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With Millions Hungry, Luxury Grates; The Canal House Cooks Re-Defined Luxury for Me

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I've been having a problem with luxury.

It's been percolating for some time. And why not? While the rich get richer -- so much richer they'll never be able to spend it all -- nearly 44 million Americans are living in poverty, among them a third of all Hispanic children and more than a third of black children. Forty million Americans are using food stamps. And because some politicians think that's too many, Congress --- which has already cut $11.9 billion in long-term food stamp financing -- may cut another $2.2 billion in order to finance child nutrition reform.

I hesitate to type those facts. First, because you've already read them somewhere and have your own thoughts about what should happen in our divided and divisive country. And then because of what it forces me to type next.

Forget tax increases. Let's talk tithing -- the voluntary donation to a cause, usually to a religious organization, traditionally a tenth of your earnings. My modest suggestion is that seriously rich Americans should take it on themselves to make sure the poor -- many of whom look just like the rich do on weekends -- get three square meals a day. How? By writing checks to food relief agencies. How much? Up to them, but ideally enough so the gift is at least at the outer edge of a rounding error. They'd never miss it, and the poor would get fed. (Of course nothing's stopping the less rich of us from kicking in.)

I focus on the rich not only because one of their checks is equal to 10,000 of ours, but also because I have recently flipped through a new book about New York dinner parties. It's a visual treat -- there's nothing like a penthouse duplex done up by one of the kings of decorating. And it's packed with smart talk -- the hostesses are generous about sharing their party strategies.

So what's my problem?

Timing.

Much of New York City's economy is tied to the spending habits of the wealthy, and in any other year, I'd say that a dinner party is an excellent way to transfer money from the rich to caterers, waiters, florists, dress shops and more. But looking at those self-satisfied people right now, I don't want to hear about their personal style. With so many suffering, I think: pre-revolutionary France. I think: "Off with their heads." And I'll bet I'm far from the only one who's had these nasty thoughts.

Apologies for banging on when you want to hear about the fifth edition of Canal House Cooking. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here.] For those new to these books, here's the cheat sheet: A few years ago, Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton -- professional foodies -- decided to devote themselves to "good work and good ideas relating to the world of food." They set up a studio near New Hope, Pennsylvania and began to self-publish exquisite seasonal cookbooks for the home cook. They shop at farm stands. They cook on ordinary stoves. And, best of all, their books are ruthlessly edited. Curated, really -- each book presents fewer than 70 recipes. [Click here to buy Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3 and Volume 4.]

So it was quite the surprise to open Volume 5 and see two pages of photos of tins of caviar. And the recipes! Fried oysters. Escargots. Four kinds of goose liver. Scrambled eggs with truffles. Lobster with browned cream. Truffled lobster with gnocci.

Yes, there are many "practical" and "affordable" recipes. And I do grasp that this is a "holiday" cookbook. Still, this was so unlike anything I have seen in a Canal House book that I wondered if Hirsheimer and Hamilton had abandoned home cooking and were now appealing to people with cooks at home. Or was this, I wondered, the same message Bob Dylan delivered in "Nothing Was Delivered" -- "Take care of yourself and get plenty of rest."

Christopher Hirsheimer replied:

Take care of yourself and your family and friends. Just cooking some of these more involved (not difficult) recipes is better and cheaper than going to a movie! As I say in my note to our readers, "The good life surrounds us. You find it in everyday rituals, but often it comes through the unexpected, and we gratefully embrace it.

We are working women who will take an experience (breakfast, lunch and dinner) over an object every time. Make sausages together! Teach yourself and your children to make gnocchi. Float delicate poached meringues on a pool of Creme Anglaise. Make sugar cookies to give as gifts.

High on the hog (fresh ham with madeira sauce) or low (broiled pig's feet crepes) -- we want everyone to cook and eat together.

