The Piglet2010 / First Round, 2010

Canal House Cooking

Canal House Cooking

Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton

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Salt to Taste

Salt to Taste

Marco Canora

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Judged by: Heidi Swanson

San Francisco-based photographer and cookbook author Heidi Swanson is the creator of the award-winning blog 101 Cookbooks. She is the author of Super Natural Cooking a James Beard Award-nominated cookbook focused on natural foods. She is a contributor to and has also been featured in a wide range of national and international publications including Food & Wine, Fast Company, Glamour, Vegetarian Times, and the Washington Post.

The Judgment

This was tough. Both books -- Salt to Taste and Canal House Cooking -- are beautifully done, and it's clear much care and attention went into both of them. I should start by saying, I suspect these books will appeal to separate audiences. One focuses on approachable, multi-regional Italian food from a chef's perspective (Salt to Taste), the other on everyday, summer-inspired home cooking (Canal House Cooking). And although I can only choose one to advance to the next round, I'd happily recommend both to friends depending on the type of cooking they like. I enjoyed seconds of everything I tested from both books.

Canal House Cooking has many things going for it. It's the first book in a new series of seasonal recipe collections created by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton. You open the cover and enter the world of their Canal House studio -- an old brick warehouse located on a canal bank in New Jersey. This is where they cook, eat, write, photograph, share ideas, and make cookbooks. Canal House Cooking is an independently-published volume not much larger than your average paperback. It's the antithesis of a glossy-paged, hard-backed chef-centric coffee table volume, but that's not to say it isn't thoughtfully crafted. On the design front, printed on matte paper stock, the book displays a charming mix of luscious photography, vibrant illustrations, and clean, simple recipe design. The recipes are approachable, flavor-packed, and in many cases they rely on a relatively short list of ingredients. The next time you have zucchini on hand, I encourage you to try the Soft Zucchini with Harissa, Olives and Feta inspired by Melissa's sister Gabrielle -- chef/owner of Prune. The Corn, String Bean & Potato Succotash Salad is perfect for the end of summer. And with just six ingredients (minus salt and pepper), their parsley-flecked, lemon-kissed Spanish Mushrooms will change the way you think of button mushrooms -- for the better. In short, it's a book that makes you want to get in the kitchen.

Salt To Taste is an Italian cookbook by chef/restaurateur Marco Canora, and there are a lot of things to celebrate here as well. The book is beautifully designed, and John Kernick's photos strike right at your salivary glands. One of the main things that sets this book apart is the writing style of the recipes. Canora bucks the concise/bare-bones recipe trend in a good way. Many of his recipes take you through step-by-step, encouraging you to listen, smell, taste, and look as you go. In the risotto recipes, you are told to stir the rice with onion and fat until the rice no longer looks chalky and the grains begin to crackle or pop. And when stewing cannellini beans with sage we are instructed to cook them at the gentlest simmer possible, striving for beans that are still whole, but soft and creamy throughout. This might take thirty minutes, or up to an hour and a half, it depends, and he guides us through the variables, cues, and considerations thoughtfully.

The book opens with a hearty skillet recipe -- eggs with tomatoes on toast. Both satisfying and flavorful, it sets the tone for the book nicely. I should also say that unlike many chefs, Canora isn't afraid to keep it simple if need be. The number of component-style recipes he includes is comparatively minimal. In one instance he shares a preparation of penne, butter, sage, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and cracked black pepper. That's it. And it works. The recipes come from a number of Italian regions, which is great for cooks who are looking for a survey of Italian inspiration before diving more deeply into one region or another.

Without taking anything away from Salt to Taste, I'm going to advance Canal House Cooking. Hirsheimer and Hamilton have done a great job of capturing a theme that resonates with many right now -- living, cooking, eating, and finding inspiration close to home. They focus on telling their story through wonderful imagery and a tightly edited collection of personal recipes, and in doing so they've created a lovely little book that I suspect will make itself a favorite in many kitchens.

And the winner is…

Canal House Cooking

Canal House Cooking

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Do you Agree?


Rhonda35 November 12, 2009
Heidi -

I know the contest is over and we've all moved forward, but I wanted to thank you for a very thoughtful and interesting review of both cookbooks. Like others who have commented before me, I am ready to run out and get both because you did such a fine job of pointing out their strengths. Having said that, I don't feel that I will be surprised by any weaknesses because you definitely made it clear where each book had its shortcomings, as minor as they may be. I have followed your blog for years and find your opinion to be valuable and trustworthy; so, thank you!
micki October 27, 2009
The Serious Eats feature 'Cook the Book' alerted me to Canal House Cooking. Christopher and Melissa seem to have hit that sweet spot so many of us yearn for. Seasonal, fresh food; gutsy and approchable and at the same time elegant and classy. The Roasted Tomatoes Studded with Garlic has already become a classic in my kitchen. Smart, talented women who have themselves a real winner. And how clever to make Canal House Cooking an ongoing series. I am so there.
annieslocum October 26, 2009
I have made every recipe out of this book and am anxiously awaiting Volume 2
jlaw44 October 19, 2009
Am absolutely in love with Canal House, but have to admit, I'm pretty excited to check out Salt to Taste! It definitely feels like my type of cookbook.
eatboutique October 19, 2009
I don't have either, but now must buy both! Thank you.
luvcookbooks October 19, 2009
thoughtfully written review, thank you