Abra Berens jokes that her new cookbook “Grist: A Practical Guide to Cooking Grains, Beans, Seeds, and Legumes” is “a freakin tome.”
We’re so lucky it is.
A companion to her 2019 book “Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables”, “Grist” is a detailed guide to anything you’ll find in the bulk section of the supermarket, with practical tips for storing and buying; at least three seasonal variations for every recipe; and cheat sheets for each section that highlight key facts about a given ingredient.
These cheat sheets, which Berens calls “Notes Boxes,” aren’t just handy, either. They’re outlined by beautiful illustrations of the plant on which the given ingredient grows. You may know what a soybean or chickpea looks like, but can you picture its plant? Now you can.
“Grist” is so much more than a cookbook filled with grain recipes.
Why We Love This Cookbook
1. How it’s organized.
Like Ruffage, “Grist” is organized by ingredient because, as Berens says, “That’s just the way my brain is organized.” Whether she’s cooking at home or at Granor Farm in Three Oaks, Michigan, where she is the chef, Berens likes to start with the ingredient first and then think about preparation and technique.
Under each ingredient are instructions for different cooking methods, including frying, stewing, and boiling, the last of which is an age-old, simple method that Berens hopes demystifies any ingredients that don’t feel familiar. Start by boiling a grain you’ve never tried before, and soon you’ll be frying it as a garnish, and turning heads while you’re at it.
2. The important interviews.
Interspersed throughout the book are farmer interviews that bring the full lifecycle of these ingredients into focus, under a personal lens. In “Ruffage,” Berens told her own stories of vegetable farming to connect readers with the ingredients. Here, she has interviewed farmers who grow grains and legumes—the crops most American farmers grow, but also the ones whose growing cycles, needs, and even appearances (recall the chickpea plant) are lost on so many home cooks.
Writing during the height of the pandemic, Berens was interviewing the bedrock of our agricultural system at a time when they were facing impossible conditions and demands, and her interviews tell important histories while also capturing a unique moment in time—one where farmers like Jerry Hebron were continuing to do the work they’ve always done, but also showed amazing resilience and ingenuity in the face of crisis.
Hebron, the Executive Director at Northend Christian Community Development in Detroit, Michigan, who also manages the non-profit Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, sheds light on urban farming and community support, while another Michigan-based bean grower, Matt Berens (Abra’s cousin), gets real about the daily life and struggles of farming non-GMO corn and edible black beans.
Interviews with two rice growers—Rachel Roche, a fourth-generation rice and crawfish farmer in Lake Arthur, Louisiana, and Larry Gates, a wild rice forager in Cass Lakes, Minnesota—show a similar diversity on many levels, and the unifying threads of a dedication to the craft and the indisputable challenge of farming.
Berens’ commitment to social justice, inseparable from food justice, is as clear in the stories she highlights as it is in her sheer respect for ingredients. Respect and demand for a broader range of crops, be it buckwheat or lentils, is one of the best ways to realize environmental and social justice, Berens says. “Short of sweeping food policy changes, I believe the best way to support growers is to create demand for a variety of grains and pulses (a term I use interchangeably with ‘legumes’), giving them more market access and financial incentive to make the switch. That starts in our own kitchen,” Berens wrote in "Grist" and repeated when we spoke.
The pandemic exposed the deep problems with our centralized agricultural system, and Berens hopes that the ensuing recognition and support for small-scale farmers among some will endure and grow post-pandemic. Home cooks should put their money where their mouths are (no pun intended) and after reading “Grist,” they'll want to do just that.
If all this sounds like weighty stuff, it is, but not hopelessly so. Berens writes with a sense of humor and realness that will leave a reader motivated, not overwhelmed.
3. The recipes, of course!
As the chef puts it in an essay that opens the section on split peas, “Can we ever transcend our own shortcomings? Can split peas ever be more than an unflatteringly green obligation?” The Pea Breakfast Fritters with Fried Eggs, Greens, and Smoked Yogurt recipe, which Berens calls a sleeper hit, makes the answer clear.
Indeed, all the recipes are first and foremost appealing: Garlic-Smashed Chickpeas; Seared Eggplant + Cherry Tomatoes with Fried Lentils and Tahini Dressing; All-Corn Cornbread with Jalapeños, Peaches and Ricotta.
If you think grains = batch cooking = boring, “Grist” will prove you wrong in a page—unless “batch cooking” to you means the Lentil and Pecan-Stuffed Acorn Squash with Sage Fried Brown Butter, which can be made entirely in advance, making it an amazing vegetarian main for a holiday table.
If you think it’s all cozy and comforting, there’s some of that in the best way, but there are also refreshing and elegant recipes, like Sprouted Lentils with Shaved Brussels, Parmesan, and Hazelnut Rig.
Photographer EE Berger and food stylist Mollie Hayward convey this elegance and reverence for ingredients—and the farmers behind them—and Berens is the first to sing their praises. The same goes for the Note Box illustrations, drawn by Lucy Engelman. They’re a small detail in a big book but they capture the essence of "Grist": They represent beauty that may go overlooked, the inherent depth of any recipe, and Berens’ commitment to telling the full story.