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.

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