Ruffage | Abra Berens
By Abra Berens
Intro: Welcome to the Cookery By The Book Podcast with Suzy Chase. She's just a home cook in New York City, sitting at her dining room table, talking to cookbook authors.
Abra Berens: My name is Abra Berens. I am the chef at Granor Farm and author of Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables.
Suzy Chase: Vegetables can be exciting, delicious, and the star of the plate. In the introduction of Ruffage, Francis Lam wrote, "Yours is a smart way of cooking. A curious, thoughtful way of cooking, but most of all, a cooking of good spirit." What a lovely compliment.
Abra Berens: Yeah, so I was lucky enough to meet Francis my final year of college at the University of Michigan. There is a program at U of M called NELP, which is the New England Literature Program. A handful of students go and you study transcendentalism while living in the place where it was written. It's a very immersive course, and so you're at this camp and you're cooking together and reading together, and there's a physical rigor combined with it.
Abra Berens: The very first day that I arrived, you know, well before I was ever a cook in any sort of real setting, I of course found my way into the kitchen of the camp, and Francis was there making something for dinner. I just introduced myself and I was like, "What is that?" It was this beautiful red stem with the kind of purple green leaves that chard can have sometimes, and I had never seen Swiss chard before. I was like, "What is that?" He just gave me a taste of it. I distinctly remember saying something along the lines of like, "Oh, it's like if celery and spinach had a baby." Then he was like, "Yeah, pretty much."
Abra Berens: I was like, "Okay, see ya. I got to go jump in the lake now," because one of the things the very first day that you get to NELP, spoiler alert for any future NELP-ers, is you have to so this swim test, which is really, like, a preposterous situation, because it's one of their kind of made up challenges where you arrive in this camp in Maine and then are immediately told you have to jump in this lake and do a swim test, and it sort of mimics the discombobulation that you feel at sort of being sort of plopped into this new environment. That whole day just kind of felt like a wonderland. I will always remember Francis just calmly being in the kitchen and feeding me fresh chard, yeah.
Suzy Chase: In 2009, you started Bare Knuckle Farm in Northport, Michigan with your friend Jess. At the end of your first year of farming, you were as poor as you'd ever been, but you were eating some of the best meals of your life. Describe this.
Abra Berens: You know, I'm sure anybody that started their own business can attest to the fact that, without securing outside capital, you're really putting all of your own resources in, and that includes time and money and emotional energy, all that stuff. By the end of the season, it was kind of this really quiet time. I had taken a side job just for some extra cash, and so I had a couple of weeks where I had committed to them before going back to Chicago, because we were done with the farm for the season and I was going to move back. I had always been based in Chicago, and then would move up to Northport for six months and then farm all summer, and then move back to Chicago and cook in the winter.
Abra Berens: Yeah, I really just didn't have any money. We had some carrots that were still in the ground. We had planted these kale plants that had lived all summer, but then got super aphid-y in the fall, so we had cut them down to the nubs, but all the energy that was stored in those deep roots were putting up these little tiny baby kale leaves every day. We had some chickens that year, but they had moved to my business partner's wife's farm for the winter, but I still had some eggs left before they moved, and all those things.
Abra Berens: It was really, you've got quiet nights, it was super cold in the cabin where I was living, but the meals were so great. It was, you know, every night, the carrots would get frosted over, so they would get sweeter and sweeter. It was kind of there that I realized, I was making all of these different meals, and so it never felt redundant even though it was the same primary ingredients.
Abra Berens: For me, it gets to a little bit of this conversation about the value of food versus the worth of food, and how those are really simple ingredients, but the meals felt very celebratory each night. Maybe it's because they were the event of the day. I was just kind of doing other sort of closing up the farm tasks during the day, or kind of puttering around or reading, so it felt like an activity and it was such a nice time, despite being on the outside very underwhelming in terms of my financial time.
Suzy Chase: I think all home cooks need to hear this. Ingredients can be repetitive, but meals need not be. In Ruffage, you have 100-plus recipes and 230-plus variations. Talk about not being redundant.
Abra Berens: Again, it comes from seasonal eating in the northern Midwest, and the way that that sort of started for me was realizing there is a trajectory for the season that we go through every year, whether you're farming or just eating seasonally or just you have any sort of connection to the outdoors in this part of the country, and I think that's mirrored in other parts of the country as well. The point is that, every spring you get asparagus, and it's the same asparagus every year, but the ways that you present it can change and feel very new. It's really about having sort of creativity, with a slightly more limited palate.
Suzy Chase: Give us some tips to change our thinking surrounding vegetables. In the book, you talk about equating decadent foods with sinfulness, and vegetables with moral fortitude. I know growing up in Kansas, I have a hard time changing my mind about vegetables.
