Plant Life Balance

Book Club #3: What we’re reading in June

A bounty of books that feed our soul, help us grow, and plant us firmly in the moment.

Words: Maggie Scardifeld

Photographer: Emily Berger @eeberger

Stylist: Mollie Hayward @mollierebeccahayward

Peas. They’re my favourite vegetable, and yet I always do them the same way: blanched, heavy on the lemon zest and pepper, and with roasted almonds, roughly torn mint, and if I’m feeling fancy, a rain of feta cheese.

Michigan chef-author Abra Berens, on the other hand, knows there are more ways than one to peel a carrot (or in my case, rock a pea salad). Her first cookbook, Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables, is practical and then some. Each of the 29 chapters is dedicated to a single vegetable, with multiple preparations and recipes for each, whether it’s “confit or caramelised, braised, blistered, roasted or raw.”

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“This was super simple and very quick to make. A great, quick, easy recipe to have in your back pocket especially for a summer dinner party side dish.” — Molly Kobelt (Farmer and Floral Designer @fieldandflorist in Chicago, IL / Three Oaks, MI) 📷: roasted carrots w/ spicy apricot jam, mint, and almonds One of the goals of #ruffagecookbook was to put together a mix of recipes that range from simple to complex. The simple ones are great jumping off points for, like Molly says, a meal with multiple dishes or when you need something right now and don’t have time to reread a recipe. #missionaccomplished #recipetesting Photos by @eeberger and @jaclynsimpson respectively. Styling by @mollierebeccahayward

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Take peas, for example. Unlike me, Berens isn’t a fan (“I find them frustrating,” she says). But you couldn’t tell; hers come marinated with yesterday’s roast chicken juices and lettuce, and pan-roasted with parsley, thyme, butter and onions.

If I’m being completely honest, my cooking style in one word? Lazy. However give me a cookbook that leans more book than cook, and I’ll happily flex. In recent times, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat and Phaidon’s The Garden Chef have both inspired. And Ruffage, released in April, has done the same.

Berens begins with advice on building a strong pantry (nuts! seeds! oils!), choosing the best produce, and how to store your vegetables at home. She writes about vegetables with the experience of someone who has grown them herself (she’s a former farmer). In her words, her style of cooking is:

tied to the land, and the best produce it produces.   

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Welcome Spring and Cabbage week: #cabbage is just maybe my favorite vegetable because it lends itself to a million different applications, purple cabbage brightens even the dullest of early spring days, it feeds a crowd with her densely packed leaves, and is a cheap date to boot. How to Select: look for dense, tight heads. Avoid any cabbage heads w/ obvious signs of downy mildew, cracks, or gashes. Or better yet, consider asking for those heads at a discount because there will still be good food there but the yield will be less. How to Store: Cabbage will keep for months on end in cold storage. Simply keep it away from too much moisture, which will lead to rot, and wrapped, which keeps it from drying out. Same goes for cut cabbage— the smaller the cut the faster it will dry out. If you prep in advance, keep the shredded leaves covered and use them within the week. For the simplest #wastenotwednesday when cutting the cabbage don’t discard the stem— it tastes exactly of cabbage and just needs to be cut thinly to be palatable and compliment the leaves. More details in #ruffagecookbook #themoreyouknow #wasteless #feedmore

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I hadn’t heard of Berens before, but after spending some time with Ruffage, she already seems like an old friend. Practical advice and recipes are interwoven with heartfelt stories and humorous anecdotes. Within the asparagus chapter: “Tonight, my pee will smell. Spring is here.” Or when a broccoli and bacon salad helps to momentarily ease the crippling grief of losing her mother: “Cooking was the hallmark both of the loss and of the recovery…it bound us together before, and maybe it could bind our wounds now.”

It’s an encouraging book. It quietly encourages the reader to eat seasonally, to try new preparations with old faves, and to be less intimidated in the kitchen. Next pot luck, I’ll be swapping my go-to peas for blistered cucumbers with cumin yoghurt and parsley. Or perhaps that good-looking cabbage number with chilli oil, coriander and charred melon. Eating your greens has never looked so good.

Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables by Abra Berens

Chronicle Books San Francisco, hardcover, $35.00

Available now from

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