After a two-decade hiatus, Sarah Leah Chase is back with a new cookbook, New England Open-House Cookbook (Workman, June). Chase, who launched her cookbook career in 1985 as a coauthor of the New York Times bestselling The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook, hadn’t planned to write another cookbook after 1995's Pedaling Through Provence and Pedaling Through Burgundy.
“Writing more cookbooks just wasn’t part of my mindset,” said Chase, who writes a weekly food column for Nantucket’s Inquirer & Mirror newspaper. Then, in 2010, Peter Workman, the late founder of Workman Publishing, came up with the idea for a regional cookbook. But when he suggested that Chase write about New England, she resisted.
“I had long believed that it was [the] vibrancy of classic European and Mediterranean flavors and ingredients that informed my culinary endeavors,” said Chase. “I half-jokingly protested that I preferred Tuscan fagioli all’olio to a pot of Boston Baked Beans.”
Part of what made Chase change her mind about writing a “culinary ode to New England,” were the foods she has enjoyed from living in the region. “In order to make the project feasible I chose to highlight people and places throughout New England that have been of special significance to me,” said Chase.
Among them are Vermont cheeses she discovered on ski trips to Stowe; oysters and purple beach plums she harvested in Barnstable on Cape Cod, where she lives; and lobster (she devotes an entire chapter of the book just to them), crabmeat, and wild blueberries devoured during summers spent with her family in Maine.
Ina Garten, who wrote the foreword to the cookbook, is a long-time friend. The two met 30 years ago when Garten was running the Barefoot Contessa, a specialty food store in the Hamptons, and Chase, just out of college, had her own food store, Que Sera Sarah, on Nantucket. The women continue to talk about recipe trends, and are “confirmed soul mates in our disdain for breakfast smoothies containing kale,” said Chase.
Garten’s biggest influence on Chase has been her approach to ingredients. In the 1980s, when Chase ran Que Sera Sarah, the trend was to make dishes with hard-to-find ingredients. “Ina’s rule of thumb of trying to create recipes that people in places like St. Louis can readily cook has definitely sunk in,” said Chase. “These days, if I can’t find something needed to make a recipe in one of the grocery stores on Cape Cod, I usually decide the dish is not worth the added time and effort.”
That hasn’t stopped Chase from being an advocate for indigenous New England ingredients for some recipes in the new cookbook. In part that’s because she strongly associates food and place.
“In college,” said Chase, “I [majored] in European Intellectual History, which taught me how a style of literature, painting, or philosophical thinking can capture the essence of a particular place or period in history. I believe food has the same power, in that the ingredients people use and the dishes one chooses to prepare are a window into the overall aura of any given place.”
Chase may keep the window on New England open for a while longer, and is already considering a sequel.