With summer here and leisurely pursuits on the rise, it’s time for a fresh batch of cookbooks and food writing from Maine authors. Here, we’re taking a look at four recent publications that will suit readers with a range of interest in food, from aspiring mixologists to nostalgic eaters.

DEAD SERIOUS COCKTAILS

After Death & Co. opened its first location in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 2006, the bar quickly became one of the earliest and best-known examples of modern cocktail culture. Death & Co. joined the ranks of turn-of-the-millennium cocktail cathedrals like Pegu Club in New York and Absinthe in San Francisco, while prepping the path for buzzy booze dens that came soon after, like Clyde Commons in Oregon’s Portland and Drink in Boston.

Alex Day, chief operating officer of Death & Co.’s parent company, Gin & Luck, lives in Maine and is one of the authors of its latest cocktail guide, “Death & Co.: Welcome Home.”

If you’re serious about learning to make exquisite craft cocktails, let “Death & Co.: Welcome Home” be your spirit guide.

In the new world of craft cocktails, the sweet slurps of the ’90s, like cosmopolitans and appletinis, became bad punch lines. Cocktails were no longer something you both ordered and sipped mindlessly while chatting with friends at the bar or killing time until a dining table opened up. Because now the drink was the whole point, the reason you were at the bar in the first place and the actual subject of at least part of your conversation.

Bartenders became mixologists in those years, a silly title inflation if there ever was one. But the reasoning was that they were now taking their drinks as seriously as good chefs took their food. Just like their counterparts in the kitchen, bartenders had come to care intensely about flavor balance, textures, ingredient sourcing and presentation.

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“Death & Co.: Welcome Home” ($40) is the third book from the star bar team, following “Death & Co.: Modern Classic Cocktails” (2014) and 2018’s “Cocktail Codex.” Death & Co. co-founder David Kaplan says in the foreword that the new book was motivated by the pandemic. Specifically, just as some people became avid home bread bakers during the lockdown, others found comfort in recreating the involved and esoteric drink recipes in Death & Co.’s first two books.

“We expected people to learn plenty about cocktails from our first book, but have you seen some of those specs?” Kaplan asks in the foreword. “Who’s going to source so much esoteric booze, make endless infusions and time-consuming syrups, and crush ice by hand, just to wet their whistle? You – that’s who. Over the years, we’ve met countless ‘amateurs’ who have fearlessly stirred and shaken their way through hundreds of recipes in (our books) in their own homes.”

I’m reminded of how cooks like me drooled over Thomas Keller’s “French Laundry Cookbook” when it came out in 1999, using it as part bible (its kitchen lessons are commandment-worthy), part instruction manual for recreating some of the tastiest dishes on the planet. It was ambitious cooking, the stuff of weekend projects. A pig’s head dish alone takes three days to make, plus, you know, a pig’s head. But if you stuck with the recipes, and worked through occasional frustration and failure, you came to feel as if you’d passed a master class in fine cooking.

“Death & Co.: Welcome Home” is similarly aspirational, and a worthy spirit guide indeed. The book, which is a finalist for a James Beard Foundation book award (the book awards are scheduled to be announced on Saturday) includes more than 600 cocktail recipes, calling for uncommon, brand-specific spirits, e.g., Banks 7 Golden Age rum, Gamle Ode dill aquavit, and Del Maguey Santo Domingo Alberradas mezcal. Kaplan states that he, Day and co-author Nick Fauchald aimed to make the recipes in this latest volume “easy (OK, easier) to execute at home.” That may be so, but Death & Co.’s labor-intensive recipes are for people who are dead serious about their drinks.

But if this is you – maybe you’re a professional bartender, or a cocktail aficionado looking to up her game – then pull up a stool, stranger, you’ve come to the right place. You know this for sure because inside the front cover, the text tells the reader straight off, “Imagine you’re a rookie bartender, and this is your handbook.”

