Grains, Beans, Seeds, and Legumes: Chef and U-M alum Abra Berens offers recipes and social context for them in her new book, "Grist"


Abra Berens and her book Grist

When you start paying closer attention to a food or beverage, you notice more details among different types or brands. Experts who focus on wine or coffee, for example, are able to discuss the nuances and tasting notes of unique varieties.

But those aren’t the only foods and drinks that foodies and cooks can get to know on a deep level.

Abra Berens, a chef, author, former farmer, and U-M alum, brings this level of attention to beans, grains, legumes, and seeds in her new cookbook and guide, Grist. She writes about how her interest in grains took root:

It wasn’t until seeing the growth, in size and diversity, of the grain program at Granor Farm, where I work, that I started really thinking about how to utilize these often underappreciated staples. I started tasting the difference between wheats. Suddenly I wanted to use oats for more than just porridge during brunch service. 

Berens goes on to draw the reader/cook into her world of pulses, rice, flours, seeds, and more.

The book serves up more than 140 recipes and even more variations on them. People looking for a way to use those lentils in the pantry, the wild rice gifted to them, or barley from the farmers market will find ideas and instructions. Grist not only provides recipes but also informs readers about the grains, too, with conversational passages by Berens and Q&A interviews with farmers. 

Grist showcases the food, with compelling photographs, and the book highlights the contexts around the things we eat. Berens notes that the book was written amidst multiple big problems: the pandemic, social unrest and protests in 2020, and issues with our food system exacerbated by the pandemic. Topics such as meat consumption, the rise in popularity of pulses, and eating locally are sprinkled throughout the book. Berens points out the importance of our food in relation to crisis:

We saw throughout the early months of the pandemic that essential jobs are not the most glamorous or well paying. The things we miss the most when they are gone are not the glossiest, once-in-a-lifetime experiences, but the everyday things that knit society together—corner stores, neighborhood restaurants, greeting someone with a handshake or a hug. I think it is the same for ingredients. The cronut gets a million “likes,” but in the face of trying times, it is the paper sack of black beans that brings stability. It’s the bag of flour that allows us to bake bread when the grocery shelves are stripped bare. 

Having endured the pandemic, many of us can relate to those sentiments. Recipes for “lentil + pecan filled acorn squash w/sage fried brown butter,” “barley thumbprint cookies,” and “wild rice soup w/mushrooms, ramps + peas,” among others, are Berens’ answers to using those ingredients. 

Berens is on the team at Granor Farm in Three Oaks, Michigan. She started cooking at Zingerman’s Deli and then trained in Ireland, founded Bare Knuckle Farm in Northport, Mich., and worked in the café at Local Foods in Chicago. I interviewed her about her career, approach to food, and new book. 

Q: Tell us about getting your start in cooking at Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor. 
A: Working at Zingerman’s was one of the many lucky accidents of my life. I didn’t know much about the place but knew a family friend had worked there and that I liked to eat, so I applied. I started out running trays and ringing up orders. Over the course of several years I moved into the kitchen and that’s where I started cooking professionally. 

Q: How did you come to be where you are now at Granor Farm? What do you do there? 
A: Granor is another lucky accident. I had been living in Chicago for several years and knew that I wanted to move back to Michigan. I had seen success with the farm dinner program at Bare Knuckle and became convinced that on-farm, experiential meals were what I wanted to do at the same time that Granor, a well-established vegetable and grain farm in Southwest Michigan, was looking to create a series of events that would bring people to their farm and share their crops with the community in a new way. 

Q: Grist is your second book. How was writing Grist different from your first cookbook, Ruffage? What do you enjoy about writing about food? 
A: Ruffage and Grist are sibling books in a lot of ways—the idea of championing an ingredient and then finding ways to incorporate it into your weekly meals by varying the preparation technique or flavor combinations is consistent. The subject matter is different. Ruffage is based on my years growing and cooking with vegetables. Grist focuses on grains and legumes and is very much informed by the artisan grain growers in the Midwest. The process was similar and different. Ruffage included a lot of storytelling about each ingredient and contextualizing it within my own life. Grist is much more about the people who grow it and contextualizing it within a larger food culture. In a lot of ways, I think readers of Grist will see me learning along the way while researching the book. 

What I enjoy about food writing is that it (hopefully) connects readers to the growers to understand and empathize with what it takes to produce food. I also hope that it empowers readers to cook as they see fit and to recognize that they aren’t beholden to a recipe, simply supported by it. No recipe or ingredient is worth very much if people aren’t cooking with it. 

