Food With Friends: Abra Berens, Author of Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables

May 21, 2020

Abra Berens is a chef, former farmer, and writer. She believes that the meals we eat should change with the seasons and that their ingredients should come from nearby. She strives to make simple, delicious meals that champions the region. We love her cookbook Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables, which was recently nominated for a James Beard Award. Recently, Abra chatted with us about how she came to cookbook writing, and shared a few great spring recipes from Ruffage.

Stumptown Coffee Roasters: Hi Abra! Thanks for chatting with us. You've had quite the journey to get to publishing this cookbook -- you're a writer, a farmer, and a chef. Can you talk a bit about how these three avocations inform/have informed each other?

Abra Berens: In some ways, all of the steps along the way were natural progressions from each other. I was an English major and day dreamed of being a food writer. I started working at Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, MI during college, to pay some bills, and fell in love with the place. I transitioned from the front of house to the kitchen because I was curious about cooking and they were willing to teach me. Then on to cooking school, at Ballymaloe in Ireland, because I really liked cooking and wanted to learn more. My chef (and mentor and friend), Rodger Bowser, thought Ballymaloe would be the best fit for me because it is on a 100 acre working farm, and I had been interested in the local produce he was bringing into the deli. Then restaurants after cooking school. I was lucky enough to find great farm to table restaurants in Chicago and so was exposed to truly wonderful produce in yet another setting. I couldn’t stop thinking about how the food was grown and wanted to learn more about that. So, I worked with a friend to start a farm near Traverse City, MI. We sold at several farmer’s markets a week, and I was hearing the same questions each week about how to store the produce, how to cook with it etc. I reached out to the local paper to see if they would be interested in a regular column based on what we were growing. The column laid the foundation for a book and here we are. It’s funny because it feels like natural steps each time, but there were lots of years where I thought to myself “what am I doing? Are these good chocies? Are you flitting around from cook to farmer to sometimes writing aimlessly?” Looking back on it, I think having some of these larger goals were always a guiding light. It just took a long time.

SCR: Do you find that recipe inspiration strikes most often in the field, in the kitchen, or at your writing desk?

AB: I’m always inspired by an ingredient first. If that is the perfect tomato and wanting to show it off or if it is the two-week-old bunch of kale in my fridge that needs to be used because it won’t last long. It always starts there. Then I look around at what I have on hand or what I’d want to pair with that star ingredient and we’re off to the races.

SCR: What are you cooking and eating yourself right now?

AB: 2020 has been the year of Use it Up, so I’m going through a lot of things in my freezer and pantry shelves. That has pushed me out of my usual cooking routines. For some reason we had 10 cans and 2 lbs of dried chickpeas, so I’ve been making a lot of garlic smashed chickpeas and the topping that with any number of salads or roasted veg!

SCR: Do you have a favorite vegetable to cook, and is it also your favorite vegetable to eat?

AB: Red cabbage and cauliflower are my day in, day out favorites. They last forever in the fridge, which has been especially helpful when we are trying to limit runs to the store. They are great raw or roasted and pair with so many different flavors.

SCR: How do you generally get your day started?

AB: I’ve been trying the thing where you get up at the same time each day, for me that has been 6am lately. Then I make some coffee and do some writing. I don’t tend to eat a lot in the morning so it works out that when I’m usually tapering off in my writing, I’m hungry and looking for a second cup of coffee.

SCR: How do you brew and drink your coffee?

AB: We usually brew a chemex with two cups of coffee twice each morning and then often a pour over cup of decaf in the afternoon (with some sort of sweet treat if I’m being completely honest).

Raw salad of asparagus, arugula, egg, and radish w/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.

Peperonata w/ poached eggs and paprika potatoes
Peperonata is the base recipe here and can be turned into a million different things. It also freezes very well, so consider making a huge batch and freezing until the next season. I love this recipe with boiled potatoes, but as potatoes are so versatile, roasted or mashed would also be nice. If roasting, coat the potatoes with the paprika before roasting. If using mashed, spoon the paprika oil over the mash before serving.

