Abra Berens, the author of the just released Ruffage: A Practical Guide of Vegetables (Chronicle Books 2019: $35, can make veggies both beautiful and tasty. Containing 300 recipes based upon 29 vegetables, Berens starts each chapter with a reminiscence about the veggie, info on how to store, how to buy and then, boom, a fantastic way of eating them raw (when possible) and ways to cook such as braising, grilling, boiling, pan roasting, baking, charring and more.
Knowing her veggies is a talent she achieved on her culinary journey which began in Hamilton, Michigan, a small town 20 miles south of Holland and the place she was born and raised to Three Oaks where she is the chef in residence for Granor Farm might seem like a short one—no further away than an hour’s drive or so. But Berens food expedition which led her to Granor, a certified organic farm, was a trip that took her much further than that.
While attending the University of Michigan where she majored in history and English, Berens took a job at the James Beard Award nominated Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, a mecca for lovers of local and international foods. It was a part time job at first but she became entranced with Zingerman’s and their emphasis on sourcing the best ingredients—a premise quite novel when the store first opened as a small delicatessen more than 40 years ago.
Soon, Berens no longer was just taking sandwich orders but was working in the kitchen. She credits Rodger Bowser, Zingerman’s Deli Chef & Managing Partner, as teaching her to taste foods side by side as a way of building her flavor memories and learning to differentiate the nuances of taste. Deciding to attend culinary school, she took Bowser’s recommendation and headed to Ballymaloe Cookery School and Farm, a 100-acre organic farm in Shanagarry, County Cork, Ireland.
“At Ballymaloe, the owners had converted the big old family house into a restaurant there,” says Berens, “taking what they grew on the farm and serving it at the restaurant and guest house. It was an education for me—that connection with what a farm is growing and the meals you eat.”
Finishing her three month culinary course at Ballymaloe, Berens then moved to London where she spent another three months at Neal’s Yard Dairy, a serious cheese shop where the staff, working with about 40 cheesemakers, selects, matures and sells farmhouse cheese from the United Kingdom and Ireland.
“I then moved to Chicago,” she says, noting that she worked as the executive chef at Stock Café at Local Foods, Vie and the Floriole Cafe & Bakery. While working in Chicago Berens co-founded Bare Knuckle Farm in Northport, located far away in Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula.
“I wanted to do dinners based on what we grew,” she says, explaining why she made the 350-mile commute between Chicago and Northport from 2009 to 2015 before deciding to be in Chicago fulltime where he husband was based.
But Berens had a yearning to be back in Michigan.
“A friend connected me to Granor’s,” she says. “It was just kismet.”
Now she’s preparing dinners for Granor Farm, using what’s in season just like she did at Bare Knuckle Farm and Ballymaloe Cookery School. Indeed, in Ireland, there were several vegetables she never used because they weren’t in season during here three months there. Like the other places she cooked, the dinner series at Granor is designed to connect diners with food producers. The dinners are served and classes taught in Granor’s renovated barn.
“I’ve been working in restaurants since I was 16,” says Berens, “and I grew up in a family that loved to cook and where meals were a part of most celebration. I became involved in the local food movement and continued to explore food. It changed the way I cooked and the way I view food and what we grow and how so many foods we could be eating don’t show up in grocery stores. My experiences with produce and cooking it has led me to ask what is the plant trying to do. In a way, I see myself not always as a chef but also as someone helping the ingredients show their best. For me, this has all been a natural progression.”
Abra Berens has several book events in Chicago and Southwest Michigan coming up. For more information, visit her website at abraberens.com
The following recipes are Reprinted from Ruffage by Abra Berens with permission by Chronicle Books, 2019
Carrots w/Spicy Apricot Jam, Mint, and Almonds
10 to 12 carrots (3 pounds), scrubbed and cut into large chunks or left whole
½ cup almonds
¼ cup apricot jam
¼ cup chili oil (RECIPE FOLLOWS)
10 sprigs mint and/or cilantro, leaves picked off and torn roughly
Directions: Heat the oven to 425°F.
Toss the carrots with a glug of neutral oil and big pinch of salt. Spread on a baking sheet, leaving some space between the carrots so they don’t steam, and roast in the oven until fully cooked, about 35 minutes.
