Twenty years ago, Sarah Leah Chase wrote two cookbooks that I remember wishing I’d written: “Pedaling through Provence” and “Pedaling through Burgundy.” She led what seemed to me a charmed life – cycling through regions of France storied for their food, wine and scenery, and popping off her bike, not even winded, to savor fragrant French delicacies and imbibe exquisite wines (or so I imagined).

At the time she led bicycle tours, and she detailed her journeys in these two books, which were part cookbooks, part travelogues, part sketchbooks and all romance. In the years immediately before those, Chase had written or co-authored several other cookbooks, including the fabled “Silver Palate Cookbook” and “Saltwater Seasonings: Good Food from Coastal Maine,” that latter with her brother, Maine chef Jonathan Chase.

And then she seemed to disappear, and because the food world has been such a very crowded place in the last two decades, other names pushed hers even further from view. In the introduction to “New England Open-House Cookbook,” her first cookbook in 20 years, Chase tackles her absence head on, telling readers and fans that in the intervening period, she married and raised a son and chose to focus on the home front.

Now she’s back with a characteristically personal book in which her stories about New England’s people, restaurants, produce and seafood get as much real estate as her recipes. Chase was raised in Connecticut, summered in Maine, attended college in Vermont and Boston, and has lived as an adult on the Cape and Nantucket. It’s a book with a strong sense of place. Among its 13 chapters are ones devoted to lobsters, to bivalves, to local vegetables. There’s plenty of Maine material for any Maine-centric cooks – a recipe for Fig N Pig from Primo in Rockland, for Castine Ginger Cookies, for Down East Fish Sandwiches, to name just a few.

We spoke with Chase just ahead of her book tour to Maine about the flavor of Maine blueberries, the number of cookbooks she owns (around 2,500) and why she thinks tuna tartare qualifies as New England cuisine. Our interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: How would you define New England cooking?

A: It’s a big question I struggled with to choose the recipes for this book. It’s anchored by a certain practicality, heartiness, locality, the seasons. Some of it now can be somewhat fancy, but I tried to stay for the most part away from that and have it be food that is very satisfying and related to place.

Q: You wrote in the book’s introduction that, when you first considered New England as a book topic, you told your publisher that you did not consider yourself a New England cook. What kind of a cook would you have said you were?

A: I thought I was a very eclectic cook. I’ve always felt I was more driven by European sensibilities.

Q: Now that you’ve finished “New England Open-House Cookbook,” would you describe yourself as a New England cook?

A: I still think I am somewhat eclectic, but I am much more appreciative of what the area I’ve lived in all my life has to offer. From a book I wrote with my brother about cooking in Maine, “Saltwater Seasonings,” a phrase that comes back to me is “the less you do to something, the better.” When you have perfect diver scallops or a Nantucket bay scallop or a Maine lobster or a wild Maine blueberry, just the immediate flavor of it practically unadorned is so sensational that you don’t need buerre blancs and all these other things going on.

Q: But your book includes some recipes one wouldn’t think of as typically New England, say that recipe for tuna tartare. What’s that doing in there?

A: Sometimes it’s something that is made in New England, like the wasabi sesame oil in that recipe, which is made by my friend John Boyajian. He has been making these infused oils in Massachusetts for many, many years. So it’s taking something (tuna tartare) that you see all the time on menus (in New England) and making it a doable recipe at home, and highlighting a New England-made product for use in making the recipe. And certainly people catch tuna here.

Then for the lobster roll – I used Sriracha, an idea that came from Boston chef Barbara Lynch. I did all kinds of disclaimers and apologies because I realize purists would have a fit about it.

Q: Did you think about writing the “Pedaling through New England Cookbook”?

A: I don’t have time to pedal really.

Q: Do you still bike?

A: I do occasionally. It’s one of those things I’d like to take up again. My son turns 18 tomorrow. So you sort of think, “Oh maybe I’ll have time again.”

Q: You’ve written many cookbooks. What would you say makes a good one?

A: It’s a book you want to cook from. It makes your mouth water, and you want to keep it on your shelf forever and ever. As I’ve been doing this book tour, people have brought in tattered copies of my old cookbooks for me to sign. They say they’ve done 10 weedings out of their cookbook shelves, but mine have always made the cut.

I guess I’d say also giving (the recipes) a story that gives them a sense of place, that makes you want to cook them for reasons beyond just sustenance.

Q: Your previous cookbook came out 20 years ago. Has cookbook writing changed since then?

A: This was the first cookbook I have ever written on a computer. All my others were written on a typewriter. All the editing was done online, too. That drove me crazy. In the past, you wrote notes right on the manuscript. I had to do it on screen.

Also, this whole world of social media. When I met the Workman staff in New York (the book was published by Workman Publishing), everyone gathered around and they said, “What do you do social media-wise?” And I said “Absolutely nothing.”

Q: Tell me about your connection to Maine.

A: My family has been going up there for years on end. This is on my mother’s side. When my mother was growing up, she was the only daughter in a family with six brothers. My grandfather bought an island in the middle of Blue Hill Bay and put the six boys to work harvesting blueberries so they wouldn’t get in trouble. Ever since, everyone in our family has been attached to that island. A bunch of cousins have homes on the island. The rest of us have homes on the mainland. Fortunately, my father was an avid sailor, so he fell equally in love with Maine.

Q: You mentioned in your introduction that despite your initial reluctance to tackle this topic, now you’d like to write a sequel. What would that be about?

A: This last week I was in Connecticut on book tour – but not in Litchfield County, where I based my research (for “New England Open-House Cookbook”). I was on the Connecticut shore. The first stop was Madison. It was just the greatest town with this energetic vibe. It captured me right away.

I had two of the best Connecticut lobster rolls I’ve ever had in my life. I just posted (about them) on Facebook – also a totally new undertaking for me. I’d given a talk at a library, and they brought in a food truck called Lobstercraft. This fellow has his own lobster boat. Well, so much for the superiority of Maine lobsters. These were Connecticut lobsters, and he cooked them in a pressure cooker. I’ve never done that.

So all these new (ideas) after the book is already written. I’d like (a sequel) to have a broader appeal – with profiles of the places I visit.

Q: “So much for the superiority of Maine lobsters”?! Did you just say that? You realize you’re talking to a food editor in Maine. Them’s fighting words.

A: In the introduction to the “For the Love of Lobster” chapter, I say, “If asked, I would say the best lobster is probably the last lobster I ate.” So that probably explains it!


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