The lazy days of summer are definitely upon us, and our cookbook club is ready to take a summer vacation. But there’s still plenty of summer vegetables left to explore! Our last book of the season is a perfect companion for foraging your local farmers’ markets, or if you’re lucky, maybe your home garden as well.
Our fourth book, Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables by Abra Berens, actually served as a textbook of sorts for all the others. If you ever wanted a field guide to the produce aisle, this is the book you need! Whether our vegetable-focused cooking adventure was focused on the simplicity of Nigel Slater’s Greenfeast: Spring, Summer, or flavors from further afield in to Asia With Love by Hettie McKinnon, or the West African dishes of Senegal by Pierre Thiam – learning how to select, store, and work with different vegetables has been priceless.
And the recipes are great too (as you’ll soon read)!
Although this was the fourth book of the summer season, it was the eighth book I’ve shared here and with most of the intrepid home cooks who’ve joined me on this delicious journey “in person” (on Zoom). And, as beloved as several other books have become, this was the fan favorite so far. One enthusiastic cookbook collector even called it, “one of the most extraordinary cookbooks I’ve ever used.” That’s big.
about the book
Ruffage: a practical guide to vegetables. The subtitle is only a hint of what you’ll find inside this substantial tome (weighing in at around 5 pounds, over 460 pages). Ruffage features a cook’s tour of over thirty different vegetables and then some. Two of those thirty are listed as “greens, delicate” and “greens, hearty” – they cover several in each category. And the information on fresh herbs and edible flowers isn’t even in that count (they’re in the pantry section).
The book begins with a few lessons befitting of the first week of culinary school (maybe even better), including basic knife skills and cooking techniques, and an impressive glossary of culinary terminology. Then comes the section titled “Strong Pantry”.
This section of the book could stand on its own for the value to the home cook (or any cook for that matter). Oils, acids, grains, dry things and other stuff that you don’t think you need until a recipe calls for them and you have to run to the grocery store an hour before dinner should be done.
The lists may not be exhaustive or encyclopedic, but they’re good reading and oh-so-helpful. This is a great representation of a real chef’s approach to stocking a home kitchen – lots of great quality multi-use items and a few special ingredients that are the secret to creating a signature style. Abra Berens shares many of what might be called “secrets” of the pro-kitchen without the hype.
There are also great tips for gardeners/farmers. Did you know that you should not plant cucumbers next to melons? The cucumbers will prevent the melons from ripening. I had no idea, never needed to know this. But I’m happy I learned it anyway!
After over a dozen years teaching professional culinary students and designing culinary education programs, I’m a huge fan of authors who can demystify the professional’s approach to setting up a kitchen with clarity and honesty. And not an ounce of a superiority complex or condescension. Just a straight up list of WHY.
But this is not a textbook for cooks. And it’s not a vegan or even vegetarian cookbook either – there’s plenty in here for the dairy, meats and seafoods you may find at your farmers’ market as well.
Each chapter begins with a story. They are rich, generous, and may even bring on a few tears. There are also great illustrations by Lucy Engelman, including several recipes presented in lovely line drawings.
about the author
“A bad salad pisses me off.”-Abra Berens
Chef. Former farmer. Author (with another book coming out very soon). Omnivore. Abra Berens is a qualified, no-nonsense tour guide to world of fresh vegetables and food in general. She began her career and the legendary Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, MI and studied at the even more legendary Ballymaloe Cookery School in Cork, Ireland. From there she’s owned and operated a small farm, went back into restaurant kitchens, and now curates farm dinners (and more) at Granor Farm in Michigan.
the cooking part…
For each cookbook we work with, I create a traditional style daily menu featuring a selection of recipes from the book in order to provide some guidance and get us on the same page during our conversation. These are only suggestions, and many people experiment with whatever strikes their fancy.
For this last book, we tried a slightly different approach that everyone enjoyed. Instead of having a planned menu, we took advantage of our newly stocked pantries from so many international cookbooks, and growing confidence. Not to mention the seasonal abundance in our markets! This was the assignment:
1. Read Ruffage; focus on the table of contents for inspiration 2. Go to the farmers market, your garden, or a local produce stand 3. Select three vegetables you have never tried before or that have become “one trick ponies” 4. Choose one of the base recipes for those vegetables from the book 5. There are no desserts in this book, but this is a perfect time to enjoy the summer bounty… find some fun fruits to taste by hand or in a recipe from another book from this season 6. Take notes on your experiment – Share your adventures with us all!
In the pantry section of the book, there are recipes for making simple condiments, herb oils and salsa verde. Many of us started there using herbs from our own windowsill gardens. There’s something special about using herbs you grew yourself.
flowers and herbs and cucumbers
Those oils and sauces made their way into a refreshing new spin on Panzanella with roasted sweet corn, little tomatoes, and crisp cucumbers. One person even used pepper nasturtium flowers to add spice as well as color. Blistered cucumbers with cumin yogurt were another fan favorite.
Crispy roasted eggplant with fresh mozzarella, pickled raisins, and mint was another favorite. So was smoky eggplant pasta with walnuts and basil. Both of these dishes will be on my menus on a regular basis.
beans and peas
Another pantry recipe is roasted chickpeas. They showed up as garnish on a few rogue experiments with great success as well as on the charred green beans with crispy chickpeas and curry yogurt. Berens is a fan of frozen peas (as am I) – if you can find frozen peas from a local grower, even better. Try them in “marinated peas with yesterday’s roast chicken, baby onions, and lettuce” using store-bought rotisserie chicken. So easy and so delicious.
The vegetable nobody knew what to do with until they started showing up in CSA boxes everywhere! Maybe you still don’t know what to do with it… this book will help! Personally, I recommend starting with the kohl-slaw. Serve it with seared salmon – especially if you live in the Pacific Northwest.
Have you cooked from Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables? I’d love to hear what your favorites dishes were. Leave a comment with your thoughts below!
In closing, as always, I want to thank Kitchen Arts & Letters bookstore and the 92nd Street Y in NYC.
If you missed this season’s club registration, stay tuned, we’ll return in the fall with four exciting new books! I’ll be announcing the dates and early bird registration here on Wander Eat and Tell in just a few weeks!
If you would like to catch up with the summer season’s books, you can get started HERE.
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