“Welcome Home” opens with a chapter called “Preparation” that underscores the importance of using the right tools, glassware, garnishes, etc. It also dives into the foundational principle of mise en place (though the culinary term isn’t used until later in the book), meaning to have your ingredients and dish components prepped, measured, neatly arranged and ready to use before you start making the recipe. This chapter emphasizes efficiency, and offers best practices for fundamentals like stirring, shaking and straining drinks or resetting your station, hospitality industry lingo for the work area.

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The second chapter, “Selection,” contains helpful exercises to help novices better understand flavor balance. Just as a chef might teach an apprentice how to prepare a duck breast to ideal doneness by having him first undercook then overcook the breast to establish an instinctual feel for the parameters, Death & Co. presents practice recipe variations for drinks that are too strong, diluted, overly sour or otherwise slightly off so readers can learn to troubleshoot.

Kaplan warns us early on that the authors lean hard on the trendy term “intention,” as in “working with intention.” The buzzword itself is vague and smooshy, and passages aiming to clarify the concept of intention just seem muddled. The book is loaded with text, most of it well used to explain important lessons clearly and thoroughly. But there’s also a certain amount of overlap, as the phrase “mise en place” isn’t introduced until later in the book, though its significance is laid out at the start. Might the repetition be … intentional?

The fifth and final chapter, “Specs,” contains most of the book’s recipes, organized under baffling descriptive headers like “Fresh & Lively” and “Light & Playful.” I’d have no idea what these drink groups contained, much less how to differentiate between them, if the chapter intro didn’t explain parenthetically that the former group is for highball and spritz variations while the latter included recipes for simple sours. Miss that explanation, though, and you may be in for some page-flipping confusion.

But these are minor complaints. “Death & Co.: Welcome Home” deserves a proud place on any craft cocktail lover’s bookshelves or coffee table, though it might serve you best on the bar cart next to the Carpano Antica Formula vermouth. Over time, you can thumb through pages – some puckered and warped from liquid spills – to find your favorite concoctions and dazzle guests with pro-grade skills, an education earned sip by delicious sip.

Kingston Americano

From “Death & Co: Welcome Home”

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1 ounce Wray & Nephew Jamaican rum
1 ounce Campari
4 ounces grapefruit soda
Garnish: Pinch of salt and 1 grapefruit half wheel

Add the rum and Campari to a Collins glass and fill the glass with ice cubes.

Top with the soda and stir once.

Sprinkle the salt on top of the drink and garnish with the grapefruit half wheel.

SEAFOOD SIMPLIFIED

Compiled by the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, “Catch” celebrates Maine seafood with approachable and inviting crowdsourced recipes. 

“Catch: A Maine seafood cookbook from the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association” is not a fat, glossy coffee table cookbook, or one you curl up with to immerse yourself in the glorious food photography and the inspirational food writing and recipes. The book design is simple and straightforward, containing almost 60 similarly unfussy recipes contributed by Maine chefs and fishing families. It has some nice pictures of tasty-looking chowders, seafood casseroles, baked fish and so forth. But you’re buying this cookbook for two main reasons, and either one will do on its own: You love Maine seafood and want recipes from some of the people who know it best, or you want to support the state’s fishing community.

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Proceeds from “Catch” ($40) will be used to fund programs for the nonprofit Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, including Fishermen Feeding Mainers, which gets Maine seafood into food banks and the state’s public schools to help fight food insecurity, and its Fishermen Wellness Program, which gives commercial fishermen more mental health support and resources.

The recipes in “Catch” aren’t overly ambitious – most have short ingredient lists and seem doable on a weeknight if you have fresh fish and a well stocked pantry – yet the range of dishes is quite impressive, including international flavor palettes, homey comfort food and a few special occasion dishes for good measure. With the white fish recipes alone, you can choose from Moroccan Baked Fish with Cilantro Sauce contributed by Sandy Garson of Bath; a Gulf of Maine Haddock with Crab, Maine Blueberries and Potato Chips (playfully plated to look like a slice of pie) from David Turin, chef/owner of David’s restaurants in Greater Portland; Haddock Marsala with Mushrooms from Debra Moore of Saco; and Pan Roasted Halibut with Pea Mousse, Spring-Dug Parsnip Puree and Sauce Vierge, from Daron Goldstein, chef-owner of Provender Kitchen & Bar in Ellsworth.

