Spilling the Beans: Abra Berens Dishes on Legumes, Beans, and More in Her Latest Cookbook

         A much maligned vegetable belonging, along with peas and lentils, to the vegetable class called legumes, beans are about as low on the food chain as you can go in terms of respect. Kids snicker at rhymes about beans and the gas they produce and sayings like “not worth a hill of beans” signifies their, well, insignificance.

         Once Abra Berens, the former co-owner of Bare Knuckles Farm in Northport, Michigan and now the executive chef at Granor Farm in Southwest Michigan, was like most of us. She didn’t give a bean about beans. That is until she became intrigued by the bean and grain program at Granor, a certified organic farm in Three Oaks, a charming historic village with its own burgeoning food culture.

         Now she’s all about legumes and grains and for anyone who knows Abra that means a total passionate immersion in the subject which resulted in her latest cookbook, a 464-page door stopper with 140 recipes and over 160 recipe variations titled Grist: A Practical Guide to Cooking Grains, Beans, Seeds, and Legumes. Just published by Chronicle Books on October 26th, the demand for Grist is so high it was hard to get a copy at first.

         Now, that’s worth more than a hill of beans.

         Berens, a James Beard semifinalist for Outstanding Chef: Great Lakes, also authored  Ruffage. That book, which came out in 2019, was named a Best Cookbook for Spring 2019 by the New York Times and Bon Appétit, was a 2019 Michigan Notable Book winner, and was also nominated for a 2019 James Beard Award. She puts the same energy into her Grist.

         “We are told over and over again to eat a diet rich in whole grains and plant-based protein,” writes Berens in the book’s introduction. “The science is there—high in soluble fiber, low glycemic index, healthy fatted protein—but the perception of whole grains seems to still be of leaden health food, endless cooking times, and cud-like chewing at the end of it all.”

         Indeed. Consider this. A cup of cooked black beans has 245 calories and contains approximately the following percentage of the daily values needed in an average diet—74% folate, 39% manganese, 20% iron, 21% both potassium and magnesium, and 20% vitamin B6.

         “But we all know that they’re good for you,” says Berens, who describes herself as a bean-evangelist.  “I want people to understand these ingredients and you can’t understand these ingredients until you know them.”

         And so, she introduces us to 29 different grains, legumes, and seeds. Some like lentils, lima beans, split peas, quinoa, rice, and oats we know something about. Others are more obscure such as cowpeas, millet, teff, fonio, and freekeh are mysteries. That is until you read her book and learn not only how to cook them but also about their history. There’s a cheat sheet of the health benefits of each. Berens also conducted interviews with farmers  including her cousins Matt and John Berens, third-generation farmers in Bentheim, Michigan who have transitioned into growing non-GMO corn and edible beans and Jerry Hebron, the manager of Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, a nonprofit, community-based organization dedicated to cultivating healthy foods, sustainable economies, and active cultural environments. Hebron has been raising crowder beans for almost a decade.  

         We also get to meet Carl Wagner, a farmer and seed cleaner in Niles, Michigan. Berens said she wanted to include “invisible” farming jobs and this certainly is one. She didn’t know what a seed cleaner was until a few years ago and figured that most of us don’t know either. Wagner, with his wife Mary, run C3 Seeds, a company that provides seed cleaning for grains and seed stock.  When Berens asked him what he’d like people to know about his job, his response was that they would know that seed cleaning “is part of buying a bag of flour or a bottle of whiskey.”

         “The biggest thing is that if people are interested in cooking with beans, it’s an easy entry point it’s not like buying $100 tenderloin,” says Berens.

         Of course, you can buy beans in the grocery store. Berens recommends dried beans not canned. But Granor Farm also sells black, red, and pinto beans at their farm store which is open Friday and Saturday. For information on the times, visit granorfarm.com

         Berens is already working on her next book, tentatively titled Fruit, due out in 2023. When I ask her how she does it all, she laughs and replies, “I don’t have any hobbies.”

         And she takes things very seriously.

         “Every author has to think about why they’re putting something in the world,” she says, “and what is the value of it and makes these books worthwhile.”

         With Grist, we’re learning the value of tasty and healthy foods that taste good.

The following recipes are reprinted from Grist: A Practical Guide to Cooking Grains, Beans, Seeds, and Legumes by Abra Berens with permission from Chronicle Books, 2021. Photographs © EE Berger.

