have Seven Fires. It’s a gorgeous cookbook. The author is a famous Argentinian chef named Francis Mallmann, and he’s written it with the well-known food writer Peter Kaminsky. It will not surprise you to hear that the book is called Seven Fires because there’s a huge amount of cooking with fire in it. Mallman writes, “I believe that the ability to cook meat over a wood fire is inborn in all of us.” Speaking for myself, I have to say that this is not true. Many of the fires in Seven Fires can be set in the wilds of Argentina or, presumably, on a finca, but they cannot be set on driveways, patios or the back lawn. So where is one to set them? I have no idea. And many of the recipes that are meant to be cooked over fire don’t contain alternative cooking suggestions. There’s a wildly-exciting lamb recipe that’s cooked in a wheelbarrow. In a wheelbarrow.
In the other corner we have Canal House Cooking. It’s written by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton, who own a food studio called Canal House, in Lambertville, New Jersey. This is a summer cookbook, the first in a seasonal series, and it’s as unassuming as Seven Fires is overreaching. It's a kind of upgraded version of one of those spiral-bound Junior League cookbooks, and the recipes in it are what you would have to call Fifties Wasp: jellied madrilene made from Campbell's soup, chicken en gelee, tomato aspic with crabmeat, deviled eggs. There’s a dessert called a raspberry sandwich and it consists of white bread, butter, sugar and raspberries. I’m not kidding. I can’t wait to give this cookbook to my friend Louise, who like me is a Jew with a big crush on Wasp food, but neither Louise nor I would ever serve a raspberry sandwich to anyone. And this cookbook is so modest that I can’t believe it got to the finals of this competition. Is it a fantasy? That you can leave the food business, buy a stone barn, spend a lot of money turning it into something called a "food studio" and self-publish your hard-boiled egg recipe? The cookbook has very few recipes and although many look perfectly workable, there’s almost nothing in Canal House Cooking that’s singing, Cook Me, Cook Me. Which is one of the things I look for when I first open a cookbook.
In any case, I begin with soup.
From Seven Fires, I choose something called Tomato and Bread Soup with poached eggs. It calls for 10 ounces of a loaf of bread you’re supposed to bake yourself. This is ridiculous and completely infuriating. Nowhere does it say: if you don’t want to bake the bread, you can use … what? A sour dough loaf? Plain white bread? I mean, who bakes bread? I live in New York City, why would I ever bake bread? I buy a nice Tuscan round, and make this thing that’s not really a soup, it’s a sort of a tomato bread mixture, and when you’re done making it, you poach eggs in it. It takes only about 40 minutes, and may I say that in spite of my irritation with the recipe itself, it turns out to be absolutely celestial: a melty, crunchy, earthy, garlicky thing with the poached egg turning it to paradise.
The soup I choose from Canal House is a potato and leek soup. I haven’t made a potato and leek soup in a long time and I don’t want to hold that against Canal House, but still. The recipe actually calls for nutmeg. Which is out of the question. But I cook it up as directed. It tastes like potato soup. I salt it madly. Still, potato soup. Perfectly good but nothing to get excited about.
I want to make the most enticing-looking potato recipe in Seven Fires. It’s called Domino Potatoes and the picture of it is absolutely mouth-watering – thin sliced potato squares, stacked in a row like dominoes, crisp on top, soft within. It calls for a mandoline. We happen to have a mandoline. Someone gave it to us for Christmas several years ago; it’s still sealed up in the box. So my husband goes to work putting it together and in the process cuts his finger and bleeds all over the kitchen. We finally get it to work. I begin slicing madly away and I also cut my finger and bleed all over the kitchen. So that’s the end of that recipe, and the end of the mandoline too, which we throw away. But I don’t understand why Mallmann/Kaminsky don’t say you can slice the potatoes by hand or with the slicing disk in the Cuisinart. What’s wrong with these people?
Anyway, instead of making domino potatoes from Seven Fires I decide to make something called burnt tomatoes. Mallman loves burnt things, I do too. I split the tomatoes, oil and salt them, and put them face down into a wildly hot cast-iron skillet. In four minutes I take them out and sprinkle with fresh oregano and pepper. They are fantastic.
There are a lot of tomato recipes in Canal House Cooking; after all, it’s a summer cookbook. One is for a tomato sandwich. I love tomato sandwiches. I had one every day last summer until the tomato blight. There’s nothing wrong with having a recipe for a tomato sandwich in a cookbook, but it’s not singing to me because I already know the song. There’s also a recipe for stuffed baked tomatoes served over pasta. This sounds good. But oddly enough, the recipe says that it takes ninety minutes to bake the tomatoes. I don’t understand this. I’ve been baking stuffed tomatoes for years. Who needs ninety minutes to bake a tomato? (This reminds me, by the way, that one of the recipes in Canal House Cooking is for a pork loin cooked in milk. We all remember this recipe – we learned to make it when Marcella Hazan put it into her first cookbook. The recipe in the Canal House book is almost exactly the same as Marcella’s, except for one thing: it takes 60-90 minutes longer, to reduce the milk. This seems weird.)
But speaking of pork, one of the recipes that is singing to me from Seven Fires is Pork Tenderloin with Burnt Brown Sugar, Orange Confit and Thyme. First I poach orange peel. Then I take two pork tenderloins, coat one side of each with brown sugar, bits of orange peel and thyme and cook for twenty minutes. It’s incredible. Absolutely delicious. I can’t wait to serve it to friends, perhaps with sweet potato hash.
I’d like to make the grilled shrimp with anchovy butter in Canal House, but the recipe calls for a barbecue and we don’t have a barbecue in New York City. So I decide to make some eggs. There are two simple egg recipes. One of them is boiled eggs, split in two and smeared with mayonnaise. This, it says in the book, is in case you don’t have time to make deviled eggs. It takes only a minute more to make a boiled egg into a deviled egg, so I have no idea what these people are talking about; perhaps this is some sort of simple Wasp episode that will turn out to be a breakthrough. But it’s not: it’s just a boiled egg with a schmear of mayonnaise, nowhere near as good as a deviled egg or egg salad. I also make the Canal House deviled egg. Most deviled egg recipes are made in a Cuisinart or simply by mashing yolks with a fork; this one is made by pushing the yolks through a sieve. I don’t like it at all, it’s too fluffy, and, what’s more, it calls for mustard. I don't like mustard in deviled eggs, I just don't.
I can’t imagine you’re in any suspense at all about where I’m ending up. How could you be? Seven Fires has got all sorts of things wrong with it, but it sings. It’s full of wonderful recipes and wonderful ideas. And perhaps, in the next printing, the authors will tell us what to do about the wheelbarrow.
Nora Ephron is a journalist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter and director. Her credits include Heartburn, When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail and the play Imaginary Friends. She has received three Oscar nominations for screenwriting. Her books include Crazy Salad, Scribble, Scribble and Heartburn. Her latest book, I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, was a number one best seller. Her latest film is Julie & Julia, starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams. Her play Love, Loss and What I Wore, written with her sister Delia Ephron, is currently running Off-Broadway at the Westside Theater. Nora lives in New York City.
Inspired by The Morning News' Tournament of Books, we got together with
our friend Charlotte Druckman and created the Tournament of Cookbooks.
Here on Food52, you can watch the action and weigh in on the results as
the 16 most notable cookbooks of the year vie for the coveted Piglet
trophy. The tournament features top food writers and chefs as judges.
Play will take place over the course of 3 weeks, with a decision
published each weekday.
The 2010 Judges