How chef Abra Berens makes vegetables "the star" of the plate

The Dish: Chef Abra Berens

Abra Berens grew up as the daughter of two doctors in Michigan but she and her family also lived on and ran a working farm. After attending cooking school in Ireland she returned to Michigan and ended up running a farm of her own, while also starting a career as a chef. Now, she's the chef at Grayner Farm in Three Oaks, Michigan and the author of a brand new book, "Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables," which was recently named best cookbook for spring by the New York Times. 

Here are some of Berens' signature recipes: 

Beet-dressed pasta with golden raisins and poppy seeds

Ingredients

¼ cup (35 g) golden raisins
Juice of ½ lemon (0.75 fl oz | 22 ml)
2 steam-roasted beets (1 lb | 455 g)
¼ cup (60 ml) olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Cream (optional)
1 lb (455 g) small pasta, bow ties, orecchiette, or penne
1 Tbsp (10 g) poppy seeds 

Directions

• Soak the golden raisins in ½ cup (120 ml) hot water with a squeeze of lemon for 10 minutes or until they are plump. Strain the raisins, saving the water.
• In a food processor, purée the beets with the olive oil, raisin water, and a good pinch of salt and pepper until very smooth. If you like dairy, toss in a glug of cream.
• Boil the pasta in well-salted water and drain.
• Toss the pasta with the beet purée (to warm and coat), soaked raisins, and poppy seeds. Transfer to serving platter or individ¬ual bowls. Drizzle with additional olive oil.

Cucumber salad with cherry tomatoes, parsley oil, and cottage cheese

Ingredients

3 cucumbers (8 oz | 3 cups | 230 g), any variety or a mix
1 pint cherry tomatoes (16 oz | 455 g), halved; use 1 cup roasted (page 435) if the fresh aren't tasty
Olive oil
½ tsp (3 g) salt
½ tsp (3 g) black pepper
1 cup (230 g) cottage cheese
¼ cup (60 ml) parsley oil (page 56), or use the leaves of ½ bunch fresh parsley (1.2 oz | ¾ cup | 34 g) and ¼ cup (60 ml) oil if you prefer 

Directions

• Cut a little piece off the end of each cucumber and taste. If the skin is thick, peel the cucumber or half peel it in alternating stripes like a beach ball. Cut the cucumber into rounds, planks, or a large dice, removing the seeds if they are distractingly large.
• Just before serving, toss the cucumbers with the tomatoes and a big glug of olive oil and the salt and pepper. (If your tomatoes are not super flavorful, salt them in advance to bump up the flavor of the tomatoes as the salt leaches water from the flesh, then add the cucumbers, oil, and pepper just before serving.) Taste and adjust the seasoning.
• Spoon the cottage cheese onto a platter and top with the cucumber salad. Drizzle with the parsley oil and serve.

Asparagus with smoked whitefish, pea shoots, and mushrooms

Ingredients

¼ lb (115 g) mushrooms (any variety)
Neutral oil
Salt
2 bunches asparagus (2 lb | 910 g)
¼ lb (115 g) smoked whitefish (substitute tuna or fresh, fully cooked fish)
1 bag (2 oz | 55 g) pea shoots or other sprouts (substitute arugula or spinach or kale in a pinch)
Olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper 

• Cut the mushrooms into ½-inch- (12-mm-) thick pieces.

• Heat a large frying pan over high heat with a glug of neutral oil until shimmering hot. Add the mushrooms with a pinch of salt and toss to coat with the oil. Pan roast the mushrooms until golden brown and crispy (see page 24), 10 to 15 minutes. Stir to flip and cook until the other side is crispy, about 5 minutes.

• Heat the grill until smoking hot. Toss the asparagus in a glug of neutral oil and pinch of salt. Grill until charred but still with a little structure in the stalk. Transfer to a serving platter.

• Scatter the whitefish, pea shoots, and mushrooms over the top. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and serve.

Mustard-braised potatoes with chicken thighs

Ingredients

4 to 6 chicken thighs (6 oz | 170 g each), bone in and skin on
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Neutral oil
3 sprigs thyme, left whole (optional)
2 Tbsp (30 g) mustard (whole-grain or Dijon or a mix)
1 cup (240 ml) white wine
1 onion (½ lb | 1 cup | 230 g), cut into thin slices
3 garlic cloves (0.6 oz | 21 g), minced (optional)
2 lb (910 g) fingerling potatoes or any sort of small potato, cut in half unless they are very small
1 cups (240 ml) chicken stock or water
½ bunch parsley (1.2 oz | ¾ cup | 34 g), roughly chopped 

Directions

  • Heat the oven to 375°F (190°C).
  • Pat the chicken thighs dry and generously season with salt and pepper. Over high heat, add a glug of neutral oil to an ovenproof frying pan. Add the chicken, skin-side down, and brown the skin until golden and crispy, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a plate without cooking the other side.
  • Add the thyme and mustard to the pan and briefly fry in the drippings, about 30 seconds. Deglaze the pan with the wine, scrapping up the drippings and allowing the wine to reduce by half, about 2 minutes. Add the onion and garlic, and sweat until tender, about 7 minutes. Add the potatoes and stock and a big pinch of salt. Place the thighs on top, skin-side up, and bring to a boil.
  • Transfer to the oven and bake, uncovered, until the thighs are cooked through and the potatoes are tender, about 25 minutes. Remove from the oven, garnish with the parsley, and serve, sauce and all.