Abra Berens: I think there's two ways to think about that. One, the bit in the book about equating, there's a false equivalency between rich foods and decadence and, you know, piousness with vegetables, I think part of that is we live in a culture that is really full of shoulds right now. Like, you should eat that, you shouldn't buy this, that thing should give you heart disease, or something like that. I think that that's a lot of noise. That's well intentioned noise, but noise nonetheless.
Abra Berens: I think there's an element of people choosing to eat a salad when they really want fried chicken because they think it'll make them feel better. I would say that it depends on the situation. You know, like, if you've been working outside all day, the reason fried chicken tastes better to you is because you have burned through those calories. At the same time, if I've had rich meals, a salad actually makes me feel better. I think it's about being honest with yourself about what you really want in that moment, and not feeling bad about your choices. Just make the best choices that you can, and kind of putting the shoulds on a shelf.
Abra Berens: The other point that you were talking about is changing your perception of vegetables. I think that the Midwest still, for better or for worse, has sort of a meat-starch-veg plate. I think that's what a lot of people are still eating. I still cook that way, I still eat that way sometimes. I think that the way that things changed for me with vegetables was by both recognizing what each one had to offer, and then sort of letting go of that everything on one plate mindset, and taking inspiration from other cuisines that have vegetables more at the forefront.
Abra Berens: Maybe instead of having three things on a plate and it feels like there's no star if there's not a meat based protein or an egg based protein or something like that, or even just a really fancy vegetable. I think that you can kind of decentralize the stars of the plate. If you have three, or really extravagantly five dishes, you're not doing any more work than you would do to have three things on a plate, but you're having three different textures. You could have like, a spinach salad with bacon and egg is a pretty classic spinach combination, at least around here. Then some roasted veg, like a big pile of roasted carrots with a slick salsa verde or something like that over the top.
Abra Berens: What else would I put with that? Probably something really creamy, like a squash puree, or maybe in the summertime like, a creamless corn puree, and that gives you some richness and those [inaudible 00:09:15] to pair against the brightness of the greens. I think that it's that inter-play, to me, that has started to become more interesting than the excitement of a big piece of meat. But, don't get me wrong, I still cook big pieces of meat and I still eat meat and I like it. But, I think it's about kind of appreciating those different characteristics and what each ingredient is showing and letting it live its best life on your table.
Suzy Chase: This cookbook is so easy to navigate. Talk about how it's laid out.
Abra Berens: Yeah, it was really important to me to have Ruffage organized alphabetically, and there's a couple reasons for that. One, is that I really wanted it to be a reference book, and I find it confusing in books when things are organized like appetizers, main courses, sides, soups, all the different things, because my brain just doesn't work that way. I wanted it to be a way for people to kind of invert the way that they think about a dish, which parallels the inversion that happened for me when I was cooking at Bare Knuckle, which is look at your ingredients and then find something that you want, a recipe that you want to use to showcase your ingredients.
Abra Berens: If that means that you're going to a farmer's market and you're super excited about the kohlrabi that's there, then buy the kohlrabi and know that you have some resources at your back to turn that into something. Or, if it means that you're tight on money and that asparagus is on sale in January and that's what's best for the family, buy that and know that you have these resources at your back. I wanted to kind of take the sourcing issue out of it a little bit. Then, also make it easier for people to find the recipes to link back to those ingredients.
Abra Berens: The other reason I wanted to organize it alphabetically, I have a ton of respect for books that are organized seasonally, but I also remember the very first time I was reading, I think it was Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which is a great book, but Barbara Kingsolver was talking about having asparagus in early April or late March or something, and I remember being like, "Well, good for you. We don't get asparagus until June in northern Michigan." May, if we're lucky in Chicago and southern Michigan. I didn't want anyone to feel left out, and I think a lot of people think about the Midwest in terms of our winters, and people always say like, "Oh, you can't eat locally in the winter," and that is not really the case anymore.
Abra Berens: In addition, I was just visiting some friends in Florida, and right now which is mid-April, it's the height of their tomato and strawberry season, and they were talking about their frustration that when all of the tomato recipes come out in the food magazines, their tomato season is over. By the middle of summer, they have okra and peppers and eggplant, and that's it. Fresh greens are gone, even corn isn't really there. Their winter squash season is like, I can't remember now exactly, but I think it's like, in May or something.
Abra Berens: It's a funny thing, seasonality, because it doesn't account for the regions. While this book is Midwestern-based, because I am, I didn't want it to be Midwestern exclusive. I wanted to be sure that people in Florida or Arizona or the UK or Montreal could all find use in it.