Shellfish lovers have plenty to choose from as well. Feeling a little adventurous? Try the Fragrant Broth, Maine Lobster Dumplings, Shiitake & Dill from Chef Andrew Chadwick of Inn by the Sea on Cape Elizabeth, which derives its fragrance in part from fresh thyme, tarragon and mint, while Asian flavorings like umami-rich bonito flakes, rice wine, fresh ginger and fresh Thai chile round out the light and lively dish. Need some good old comfort food? Lobster Mac & Cheese with a buttery Ritz cracker topping from Matthew Brown of SoPo Seafood should do nicely, as will the Lobster Carbonara from Luke’s Lobster.

And party food doesn’t get much easier or crowd-pleasing than the scrumptious-looking Maine Crab Dip from Adam Smaha of Harpswell.

These recipes are smart and innovative, yet fully approachable, too. “Catch” includes a few dessert recipes like whoopie pies and blueberry shortcake, along with 10 cocktail recipes for good measure. It may be a small book, but it offers up a big and true taste of the state’s celebrated seafood, making it an excellent addition to any Mainer’s cookbook collection.

Baked Gulf of Maine Haddock with Pancetta & Caper Crust

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From “Catch,” Chef Charlie Zorich of The Hichborn in Stockton Springs tops haddock fillets with breadcrumbs, savory pancetta and briny capers for an entree with big flavor and plenty of textural appeal. He suggests drizzling some good olive oil over the finished dish before serving.

Serves 2

2 tablespoons olive oil
2-3 ounces pancetta or bacon, diced
1 small shallot, minced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons capers
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon parsley
1 ½ cups bread crumbs
1 lemon, cut in half
2 (6-8 ounce) haddock fillets (or any flaky white fish)
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Heat oil in a medium sauté pan over medium heat. Add pancetta and cook until almost crisp, 6-8 minutes. Add shallots and garlic and cook another minute. Add capers and cook about 2 more minutes, turn off heat. Fold in fresh herbs and bread crumbs, adding just enough bread crumbs to absorb the fat and juice in the pan. Squeeze half of lemon into this mixture. Set breadcrumb topping aside.

Spray a sheet pan with non-stick pan spray. Place fillets on sheet pan, sprinkle with salt and pepper. (Not too much salt, the capers and pancetta have a bit of salt in them). Top each fillet with 1/4 inch of the breadcrumb crust. Place fish in oven. Bake 8 to 10 minutes until fish is flaky on edges and crust is golden brown. Let fish rest 3-4 minutes. Put on plates and squeeze a bit more fresh lemon juice over each serving.

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SALIVATING STORIES

Summer reading for food lovers, “Breaking Bread” features nearly 70 essays from esteemed New England writers exploring the intersection of food, family and regional identity.

If you’re a food lover making summer reading plans, add “Breaking Bread: Essays from New England on Food, Hunger and Family” ($30) to your list. With nearly 70 bite-size essays from acclaimed New England authors, the book made me as hungry as any cookbook I’ve read recently. The pieces are packed with remembrances of regional foods the authors loved or loathed while growing up. The writing displays more local color than a steamed lobster wearing wild blueberry bracelets, along with a mess of wistful nostalgia for any reader raised in Maine or New England in general.

It’s important to note, too, that “Breaking Bread” is no blithe literary venture divorced from reality. Proceeds from the book go to support Blue Angel Maine, the nonprofit that co-editor Deborah Joy Corey founded in 2018 to combat local hunger.

The anthology opens right in season with “The Zen of Fiddleheads” by novelist and Maine native Cathie Pelletier, recalling her family’s fiddlehead rituals from her youth in Allagash. “We never use the word ‘harvest.’ We say, ‘I picked a mess of fiddleheads today,'” she explains to readers. Yankee slang is part of the pleasure here. Messes of things, like in Kimberley Ridley’s “A Mess of Peas,” make appearances throughout the book, as do variations on the phrase, “Not the fancy ones.”

