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A Week of Dinners with Abra Berens, the Best Vegetable Chef of the Year

published Jul 11, 2019
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Abra Berens wants you to stop relegating vegetables to the corner of your plate, and instead consider making them the main attraction of every meal. She also wants you to consider the sheer deliciousness and joy of plant-based and waste-free cooking. It’s the theme of her debut cookbook, Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables, which we’d argue is required reading for 2019.

Think of Abra as your Vegetable 101 Professor, here to rewire your brain and fill it with creative ways to put vegetables front and center. On top of cooking with vegetables (we’re talking 100 recipes and variations, here, people), Abra filled Ruffage with information on how to shop for them, store them, and use them up, too. You’ll never face the problem of ordering takeout despite an overloaded crisper drawer again.

Abra came to the cookbook writing table with more vegetable expertise than most others could claim. She grew up on her family’s cucumber farm in Michigan, went to cooking school in Ireland on a hundred-acre organic farm, and now she’s the head chef at Granor Farm in Southwest Michigan, where she pays homage to the produce of the Midwest daily.

Since it’s Vegetable Month here at Kitchn, we thought who better to consult for a week of veggie-packed dinners than Abra?

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A Week of Dinners from Abra Berens

We asked Abra to share five favorite recipes for easy weeknight cooking. Here is her veg-heavy menu for a week of thoughtful, purposeful, clear-out-the-fridge meals.

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Sunday is basically my Friday, so I want something that feels a little bit celebratory but that also can be pulled together super quickly. Enter: crispy-skinned fish with whatever vegetables we have on hand.

I’ve been making the cream-less corn with sautéed greens and seared salmon a lot lately. I bought a bunch of frozen corn from a local grower and we almost always have some random collection of greens that can be sautéed together — kale, chard, radicchio, spinach, whatever. Plus, I can generally remember to pull a couple of fillets of fish out of the freezer, even if I’m bleary-eyed before between dinner service on Saturday night and needing to be back at the farm for Sunday brunch.

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I try to always take Mondays off, so I have the time to cook things that take longer — if that’s a stew or some beans on the stovetop. My cousins have been growing black beans lately, and so every time my dad comes to visit he brings a minimum of 20 pounds along with him, so we always have those on hand.

I’ve also been really into the great big beans like Royal Corona, dried favas, or broad beans. I will cook up a big batch and eat some for Monday night dinner with something else roasted and a fresh pile of greens. Then have enough of the beans on hand for the rest of the week to make quick work of dinner. The garlic marinated beans treat me well throughout the week.

Also, on Mondays I try to make something in addition to the legumes I’m cooking off for the week. My go-to lately has been the mustard braised potatoes with chicken thighs. The chicken is always a delightful combo of super-crispy skin and tender, almost-steamed meat underneath. The potatoes cook in the mustard, chicken stock, white wine, and drippings so the resulting liquid is amazingly flavorful. Plus, it reheats well later in the week or you can pick the extra chicken from the bone and roughly chop it with the potatoes for mayo-less (but no-less-rich) chicken salad leftovers.

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Socca is my #1 “I need to make something for dinner and don’t really have a plan” recipe. We keep chickpea flour on hand for just this reason. Often, I’ll go through the fridge, see what’s in there, and make some sort of vegetable salad with a mixture of greens, herbs, and chunkier vegetables like cauliflower, tomatoes, green beans, summer squash, etc. and pile that on the pancakes.

To make them, mix equal parts chickpea flour and soda water with a big pinch of salt and pan-fry (like breakfast pancakes) but in a bit more olive oil than you think you need to make the sides very crispy. When the bubbles in the center pop and hold their shape, flip, brown the other side, and serve piled high with the vegetable salad and maybe some fresh cheese like ricotta or goat cheese if you have it.

*[Ed. Note: You can find Abra’s recipe here, you just need to create an account with Plate Online]

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For the nights when I truly have nothing else, there is always dried pasta. Sometimes I will have a vegetable to go with it — like a beet purée from the back of the freezer or roasted cherry tomatoes on hand. The beet pasta with golden raisins and poppy seeds in the book stemmed from just such a dire night.