Suzy Chase: One of the best things about this cookbook is that you can either swap ingredients in and out from the base recipe, or you can evolve the original recipe into a totally new meal. For example, let's say a big squash. What are some variations on a big old squash?
Abra Berens: When I was thinking about the variations, I wanted to really showcase kind of two primary branches of how to vary it. One is, if you take the ingredient and prepare it the same way, and then just swap out the flavor accessories, is it presents a very different dish. For me, the beet factor really represents that the best, where you've got steam roasted beets and the recipe is for a salad with smoked white fish and sour cream and sunflower seeds, and it's very classic eastern European. Then, the variations are you take the same steam roasted beets, and put them with oranges and feta and some mint, and that takes it to a very different place. Or, you could put it in a very Midwestern fall dish with apples and cheddar and walnuts and parsley. Those dishes present very differently, even though the structure is the same.
Abra Berens: Then, the other way to look at that is how to use the same thing and make totally different meals with it. The beet puree or the squash puree that we were mentioning, you know, you're making this base of a puree. Then the recipe for that will be one thing. Like, for the beets, it's you take pasta and dress it in the beet puree. It makes this beautiful bright red beet pasta with pickled raisins and poppy seeds. Again, very eastern European. Or, you can take that same puree and blend it with white beans and a little bit of olive oil, and then make it like a beet hummus and put it with a crudite platter, like, a veggie platter.
Abra Berens: Or, you could take that and cook risotto, and then bind the risotto with it and makes this beautiful pink risotto that is really lovely. I can't remember what the toppings are for that, but if I were making it today I would put walnut oil and some Parmesan and maybe a little bit of orange, because beet and walnut and orange go really well together. Or, you could thin it down and make a soup with it and make kind of a play on borscht. All of those things, and the same is true for squash. The same is true for any of the celery root puree, the cauliflower puree, all of those things. It's a little bit of a deeper dive into batch cooking, like, large batch cooking, which I think everybody has done the thing where they make a gallon of lentil soup, and by the end of the week they're like, "If I have to eat lentil soup one more time I am going to cry."
Suzy Chase: Yeah, exactly.
Abra Berens: Wanting to say like, you can dial that back a little bit and make it less specific of a prep, and then have more options. Maybe instead of making the gallon of lentil soup, you can cook up four quarts of lentils, and then you can make a soup with some of the lentils or you can add them to a salad or you could would do with lentils. You know, crisp them up in the oven to make like, crispy lentils for snacking, all those things. That was kind of the point of the variation.
Suzy Chase: Let's talk about the word glug, G-L-U-G. This shows up quite a bit in the cookbook. Talk about the word glug.
Abra Berens: Well, it's a little bit of a funny thing, because my first interaction with the word glug was my mom cooking from my grandmother's recipes and being so irritated by the word glug. It was literally, a glug is when you pour, often it was like a glug of milk in a batter. A glug was like, how long it took to tip the gallon of milk and have it literally go "glug" as it came out before it would hit the top and it would stop or whatever. My mom, it made her crazy because she's a very scientific person and so she like, measured out. She's like, "If you have a full gallon of milk a glug is much smaller. If you have a very empty jug of milk, it's much larger because it takes more time for it to hit the top of the container," or whatever.
Abra Berens: For her, it was like, a quarter cup, that's what she would translate it to. In some ways, I wanted to return to that phrase, mostly to indicate that a lot of times measurements don't have to be super exact. I think there are certain realms of the cooking and baking world where you do need to have very strict proportions, and all of the recipes in Ruffage are very, very flexible in that way. The glug is sort of representative of that. Saying like, you're just trying to get some oil in the pan, so that's where glug comes from. It's been amazing to see how some people find it very liberating and some people find it moderately infuriating. Maybe that's how things should be.
Suzy Chase: I love it. I found it liberating. I used it on my Instagram story on Saturday when I was making your peas.
Abra Berens: Nice. Yeah, how'd the peas come out, by the way?
Suzy Chase: Oh my gosh.
Abra Berens: Were they okay?
Suzy Chase: They were amazing. I made your recipe for peas with parsley, thyme, butter, and onions on page 319. They came out so sweet, and the butter gave kind of like a hint of saltiness and creaminess, and the herbs, and I had it again last night for dinner, I mean, as a side dish for dinner. It's so good.
Abra Berens: I'm so glad, because one of the funny things about the book is, there's a handful of recipes that seem very, very simple, and I was like, "Are these too simple to go into a cookbook?
Suzy Chase: No, it's really good. But, you don't like peas, do you?
