There’s inherent warmth and care in the way Melina Hammer writes about food. As the owner of Catbird Cottage, a charmingly cozy and dreamy Airbnb at the base of the Shawangunk Mountain Ridge in upstate New York, she’s no stranger to making guests feel welcomed, cared for, and right at home. Whether it’s in the cottage or right at the table—to witness the magic of Melina’s cooking and hostessing is to witness 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 daily cooking and life. A Year at Catbird Cottage: Recipes for a Nourished Life illustrates the joy and wonder to be discovered in Melina’s intimate, close-to-the-earth approach to food. It’ll quickly become evident too, that her reflections on meals and analyses of ingredients shine a deeper light on the secrets to leading an intentional, attentive life.
As a principle, I trust any recommendation that Amanda Hesser writes—and to this date, the founder and CEO of Food52 has yet to lead me astray. Of A Year At Catbird Cottage, she praises Melina for showing us “that there is beauty all around us when we cook seasonally” and recommends the cookbook not only to those who want to step things up in the kitchen, but to everyone who wants to infuse their lives with a little more joy.
I sat down with Melina to pick her brain on everything from seasonal cooking to celebrating local food cultures—and, of course, what a nourished life means to her.
Discover Melina Hammer’s Tips For Slow Living
What does a nourished life Look like to you?
A nourished life comprises a few crucial elements. One is regularly taking time to observe small moments, such as in the natural world with my morning garden walks. This process is both quiet and filled with discovery.
As I meander, I reconnect with all the layers, such as noticing young pole beans’ winding stems climbing our handmade trellises; the expansive reach of mustard flowers just before going to seed; my volunteer foxgloves, like jeweled beacons, dotting the woodland garden; witnessing that house finches travel in mated pairs, who chat with each other as they dine on sunflower seeds at my feeders.
A nourished life is one that carries a bit of romance or joy in day-to-day eating.
I add flourishes in layers. Handfuls of bright herbs, a generous slick of harissa or garlic mustard pesto. Lacing in these layers—nearly all made in advance—means I can feast at a moment’s notice, no matter the occasion.
Lastly, I make a routine practice to bring home new ingredients. This is an adventure and a love story waiting to unfold. I become giddy when I develop a recipe that makes an ingredient shine. Knowing what to do with a food to make it taste damn delicious carries exponential value. For me, these elements all form a good, nourished life.
Do you have a favorite season to cook in?
I wouldn’t say I have a favorite season to cook in, but more so flavor-building blocks that seize me. I do love low or no-cook dishes such as Summer Season Scallop and Shiso Ceviche—briny-sweet scallops foiled by juicy plums, shaved chile, and pickled onions. And the grand aioli summer feast: generous piles of crunchy raw veggies, creamy boiled potatoes, and lightly poached fish and seafood, all dragged through a velvety homemade aioli.
I equally love the fall Roast Chicken, Hen of the Woods, Leeks and Pan Sauce, for its ultra-savory caramelized veggies, the richly flavorful sauce, the burnished roasted bird, and the feeling of comfort the whole dish brings. The spring Pâté, Elderberry Gelée and Pickled Ramps is like savory candy. It’s an indulgent treat, savory-foiled-by-sweet, and the crispy, salt-flecked crackers and pickled ramps bulbs that accompany it send the dish to new heights. So good!
Living in upstate New York, you’re surrounded by abundant fresh ingredients. if we don’t have access to these resources, what are ways we can cook more seasonally?
If possible, find a community farmer’s market. They offer fresher and local foods, often with greater diversity. There are many community gardens and urban farms these days, too, so with a little research, you may be surprised by the bounty in your own neck of the woods. Food co-ops are another means to find unusual or interesting foods. I worked at a food co-op as a teenager in urban Detroit. That exposure to all kinds of foods, dietary approaches, and people left a meaningful impression.
Even if there isn’t access to what we think of as “nature,” foraging can also take place in vacant lots or small city parks where many wild foods like to grow. Field garlic, bittercress, garlic mustard, purslane, mulberries, and honeysuckle are a few delicious and hardy plants that thrive in disturbed areas.
Get Melina’s recipe for Black Raspberry Bourbon Mascarpone Tartlets
it can be hard to take a break to eat a mindful meal, much less make one. How can we realistically prioritize these slow living practices in our own lives?
A lot of it is about intention, with some prior planning to enable success. I regularly make staple recipes and add them to simple foods such as beans, rice, or pasta. The Wild Mushroom Escabeche is one of my favorite staples and makes any dish more exciting.
Another thing I nearly always have on hand is custardy eggs. I think of them as the perfect fast food, packed with healthy fats and protein, as well as a deliciously rich, orangey yolk. Adding a custardy egg with the escabeche to beans or noodles, along with a handful of fresh herbs, makes a divine meal.
What’s next for you and Catbird Cottage?
Spending time in my gardens and foraging always fills my well. I’d like to create a cooking show that features my explorations in the gardens and forest, sharing how to use unusual or new ingredients so that more people can fall in love as I have with the nature all around us.
I’ll also continue with my writing because I have more books in me and the process keeps me agile. As a companion to all of it, you’ll always find me riffing in the kitchen for guests, friends, and my regular commissioned projects.
Making simple and sumptuous foods and sharing them is one of my absolute greatest joys.