Less fruitful searching of the freezer occasions, it is just boiled noodles, chili oil, and some garlic breadcrumbs on top for crunch. And those nights are pretty great too. Maybe a green salad on the side if I’m lucky.

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Weeknight Cooking Questions with Abra

Ruffage is a love letter to vegetables. What’s one vegetable that you think is particularly misunderstood?
The way I eat asparagus now is the polar opposite of the way I had it prepared growing up. My mom was of the generation that would just put it in a Pyrex dish with a little bit of water and salt and then Saran wrap it and microwave it. It would do this weird thing where it balloons up and suctions down. It was just terrible. I didn’t like asparagus until I learned how to cook it.

At the farm, we’ll shave the fat stalks into a raw salad and serve it over roasted skinny asparagus, so you get both textures. Vegetables can be a whole dish — they don’t always have to play second fiddle. 

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What ingredient do you wait all year for?
Certainly Shishito peppers are some of my favorites. They become a dish of summer; throw them on a grill in a hot pan and they simply come together.

Besides a good knife, what’s a must-have tool for prepping vegetables?
A food processor is a go-to tool for me — especially since I make so many purées. I also love my mandoline. I use it for everything, just to shave stuff really fast.

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In Ruffage you say that your “best cooking happens when [you] go the market without planned menu or shopping list.” Do you ever meal plan?
I don’t ever write out a week’s worth of recipes and follow the schedule. I do try to make a couple of extra portions each time I do something so I have leftovers, though. I’ll make bigger batches of primary things like purées or beans and lentils so I can turn that into a bunch of different things. If you start out by making lentil soup, you just have a lot of lentil soup.

That makes sense! Okay, think fast: You have to make dinner out of whatever you have on hand right now. What’s on your plate?
We have a lot of greens right now, so I’d made a salad for sure. I also have a little kefir, so I’d turn that into a kind of yogurt kefir dressing. We also have scraps of pie dough from last weekend, so I think I could make either a quiche or savory hand pie. Michigan is known for pasties, which are a kind of folded hand pie. A lot of times if I have random odds and ends, I’ll chop them to make a filling and do a savory hand pie for dinner.

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On that note, what are your most practical no-waste cooking tips?
I think the most practical thing is to learn the difference between if something is actually spoiled or if it’s just not at its peak. Something like kale or Swiss chard will be kind of wilt-y after a week in the fridge, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. If you have wilt-y kale you can sauté it and make it even wiltier. It’s like vegetable triage — capturing it before it goes bad. Also, you can cook lettuce! What can I do with lettuce if I don’t want to have a Caesar salad every night for the rest of my life? Turn it into something else. There’s a braised lettuce recipe in my book for that very reason.

Aside from copious veggies, what non-perishables do you always have?
We always have chickpeas, canned tuna in oil, chili oil, and pickles (I particularly love McClure’s spicy pickles from Detroit). I also always have wild rice, lentils, and a lot of beans in general — like giant corona beans and dried fava beans.

A lot of times we’ll have roasted root vegetables with chickpeas, canned tuna, and some sort of salad on top. That is probably what we make the most. 

The most surprising thing in your freezer right now?
The sheer amount of butter! My husband and I have this thing where every time we go to the store we buy butter whether we need it or not. We have maybe six pounds in the freezer right now.

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And lastly, what kind of foods do you wish your home state was known for?
Michigan is the second most agriculturally diverse state in the nation. I wish people knew about all the amazing fruit and vegetable cooking that happens here, because we grow a lot of it. Our fruit (like cherries and stone fruits) is really incredible.

There’s also a really burgeoning grape culture. Up north they make a lot of white and rosé wines that are very delicious. The Midwest has a reputation for sweet wines, but these are super-dry wines. In our part of the state down here, in the fall, like late September, I like to go for bike rides and the entire county will smell like grape jelly. It’s wild. The first time it happened I was like Did I drop a jar of jam? It’s all of those grapes.

Thanks so much, Abra! Follow her around the Internet on Instagram, check out what she’s up to at Granor Farm, and find more of her delicious, veg-forward recipes in her cookbook.

Credit: Courtesy of Chronicle Books

Find the book: Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables, by Abra Berens