Seared Chicken Thighs W/Buckwheat, Smashed Cucumbers + Tajín Oil

The angular mouthfeel of the buckwheat plays well with the crunch of the cucumber and against the crisp of the chicken thigh. Serve the buckwheat warm or chilled, depending on your preference. If you aren’t eating meat, the salad is a great lunch on its own or pairs well with an egg or fried tofu.

  • 1 cup buckwheat groats, toasted or not
  • Olive oil
  • 2 medium cucumbers (about 1 lb. total), washed
  • 1/4 cup Tajín Oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • ¾ cup plain yogurt, Greek or traditional
  • 1 lemon (about 1½ oz) zest and juice
  • 10 sprigs parsley, roughly chopped
  • Any additional herbs you want, roughly chopped (mint, tarragon, thyme, cilantro)
  • Pinch of chili flakes (optional)
  • 4 to 6 chicken thighs

Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil over high heat. Toss in the buckwheat groats and give the pot a stir. Return to a boil, lower to a simmer, and cook the grains until tender, 8 to 15 minutes.

Drain the groats, toss with a glug of Tajín oil, and set aside.

Trim the ends of the cucumbers and place on a cutting board. Using the widest knife (or frying pan) you have, press down on the cucumbers until their skin cracks and they break into irregular pieces. Dress the cucumbers with the Tajín oil and a pinch of salt.

Combine the yogurt with the lemon zest and juice, chopped herbs, chili flakes (if using), a pinch of salt, and two big glugs of olive oil. Set aside.

Blot the chicken skin dry and season with salt and pepper.

Heat a large frying pan over high heat until the pan is starting to smoke. Add a glug or two of oil, lower the heat to medium, and fry the thighs, skin-side down, until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Flip the

chicken and sauté until cooked through, 5 to 7 minutes more.

To serve, dish the buckwheat onto serving plates. Top with the chicken thighs and then the dressed cucumbers. Garnish with a thick spoonful of the herbed yogurt.

Tajín Oil

  • 1 cup neutral oil
  • 2 Tbsp Tajín

In a medium sauce or frying pan, heat the oil over medium heat until it begins to shimmer, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat, add the Tajín, and let steep for 5 minutes.

Whole Roasted Leeks w/Chickpeas, Lemon Vinaigrette, Ricotta + Chard

  • 4 large leeks (about 2 pounds), trimmed and cleaned of dirt
  • 4 sprigs thyme (optional)
  • ¼ teaspoon chili flakes (optional)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 orange (about 3 ounces), peel stripped, juiced, or ¼ cup white wine or hard cider
  • 3/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 cups cooked or canned chickpeas, rinsed
  • 1 bunch chard (8 ounces), cut into ribbons (or spinach, kale, or arugula)
  • 2 lemons (about 3 ounces), zest and juice
  • 4 ounces ricotta

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the whole, cleaned leeks, side by side, in a roasting pan.

Scatter the thyme (if using), chili flakes (if using), and 2 large pinches of salt evenly over the leeks.

Scatter the orange peel strips over the leeks and drizzle them with the orange juice and ¼ cup of the olive oil to coat.

Cover with foil and bake until the leeks are tender, 35 to 45 minutes.

Combine the chickpeas, chard ribbons, lemon zest and juice, and remaining ½ cup of olive oil with a big pinch of salt and a couple of grinds of black pepper.

When the leeks are tender, transfer from the roasting pan to plates or a serving platter. Top with the chickpea and chard salad. Dot ricotta over the top and serve.

Spoon Pudding with Pork Chops and Cabbage Salad

For the spoon pudding:

  • ¾ cup cornmeal
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 4 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder

For the salad:

  • About 1 pound red cabbage, shaved into thin strips
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 10 sprigs parsley, roughly chopped
  • 1 lemon zest and juice
  • ½ teaspoon chili flakes
  • ½ teaspoon paprika
  • Salt

4 pork chops, seasoned with salt and pepper and grilled

To make the spoon pudding:

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease an ovenproof baking dish or frying pan that can hold 2 quarts total volume.

Combine the cornmeal, salt, 1 cup of boiling water, and the melted butter and whisk out any lumps. Combine the eggs, milk, and baking powder and add to the cornmeal batter. Pour into the prepared baking dish and bake until the edges of the spoon bread are just set and lightly browned, 30 to 40 minutes.

