The Secret Life of Vegetables

With a farmer’s wisdom and chef’s creativity, Abra Berens will change the way you look at everyday vegetables
May 8, 2019 Updated: May 9, 2019

Abra Berens is on a mission to make cabbage as coveted as caviar.

“[That] is, I recognize, an uphill battle,” she admitted with a laugh. But the Michigan-based chef, former farmer, and cookbook author makes a strong case for the overlooked brassica. She recommends it shaved thin with chunks of smoky-sweet grilled cantaloupe and cilantro, all laced with fiery chili oil; or seared in duck fat until sweet and caramelized, then tossed with roasted potatoes in a brown sugar-vinegar sauce and served alongside a crackly skinned duck breast.

Berens is a champion of everyday produce, of cabbage and carrots and radishes and rutabaga. Drawing from a passion and appreciation cultivated during a stint running a farm—a business started with a friend and a desire to connect the dots between food and the land—she’s dedicated to shining the spotlight on the vegetables that, especially now, are moving closer back to the centers of our plates.

Her new cookbook, “Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables,” helps home cooks do the same. It’s full of tips and techniques and a wealth of recipes, informed by a farmer’s understanding of vegetables and their sensibilities, of their unique quirks and individual strengths. The recipes are organized by vegetable, to let what looks best at the market guide your cooking decisions.

With your market bounty in hand, here’s Berens’s advice for making the most of your vegetables in the kitchen.

abra berens in a field of vegetables cut
Abra Berens, the author. (EE Berger)

Time It Right

When you can, choose your produce with the season in mind—in-season vegetables will be at their peak. Berens points out other nuances of timing to think about, too.

Lettuce leaves, for instance, are mildly sweet and easy-to-love when young and tender. But when temperatures rise, the plants go to seed and produce a bitter “internal insecticide” of sorts as protection; heads harvested too late thus turn bitter and neglected at the market. Berens learned to save them by treating them more like radicchio or other chicories—with, say, a quick char on the grill—than a delicate salad green.

Radishes also produce a natural insecticide: mustard oil, the component behind their signature spicy bite. They do so in reaction to stress such as high heat or drought, a farmer at a market once told Berens, and so summer radishes are spicier than mild spring-harvested ones. With this and your personal tastes in mind, you can adjust how you prepare your radishes as appropriate: Left whole and raw, to let that bite pop, or perhaps roasted or poached, to mellow and sweeten them.

Poached spring radishes from Ruffage
Poached radishes. (EE Berger)

Play to Strengths

Often what seems to be a vegetable’s weakness can be played up into a strength. Take summer squash for example, once dubbed “nature’s Styrofoam” by a friend of Berens. She takes advantage of its blandness by pairing it with stronger flavors like bright acids and salty cheeses.

Leeks, unlike their onion and garlic cousins, lack the sugar needed to effectively caramelize and tend to turn bitter if browned. Instead, Berens counsels, “play upon the grassy notes that distinguish leeks from the others.” That might mean leaving them raw and crisp in a tangy vinaigrette, to help that bright grassiness shine, or braising them with cream and thyme until tender and silky, to coax out more of their underlying earthy sweetness.

Berens encourages home cooks to cook with both confidence and understanding, to not be intimidated by vegetables but also to tune into their needs.

“It is true, you are in charge, not the cauliflower,” she writes. “It is also true that by playing to the inherent strengths of a particular ingredient, you can coax out the most delight with the least amount of fight.”

Mix It Up

When you’re eating locally and seasonally, you might find yourself repeatedly stuck with the same cast of vegetables and fall into a rut. But any single vegetable can give rise to a whole array of different and exciting dishes. (Or, as Berens puts it, “there’s more than one way to peel a carrot.”)

Cooking a familiar vegetable an unfamiliar way can transform it into an entirely different beast—think lettuce soup. And using the same cooking method with different flavor pairings can similarly widen your culinary repertoire—try roasted beets paired with sour cream and dill for one dish, oranges and feta for another.

Eat It Raw

Berens’s simplest piece of advice is to eat more vegetables raw—and don’t be limited to a crudité platter. (That said, a platter of whole, crisp radishes, simply dipped into warm, garlicky bagna cauda, is one of her favorite spring entertaining dishes.)

Ribbons of raw asparagus, tasting “sweet and slightly starchy, a bit like raw corn,” she writes, form the base of one of her go-to springtime salads, especially when topped with in-season morel mushrooms. Cauliflower quartered and shaved thin and “wafer-like,” she layers with radicchio and dill and drizzles with a smoked whitefish mayo. In summer, small finger squashes, creamy and tender-skinned, are “a revelation” when shaved into thin planks and tossed with Parmesan and a mountain of herbs.

For all raw preparations, varying the style of cut further varies your result: cut into chunks or batons, for more heft and crunch; shaved into paper-thin ribbons, tender and yielding; or even grated into a flurry, fluffy and delicate.

“All of those things can really give you a new way of looking at [a vegetable],” Berens said.

Or Add Some Heat

On the other hand, cooking vegetables we’re used to eating raw can make for a similarly surprising result. Lettuce, for instance, when braised with butter, chicken stock, and white wine, is transformed into “silky little handkerchiefs,” a trick Berens initially wrinkled her nose at when she watched Jacques Pépin do it on a hotel room TV years ago.

She also has a recipe for blistered cucumbers, a technique she learned from a friend and now commonly uses. Unpeeled cucumbers meet a searing hot frying pan, turning their skins charred and tinged with bitterness, and their insides slightly softened but still intact. She serves them warm with parsley and a cooling, raita-inspired cumin yogurt.

“It’s just getting people to think about something as common and everyday as a cucumber,” Berens said.

Blistered Cucumbers with cumin yogurt and parsley from Ruffage
Blistered cucumbers with cumin yogurt. (EE Berger)

RECIPE: Shaved Cabbage Salad With Chili Oil, Cilantro, and Charred Melon
RECIPE: Poached Radishes With White Wine, Chicken Stock, and Butter
RECIPE: Cucumber With Cumin Yogurt and Parsley

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