The Best Book I've Read Recently? La Dolce Vita -- A Cookbook!

I'm often asked, "What's the best book you've read recently?"

Right now, the answer is: Canal House Cooking Volume No. 7: La Dolce Vita.

This causes confusion. A cookbook has no plot, no real writing. No thrills, no sex. No memorable takeaway.

Well, this one does.

Indeed, Canal House Cooking Volume No. 7: La Dolce Vita is to cookbooks what James Salter's A Sport and a Pastime is to novels set in French villages.

You can tell from the very first paragraph that Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer, who have created six Canal House cookbooks from their charming studio in Lambertville, New Jersey, had the kind of experience in Italy that imprints and inspires.

Here's how the book starts:

We rented a farmhouse in Tuscany -- a remote, rustic old stucco and stone house at the end of a gravel road, deep in the folds of vine-covered hills. It had a stone terrace with a long table for dinners outside, a grape arbor, and apple and fig trees loaded with fruit in the garden. There was no phone, TV or Internet service, just a record player and shelves and shelves of books. It had a spare, simple kitchen with a classic waist-high fireplace with a grill. It was all we had hoped for. It was our Casa Canale for a month.

And how's this for... yes, poetry?

Warm ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil and 2-3 cloves of thinly sliced garlic in a large skillet over medium-low to medium heat until fragrant. Add 1 pound thickly sliced, cleaned, fresh porcini. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and stew the mushrooms until they are tender, 10-20 minutes. Add a handful of chopped fresh parsley. Serve over thick slices of warm crusty toast. Serves 4.

Not a word wasted in the recipe or the prose. Great visual writing. And the pictures! Christopher Hirsheimer has long been the gold standard of food photography, but in this book she goes beyond what I thought possible --- these pictures aren't food porn, they're art. And not in a gratuitous way. The purpose of their books, Hirsheimer and Hamilton like to say, is to "make you hungry." [To buy Canal House Cooking Number 7 from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle download, click here.]

Not every recipe rings the bell for me. I'm impressed by the simple elegance of prosciutto and figs, a soup built around escarole, a hearty minestrone, osso buco, Bolognese sauce with prosciutto, chicken livers, ground chuck and ground pork, and cheesecake from the Jewish quarter of Rome. I love recipes with ricotta and am astonished to find how easy it is to make. Authenticity has its limits for me -- I am less fond of anything with truffles, homemade pasta, stewed eel and rabbit.

But the thing is, you don't need an addiction to real Italian cooking to lose yourself in these pages. You can read it as a travel book. As an adventure story. As a sensual experience that yields deep pleasure for the authors --- and the reader. I inhaled the book for the first time late at night and under the influence, but even in the unforgiving morning after, I still swoon over passages like this:

Every day we had small adventures. Driving through the countryside, we'd stop at markets, dairies, and wineries to check everything out. Along the way, we'd gather what looked good to cook for our dinner. We preferred to eat out for lunch; it was more fun, and then we didn't have to brave the narrow, winding roads after dark. We'd peek inside the kitchens of the restaurants where we ate. More often than not, it was women in white cooks' smocks who were manning the stoves, tending big pots of ragù and cutting and filling anolini from smooth sheets of fresh pasta.

The big, rich flavors of fall were coming through the markets and farms and into our kitchen. We cooked with chestnuts, rabbit, porcini, pumpkin, cabbage, peppers, radicchio, apples, and pears. Like the Italians, we developed flavors as we cooked. We fried battuto -- onions, carrots, and celery -- into fragrant soffrito; toasted tomato paste to add color and richness to sauces; deglazed pans with red wine, allowing it to reduce to its very essence; and we balanced sweet and sour in agrodolce.

We know that cooking is not only about ingredients and techniques. Recipes have a spirit, they are born of a place and a culture, and to cook well you have to be sensitive to and honor that spirit. Italians are refined traditionalists; they want their ragù bolognese served with parmiagano-reggiano and never pecorino romano. It just wouldn't taste right otherwise. They are generous, too: It's evident in the way they cook. They pour olive oil liberally, shave white truffles with abandon, toss their pasta in the sauce, dress salads by feel -- and they have a word for it: abbondanza.

Wow. Just that: wow. But you might care to cook from this book. Start here...


We serve platters of these tender meatballs along with broccoli rabe sautéed with garlic and crushed red pepper flakes.

makes about 24 meatballs

1 pound ground pork
1 pound ground veal
1⁄4 pound prosciutto, finely chopped
1 cup fresh whole milk ricotta
1 cup grated pecorino
2 eggs
1⁄4 cup packed finely chopped fresh mint leaves
1⁄4 cup packed finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
1⁄2 whole nutmeg
grated pepper
1⁄4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1⁄2 cup white wine
3⁄4 cup heavy cream
optional salt

Mix together the pork, veal, prosciutto, ricotta, pecorino, eggs, mint, parsley, nutmeg, and pepper in a large mixing bowl.

Use a large soup spoon and scoop up about 2 ounces of the meat into your hand and roll into a ball. Make all the meatballs the same size so they will cook evenly. As you make them, arrange them in a single layer on a baking sheet. You can do this a few hours ahead, cover with plastic, and refrigerate until you are ready to cook them.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Brown the meatballs in batches, about 15 minutes per batch, using two forks to delicately turn them over so that they brown on all sides. Add more oil if needed. Transfer cooked meatballs to a platter and cover with foil to keep warm.

Increase the heat to high and deglaze the skillet with the wine, stirring with a wooden spoon to loosen any browned bits stuck to the bottom of the skillet. Add the cream, if using, and cook, stirring, until the sauce thickens. Taste, then season with salt if necessary. Pour the sauce through a fine-mesh sieve over the meatballs and serve.

If you come to our next party, you can try these.

Me, I wouldn't wait.

[Cross-posted from ]