To make the salad: Combine the cabbage with the olive oil, chopped parsley, lemon zest and juice, chili flakes, paprika, and a couple pinches of salt. Toss to combine and adjust the seasoning as desired.

Serve the spoon bread alongside the grilled pork chops and cabbage salad.

Abra Berens of Granor Farms in Southwest Michigan Nominated for a James Beard Award.

              For all those who have been opining that Southwest Michigan is indeed become a food-centric destination thanks to our great farmers and the crops they grow in fields and orchards, multiple wineries, breweries, distilleries, chefs and food producers, the biggest proof came last week when Abra Berens, chef in residence for Granor Farm in Three Oaks was nominated for the Best Chef award in the Great Lakes Region by the James Beard Foundation. This coveted honor came about for multifold reasons including her best selling cookbook Ruffage: A Practical Guide of Vegetables (Chronicle Books 2019: $35). The book make veggies easily accessible and tasty. Containing 300 recipes based upon 29 vegetables, the cookbook was on numerous top ten cookbooks for 2019. Then there is also Granor’s Farmhouse Dinners, often featuring celebrity chefs, she prepares. These dinners, based on what’s grown on the farm as well as locally sourced foods, attract people locally but also from Chicago, Detroit and even Indianapolis. For the last two years, each dinner has sold out and has had a waiting list.

“I never thought it would happen to me,” says Abra when I called to congratulate her. “I think the term was gob smacked when I found out. A long time ago I figured it was not my wheelhouse because my food is not fancy food.”

It turns out that Abra heard about the honor from a friend who lives in Pennsylvania and saw the press release from the James Beard Foundation and immediately pulled it up on her phone. It was hard to read but there it was.

Abra Berens’s Vinegar Braised Onions with Seared Whitefish and Arugula

She grew up cooking and has worked in restaurants since she was 16 including Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor and then at Ballymaloe Cookery School and Farm, a 100-acre organic farm in Shanagarry, County Cork, Ireland. In ways Ballymaloe was similar to Granor in that what they grew on the farm was served at its restaurant and guest house.

“It was an education for me—that connection with what a farm is growing and the meals you eat,” she says.

Abra Berens’s Roasted Parsnips w/Fresh Goat Cheese, Pecans and Pickled Apricots

Next stop was Neal’s Yard Dairy, a serious cheese shop where staff people like her worked with some 40 cheesemakers, in selecting, maturing and selling farmhouse cheese made in the United Kingdom and Ireland.  From there, she headed to Chicago where became the executive chef at Stock Café at Local Foods, Vie and the Floriole Cafe & Bakery. As if that wasn’t hectic enough, Abra also co-founded Bare Knuckle Farm in Northport in Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula. That meant a round trip commute of 700 milers on a regular basis for six years

It was worth it, says Abra about those six years, because she wanted to do dinners based on what she grew.

It worked well in Chicago and definitely does in Three Oaks as well.

              Granor Farm is expanding too.

              “We’re adding new space to the kitchen and we’re working to grow vegetables year round by building indoor growing space,” she says. “We’re putting in refrigeration to add dairy such as artisan cheeses from Windshadow Farm in Hartford, Evergreen Lane Cheese and Creamery in Fennville and Capriole Goat Cheese in Greenville, Indiana.”

              They’re also growing heritage varieties of wheat, rye and corn. Their Bloody Butcher corn, a variety grown by Daniel Boone’s brother Squire almost 250 years ago, is used by Molino Tortilleria in Sawyer to make their corn tortillas.  Abra also plans on making and selling bread from these heirloom grains using a wood burning oven.

Tortillas from Molino Tortilleria

              All in all, though she didn’t ever expect it, Abra definitely deserves the James Beard nod. It’s a first for Southwest Michigan and shows all the great things—foodwise—to come.

The following recipes are reprinted from Ruffage by Abra Berens with permission by Chronicle Books, 2019.

