Fall is New England's signature season, in both foliage and food. It brings the flavors of tradition - apples and cranberries, maple syrup, squash and pumpkins in vivid colors and interesting shapes. Hearty chowders and stews. Indian pudding. Pancakes, with the fruit of the orchard. And the abundant bounty of the sea, so much a part of life from Connecticut to Maine.
But, as a spate of new and updated cookbooks from the region shows, there's much more to New England cooking than the food of the Pilgrims and the American Indians, especially during this harvest time of year.
Cooking Vermont style, you may find beer in your chocolate cake, and maple syrup and mascarpone cheese flavoring your croque-monsieur. Yankee standards make room for classic fare from Brazil and Portugal, reflecting the long-growing ethnic communities whose feijoada and sweet breads are getting their due.
African-American cooks from Martha's Vineyard are getting theirs, too, with a new chapter of recipes in an updated version of a long-standing cookbook from that island vacation spot in Massachusetts.
"Our main focus was that people should know about these cuisines, and we hope to get people interested," says Jean Stewart Wexler, an author of The Martha's Vineyard Cookbook.
The most cutting-edge book of the recent New England crop is Dishing Up Vermont (Storey Publishing, 2008, $19.95) by food writer Tracey Medeiros, which showcases the products and recipes of farms, orchards, restaurants and inns in that increasingly food-centric state. The Vermont Fresh Network, which benefits from a portion of the book's proceeds, was the nation's first statewide farm-to-restaurant program.
As is the trend among local-food cookbooks, Dishing Up Vermont offers lots of beautiful photographs, not of the recipes, but of their raw ingredients in natural settings - stalks of corn, berries on the vine and, yes, unsuspecting lambs who may eventually become dinner.
Those raw ingredients are used in inventive ways.
Sometime this fall, you simply must put aside your normal brunch dish for the book's exquisitely decadent Vermont Croque Monsieur. This version of the traditional French bistro sandwich, contributed by a chef from Cliff House at Stowe Mountain Resort, features cinnamon-raisin bread cooked in egg and slathered with a spread of mascarpone cheese blended with chives and a bit of maple syrup, then piled high with ham, turkey and Gouda and baked.
The book's flourishes are fun, but some of the best food in Dishing Up Vermont is simple. With just eight basic ingredients, the Flip-Over Apple Cake is a good example. Its slightly crunchy yet buttery underbelly serves as a fine foil for its tender, pretty apple topping. Though the book's recipe, contributed by the owners of a 114-year-old Vermont orchard, calls for Northern Spy or Rhode Island Greening apples, I found that a combination of Ginger Gold and Gala apples harvested in closer-by Pennsylvania tasted just fine.
Another recent book from the Northeast, The New England Clam Shack Cookbook (Storey Publising, 2008, $16.95) moves away from the orchards to the seafood shacks, lobster pounds and chowder houses of the coast. In her second edition of the book, author Brooke Dojny surveys more than 100 places to visit in the region for a can't-miss casual meal, and offers recipes and techniques from those who know New England seafood best.
Portsmouth Seafood Chowder, from BG's Boat House in Portsmouth, N.H., is the perfect recipe for a cool, leisurely afternoon, with a milky broth, thickened with half-and-half and a little cornstarch. It combines haddock (or any white fish), scallops and potatoes with a savory accent of bacon and onions.
The book has illustrated guides on cleaning and filleting fish and shucking clams and oysters. And if you're traveling to the area, Dojny offers three weekend dining itineraries around Portland, Maine; Newport and Bristol, R.I.; and along the north shore of Massachusetts.
The new fourth edition of the quirky Martha's Vineyard Cookbook (Globe Pequot Press, 2008, $19.95), originally published in 1971, has a lot of old, traditional recipes - even its newly included African-American recipes have been around the island a long time, says Wexler, whose co-author, Louise Tate King, died in 2000.
From the African-American chapter, we tried Pork Chops Under Milk, a simple and subtle slow-cooked dinner with the gravy baked right in.
The Brazilian population on the island has grown more recently, Wexler says. In addition to feijoada, a staple Brazilian dish of rice and beans, the cookbook includes new recipes for Baked Cauliflower with onions, peppers, tomato and olives, and an appetizer of Hearts of Palm on Toast Points.
