The women of Canal House cook us lunch

Canal House Women

In 2006  two women: Christopher Hirsheimer, the founding editor of Saveur, & Melissa Hamilton, the director of Saveur’s test kitchen, began a new business: Canal House. Originally plannined as a photo and design studio for cookbooks and magazines, the two women soon turned their attention to cooking, developing an innovative plan. Rather than starting a new magazine, they inaugurated a series of  seasonally-themed cookbooks for the home cook, with new books being published three times a year – and all of the testing, cooking, writing, and design done by the two women. Pronto is the eighth issue, reflecting their emphasis this year on Italian cooking.

As part of our introduction to Canal House, we’re providing a cookbook giveaway to a bundle of two of their publications, Pronto plus their first compilation cookbook – the James Beard award-winning collection of recipes, Canal House Cooks Every Day – Enter to win one of the bundles here.

And to give you a taste of their cooking style, we’re printing an essay written by Christopher and Melissa that creatively describes their approach to cooking – here’s how to plan lunch:

It’s straight up twelve o’clock, and the town’s noon whistle blows just to make the point-it’s lunchtime. Most days we write and photograph in the morning, stopping for lunch as it fits into our day. But today, company is coming in an hour. We quickly tidy up, clearing off our big work table in the center of the studio. We cover it with brown paper from a roll that we keep in the back and set the table with dishtowel napkins, mismatched hotel silverware, water and wine glasses, and little white dishes of Maldon salt and coarsely ground black pepper. We both put on aprons, and hustle into the kitchen.

Our workspace is narrow, just three-by-twelve feet, but we don’t mind – we like cooking together. We can cook anywhere on anything. We tease each other that if left without other resources, we could use a car radiator as a stove. We are so used to sharing kitchen space and tasks that we can communicate with a nod, a look, a gesture – it’s our own language developed over a long time. We pass, reach across and over each other, like two people who have danced together for many years. We know each other’s steps.

This morning on the way to the studio one of us stopped at the fish market and picked up small, sweet Manila clams flown in from Puget Sound. We stashed two wet brown bags of them in the fridge. The other picked long zucchini from her garden. It’s hard to keep up with zucchini, and these had been hidden under huge leaves, where they had grown far too big. But we’ll find a way to use them.

“So what should we make?” we ask each other. “How about a pasta?” We remember that we have lumache, the snail-shell shape, in our pantry. It seems like a perfect fit: once removed from their hard purple-lined shells, the clams can slip inside “shells” of soft pasta. So we have a plan: we decide to add a salad, some good bread, a bottle of Sangiovese, and now we have a fine menu for our guests.

Our style of cooking has logic and order, and today the clams need to be rinsed, and we’ll need a big pot of boiling water for the pasta, and what are we going to do with the zucchini? – we’d better get going.

We slide past each other in the narrow kitchen. One of us reaches up to a high shelf for two big metal bowls, puts them side by side in the kitchen sink, and fills them with cold water while the other looks for the clams in the fridge.

“Where did you stash the clams?”

“Behind the milk on the top shelf.”

“Should we salt the water?”

“What about soaking them in salty cornmeal water, so they purge themselves?”

No need, we agree. Instead, one of us plunges the clams first into one bowl of water, then lifts them out and plunges them into the other, letting the sediment settle on the bottom. The other grabs a heavy pot from the rack, puts it on the stove, and adds the clams, along with a big glug of white wine.

“This wine okay?”

“Yes, it’ll add a nice brightness to the clams. Give it another slug.”

The pot is covered, the heat turned to high. The clams quickly open and release their juices. We set them aside to cool.

The zucchini are next. We confer; we like to talk it over. “How should we cut them up? Or should we grate them? No, no, they’ll dissolve into the sauce.”

After some back and forth, we decide we want their sweet vegetal flavor and a little of their texture. So we dice the zucchini, discarding the seedy core and just using the firm, fleshy part and the flavorful green skin.

“Garlic? Onions? Yes, and yes!”

One of us grabs an onion and begins chopping.

“Don’t you want a sharp knife?” the other asks.

 “No, no, this knife is just fine… Well, it’s so dull it’s practically a butter knife.

 But that’s okay – it still gets the job done.”

 We laugh. The garlic gets minced and mashed with a little coarse salt. We check the clock. It’s all coming together quickly.

 One of us warms the olive oil in the skillet, adds the onions, and lets them soften and sweeten. The zucchini goes in, then the garlic. The studio is beginning to smell really good. As we cook, we decide to enrich the sauce with something that will bring all the flavors together. Without exchanging a word, we know just what that will be. We push the vegetables to the side and plop a few tablespoons of tomato paste into the hot center of the skillet where it “toasts” and deepens in flavor. While it toasts, we pull the clams from their shells, saving a few for garnish. We both taste; the sauce needs salt, but we agree it’s delicious.

 We finish up, dividing the tasks- cooking the pasta, washing the lettuce, making the lemony vinaigrette, slicing the crusty bread. We have time to spare. So we pour ourselves two little glasses of Prosecco & Aperol. We toast. “Well done! Cincin!”

 We hear the door downstairs squeak open and close, then footsteps on the landing. We smooth our hair, straighten our aprons, look at each other, and take deep breaths. This is going to be one heck of a delizioso lunch.

Christopher & Melissa

Post a comment

Seen anything interesting? Let us know & we'll share it!