Abra Berens: Yeah, I know, I don't really like peas. It's funny, Francis told me that his first draft of the forward for the book was simply about berating me for not liking peas, and then he decided to go a different direction, thankfully. I feel like everyone loves them. They sort of infuriate me, because it's really difficult to know when they're ripe, because each variety shows differently, and they'll present differently on the plant.
Abra Berens: You'll have from the same plant, one that is perfectly ripe, and then also one that's under-ripe and one that's overripe, and they all look exactly the same. Then you pick them, and there's such a short time period for when the sugars that are in the pea, for it to convert to starch. You basically have to pick them in the morning before market, which, when your market starts at 8:00AM means you have a very early day. Or, you have to pick them in the afternoon and then get them into cold store.
Abra Berens: It's just this, I find them to be a very fickle plant. I love pea shoots and I really love frozen peas, because that, I think, is one of those times where the industrial model, especially the organic industrial model can work to our benefit. Where, they're being harvested. They're probably all harvested at the appropriate time of ripeness. They're immediately flash frozen. They're super reliable. They're really dependable, all of those things. I know, peas, I want someone to teach me how to like them more, but it hasn't happened yet.
Suzy Chase: Those darn peas. What's your favorite vegetable?
Abra Berens: Cabbage I think is, by far and away, and again, that's again a reliance on the sort of every day hardworking vegetable in my kitchen, as opposed to some of the "she-she-ier" darlings, you know, that are only around for a little bit of the time. I mean, I love tomatoes and I love sweet corn and all of those things, but cabbage is the vegetable that is in my fridge 90% of the time, and makes such different meals.
Abra Berens: I really rely on purple cabbage in the winter to be eating something that's colorful. I really love making the version of golumpki, which are the Polish cabbage rolls. Unfortunately, I trimmed a bunch out of that cabbage chapter, just because the book is long enough as it is. Some of those slower cooked cabbage recipes or the cabbage rolls and stuff like that didn't quite fit into the structure of the book at that point. But yeah, she's such a versatile friend and I rely on cabbage a lot, so that makes her my favorite.
Suzy Chase: I love cabbage too, but here's my problem with cabbage. I live in New York City, and I don't have the largest refrigerator. Cabbage always takes up so much room.
Abra Berens: Kind of greatest strength/greatest weakness. There's so much food in those heads of cabbage, but then greatest weakness, there is so much food in those heads of cabbage and it takes up a lot of space, yeah. I mean, cabbage does hold up if you cut it and then store it in a plastic bag or something. Eventually, it'll start to brown on the cut side, so I generally leave it whole and just cut a little wedge off when I need it, but yeah, it can be a big beast.
Suzy Chase: Now to my segment called my last meal. What would you order for your last supper?
Abra Berens: Oh, wow.
Suzy Chase: Peas?
Abra Berens: Yeah, one last shot. In terms of the last meal that is the most representative of my life would probably be some sort of weird salad that I tend to make when it's just me home for dinner, and I eat it straight out of the mixing bowl, that I find a lot of comfort in. That would be something like Swiss chard that has some warm green lentils over the top, and then like, shaved cauliflower and roasted beets. Maybe some tuna mayo with that, or something like that. Something that's really representative of the food that I really truly enjoy and rely on on a daily basis.
Abra Berens: But, if it's like a celebratory last meal, probably fresh pasta. You know, like a fresh pasta with maybe like a million different types of fresh pasta, like a filled pasta, a hand cut noodle with a really nice ragu and slow cooked sauce. I mean, I just got the chance to eat at Misi, Missy Robbins' restaurant.
Suzy Chase: Yeah.
Abra Berens: The pastas were so, so delicious. I've been really fixated lately on these daily luxuries, these things that, you know, like we were talking about living on a pretty tight budget means that I have kind of turned to find luxury in some of these more simple things, and a really beautiful plate of pasta is certainly one of those.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web and social media?
Abra Berens: Every thing is @abraberens, which is A-B-R-A B-E-R-E-N-S. My website has the most up to date information in terms of book events and the dinners that we're doing at Greener and information about the cookbook. Then social media, I don't really use Twitter that much that I'm there, I guess. Then, Instagram is my preferred platform.
Suzy Chase: Speaking of book events, I am so excited for our live cookbook chat at LizzYoung Bookseller in Brooklyn on Thursday, May 2nd from 6:00 to 8:00PM. I can't wait.
Abra Berens: Oh, it's going to be so fun.
Suzy Chase: Yes, and you can find all the details on my Instagram. Thanks, Abra, for coming on Cookery By The Book podcast.
Abra Berens: Thank you so much for having me. Truly, it means a ton that you've enjoyed the book and I hope that your listeners will too.
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