Every spring, new cookbooks will bloom like flowers. But this season, two worthy volumes have cropped up from familiar names. From an evocative guide to cooking seasonally with the sustainable meats raised at dreamy Wyebrook Farm in Chester County to a strong book on cocktails (and food pairings) from a coauthor also known as Madame Fromage, this pair of offerings has a decidedly delicious local flavor.
Field & Feast, by Dean Carlson with Ian Knauer and Andrew Wood (Burgess Lea Press, $35)
Wyebrook Farm is one of the most extraordinary food destinations in the Delaware Valley, but this 320-acre farm in Honey Brook, Chester County, has also been rapidly evolving since Dean Carlson bought and renovated it in 2012.
Carlson, a onetime hedge-fund manager who was inspired by author Michael Pollan to start his own sustainable meat farm, began with heirloom-breed animals and a retail market. Then came a casual snack-bar patio with weekend bluegrass concerts. Then, realizing his audience would rather be served these special meats than actually to have to cook them, Carlson revamped Wyebrook into more of a legitimate sit-down dinner destination with a misty terrace view over the grazing fields and rambling Brandywine Creek.
Now comes Carlson's new book, Field & Feast, a persuasive Round Two in the crusade to get his audience cooking. Lavishly illustrated with photos by Guy Ambrosino, the farm is presented in all its picturesque glory, from the stone barn glowing at dusk to Devon cows happily nibbling in their grassy pasture. Of course, the cattle are pictured alongside a shot of butchered beef tendons destined for Nervetti salad. But at Wyebrook, the circle of life is celebrated, not sugarcoated, through whole-animal cookery, with instructions on making everything from a pig's-head torchon to vinegar-braised veal tongue and roasted goat in hay.
I doubt many will tackle some of the edgier projects - like blood sausage from the farm's annual La Tuade pig slaughter. Still, this book is brimming with accessible dishes inspired by Pennsylvania's seasonal ingredients and with appealing ideas for how to prepare them, from a gingered rhubarb crostata whose crust is enriched by suet to pork loins stuffed with ramp butter.
The Italian influence of chef Andrew Wood (who also owns Russet) is prevalent in many of the recipes, including a short rib ragu over pappardelle in which the meat is braised to sublime tenderness in whey that's a by-product of fresh ricotta - which is surprisingly easy to make. We followed that outstanding meal with another, using that leftover ricotta to stuff ravioli with minced chicken from a whole bird - which was used to fortify the broth in which those dumplings were floating. Another recipe, for skillet chicken butterflied with kitchen shears into "spatchcock" form, meanwhile, was the ultimate example of a handy technique used to accentuate the natural flavors of pristine ingredients - which are ultimately what this farm is about.
As Wyebrook Farm continues to evolve, this book is as much a vision of its future as its present. It's equal parts invitation to visit its picture-postcard farmland vistas and an engaging collection of recipes to bring the bounty of one of Pennsylvania's leading sustainable farms right back to readers' kitchens.
The New Cocktail Hour by André Darlington and Tenaya Darlington (Running Press, $22)
Over the last few years, my desk has been deluged by such an irrational flood of new books on cocktails it's a wonder there are enough customers who still need to bother going to a bar for a drink. Judging from our thriving cocktail scene, that clearly hasn't been the case.
The truth is most of the current cocktail literature is either a redundant repackaging of the standard canon or is focused on so many labor-intensive professional projects - elaborate tinctures, carbonated spheres, high-tech ice, esoteric bottles for each recipe - that they're not especially useful to most amateurs.
The New Cocktail Hour from local author Tenaya Darlington and her brother André is, at the very least, most certainly useful. Its 214 recipes, accompanied by appealing Jason Varney photos, cover enough of the classics that it can serve as a thorough primer for anyone at the beginning of a home-cocktail adventure, with a practical approach to some basics ("How to host a party with three basic bottles") that makes getting started less intimidating.
But the siblings also bring some unique perspectives to the subject, as well an engaging writing style that isn't surprising, given Tenaya's other writing persona as the witty author behind the Madame Fromage cheese blog, and given her brother's longtime gig as a food critic and cocktail columnist in Madison, Wis. The two also collaborate on the cocktail blog Sprig+Spirit (sprigandspirit.com).
Much of the book is informatively organized by historic era, from pre-Prohibition to the "Dark Ages" of the '60s, '70s, and '80s to the modern classics of the current craft-cocktail boom, offering interesting insights on evolutions like the recent resurgence of a taste for bitters and herbal elixirs.
But practicality is never forgotten. There are handy glossaries on techniques, terminology, tasting notes, homemade mixers, and finding the proper balance in composition. This duo also provide one of the more lucid arguments I've seen on how to pair cocktails with food - citrusy drinks for seafood, for example, or a boozy brown-spirited "Remember the Maine" cocktail kissed with cherry to accompany a grilled T-bone steak. The 14 curated drink lists ("Literary Cocktails"; "Movie Night Cocktails"; "Low-Proof Cocktails") are reminiscent of Tenaya's signature flair for composing creative cheeseboards.
Not surprising, then, she concedes that some of her favorite drinks also contain dairy, like the Flutterby Lassi, an Indian-inspired chilled yogurt-and-cucumber brew tinged with absinthe that refreshes "like a silk sari of a drink" and that is perfect with chicken tandoori.
Quirky? Yes. Individuality is part of this book's charm, much like its ode to an underappreciated ingredient, Dubonnet. But the greater success of The New Cocktail Hour is its ability to be many things to a variety of readers and still stand out from the pile of cocktail copycats as both useful and different.