Michigan Chef Abra Berens' New Cookbook Showcases Midwest Fruits

The James Beard Award-nominated author chats about her new book (215 sweet and savory fruit recipes!) and the importance of supporting local farmers.

When Abra Berens thinks of peaches, she's transported back to her grandfather's farm in South Haven, Michigan, taking a bite of the freshly picked fruit as the juice drips down her chin. The James Beard Award-nominated author grew up in the state's famous fruit belt, and she still resides there, as the chef at Granor Farm in Three Oaks. All those experiences are baked, braised and stewed into her latest cookbook, Pulp: A Practical Guide to Cooking with Fruit. It follows her previous two cookbooks Ruffage (on vegetables) and Grist (on grains, beans and legumes), rounding out a trilogy of practical guides to everyday ingredients.

When it comes to fruit, Pulp gets you thinking outside the box (er, fruit crate). Yes, you can eat a ripe peach raw or baked into a crumbly Peach-Berry Cobbler. The sweet, juicy flavors also swing savory in a spicy Jalapeño-Peach Cornbread topped with bright Coconut Milk Shrimp. The possibilities are infinite and delicious. Beyond sharing her recipes, throughout her career, Berens' North Star has been providing a window into the often complex world of agriculture. We chatted with her about her book and the importance of supporting local farmers.

Congratulations on your new book! How did you come up with fruit as the focus of this third installment?

I brought up the idea of the fruit book before Grist to my editor, but at the same time the grain and legume program at Granor Farms was really expanding and I was working with them in such unique and different ways. We decided to write Grist first, but put the idea for Pulp together in the contract, so they were both processing in my mind at the same time. At first, there was a lot of hesitation that books on fruit don't sell. People would say, 'I never buy fruit because I don't know what to do with it and it goes bad quickly.' Or, Why buy a cookbook when you just eat it raw?' That's where I saw this disconnect.

Each fruit featured is broken down by method like raw, roasted, grilled or baked as well as a sweet or savory recipe for each method. How did you decide on this structure?

I wanted to stick to the fruits of my region as a born-and-raised Michigander, like cherries, berries and peaches. I looked at my favorite preparation techniques for each of those individual fruits, then decided which savory and sweet recipe would best showcase them.

coconut milk shrimp jalapeno peach cornbread recipe from Chef Abra Berens
EE Berger

People seem to have misconceptions about the ways that you can use fruit, especially in savory dishes.

I use a ton of fruit in all of my cooking, mostly because we have so much in Michigan. It's naturally part of my menu planning and creative process—teaching that fruit can be just as delicious using a savory preparation is something I really wanted to share.

baked nectarine peaches recipe from Chef Abra Berens
EE Berger

But you love a dessert too, right?

Right, fruit is great to bake with, so we should absolutely have sweet recipes too! Writing Pulp was fun in that the other two books don't have very much baking. I don't think of myself as a baker—or certainly not someone who works in pastry regularly—but I've worked with great people who do. So we added a Baker's Toolkit, or collection of recipes and tips I've gathered from over the years, to help make baking feel less intimidating.

I loved your inclusion of ways to preserve fruits when they are at peak ripeness.

If my first mission is to connect people to agriculture, my second is to try to take some of the weight out of people's food choices. I work in agriculture and hospitality in a tourist town, so when berries are hitting their stride in July and August, I'm sometimes too busy to enjoy them fresh. We freeze them because they thaw so well and they can be turned into any number of things.

You include interviews with growers, food producers and those deeply entrenched in the food movement. Why?

I remember driving across the middle of the country with a friend who was from a big city, and it dawned on him that somebody owned and farmed all the land by the highway. So few people are interacting with farmers these days, because they're such a small part of our population. It feels important that people know there are so many physical hands, from production, to harvesting, to processing, that touch these fruits before they get to our tables. A lot of these jobs end up being sort of invisible, so I wanted to tell their diverse stories.

Why should we cultivate relationships with growers and farmers in our area?

If you are buying directly from a farmer, more of your money is going directly to that farmer and staying within your local food system and that has real economic impact. You can also learn so much! My favorite thing to do at a farmers market is to talk to the grower and ask, 'What are you excited about right now?' That's how I first tried ground cherries! I certainly think you can get great food not directly from a farmer or a farmers market, but it's a pleasant way to discover new things.

What's one unexpected recipe readers might be surprised to find?

I really love the Brined Cherries and Salty Snacks recipe, because it was a little bit of an experiment. Cherries and olives have always paired in my mind, but I remember a chef saying once that was an odd combo. I thought, what if we tried brining them to cure like an olive? And I loved them! It's perfect for a cocktail hour snack, mixed with lupini beans and castelvetrano olives all tossed with herbs and citrus.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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