You could say that Matt Jennings has been following the chef’s playbook. He’s got four nominations for James Beard’s Regional Best Chef award (Northeast, for his former Providence, R.I., restaurant Farmstead and his Boston restaurant Townsman), four wins at the pig festival Cochon 555 and a pretty great Instagram feed. And last year, he wrote — with co-author Jessica Battilana — his first cookbook, "Homegrown: Cooking from My New England Roots,” a beautifully articulated paean to, you guessed it, his New England heritage. Map of the coastline? Check. Pictures of the tattooed chef and his kids? Check. Testimonial to the local flavors of his home surf and turf? Check. Mom’s clam chowder recipe? Double check.
Either because or in spite of all that, “Homegrown” is a decidedly enjoyable cookbook. The 100-plus recipes include both the traditional (that clam chowder recipe, lobster rolls, brown bread) and the unexpected (maple Peking duck, kimchi salad, lamb meatballs with yogurt sauce), as well as some added bonuses (a list of New England’s best clam shacks, a tutorial on beef tartare) that add depth and character. Nicely photographed by Huge Galdones, the recipes are straightforward, easy to follow — and they work. What else do you want, right? Well, there’s also the occasional step-by-step, which is a nice thing when you’re instructed to assemble, say, a seafood tourtiere. And there are homey illustrations and quotes (Henry David Thoreau, Wendell Berry). More checks.
The book’s structure is as straightforward as its recipes. A foreword by Andrew Zimmern, who did an episode of his “Bizarre Foods” at Jennings Rhode Island restaurant. An introduction by the chef, in which he name-checks Red Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski. And then five chapters, organized by landscape: dairy, ocean, farm, garden and orchard, forest. This is a nice conceit, as it pairs the recipes with an atmosphere as much as a category — something that the whole book is engineered to do. The additional pages (foraging for mushrooms, designing the perfect cheese board) add to this folksy tone, as do the headnotes, which tend toward childhood memories and regional anecdotes. Which all goes to say that “Homegrown,” as the title indicates, is a composition of place, an ode to the chef’s region of origin — a culinary letter home. It’s nostalgic but also forward-looking as it mixes regional staples with more progressive cooking.
And it’s this blend of local and eclectic that sets the cookbook apart, making it a welcome addition to a cook’s library. Because, sure, we do need more good recipes for New England clam rolls and apple fritters, but it’s also lovely to find a take on mussels with red curry and lemongrass and grilled quail that’s been marinated in miso. As Jennings writes in his introduction, “So when I say that I cook New England food, this is what I mean: a cuisine rooted in early American history, altered by immigrants from all corners of the globe, and further informed by my own travels around the world.” Which is to say, a cuisine that is simultaneously personal, historical and deeply inclusive.
Cookbook of the Week: "Homegrown: Cooking From My New England Roots" by Matt Jennings (Artisan, $35).