Culinary accolades: Chef Abra Berens’ cookbook is nominated for James Beard Award – nwitimes.com

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Abra Berens, chef in residence at Granor Farm in Three Oaks, Michigan, is proof that you don’t have to live in a big city to garner honors by the James Beard Foundation.

Nominated as a semifinalist for the Best Chef award in the Great Lakes Region by the James Beard Foundation and for Best Cookbook, Berens, who spends her days weeding, planting, harvesting, milling and cooking, was surprised when she first heard of the honor. 

“I had long ago decided I’d never get nominated,” she recalls. “I didn’t live in a big city and my food is plain and simple, not fancy.”

Indeed, Berens could be called the Queen of Vegetables. After all, she’s the one who turns the organic veggies grown on the farm into meals for her farmhouse dinners which attract people from across the state as well as Northwest Indiana and Chicago. Since starting two years ago, they’ve sold out quickly with a long waiting list of those eager to attend.

Taking all this knowledge, she wrote her first cookbook, “Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables” to help demystify the process of cooking vegetables—and to overcome the effects of people traumatized by mothers and cafeteria cooks boiling them into soggy messes. Berens created 300 recipes using 29 vegetables.

“ ‘Ruffage’ was intended to be less a collection of recipes and more how to think about them and riff with it,” she says about her bestseller named one of the top 10 cookbooks in 2019. “Our Granor Farm dinners are reflected in the book because the menu for those always starts with what’s coming off the farm.”

Berens’ foray into cooking began at the University of Michigan when she took a job at the James Beard award winning Zingerman’s Deli while studying history and English. Before long, she had immersed herself in the culinary world and soon moved to Ireland to study at the 100-acre organic Ballymaloe Cookery School and Farm in Shanagarry, County Cork. From there she moved to London and worked at Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, along with some 40 cheesemakers. Her introduction to farming came about when she co-founded Bare Knuckle Farm in Northport, Michigan. She was also cooking in Chicago restaurants at the same time—making the 350-mile one-way commute weekly.

When it comes to cooking vegetables, Berens suggests starting with the ones you’re familiar with and progress from there.  And please, leave behind those memories of stringy soggy veggies. Those days are done.

The following recipes are reprinted from “Ruffage” by Abra Berens with permission by Chronicle Books.

Cauliflower w/ Roasted Tomatoes, Parsley and Breadcrumbs

8 cups cauliflower, cored and cut into florets

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 quarts cherry tomatoes or 10 plum tomatoes, halved or quartered if large

1/2 bunch parsley, roughly chopped, or 1/4 cup parsley oil

1/2 cup pitted olives, roughly chopped (optional)

1/2 cup garlic breadcrumbs (Recipe follows)

Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Toss the cauliflower with a glug of olive oil and sprinkle with the salt and pepper. Spread on a foil-lined baking sheet; don’t over heap the cauliflower. Roast until the cauliflower is golden brown, crispy on the outside, and tender when poked with a knife, about 25 minutes.

Either leave the cherry tomatoes raw or toss them with a glug of olive oil and pinch of salt and roast in the oven, stirring regularly, until the liquid is reduced and syrupy, 15 to 25 minutes. Toss the cauliflower with the tomatoes, parsley (or oil), and olives. Top with the garlic breadcrumbs and serve.

Garlic Breadcrumbs

1/4 cup neutral oil

4 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup breadcrumbs or panko

In a large frying pan, heat the oil until shimmering hot and add the garlic and salt. Remove from the heat so the garlic doesn’t burn and let sit for 10 minutes (or cook the garlic on low for 5 minutes, keeping a sharp eye out to prevent burning). Add the breadcrumbs and stir to combine. Return to the heat and toast the oily breadcrumbs until golden brown and fragrant, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool. Store in an airtight container and sprinkle on any and all savory dishes. I often use the oil left from garlic confit to make these. Simply replace the neutral oil with the garlic oil and skip the garlic cloves unless you want a stronger garlic flavor.

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