There is an inherent warmth and care in the way Melina Hammer writes about food. As owner of Catbird Cottagea charming and cozy Airbnb at the foot of the Shawangunk Mountain Ridge in upstate New York, she is no stranger to make guests feel welcome, cared for and at home. Whether in the chalet or at the table, to witness the magic of Melina’s cooking and hostess is to witness the culinary and artistic wonder itself.
But if you can’t make the trip to Catbird Cottage, Melina’s new cookbook contains all the romance, comfort and culinary expertise she practices in her kitchen and daily life. A Year at Catbird Cottage: Recipes for a Well-Nourished Life exemplifies the joy and wonder to be discovered in Melina’s intimate, down-to-earth culinary approach. It will also quickly become apparent that his reflections on meals and ingredient analyzes shed deeper light on the secrets to living an intentional and mindful life.
As a matter of principle, I trust any recommendation written by Amanda Hesser — and to date, the founder and CEO of Food52 has yet to mislead me. Of A year at the Catbird cabinshe praises Melina for showing us “there is beauty all around us when we cook seasonally” and recommends the cookbook not just to those who want to step things up in the kitchen, but to anyone who want to imbue their lives with a a little more joy.
I sat down with Melina to pick her brains out on everything from cooking in season to celebrating local food cultures and, of course, what a nourished life means to her.
Check out Melina Hammer’s tips for a slow life
What does a nourished life look like to you?
A nourished life includes a few crucial elements. We regularly take the time to observe little moments, like in nature with my morning walks in the gardens. This process is both calm and full of discoveries.
As I meander, I reconnect with all the layers, like noticing the winding stems of young climbing beans climbing up our handmade trellises; the expansive reach of mustard flowers just before going to seed; my willful foxgloves, like bejeweled beacons, dotting the wooded garden; seeing that house finches travel in mated pairs, talking to each other while eating sunflower seeds at my feeders.
A nurtured life is a life that carries a bit of romance or joy in everyday nourishment.
I add frills in layers. Handfuls of brightly colored herbs, a generous spread of harissa or garlic mustard pesto. The lacing in these layers – almost all made in advance – means I can indulge anytime, whatever the occasion.
Finally, I do a routine to bring home new ingredients. It’s an adventure and a love story waiting to unfold. I get dizzy when developing a recipe that makes an ingredient shine. Knowing what to do with a food to make it taste damn delicious has exponential value. For me, these all make up a good and nurturing life.
Do you have a favorite season for cooking?
I wouldn’t say I have a favorite season to cook, but rather flavor building blocks that grab me. I love low-cook or no-cook dishes such as summer scallops and shiso ceviche – sweet briny scallops foiled with juicy plums, shaved chili and pickled onions. And the great summer feast of aioli: generous piles of crunchy raw vegetables, creamy boiled potatoes and lightly poached fish and seafood, all tossed in a velvety homemade aioli.
I also love the fall roast chicken, hen of the woods, leeks and pan sauce, for its ultra-tasty caramelized vegetables, the flavor-rich sauce, the browned roast bird and the cozy feeling that everyone dish brings. The spring pie, elderberry jelly and pickled ramps is like a salty candy. It’s a sweet, salty indulgence treat, and the crunchy, salt-flecked crackers and pickled ramp bulbs that accompany it send the dish to new heights. So good!
Living in upstate New York, you are surrounded by an abundance of fresh ingredients. if we don’t have access to these resources, how can we cook more seasonally?
If possible, find a community farmer’s market. They offer fresher, local foods, often with greater diversity. These days there are also many community gardens and urban farms, so with a little research you might be surprised at how rich your own corner of the country is. Food co-ops are another way to find unusual or interesting foods. I worked in a food co-op as a teenager in the city of Detroit. This exposure to all kinds of foods, dietary approaches and people left a significant impression.
Even though there is no access to what we call “wildlife”, foraging can also take place in wastelands or small urban parks where many wild foods like to grow. Field garlic, bitter cress, garlic mustard, purslane, blackberries and honeysuckle are some delicious and hardy plants that thrive in disturbed areas.
it can be hard to pause to eat a meal mindfully, let alone make one. How can we realistically prioritize these slow living practices in our own lives?
This is largely intentional, with some pre-planning to enable success. I regularly make staple recipes and add them to simple foods like beans, rice, or pasta. Wild Mushroom Escabeche is one of my favorite staples and makes any dish more exciting.
Another thing that I almost always have on hand is cream eggs. I consider them the perfect fast food, packed with healthy fats and proteins, and a deliciously rich orange yolk. Adding a creme egg with the bean or noodle escabeche, along with a handful of fresh herbs, makes for a divine meal.
What’s next for you and Catbird Cottage?
Spending time in my gardens and foraging for food always fills my well. I would like to create a cooking show that showcases my explorations in gardens and the forest, sharing how to use unusual or new ingredients so that more people can fall in love like I have with the nature around us.
I will also continue my writing as I have more books in me and the process keeps me nimble. As a companion to all of this, you’ll always find me riffing around the kitchen for guests, friends, and my regular commissioned projects.
Making simple, sumptuous dishes and sharing them is one of my absolute greatest joys.