“Parsnips are perfect for roasting because they are naturally a bit drier than carrots or sweet potatoes,” she writes at the beginning of this recipe. “I like to roast them pretty hard so that their little chips burn, foiling the natural sweetness of the root. As with all oven roasted things, allow enough space between the pieces on the baking sheet; A convection oven will help develop that crispy exoskeleton on the veggie comma and cook until the roots are tender when pierced with a knife. “

Roasted Parsnips w/Fresh Goat Cheese, Pecans and Pickled Apricots

“Pickling dried fruit heightens its flavor by introducing a serious tang and a touch of salt,” she writes explaining the reasoning behind pickling. “It breathes new life into a pretty standard pantry staple. It works with all dried fruit though Apple chips get weird and soggy. You can also pickle fresh fruit, though this was sometimes soften the flesh to mush so be gentle with the heat. I love this with basil, which is increasingly available from year-round growers. If you can find good looking basil, either drizzle with basil oil or use parsley or mixture of parsley, tarragon, and or mint. “

10 parsnips or about 2 pounds, ends cut off, peeled and cut into obliques1/4 Cup olive oil, plus more for cooking the parsnips

Freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more for seasoning

1/4 cup Apple cider vinegar

1 half cup dried apricots cut into 1/4 inch strips

4 ounces fresh goat cheese

1 cup pecans, toasted

6 leaves basil, torn

Heat the oven to 400° F. Toss the parsnips with a big glug (about two tablespoons) of olive oil, 2 pinches of salt, and 2 grinds of black pepper. Transfer to a baking sheet and roast until the parsnips are tender and golden brown, 35 to 40 minutes.

Heat the vinegar, salt and brown sugar to boiling. Pour this over the apricots and let them sit for 10 minutes. These will keep for weeks so feel free to scale up and have some on hand.

Drain the apricots reserving the liquid for dressing or making a spritzer with soda water. Remove the parsnips from the oven, toss with the ¼ cup olive oil and let it absorb for a couple of minutes.

Place on a serving platter, dot with the goat cheese, scattered the pecans and apricots over them, garnish with torn pieces of basil and serve.

Variations

w/currants, walnuts, blue cheese + burnt honey

10 parsnips (about 2 pounds)

1/2 cup honey

2 tablespoons water

1/2 cup currents

1/2 cup walnuts

4 ounces blue cheese

One sprig rosemary, stripped and minced

After roasting the parsnips, removed them in the oven and turn on the broiler. Combined the honey and water to thin. Drizzle the roasted parsnips with the honey mixture and slide under the broiler to char like a toasted marshmallow. Removed from the oven and transfer to a serving platter. Garnish with the currents pickled (same as for the apricots, if you like), walnuts, blue cheese and rosemary.

w/other roots, garlic mayo + sage

5 parsnips (1 pound)

5 carrots (1 pound)

1 celery root (1/2 pound)

2 sweet potatoes (1 pound)

5 sunchokes (1/2 pound)

½ cup garlic mayo

3 sprigs sage, cut into thin slices or fried in oil until golden and crispy

Roast the roots drizzle with the garlic mayo and garnish with the sage.

Garlic Mayo

For the mayo, combine two crushed cloves of garlic, the juice and a half cup of mayonnaise. 

Vinegar Braised Onions with Seared Whitefish and Arugula

8 shallots or cippolini

Neutral oil salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup red or white wine vinegar

1- 6-ounce filet of white fish per person

4 ounces arugula

1/4 cup olive oil

Heat the oven to 325°F.

Clean the shallots. Cut them in half from top to bottom.

Heat a glug (about two tablespoons) of neutral oil in a medium of improved frying pan until just above smoking.

Sear the onions, cut side down until well charred. Flipping season with a hefty sprinkle of salt and pepper. Char the other, grounded side as best as you can. As long as there is a good char on the cut side, you’ll be good.

Remove from the heat and pour the vinegar over the onions, getting it into the petals of the onion. Be aware it will spit as the vinegar hits the hot pan and will probably make you cough. Cover with foil or parchment paper and place in the oven. Bake until the onions are tender, about 25 minutes. In a large frying pan heat a glug (about two tablespoons) of neutral oil until smoking hot. Blot the whitefish skin dry, sprinkle with salt and sear, skin side down, about 5 minutes.

When the skin releases from the pan, place the whole pan in the already hot oven to cook through, about 4 minutes.

In a medium bowl, dress the arugula with olive oil in a sprinkle of salt and pepper.

Serve the fish, skin side up, top with arugula and onions, spooning the onion liquid over the whole thing period.