Welcome to Health Goth, our column dedicated to cooking vegetables in ways that even our most cheeseburger-loving, juice-bar-loathing readers would approve of. Not everyone realizes this, but vegetables actually do taste good. We invite chefs to prove this assertion—and they do, time and time again.
"Yes, I work on a farm, and I eat a lot of seasonal produce, but I just want people to eat vegetables," Abra Berens tells us on a visit to the MUNCHIES Test Kitchen.
The Michigan-based Berens isn't just a chef and former farmer, but also a newly minted author: Her cookbook, Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables, is both a love letter to produce and a guide to making it pop.
Maybe it's that Midwestern kindness, but Berens is just the type of person you want to be friends with. She breezes across our rooftop garden to pick herbs and flowers to use in a dish for us today. As she snips bronze fennel and plucks violets, Berens tells us about Granor Farm in Three Oaks, Michigan, where she runs a produce-focused dining program. "It’s really just a snapshot of what we have right then. No menu is ever repeated, so you get this unique, curated thing," she says.
As for the name of the book, that came from the dinners, too, Berens tells us. "I asked my dad to come and he’s eaten at the French Laundry, but he’s not super fancy so he’s a good litmus test," she says. "He was like, 'You know, Abra it’s a lot of vegetables.' And I was like, 'Well, we’re a vegetable farm, Dad,'" she tells us with a laugh. "And he was like, 'It’s a lot of roughage—could you add some bread or something?'"
The recipe Berens is cooking for us today has vegetables, of course, but also bread and eggs. Her easy eggplant and tomato stew is finished with a coddled egg and served with crusty bread, and it's the perfect way to take advantage of eggplant season.
Into a Dutch oven, she adds oil and chile flakes, which she fries quickly before dropping in diced onions and turning down the heat. As the onions soften, she cuts the tomatoes and eggplant. Eggplant doesn't have to be intimidating or labor-intensive, like some cooks might think, she says. First, Berens recommends, look for eggplants with even skin and no wrinkles or pockmarks, and with their green leaf cap still attached tightly; those are signs that the eggplant hasn't lost too much moisture.
Berens skips the salting step that some cooks add to eggplant prep, the general theory being that the salt draws out any bitterness. "For a lot of people, that step was too much [effort]," she says. "I feel like for eggplant, it’s either that step or the amount of oil that’s used [that makes it intimidating]. That’s why I like using this eggplant recipe."
The eggplants and tomatoes go into the pot, followed by a little white wine for acidity. "You can get the eggplant that creamy, succulent texture, but without all the oil; the liquid from the tomatoes does it," Berens says. The vegetables will cook, covered, until everything is tender and stewed.
This dish is pretty hands-off, so we get to hang out and hear more about Berens, Ruffage, and farming—which, it turns out, runs in the family. "I grew up on a pickle farm, like pickling cucumbers, which we sold mostly to Heinz. My dad’s family were pickle farmers, but my parents were both anesthesiologists. My dad was splitting time and farming at night. I grew up in all of those things," she tells us.
After a stint at Ireland's Ballymaloe Cookery School, Berens started thinking about farming full-time, and she did that for a few years. Eventually, she realized that she wanted a restaurant with a farm component, and she found a friend who wanted a farm with a dining component; the partnership at Granor grew out of that.
This recipe, like everything in Ruffage, comes out of Berens's experience at Granor. "There’s only so many vegetables that we grow, so I was thinking about, 'How do we make this look and feel new?'" she says. For each vegetable, the book focuses on a specific preparation, but for each, it adds variations: a recipe for cauliflower pureé with pork cutlets, for example, also include recipes for brown butter cauliflower pureé served with salmon. "Everything else is the same, but the accessories sort of change—like the black dress mentality, it can be all of these different things."
Eventually, the eggplant and tomatoes are stewed and soft. Berens spoons servings into ramekins, topping each with an egg. They go into the oven for a few minutes, along with slices of bread to eat on the side.
Soon enough, the egg is soft and runny, the vegetable stew is tender and rich, and everything is topped with a dash of violets and fresh fennel. Mission accomplished: This dish definitely makes us want to eat our vegetables.