There's also a chapter of historical recipes, called "old timers," with names like Potato Bargain and Chicken and Oyster Stifle.
tips from the new england books
* There are four grades of Vermont maple syrup for consumers. Dishing Up Vermont lists them from mildest to strongest maple flavor: Vermont Fancy, Grade A Medium Amber, Grade A Dark Amber and Grade B.
* Linguica and chourico are cured pork sausages brought to New England by the Portuguese, who have been in New England since the 1800s, according to The New England Clam Shack Cookbook. In Rhode Island and south-coast Massachusetts, they rival hot dogs and hamburgers in popularity.
* You love blackberries, but your guests are put off by their strong flavor? Use blackberries for half the blueberries in a standard blueberry-pie recipe, and everyone will be happy, recommends The Martha's Vineyard Cookbook.
* Don't be afraid to make a wet bread dough, says Dishing Up Vermont. Artisanal breads have a moist interior with irregular holes in it, and the best way to achieve that is to make a dough "much wetter than most recipes call for."
flip-over apple cake
(serves 8 to 10)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
4 medium apples
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 cup, plus 1 tablespoon sugar (divided use)
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped walnuts
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously grease the bottom and sides of a 9-inch round cake pan with butter and set aside.
Melt 1/2 cup butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Set aside to cool to room temperature.
Peel, core and cut the apples into 1/4 -inch slices. Place the apples in a bowl and toss to coat with cinnamon and 1 tablespoon of the sugar. Place apple slices in overlapping concentric circles on the bottom of the prepared pan. Make a second layer if necessary.
Sift the remaining 1 cup of sugar and the flour in a large mixing bowl. Whisk in the egg and melted butter just until combined (do not overmix). Fold in the walnuts and continue to mix until smooth. Pour batter evenly over fruit, and smooth top with a rubber spatula.
Place on the center rack of the oven and bake until the cake is golden brown and a cake tester or toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 40 to 45 minutes. Remove cake from oven and place on a wire rack to cool, about 15 minutes. When the pan is cool enough to handle, run a knife around the edge and invert the cake onto a serving plate. Serve warm or at room temperature, plain or with a favorite topping, such as whipped cream, ice cream or yogurt. Garnish with mint sprigs.
From "Dishing Up Vermont," by Tracey Medeiros
Per slice (based on 10 slices): : 284 calories, 7 grams protein, 21 grams fat, 7 grams saturated fat, 21 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber, 45 milligrams cholesterol, 9 milligrams sodium
portsmouth seafood chowder
(serves 6 as a main course)
2 pounds haddock or other firm white fish
3/4 pound sea scallops, chopped into rough 3/4 -inch dice
2 cups bottled or canned clam juice
4 cups water
1 1/2 teaspoons Old Bay or other seafood seasoning blend
2 pounds all-purpose potatoes, peeled and diced (about 6 cups)
1/4 pound bacon (4 to 5 slices), finely chopped
1 cup chopped onion
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 cup half-and-half, plus additional if necessary
freshly ground black pepper
Place the haddock and scallops in a large pot. Add the clam juice, water and seafood seasoning. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the seafood is almost but not quite cooked through, about 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside. Do not drain.
In a large saucepan, cook the potatoes in boiling salted water to cover until just tender, about 10 minutes. Drain and reserve the potatoes.
In a medium skillet, cook the bacon over medium-high heat until it is about half done. Add the onion and cook until the bacon is browned and the onion is softened, about 10 minutes longer.
Using a slotted spoon, remove the seafood from the cooking liquid and transfer it to a bowl. Put the cornstarch in a small bowl and whisk in about 1/2 cup of the seafood poaching liquid until the mixture is smooth. Bring the seafood poaching liquid to a simmer and whisk in the cornstarch mixture.
Bring to a boil, whisking constantly, and cook for about 2 minutes, until the base is smooth and thickened. Add the fish, scallops, potatoes and bacon-onion mixture to the pot. Stir in the half-and-half, bring to a simmer, and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Refrigerate the chowder for at least 1 hour or up to 2 days. Reheat gently, adjusting the seasonings and adding more liquid if necessary.
From "The New England Clam Shack Cookbook," by Brooke Dojny
Per serving: : 412 calories, 45 grams protein, 9 grams fat, 4 grams saturated fat, 37 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber, 130 milligrams cholesterol, 685 milligrams sodium