½ cup (120 ml) neutral oil, plus more for the peppers
¼ tsp (1 g) chili flakes (optional)
1 large onion (½ lb | 1 cup | 230 g), cut into thin slices
3 garlic cloves (0.6 oz | 21 g), minced
1½ tsp (9 g) salt
1 Tbsp (15 g) tomato paste or ¼ cup (60 g) roasted cherry tomatoes
12 oz (340 g) crushed tomatoes or some sort of liquidy canned tomato product
4 red, yellow, or orange bell peppers (24 oz | 680 g), cut into strips
2 lb (910 g) fingerling or Yukon gold potatoes, about 1/2 lb (230 g) per person
2 Tbsp (14 g) smoked, sweet, and/or hot paprika
½ bunch parsley (1.2 oz | ¾ cup | 34 g), roughly chopped
2 quarts (2 L) water
¼ cup (60 ml) cheap vinegar
1 egg per person

To make the peperonata, in a medium Dutch oven or pot, heat a glug of neutral oil. Add the chili flakes to bloom the flavor. When they are fragrant, add the onion, garlic, and ½ tsp (3 g) salt and reduce the heat. Sweat the onions until soft, scraping up any brown bits. Add the tomato paste and fry with the onions. Add the crushed tomatoes and peppers and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and let stew until the peppers are tender and the liquid is reduced and silky, 25 to 35 minutes. (This can also be done in the oven if you already have it on, though it will take a bit more time.)

Boil the potatoes in salted water until fork-tender. Drain and allow to cool.

Toast the paprika in a small frying pan; when fragrant, remove from the heat, add the ½ cup (120 ml) oil, and allow to steep for 10 minutes or so.

Toss the potatoes with the paprika oil and parsley.

Combine the water, vinegar, and remaining 1 tsp (6 g) salt in a saucepan, and bring to a simmer.

Crack the egg into a bowl, slip the egg into the water, and poach the eggs until the whites are set but the yolk is soft.

Dish up the potatoes, top with the eggs and then the peperonata, and serve.

Roasted potato salad with egg, celery, herbs, and bread crumbs
This dish is what I like to call “New Midwestern.” It is basically a potato salad but without the mayo and yellow mustard so commonly associated with that picnic staple. Instead, the egg is cooked separately, adding richness like in a mayo but also a soft texture to contrast the crunchy potatoes and garlic bread crumbs. This dish is my favorite to make with potatoes of all colors and sweet potatoes, highlighting the intense diversity of a vegetable with a banal reputation. Additionally, feel not only free but encouraged to add other veggies with the celery and onion. Shaved carrots, radishes, cauliflower, or broccoli would be perfectly at home here.

2 lb (910 g) potatoes—any type, or mix different colors, textures, even sweet potatoes— unpeeled and cut into wedges
Neutral oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 eggs
½ bunch parsley (1.2 oz | ¾ cup | 34 g), stemmed, leaves left whole (if the stems are tender, slice them as thinly as possible)
6 stalks (4 oz | 2 cups | 115 g) celery, cut into thin slices, leaves reserved
1 small onion (2 oz | ¼ cup | 55 g), any type, cut into thin slices
¼ cup (60 ml) olive oil
½ cup (70 g) garlic bread crumbs

Heat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Toss the potatoes with a glug of neutral oil, big pinch of salt, and several grinds of pepper. Transfer to a baking sheet and spread in a single layer (it doesn’t matter if the cut side is up or down, just be sure there’s space between the pieces to allow the steam to escape). Roast until the outside is crispy and the inside is tender when poked with a paring knife, about 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, gently tap the fat side of the eggs on a hard surface to give them a slight crack (this helps them peel more easily). Place the hair-cracked eggs into a medium pot and add water to cover by 1 inch (2.5 cm). Bring to a boil, remove from the cool the eggs with cold water until they are cool to the touch.

Combine the parsley with the celery.

Peel the eggs and roughly chop or slice into rounds with one of those old-fashioned egg slicers.

When the potatoes are done, remove from the baking sheet. Either cool to room temperature and then finish assembling, or proceed and serve warm.

To assemble, toss the potatoes with the celery-parsley mixture, onion, and the olive oil. Transfer to a serving platter and top with egg rounds and the bread crumbs.

All recipes and photographs reprinted from Ruffage by Abra Berens with permission by Chronicle Books, 2019