The Piglet2010 / Final Round, 2010

Canal House Cooking

Canal House Cooking

Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton

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Seven Fires

Seven Fires

Francis Mallmann with Peter Kaminsky

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Judged by: Nora Ephron

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.

The Judgment

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.

And the winner is…

Seven Fires

Seven Fires

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Do you Agree?


beejay45 March 1, 2016
Cranky, cranky! But funny, and opinionated. When you asked Nora Ephron for a review, you couldn't really expect something boring.

I have both these books and they both have great qualities. I've been a Canal House fan since they started out. What I love about their recipes is that they share the thinking that brought them to the recipe. Mock the raspberry sandwich, if you like, but if that doesn't give you the full blast of the berry flavor, without any distractions -- and kids would love it, I don't know what will. I hate to say it, but sometimes less really is more. ;)

Seven Fires isn't for every home cook, but it is a good read and has some interesting and delicious recipes that can still shine, even without a flaming wheelbarrow. ;)
Waverly August 3, 2010
Nora seems to create controversy because she calls things as SHE sees them. That is what makes her so funny. She doesn't worry about nutmeg lovers, Junior Leaguers, or mandoline experts and she doesn't care about sounding like an uber-cook-know-it-all. That is what makes her so approachable and appealing. I was in the Junior League for years...I think she is hysterical.
Andy May 2, 2010
I don't really buy cookbooks. I search for recipes online. The cookbooks that I appreciate are the ones that tell a story like the Nigella Lawson books. I love to read them but can't say I'm terribly inspired. Thanks Nora for singling out the pork recipe from Seven Fires. I live in Iowa or Pork Country, and cant wait to try it. Everyone should attend our state fair in August. An experince NOT to be believed.
Intelatin March 30, 2010
Upon reading Seven Fires I wondered if an upscale restaurant in the USA would be allowed to experiment with building fires. I think that would be a great idea. Especially for taste comparisons on small dishes.
cararn March 7, 2010
The genius of Seven Fires is that even if you don't have a grill, you can still make most of the recipes (except for the una vaca entera -- I love a cookbook with a recipe for cooking a WHOLE COW) using a cast iron skillet in your kitchen. The corn pudding is one of the best things I have made.
ChefJune March 2, 2010
I live in a 5th floor apartment with no ability these days to grill outdoors, not to mention in a wheelbarrow. but Nora's review of Seven Fires enchanted me, and I want to read the rest of the book, even if I can't make the recipes!
applesnonions February 21, 2010
I don't know about either of the cookbooks, but I couldn't stop reading this! Good writing will do that to you. To those commenters who are having a cow, lighten up. Last I checked, it wasn't a crime to have an opinion.
its February 1, 2010
Are we spoiled a bit?
I truly hope not.
I would like to believe that ignorance and lack of expertise along with some common sense would not be able to write such a childish review.
tucsonbabe January 17, 2010
Bravo always make me laugh. You also always make me remember that no matter how much I enjoy living in the Southwest, I will always miss my home-New york City.
Stacey S. December 29, 2009
After reading all the angry commenters, I am afraid to comment!
It's just one person's opinion!
I purchased 2 Canal House books after Serious Eats recommended it as the best cookbook of the year.
I was so uninspired with the summer edition, I gave it as a Christmas gift.
However, I do like the holiday edition very much. There are a few recipes that I can't wait to try.
So there.
Sue me if you don't like what I said.
That's why everyone is entitled to an opinion.
Happy New Year!
mcs3000 December 29, 2009
I think this may be the first time ever I've disagreed with Nora Ephron. Adore her. But I love Canal House Cooking. I love everything about it. It's entrepreneurial, fresh, beautiful and filled with recipes I want to make, starting with the drinks.
jscones November 15, 2009
Ms Ephron...ignorance is bliss. Thank you Christopher and Melissa for such a brilliant read. Looking forward to the whole series.
w G. November 14, 2009
A few points: If Ms Ephron doesn't even own a BBQ, how in the world can she properly judge the recipes in Seven Fires? The book, after all, is all about wood-fired cooking. I'm lucky enough to have both a large grill area as well as a wood burning oven in my San Francisco backyard, and have owned this book since its release. I've cooked a wide range of these recipes—including the extraordinary (if seriously lacking instructions) for lamb al asador—and while I'm sure you can replicate many of these dishes with a regular stove, that is hardly doing them justice. To paraphrase the review, they need fire in order to sing. But whatever it's shortcomings are, this is indeed a most inspiring book. As to Canal House, which my wife and I just purchased but have yet to cook from, it strikes me that the point of the book is that here is a gorgeously photographed, smartly written sort of diary that the authors present with a large dash of fun and a great deal of heart. It's like hanging out with friends (WASPs, huh?), and a refreshing change from the boring, heavy, celebrity chef books that so many buy but so few actually cook from.
