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Grains and legumes: The underappreciated staples

Mark Kennedy

NEW YORK (AP) – Chef and author Abra Berens once mistakenly ordered 10 pounds of split peas. Trouble is, she doesn’t really like split peas.

She initially found herself making split pea soup over and over again, wincing each time at the muddy, unexciting flavour. Then she came to a realisation.

“I was like, wait, there are actually other things to do with split peas. If you jack up the soup with other things, it doesn’t have to be a muddy flavour,” she said. “You can make split pea fritters, you can add acidic dressing – all that stuff felt so revolutionary to me.”

Her hard-found knowledge runs through Grist, Berens’ fascinating new guide to cooking grains, beans, seeds and legumes, offering 140 recipes with more than 160 variations.

Berens is the executive chef at Granor Farm in Three Oaks, Michigan, and her previous guide to vegetables, Ruffage was nominated for a James Beard Award and named a best cookbook for Spring 2019 by The New York Times and Bon Appetit.

As in Ruffage, Berens puts the home cook in the driver’s seat, introducing and describing each category of grains and legumes and offering techniques on how to prepare them – stewed, fried, boiled, marinated, smashed and sprouted, among them.

Then she lets the reader pair them with various dressings, oils, relishes and other condiments, mixing and matching saltiness, acid and creaminess depending on what’s on hand. No goat cheese? Swap in feta.

To help, there are grids throughout the book for building a dish. For instance, you might start with two cups of fava beans and then add shaved asparagus or cucumbers or spinach and orange segments, then add mozzarella or feta or ricotta, and then add a sauce, perhaps a rosemary lemon chilli mojo or a mint almond relish.

“For better or for worse, this is just how I cook. And so it does feel very intuitive to me,” she said. “I think it’s because I’m just bad at rote memorisation. I adapted and learned how to improvise in that way.”

Grist is a comprehensive guide through 29 different grains and legumes – among them, amaranth, barley, black-eyed peas, buckwheat, bulgur, chickpeas, corn, cowpeas, farro, fava beans, lentils, lima beans, millet, oats, quinoa, rice, sorghum, soy beans and wheat berries.

“I would say that ‘You do you’ is very much Abra’s motto,” said Editorial Director of Food & Lifestyle at Chronicle Books Sarah Billingsley. “These books have an empowering quality or just an endearing quality. You feel like, ‘Okay, I don’t have to do exactly what she tells me to do. I trust this writer’.”

Berens calls grains and legumes “underappreciated staples” in the book and hopes to lure readers back to ingredients that many home cooks overlook while fawning over meat, poultry or fish. She includes some meat in dishes but advocates eating it “deliberately”.

“As a global society, we tend to prioritise and fawn over the things that are the stars or the special things… And so these other staples seem like they are kind of the underdog or they’re used as filler,” she said.

Included throughout the book are question-and-answer columns with farmers who grow or produce the crops, from a seed cleaner in Niles, Michigan, to a wild rice forager in Cass Lake, Minnesota.

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