Simply Delicious

Tasty, healthy food doesn’t have to be fancy or overdone. In fact, the cooks from Canal House think the simpler, the better.  

roast chicken

When it comes to making everyday cooking a more accessible and appealing prospect for the rest of us, Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton bring a lot to the table: vision, experience and the confidence that comes from a successful long-term collaboration.

As well-respected figures in the New York ­publishing industry who have often worked together, they have the innate ability to differentiate between the fuss and fakery of so much of the carefully constructed food we see on TV, in magazines and even in some cookbooks, and the reality of cooking at home. The former, they realize, isn’t encouraging any of us to make our way into the kitchen.

So upon leaving their respective posts in the forever-on-deadline world of publishing — Hirsheimer was a top food and design editor at Metropolitan Home before cofounding Saveur, while Hamilton was a chef, food stylist, recipe tester, illustrator and editor who worked on dozens of cookbooks and just about every magazine you can think of (including Saveur and Martha Stewart Living) — they again joined forces to cofound Canal House in 2007. It’s at this studio in Lambertville, N.J., where they continue to ­pursue their culinary passions, focusing on the various design and production tasks involved in food publishing. Unlike the trend toward shooting elaborate and complex dishes, however, their goal is to photograph real food that real people cook anat.

This mission inspired Hirsheimer and Hamilton to write and publish a series of seasonal cookbooks dedicated to simple, realistic dishes for busy people. Titled Canal House Cooking (Canal House, 2009), the books have the look of a fine literary journal like Granta, but with exquisite food photography.

“For years, we’ve been shooting recipes from other people’s cookbooks, and as we’d shoot, we’d talk about the much simpler things we actually made for dinner,” explains Hirsheimer. “Eventually, it seemed like a natural idea to start writing down what we were doing. As we did, we realized we weren’t in territory that lends itself to the current trends in food publishing. Although we’re focusing on simplicity, we’re not making recipes that only have three ingredients, can be made in 15 minutes, that won a contest on a reality-TV show or whatever. But we didn’t see any reason to let that stop us.”

As food editors, they already knew what people were really interested in eating. “We’ve both been influential in our own way in the food world, so we have confidence in our editorial vision of what America wants right now,” says Hirsheimer. “It’s home cooking. It’s simple. It’s quality ingredients — ­whether that means organic, local or the best option at the moment. More than any of that, though, we feel strongly that what people want is something that satisfies them and makes them feel like they’ve had an enriching experience.”

Each photo and recipe in their Canal House Cooking books — like the roast chicken at right — reflects this experience. It’s plain and it’s simple to be sure, but Hirsheimer and Hamilton manage to make this and all of their recipes look like edible jewels.
Real food, Hamilton explains, will always look beautiful if you approach it in the right spirit. “I think if you have respect for the food, and respect for the people you’re serving it to, the beauty in it will be drawn out.”

Showing people the beautiful, but real, way their food will look can also be a great motivator to get folks into the kitchen. “I don’t know why anyone would go through the trouble of making and cooking food if it isn’t going to look delicious at the end,” Hamilton says. “This doesn’t mean that the food needs to be piled high and dusted with gold, but Christopher and I always find beauty in the rugged, the rough, the natural.

“Sometimes I get a little camera-shy with a dish right before we’re about to shoot it, and I think I need to do more. But Christopher always tells me, ‘Just do it the way you would do it at home’ — that is, just get it in front of the camera as you would serve it to a friend. It’s not stiff or uptight. Rather, we find a lot of natural beauty in that extreme simplicity.”

If that beauty is off-trend right now, who cares?  These two friends are busy proving that simple and different can still be delicious.

is a celebrated food and wine critic. Nominated seven times for James Beard Foundation awards — the Oscars of the food world — she has received four awards for her restaurant and wine columns. Since 2001, her work has been regularly featured in the Best Food Writing anthologies. Her new book is Drink This: Wine Made Simple (Ballantine, 2009).

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