oswaldfoodies November 13, 2009
It's a shame that someone who's charged with the final judging of a cook book contest, who doesn't even seem to cook, could miss the simple elegance and passion behind Canal House. We all know what cookbook was the best- CANAL HOUSE!
tinysmom April 12, 2010
you should read a nora ephron book. she does cook. she's apparently a pretty accomplished cook. she is also amusing and entitled to her opinion. you don't have to agree with it. interestingly, despite her review, i would likely look at BOTH cookbooks, and believe it would not be unlikely that i would find the Canal house book more approachable and appropriate for me - even though i no longer live in NYC.
jblong April 18, 2010
You can't be very familiar with Nora Ephron's work. She has been writing about cooking for ages.
annieslocum November 12, 2009
Nora Ephron is not my idea of a food critic and I do not agree with her one bit.
anotherhomecook November 11, 2009
hmmm godess? i think not
bobsances November 10, 2009
Nora is a godess.
some of these commenters need to chill.
Kelsey B. November 10, 2009
Given that this is the finale I am glad that Nora put both books to a pretty strict test. She is right in that Canal House is the more basic cookbook of the two, and, although it is my personal favorite, Seven Fires is a true original. I like that SF is a unique book full of recipes nobody has seen before (for the most part). Seven Fires doesn't reinvent anything, it gives us a new perspective and idea. After thumbing through Canal House at home for the past week I can see the inspiration that H&H are working with and it is relevant, too. I won't make their raspberry sandwich exactly as instructed, but I am definitely going to riff on the idea. Same with the eggs. I've always loved Nora's sense of humor and it certainly shows here. After all, this is a cookbook tournament and she works in the field of drama - what did everyone expect? Listening to Peter at Piglet last night I can honestly say that SF is the right one to win. It is an awesome book written by two very capable people with great ideas that deserve the attention. My only gripe here is about the mandoline. Geez, Nora, it is not that hard. I propose that A+M invite Nora into the kitchen and have Helen do one of her great videos as they instruct Nora on "how to use a mandolin." I've had my share of cuts, but it has never caused me to throw the whole thing out!!!
tinysmom April 12, 2010
well, if you remember that it was a never-opened wedding present, it might be best for all that they tossed the mandoline! i have one, have experienced an incredibly painful and bloody injury, and have yet to use it again, although i hold out hopes for my ability to face my nemesis at some point in the future.
jblong April 18, 2010
All mandolines were not created equal. Some really are an amputation waiting to happen. That said, it's hard to believe that someone would give Nora Ephron a lame gift. Victim of regifting, perhaps? Anyway, I recommend the Oxo mandolin. It's definitely designed to save your fingers.
iowafran November 10, 2009
Wow! It's so funny for me to read this review of my mother's cookbook (Canal House) she couldn't be any less waspish (I'm thinking of our conversation about what her outfit should be for the Piglet party - I assured her uniform of jeans, brown boots, blue shirt and black sweater wasn't too "cowboy") or Junior League. Although, I know my grandmother was smiling down from heaven at the very thought that my mother could be in any way associated with that very bastion of social good taste...:) I can say honestly that my mom has been cooking this way my whole life (much to my culinary benefit). Stretching chickens to be included in 4 that I have 4 children - I'm impressed. Her recipes are simple, elegant, delicious and more importantly have both tradition and story-value associated with them...another thing my wonderful grandmother would love!!
[email protected] November 10, 2009
What in GOD'S name gives Nora Ephron the right to envoke the term " Fifties Wasp"? This term is applied totally without sensitivity to the pegoritive overtones her stinging comments leave the reader to deal with. I understand she makes similar types of degrading remarks about her and her friend Louise but those sterotyped images are self inflicted ....feeling much different than the tone of her critic of The Canal House Cookbook. Lately there has been much written in the press and even discussed in the Congress about the growing lack of civility in our country"s dialogue. We now encounter verbal abuse in EVERYarena; from polotics to the most nurturing activity in which we can engage, cooking. What was she thinking when she wrote those words? RF