When the carrots are golden brown, crispy, and tender, spread the almonds on the baking sheet and return to the oven to toast until fragrant, about 5 minutes.
Whisk together the jam and chili oil. Toss the carrots with the jam mixture and return to the oven to crisp, for 5 to 7 minutes.
Transfer the carrots to a serving platter and scatter with the mint and almonds.
2 cups neutral oil
¼ cup chili flakes
1 tsp. salt
Directions: Heat ½ cup of the oil until it shimmers. Remove from the heat and add the chili flakes and salt. Let sit until fragrant, about 3 minutes, then add the rest of the oil to cool it and keep the pepper flakes from burning. Let cool and store in a jar on the counter. It will get more nuanced as it ages.
Jacket potatoes with shaved vegetable salad and tuna mayo
1 large russet potato (10 oz | per person (the ingredients that follow are listed per potato)
1 cup (weight varies) shaved vegetables, whatever is in season or in your refrigerator; I love red cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, radishes, kale, tomatoes, kohlrabi . . .
¼ cup tuna mayo
Handful of parsley, cilantro, and/or chive
Directions: Heat the oven to 400°F Prick the potatoes all over with the tip of a knife. Place on the oven rack and bake until tender when poked with a knife (they generally will hold their shape), about 40 minutes.
Dress the veggies with the tuna mayo and a big pinch of salt. Taste and adjust as desired, return to the refrigerator (don’t eat it all now, even though you could, or do as you like, and find another outlet for the potatoes).
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Pull those hot potatoes from the oven and cut the length of the potato and 3 lines perpendicular to the center cut. Using potholders, squeeze the bottom of the potato, pushing the flesh up through the cuts (fluff with a fork if it doesn’t lift up). Season with a pinch of salt. Top with the vegetable salad. Sprinkle with the herbs and serve.
Variations w/bacon, kraut + caramelized onions
4 strips (4 oz | 115 g) bacon
¼ cup caramelized onions
¼ cup sauerkraut
1 oz Cheddar, grated
Directions: Cut the bacon into little strips (lardons) and render. Add the onions and stir to combine. Remove from the heat and add the kraut. Pile this mixture onto the potato, sprinkle with cheese, and return to the oven to melt.
Variations w/sausage, egg, spinach + sherry vinaigrette
2 oz sausage (spicy is nice)
Handful of spinach (two if it is baby spinach)
1 Tbsp sherry vinegar
2 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Directions: Crumble and panfry the sausage until cooked through. Put the spinach in a bowl with the vinegar and oil, top with the sausage, and let the heat wilt the spinach. Crack the egg into the sausage frying pan, season with salt and pepper, and cook in the sausage fat until the white is set but the yolk is soft. Toss the spinach salad and pile it onto the potato. Slide the egg onto the very top and serve.
1 whole egg
½ tsp salt
1 Tbsp white wine vinegar
10 fl oz neutral oil
Directions: In a food processor, whiz the egg, salt, and vinegar until well blended. Slowly drizzle in the oil until the mixture is thick. If it is too thin, add more oil.
Will keep in the refrigerator for up to one week.
Tuna Mayo: Add one 5-oz can tuna in oil to the base recipe.
Grilled Corn on the Cob with Parmesan Butter
½ cup neutral oil
½ teaspoon chili flakes
4 ounces butter, at room temperature
½ teaspoon salt
2 ounces Parmesan, grated
½ bunch parsley, leaves only, chopped
6 ears corn, shucked
Directions: Heat the neutral oil in a frying pan until it begins to smoke. Add the chili flakes and remove from the heat. Let steep in the oil for 10 minutes.
In a stand mixer or a bowl, combine the butter, salt, chili oil, Parmesan, and parsley. Paddle until well combined. Taste and add salt as needed.
Lay a sheet of plastic wrap or parchment on the counter and spoon on the butter in a strip. Gently roll into a round log, tightening with each pass, and chill until firm (this butter can be frozen for later use).
When you’re ready to grill, heat a grill at medium to high heat.
Cut the butter into coins.
Grill the corn until the kernels are golden brown and slightly charred. Top with the butter rounds and serve immediately.