Oh, if only I could be a fly on the wall in the Canal House studio and spend a day watching the women who made this brand the go-to team for photography and food styling. Photographer Christopher Hirsheimer and food stylist Melissa Hamilton are both Saveur magazine alums (Hirsheimer a founder, Hamilton food editor) and their work has appeared in books for Jacques Pepin, Lidia Bastianich, and Rick Bayless.
The two design and produce their own beautiful self-published books, which come out seasonally, they wrote “Canal House Cooks Every Day” (Andrews McMeel Publishing), which won a James Beard award, and they send out a daily blog, Canal House Cooks Lunch, which makes you want to join their table. They also host “The Canal House Kitchen Hour” radio show that airs on a western New Jersey station near them. In photos of their studio, they show matching funky old stoves in the kitchen, and Dutch ovens that have years of spilled food etched into the sides.
The pair were front-runners in photography with almost completely unadorned food, just the way it is when it comes out of the pot or the oven. You see a roast chicken with all those delicious juices around the edge of the baking dish, a pot of risotto with a wooden spoon looking like it was just pulled off a burner.
A new book, “Canal House: Cook Something,” is the pair’s latest project. Another new venture is Canal House Station, a cafe in Milford, N.J., which serves breakfast, lunch, and Sunday dinner.
Sunday dinner: that tells you a lot about this team. Their food is homey, very approachable, appealing on many levels, and completely natural. “Home cooking should be simple,” write the authors in this book, “but for too many people (especially young people), it seems intimidating.” To that end, they’re trying to teach some easy, and some not-so-easy but important, dishes to get you through week nights and special occasions.
Easy means a hard-boiled egg topped with a slice of cherry tomato, bacon chards, salmon roe, or ham, or poached eggs slipped into brothy bowls of noodles. What sets Canal House apart from many books is its lack of pretension. In that egg chapter, entitled Our Favorite Fallback, Hirsheimer and Hamilton also poach eggs, fry them basted with olive oil, turn them into omelets with step-by-step photos so you can make them too, fill an eggy frittata with sausage and potato, bake both cheese and chocolate souffles, and fashion a classic onion and Gruyere quiche.
I can’t remember the last time I made a quiche. My largest French tart pan with a removable base was collecting dust. The pastry here, with both butter and solid vegetable shortening, rolls out like chamois cloth and the custard filling and onions that you pour into a pre-baked, very flaky crust is exceptionally creamy. The results are glorious.
Cheese straws have two ingredients: You roll thawed commercial puff pastry on finely grated Parmesan, cut strips, twist them, and bake. The recipe calls for 10 minutes for them to turn crisp and golden but they take every bit of 20. We swooned over them.
Wedges of cabbage, tucked into a Dutch oven and braised with cannellini beans until the cabbage browns, is a dish that may have been plain but here is loaded with flavor from a lot of olive oil, grated fresh tomato, sage, and pepperoncini (I used the pickled ones from a jar). The dish is supposed to cook in a hot oven in half an hour but takes twice that, and if you triple the stated time and take the lid off the pot at the end so the cabbage can caramelize, I think you get the dish they intended.
No hard feelings because I now have instructions for Canal House meatloaf (see recipe). This is a perfect meatloaf, very tender, deliciously flavorful with beef, pork, and veal, with a little sweet-sour ketchup sauce baked on top. It slices like a dream.
The duo’s shortbread cookies are what you want in the cookie jar every day of the year. You’ll never make another shortbread recipe. It starts like pastry dough with flour, sugar, and salt in a bowl. Then you rub in plenty of butter, maybe with two blunt knives, maybe with a pastry blender, but there’s no other liquid besides a drop of vanilla so you just keep working the dough until it comes together in crumbs. Press them into a fluted tart pan, bake, cut into triangles, and dust with confectioners’ sugar.
I didn’t get to meatballs and all their variations, chicken thighs and the many ways to garnish the dark, juicy meat, Bolognese with prosciutto and hot milk, one of the duo’s many soups, or gravlax.
This is a book both for new cooks and for kitchen regulars, who will learn classic techniques and the best formulas for old favorites and their adaptations, and who will enjoy the spare beauty and inviting warmth that is the Canal House signature.