While many parents would use the threat of vitamin or nutrient deficiency to cajole their kids into eating their fruits and vegetables, my mom always told us to “eat up, you need the ruffage!” So, I suppose this is how Abra Berens‘ new cookbook, Ruffage, came to catch my eye. And, while reading through the rich stories Beren’s puts forth at the beginning of each section, she too has been subject to this refrain — “You gotta get your ruffage!”(233). What I came to learn as an adult is that “fiber” is the much more delicate term which can be used in place of ruffage — the idea that the plant fibers that do not completely breakdown in the intestinal system help to regulate digestion. But, I digress, for what Ruffage is offering is a real guide to vegetables and how to prepare and cook them.
On its own, Ruffage is part memoir, part cookbook. Among all her other skills Berens is a gifted writer. Even before I got down to cooking any of Berens’ recipes I enjoyed reading about her personal connections to the ingredients, how growing up on the family farm would inform her later career choices and, how the influence of her family permeates each part of this cookbook and her life. Ruffage is ingredient-driven which then leads into recognizing how seasonality affects the cycle in which home cooks find themselves in when using whole food components. While making sustainable choices is important, I appreciate Berens’ suggestion that as a home cook you make the best decisions you can but don’t fret about it. The beauty is simple — try to cook with the seasons, using local ingredients.
This cookbook is organized into 29 sections following an alphabetical list of vegetables from asparagus to turnips and rutabaga. Each section offers around 3 recipes with many variations on the original. The vegetables Berens focuses on are ones that are familiar to her Midwestern US base. Having grown up in Edmonton, Alberta I recognize what Berens is offering — with 4 distinct seasons (the “growing season” being the shortest of them all) one needs to eat fresh but also realize that some ingredients can be “cellared” and then used throughout the colder months. In the first part of the book Berens outlines what a “strong pantry” is and likens it to a “quiver of arrows, at your back and at the ready.”(28) Having a dependable pantry means three things in her mind: having key ingredients means you’re always prepared to tackle a recipe, you can make recipes more quickly because your “tools” are at the ready and, if you can cook meals faster then you’re more than likely to enjoy home cooking rather than relying on store-bought or restaurants.
The truth of the matter is that as I’ve cooked through Ruffage I looked at what I was cooking and kept thinking that all the dishes I made for my family and photographed for this review seemed too easy. I always try a wide variety of recipe to give an accurate idea of what level of home cook would enjoy the book. So, I tried a few more recipes and came to the realization that this is the grand scheme Berens has designed — practical, easy recipes that you can enjoy any time. Find inspiration at the grocery store, market, or in a CSA box and then use Ruffage as a point of reference and inspiration. Yes, she is a chef, but she keeps the recipes in her book attainable not aspirational. Something else to note is that while Ruffage is a vegetable-centred book it’s not a vegetarian/vegan/plant-based book. The book contains some recipes that use meat, fish, dairy, and/or eggs and, with over 100 recipes and over 230 variations there is something for everyone.
The true magic behind Ruffage is how Berens entices the home cook to see ingredients in different ways. For someone who has grown up eating and enjoying vegetables I wasn’t sure what there was left to learn but, as with anything, there is always more to learn. Having a few beets in my crisper, I flipped to the section on “Beets” to see what Berens was offering. I love beets with their sweet earthiness. It’s those earthy-tones which can affect their palatability to kids (like my 5-year-old daughter) so I was pleasantly surprised that the recipe for Beet-Dressed Pasta w/ Golden Raisins and Poppy Seeds was so well-received. The rich magenta would lure my daughter in, but would she go for the flavour? Yes, in fact, she would and with gusto too. Raisins can be a take-it-or-leave-it affair but since these golden raisins are soaked (with the soaking water being added to the saucy beet puree) I found that the soaking greatly improved and really transformed the raisins dry texture into something supple and chewier.
“Wow! This is a really good salad,” my husband exclaimed over dinner last week. I told him that it should be because it’s called the Perfect Salad in the book! The freshness of the delicate greens and herbs is enhanced with a simple vinaigrette and the most delightful Garlic Bread Crumbs. I hate having to wash and chop endless salad ingredients, so I found that this recipe suited me very well. And, while the variations for this recipe look mighty tasty (Roasted Strawberry, Pecan, Goat Cheese or BLT version or Roasted Mushroom, Soft-Boiled Egg, Mustard Vinaigrette), I think I’ll stick to the classic (which is perfect in its simplicity and taste).
As I mentioned earlier, I was thrown by how simple the recipes seemed because I was reaching for Ruffage during the busy weeknight meal crush and, it was quickly delivering tasty meals that left our bellies happy and my kitchen with very little clean up. Last Friday night I eschewed our weekly pizza night for a Ruffage recipe my brain told me would be challenging: Tomatoes Stuffed with Lentils and Goat Cheese. When I was a kid, you only got to eat something stuffed at parties or on holidays. Whether it was stuffing mushrooms or a turkey, it was only something people would go to the trouble of doing if it involved guests or a special occasion (probably both). Imagine my surprise when I scooped out the tomatoes, mixed the filling, stuffed it back into the tomatoes, and baked them with very little mess and time to read my book before dinner was ready! I served the stuffed tomatoes with generous slices of sourdough from our favourite Dartmouth bakery which was perfect for sopping up the juices from the baked tomatoes. Delicious! And, yet another example of how Berens shows the home cook there are many ways to enjoy an ingredient.
Beautifully photographed by EE Berger and illustrated by Lucy Engelman, Ruffage is a true treasure of a book. I came for the vegetables and recipes, but I stayed for the engaging storytelling. After trying almost a dozen recipes I feel like this cookbook will become one that I rely on for recipes and inspiration for seasons and years to come. If you’re curious to see what else I’ve cooked up, please visit my custom Instagram hashtag #ruffageiseatworthy or my dedicated Facebook post. As I try more recipes, I’ll keep adding to them.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Raincoast Books and Chronicle Books for providing me with a free, review copy of this book. I did not receive monetary compensation for my post, and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.