Read this cookbook: “Homegrown: Cooking From My New England Roots” by Matt Jennings (Artisan, $35)
By Wendell Brock
In his first cookbook, Matt Jennings takes his stand as a New Englander, writing with raw vitality of how he became a chef, and how he finds beauty and meaning in a landscape by turns barren and verdant: a place of legendary berries, maple syrup, cheese and an astonishment of riches from the sea.
With an introduction that reads like a mini-memoir (and recalls Jeremy Fox’s “On Vegetables” confessional), Jennings describes his circuitous path of enlightenment and discovery.
It took a minute for him to find himself, and then, after earning four James Beard nominations for his cooking at Providence’s Farmstead, he took a sharp left turn, returning to Boston, city of his youth, to open Townsman, in 2015.
“Homegrown,” I’m happy to say, is not a chef-y, showoff-y, navel-gazing bore filled with recipes a home cook will never bother to tackle. I’m done with those.
It is a deeply personal tribute by a man who feels the salt and iron of the region coursing through his very blood.
There’s honesty and design in the way he organizes chapters in an elemental way: Dairy, Ocean, Farm, Garden and Orchard, Forest. Each venue offers fine things to eat and drink, both savory and sweet; each place has its own seasons and rhythms.
Dairy might be as pure as cow’s milk ricotta; as homey as his grandma Evie’s Pub Cheese (I’m going to let go that he takes a swipe at the Southern spread with pimentos); and as original as Milk-Braised Chicken Legs, a one-pot meal served with spiced rice.
When it comes to chowder, I had to smile at his mom’s response to his clam and squid concoction with squid ink crackers. “I make the best—no squid or other crap,” she fired back after seeing the recipe. Jennings wisely includes his mother’s classic creamy, bacon-and-potato-laden chowder. It’s the one I will go to in future.
This brings us to Ocean: Bluefish Pate, Beer-Steamed Littleneck Clams with Chorizo Verde (very Portuguese), clam and lobster rolls and Gin and Tonics for a Crowd. There are sweets, too, involving beach plums, chocolate and sea salt, a brittle of cashew and togarashi.
I’ll spare you a rote, chapter-by-chapter recitation of dishes but must say the beef tartare; pork pate; maple Peking duck; apple fritters with caramel sauce; and sweet potato cupcakes with marshmallow crème and poached cranberries are perfect for autumn. And I love the chef’s essays on topics of import: cheddar, meat, maple and so on.
Jennings writes and cooks with a masculine lustiness and a strong sense of self and place—all punk and no swagger. It’s not everyday that a New England cookbook appears on my desk, and this one’s a stunner.
Boy’s got something to say.
BOOK SIGNING: Chef Matt Jennings will appear at a Cover Books porch party Oct. 19 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Miller Union will be serving recipes from the book, including, we’re told, that Bluefish Pate. Whitespace Gallery, 814 Edgewood Ave. Free.
Wendell Brock is an Atlanta food and culture writer, frequent AJC contributor and winner of a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award for journalism. Follow him on Twitter (@MrBrock) and Instagram (@WendellDavidBrock).