Q: You share why you chose the subject of grains, beans, legumes, and seeds in your book, and I’ve told readers a bit about that in my introduction to our interview. Could you tell us more about how you went from being interested in the topic to write a 448-page book on it? 
A: The way that I think about cooking is to be inspired by the ingredients that are at hand and then be excited to showcase them in my meals. In my time at Granor Farm we went from growing five acres of rye to be distilled as a pet project to over 350 acres of mixed small grain grown for distilling, fresh eating, and milling into flour. These grains and beans that are often overlooked as humble pantry staples are so different when grown in small batches and eaten within the year of production. The first time I had local black beans that my cousin grew I was astonished at how quickly they cooked, how creamy the interiors were, and how inky black the cooking liquid was. They were the same and yet so much more than any other black bean I’d ever had. I wanted to share that level of excitement with readers. 

Q: The recipes and pictures—from the “cranberry bean salad w/roasted carrots + mojo de ajo” to “flaky rye + three cheese galette w/asparagus salad”—look and sound delicious. How do you create your recipes? 
A: At the outset of each book, I sit down and write a detailed outline that includes all of the primary ingredient chapters. From there I think about what I would want to eat with each ingredient and jot it down. From there I start developing the recipes often taking an idea and cooking it at home, recording amounts and steps, then I go through all of those recipes and select which ones to include and make a couple more times to hone. 

Q: Were you involved in photographing your recipes? What’s that process like? 
A: Yes. Both books were photographed at my house with the unparalleled team of EE Berger and Mollie Hayward. I have never had a more successful creative collaboration than with these two women. Mollie and I worked in Chicago kitchens at the same time. She has since moved onto food styling. Her ability to speak my restaurant language and Emily’s photographer language makes her the perfect bridge knitting the three of our ideas together. Both Emily and Mollie come to each shoot with a much more honed design sense, so I (thankfully) let them drive the setting. I simply tell them how it functions in a restaurant or home kitchen and they take it from there. I feel so fortunate to have found a team where everyone brings a unique and complementary skill set. Plus, it is just fun to work together. I need to keep writing books so I can keep working with them on the regular! 

Q: What was surprising or exciting to you as you researched and learned more about beans, grains, legumes, and seeds for this book? 
A: That every primary ingredient in this book can simply be boiled. There is so much mystery around grains and legumes and lots of subtle variations. It can be daunting. Simply bringing a pot of water to a boil and boiling each ingredient until it is tender deflates all of the hubbub around preparation in such a wonderful way. 

Q: You note that you wrote this book during the pandemic and amidst social upheaval. What was most challenging about writing Grist
A: I was researching each ingredient as I was writing so the learning curve along the way was much steeper than with Ruffage. The pandemic and social upheaval after the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor contextualized these ingredients—who has access, who is charged with the growing and stocking of these ingredients, where did they come from, etc. These conversations should be inextricable from a good recipe. 

Q: Passages in Grist consider the issues with our food system. How are you personally working toward a better food system? What might you recommend that people do to contribute toward bettering it? 
A: I think the first step is learning about the issues and then deciding how you want to affect change. For me, I advocate for regional grain economies for the benefits they provide to their communities and the environment. I also think that we need to support growers of color the same way we have traditionally supported white growers. There are a million ways to improve our food system; I just want people to know that their voice and actions are important and then use them!

Q: I loved the farmer profiles and interviews in Grist. You spoke with people who run urban farms, clean seeds, and harvest rice, among other roles and tasks. What did you learn from talking with farmers? 
A: I learned that a lot of the issues are the same—access to capital, environmental concerns in the face of climate collapse, the physically and mentally demanding nature of the work. I hope that readers see that there is an entire population of smart, creative, brutally hard-working people growing their food for them. 

Q: What are you reading and recommending right now? 
A: I’ve been reading two English cookery writers right now: Uyen Luu and Anna Jones. Both of their books are beautifully designed and push me out of my flavor pallet comfort zone. I’ve also been reading everything Reem Kassis has written. She’s an incredibly important writer who happens to also make delicious food. 

Q: We just talked about the pandemic in an earlier question, and the last almost two years have been rough for people. I still like to ask what’s next for authors. What’s on your horizon now that Grist is published? 
A: Right now I am in the midst of editing my third book on Midwestern fruit as well as planning some other writing projects and dinner series. Thanks for asking! 

Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.