THREE OAKS — If I was preparing dinner for 20 guests whom I had never met before, and the menu included appetizers through dessert, you would probably not want to enter my kitchen a few hours beforehand. It would not be a quiet and controlled environment. There would be clutter and clatter, accompanied by the occasional smack on a cutting board and the splash of utensils into the dish water. Innocent bystanders would most likely steer clear.
But then, I am not Abra Berens.
Berens is the Chef at Granor Farm near Three Oaks, and I have been in the Granor kitchen just hours before farm dinner guests arrive. She was elbow-deep in salads and sides and a main dish, but calmly looked my way, smiled and invited me in.
Surrounding her on the countertops was a rainbow of vegetables, neatly angle-parked and ready to go. Most were produced on Granor Farm’s 30 acres, just outside the kitchen door. Berens was not frazzled or fried, but was managing the project with the grace and confidence of someone who loves what she does and has been loving it for a long time.
Berens’ cookbook, “Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables,” is a gathering of over 100 recipes, highlighting 29 vegetables with 230 variations, accompanied by nearly 100 photographs. Releasd on April 23, the 460-page cooking treasure is available online from booksellers, as well as at the Granor Farm weekend farm store at 3480 Warren Woods Road during the growing season, and wherever books are sold.
The well-organized and fun-to-read volume begins with a glossary of cooking terms, including some basic techniques (like braise, poach, sweat) as well as cutting techniques and phrases (such as dice, shave, ribbon). Berens keeps these descriptions brief and easy to understand, and they are all in one place for easy access.
An early section of the book is devoted to a strong pantry, which Berens believes is crucial to a happy cooking experience.
“A pantry is like a quiver of arrows, at your back and at the ready. Having a shelf of even a few dependable staples is the single best thing you can do to ensure that you can always make a quick, varied, and delicious meal at home,” she says.
Then comes the parade of vegetables, from asparagus through turnips. They are organized alphabetically, rather than seasonally. While Berens is a die-hard seasonal chef with a Midwestern vibe, she explains that, “I always struggle with books that are organized seasonally, because I think it’s interesting, but I often have a hard time finding the recipes that I want, because the seasonality in Portland is different than here in Michigan, or in Florida.”
Each vegetable has its own biography in this book, almost like individual people, and since Berens is a very entertaining and soulful writer, the essays and buying/storing tips at the beginning of each chapter offer an interesting and valuable introduction to each one.
Using asparagus as an example, the author offers some background on how the stalks are grown, how to choose the best asparagus for cooking (or not cooking, her preference), and describes how she grew up detesting these green spears because of how her mother cooked them.
After the beginning description, the techniques are described. “For asparagus, it’s raw, roasted and grilled, and then there is a base recipe, plus 3 or 4 variations on that recipe.”
The book is not written for vegetarians, however.
Berens says, “I love vegetables because there is so much character to them. I’m a meat eater and I love meat, and the same with dairy, but in some ways, a pork chop and a steak are very similar, with a uniform texture and are very satisfying, but much less similar than, say, asparagus and a tomato. There is so much difference there and so much beauty. And they end up being little characters in your kitchen.”
In 2009 Berens started Bare Knuckle Farm with a friend on the Leelanau Peninsula of Michigan, where she farmed and cooked for eight years.
“When I was working at Bare Knuckle, people at the market would say, for example, ‘Beets? What do I do with beets?’ Or kohlrabi ... or eggs ... so I started writing a column for the Traverse City Record Eagle that was based around a single ingredient, giving a bit of context to it, and then offered two different ways to prepare it.”
Those essays were the early ideas that later spawned the project of writing a comprehensive cookbook, featuring vegetables and cooking techniques for home cooking success.
Along the way, Berens developed her skills at the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland, enjoyed a stint at Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, and was Executive Chef at the Local Foods Cafe in Chicago before returning to her Michigan roots as Chef at Granor Farm in 2017.
Sprinkled within the chapters are the musings of a person who has considered many types of cooking, farming, shopping and eating. Some tough questions are raised for the reader to put in the slow cooker.
“There are so many things to worry about in this world, and food should certainly be one of them, because I worry about people who are growing it and people who don’t have enough to eat, and I worry about what pesticides are doing to our ecology.
These issues are heavy. If I’m not careful they will eclipse the undeniable fact that food is a pleasure to be delighted in. You’ll have to make your own choices about the foods that you buy, but don’t overthink it and miss the party.”
A Friends of the New Buffalo Library Chef Night: Spring at Granor Farm with Chef Abra Berens, is scheduled for Tuesday, May 21, at Granor Farm (a pre-demo tour begins at 6 p.m.). Berens will then conduct a cooking demonstration and tasting. Copies of “Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables” will be for sale at the event.
Cost for the Chef Night is $35 per person, with proceeds benefiting the Friends of the Library. Interested participants can sign up at the library’s front desk, 33 N. Thompson St., New Buffalo (cash or check only).
Learn more about Abra Berens at her website, abraberens.com.
To make a reservation for one of Granor Farm’s farm dinners, visit their website, granorfarm.com. Tickets are made available on a rolling date basis (new this year) and email subscribers will be the first to learn of additional seatings and events as they become available.
Salad of Asparagus, Arugula, Egg, and Radish with Mustard Vinaigrette
Tasting for salt before serving is key to all recipes but especially so here because the asparagus can soak up the seasoning. Be aware that the salt will leach water from the asparagus, so don’t dress more than 30 minutes before serving.
1 bunch thick asparagus (1 lb | 455 g)
1 bunch radishes (1 lb | 455 g) (Easter Egg is the most colorful variety)
2 hard-boiled eggs
1 shallot (0.2 oz | 6 g)
¼ cup (60 g) whole-grain mustard
1 Tbsp (20 g) honey
½ tsp (3 g) salt, plus more for seasoning
2 Tbsp (30 ml) apple cider vinegar
½ cup (120 ml) olive oil
1 bag (4 oz | 115 g) arugula
Freshly ground black pepper
With a sharp knife, vegetable peeler, or mandoline, shave the asparagus and radishes as thinly as possible. For the asparagus, cut either on an acute diagonal or in ribbons down the length of the stalk.
Pass the hard-boiled eggs through a fine-mesh sieve or finely chop with a knife.
Finely dice or thinly shave the shallot.
In a bowl, whisk together the mustard, honey, salt, and vinegar. Whisk in the olive oil.
Dress the arugula with 3 Tbsp (45 ml) of the mustard vinaigrette. Season with salt and pepper. Taste and adjust the seasoning—use more vinaigrette as needed. Arrange the greens on a serving platter or individual plates.
Scatter the asparagus, radish, and shallot over the top, sprinkle the egg over the whole lot, and drizzle with a touch more vinaigrette.
Variation: with marinated peas, baby lettuce + buttermilk
1 cup (150 g) marinated peas
½ bag (2 oz | 55 g) baby lettuce greens
½ cup (120 ml) buttermilk
Combine the shaved asparagus with the peas, greens, and buttermilk, and toss to coat. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.
— Reprinted from “Ruffage” by Abra Berens with permission by Chronicle Books, 2019