When you're shopping for food, even "window shopping" can be a turn-on. Going to Russ and Daughters and just seeing all those beautifully prepared fish is an experience. You take a trip all over the world, from the Holland herrings (like the finest sushi) to golden trout roe (as delicious as its fancy cousin, caviar) and plump Spanish sardines. This store happens to be in New York, but there are places everywhere that specialize in gorgeous traditional foods. And when you taste them, it helps you understand the human experience in a way that you may not have before -- these are rich experiences but not necessarily expensive ones.

The luxury is really having the time to spend together. Everyone is working. Indulge in the communal table.

"We've got ours, so screw you" isn't in our repertoire. We want to give you ours -- that's why we do this.

And when it comes right down to it, we are cooks who love to cook. We've been cooking our whole lives, we've been exposed to all kinds of food and that's what we are sharing. It isn't about fabulosity, clothes, candelabras, or Dutch tulips in December.

May I say that this e-mail schooled me? Reminded me that generosity begins -- must begin -- at home, with the people you love most. That you can do your bit to help solve the world's problems, but you'd better address your own as well. That dining is a ritual, a spiritual act. And that luxury -- that lure and irritant -- reminds us of the rich variety of experience available to us, in the kitchen and so many other rooms.

Christopher Hirsheimer's explanation of Volume 5 humbled and thrilled me. And, most to the point, it made me want to try these recipes. Here are some simpler ones:

Chicken and Mushrooms
serves 8

Alice Waters once told us that her dear friend Martine could feed nine people with one chicken. With the meaty 6- to 8-pound chickens we buy from our local farmer, we can do the same thing.

one 6-8-pound chicken, or two 3-pound chickens
Salt and pepper
Wondra or all-purpose flour
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
1 large onion, thickly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups Riesling
24 ounces button mushrooms or wild mushroom, sliced
Juice of 1 lemon
2 cups heavy cream or crème fraîche

Cut the chicken into 16 pieces; 6 pieces of breast, 4 pieces of thigh, 2 legs, 4 pieces of wings. (If you are using 2 chickens, cut each into 8 pieces.)

Lay chicken pieces on a cutting board, season with salt and pepper and a light dusting of flour. Turn the pieces over, season and dust with flour.

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in each of two large skillets over medium-high heat. Divide the chicken between the skillets by dark and light meat. Brown the chicken on all sides for about 15 minutes.

Add half the onions and garlic to each skillet and cook for a few minutes.

Reduce the heat to low, then add 1 cup Riesling to each skillet. Cover each skillet loosely with a piece of foil and cook until the juices run clear when the chicken is pieced with a sharp knife, about 45 minutes. (The white meat may only take 30 minutes to cook so keep an eye on it.)

Transfer the cooked chicken and onions to a large platter and keep warm in a very low oven. Use a rubber spatula and transfer all the pan juices from both skillets to a small bowl.

Melt the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter in one of the skillets over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms, toss in the butter and cook until lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Add the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the mushrooms on top of the chicken. Stir the pan juices into the skillet over medium heat. Add the cream and stir until hot and bubbly. Pour through a strainer over the chicken. Serve garnished with herbs, if you like.

Pimentón Fried Eggs

We love the rich, savory flavor of eggs fried in bubbling hot olive oil and the way the oil makes the whites puffy around the yolks and crisp around the edges. Pimentón, the exquisite Spanish paprika, adds a delicious smoky flavor and stains the oil a gorgeous deep brick orange, so beautiful to baste over the eggs. Serve these for breakfast, with a good crusty bread to sop up the flavorful oil, or with stewy chickpeas any time of the day.

Heat 4 tablespoons olive oil in a heavy medium skillet over medium-high heat until quite warm.

Add 1⁄2 teaspoon pimentón and tip the skillet to swirl it around so it dissolves into the oil.

Crack 4 eggs into the skillet and reduce the heat if it gets a little too hot. Fry the eggs, basting them with the olive oil, until the whites are firm and the yolks remain soft. Season with salt.

Serve the eggs with the oil spooned on top.

Cross-posted from HeadButler.com