Many of the essays share zen themes and attitudes of equanimity. Ridley’s piece recalls her fond memories of picking peas in southern Maine with her father, and her fascination with his own childhood, growing up on a subsistence farm in Springvale. She asked him if it was hard to live this way.

“‘What we didn’t get done one day, we did the next,’ he said, laughing. ‘We never hurried.’ He paused. ‘And we always had time.'”

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In novelist Richard Russo’s essay, “Beans,” his mother cautions him against cucina povera dishes like pasta fagiole that an Italian “not like us” ate in his upstate New York town. This confuses young Russo, because his grandfather treasures a meal of baked beans and brown bread in the cold months, could eat it every day. “They’ve both decided to love what they can afford,” Russo concludes, a sharp zen pointer in the direction of true, lasting happiness.

The best essays in “Breaking Bread” kindle your appetite for the food in question, or spark an urge to reenact the scene described. A prime example is “How to Eat a Lobster,” by television and film writer Jenny Bicks, a tight, intensely evocative piece detailing a hole-in-the-beach clambake in Penobscot Bay. Bicks tells the story in second-person imperative, and it may as well have been hypnotism as far as I was concerned.

I finished the essay vowing to host or attend a beach clambake as soon as possible. Because as Bicks described digging the fire pit, laying layers of burlap and smoldering seaweed between lobsters and clams, sipping frosty beer and snacking before the feast on sweet sea peas and oily, salty potato chips – “The ones you have eaten all your life, not the fancy ones from away” – I wanted somehow to make her precious life memories my own.

Food writing doesn’t get much more inspirational than that.

RECIPES FROM THE COMMUNITY

The second volume of the community cookbook published in 2020 for the state’s bicentennial, the crowdsourced recipes are by and for Mainers of all stripes.

Following up 2020’s popular “Maine Bicentennial Community Cookbook,” Gray-based editors Margaret Hathaway and Karl Schatz have compiled another 200 largely crowdsourced recipes for “Maine Community Cookbook, Vol. 2” ($29.95), scheduled to be released June 21.

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The second volume was inspired in part by the pandemic. Hathaway and Schatz explain in a foreword that as they spent time during lockdown cooking from the first volume, they found that despite the isolation and increasing tension around the country, “the invitation into the family kitchens of so many people around Maine was a bright spot of connection … At a time when our country’s divisions are increasingly on display, we choose to focus on what connects us.”

The new community cookbook groups its recipes by broad category, like “vegetables” and “flesh & fowl,” but the editors have also homed in on some of Maine’s most iconic ingredients for chapters of their own, including apples, rhubarb, potatoes, lobster and wild blueberries. Like the first volume, the book includes several essays from Maine historians and academics, community leaders and humorists, which help provide broader perspective on Maine’s food history and the modern challenges it faces feeding residents.

Hathaway and Schatz again include recipes drawn from the historical cookbook collection of project partner Don Lindgren, owner of Biddeford’s culinary bookstore Rabelais. The second volume also revisits some of the families and cooks featured in the bicentennial edition, including the Foss sisters of Harmony, who each contribute a recipe this time, and recollections of their childhood.

But the cherished home recipes and the charming, sometimes faded family photographs that accompany them are the heart and soul of the project. Just the folksy titles of some old-timey dishes alone –”Gramma’s Apple Pan Dowdy,” “Nana (Nellie) Bonney’s Mincemeat Recipe,” “Brownie’s Rhubarb Pudding,” “Oma’s Goulash”– immediately establish a feeling of connection, family and pride.

But as the editors note, Maine ranks 19th in the country and second in New England for household food insecurity. Lindgren says a community cookbook must, by definition, be used to raise funds for a charitable or civic cause. To that end, $2 from each cookbook sale will be donated to donations fighting hunger in Maine. Hathaway and Schatz write that they have already distributed more than $20,000 to food insecurity groups and programs around the state.

“The need has never been more acute,” they state, “and we are honored that these books can be part of the solution.”


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