07/13/2010 10:53 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Women at Canal House Are 'Salt & Pepper' Cooks. Simple! Delicious!

"A beautiful woman is an invitation to a happiness she alone can fulfill."

Proust said that.

And without bastardizing the master, I think that can be said about beauty in a number of categories.

Like: Noirin Ni Riain singing with a purity that humbles the listener:

Like: Didier Drogba scoring in soccer/football from an impossible distance --- 82 feet from the goal:

You have your own list of "ultimates," I'm sure. Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer have now published four editions of Canal House Cooking, giving me more than enough evidence to put them on my list of the uniquely beautiful.

If you have cooked from any of their previous books --- Canal House Cooking Number 1, Number 2 or Number 3 -- you know what I mean. For one thing, they're the most beautiful self-published books out there -- Hirsheimer's in the top tier of food photography, and Hamilton's illustrations are as evocative as the paintings of Wayne Thiebaud.

But it's their recipes that put them in the Pantheon. If you're just reading their books, this seems absurd --- these are, in the main, very simple dishes. And the creators know it; in the introduction to Canal House Cooking Number 4: Farm Markets & Gardens [to buy it from, click here], they describe themselves -- in the summer, anyway --- as "salt-and-pepper" cooks. That is, they buy fresh food, far from supermarkets; they focus on presenting the essence of its flavors; they use seasonings as little as possible.

They cook in Lambertville, New Jersey (just across the river from New Hope, Pennsylvania), in a loft-like space with no special equipment. They scour the local stands and farms, gather what's in season, cook lunch. And, in the late afternoon, they stop for snacks --- and drinks. Yes, drinks. As they explained to the New York Times:

"I think people don't picture women sitting around drinking together," Ms. Hirsheimer said. "But we love the flavors, the ritual, the little bite of something at that time of the day."

"I don't mind the buzz," Ms. Hamilton interjected, derailing a line of conversation that veered toward the precious.

No surprise, then, that their books begin with "It's always five o'clock somewhere" --- a half-dozen recipes for drinks. (Like the "Dark & Stormy," which is 1 and ½ to 2 ounces of dark rum over ice, topped with 4 ounces of ginger beer and a wedge each of lemon and lime. Can you say "cooling?")

This season they're in love with the Hass avocado, and there are recipes for avocado-and-crab salad, cold avocado and cucumber soup, a very streamlined guacamole, chicken tacos, and avocado, arugula and grapefruit salad. Then it's on to soups -- the chilled cauliflower soup is shockingly good -- and omelets and pasta with parsley and toasted walnut sauce. For good measure, they throw in a fish and a meat recipe.

They remind us that the tomato is a fruit and show us how to preserve it. They grill vegetables, serve roast chicken with tomato butter or smothered in chanterelles, even dare to offer a fried chicken recipe. Desserts? A cobbler. Granite. Sorry, dessert lovers. But console yourselves with this....

serves 4-6

We usually make this simple tart with large ripe tomatoes in season, tucking some halved super-sweet cherry tomatoes in between the slabs. But we've found that using even those hothouse varieties --- a little more acidic and certainly less juicy --- can be quite delicious, too. Eat this tart warm or at room temperature, but definitely the same day you make it as the crisp, delicate crust becomes limp if left to sit too long.

1 sheet puff pastry, defrosted
2-3 tomatoes, cored and sliced
2-3 branches fresh thyme
Really good extra-virgin olive oil
crunchy sea salt

Preheat the oven to 375°.

Lay the sheet of puff pastry out on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Using the tip of a paring knife, lightly score a border about 1⁄2 inch from the edge of the pastry. Prick the dough inside the border all over with the tines of a fork to prevent it from puffing up too much during baking.

Arrange the tomatoes on the pastry in a single layer (crowding or overlapping the tomatoes will make the puff pastry soggy). Strip the branches of thyme, scattering the leaves over the tomatoes. Drizzle the tart with some olive oil and season with pepper.

Bake the tart until the pastry is crisp and deeply browned on the bottom and around the edges, 30-40 minutes. Season with salt.

[Cross-posted from ]