Grist by Abra Berens is a welcome addition to my kitchen cookbook shelf because it is such a useful guide to cooking with legumes, seeds, grains, and beans. I think Grist can be considered a companion to her earlier book Ruffage (published in 2019; review here), and just as Ruffage is part memoir, part cookbook, so is Grist. Here the home cook is invited to follow along with Berens as she demonstrates, through her recipes, how crucial whole grains are to our health and their importance to the food system. And, in recent years, I’ve found that many cookbooks have focused on the fresh produce aspect of incorporating more plants into our diets, so I fully appreciate that Berens is showing home cooks that cooking with grains, beans, legumes, and seeds isn’t difficult. While canned beans are convenient, she shares tips and techniques that prove cooking grains/legumes/beans from scratch is convenient in its own way. Ruffage told us Berens story as a vegetable farmer, and Grist tells us the story of the American grain and legume farmer. At the beginning of her book she offers a discussion in the section Farmer and Our Food System and throughout the book in the Farmer Profiles, she has “included several conversations with different growers to share stories and contextualize how an ingredient is cooked with and how it is grown.”(19) I think of farms and farmers as hearty but in this section, Berens also shows how delicate the system is — influenced not only by natural events, but through social and political events too.
My relationship with food is directly tied to my upbringing. Born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, I spent much of my formative years visiting my grandparent’s farm, which is located just north of Edmonton. My dad had a weekday desk job and was a farmer on the weekends. We often spent time at the farm on the weekends so that my dad could help run the family farm he grew up on. My grandfather was a grain farmer who also kept a small kitchen garden from which he and my grandmother would sell produce from each week at the farmer’s market. Over the years, they grew a variety of different grains and seeds — wheat, barley, canola, flaxseed, oats, and fall rye (which would get harvested in the spring). I am fascinated by each of the Farmer Profiles shared throughout the book because in some ways modern farming and farmers are very different from the farmers that I grew up knowing, and yet, despite the years, they are the same.
Grist is organized into three parts: Condiments, Legumes, and Grains. And, in these three parts, Berens offers a wide variety from beans and legumes (such as: lima, chickpeas, lentils, split peas) to grains (barley, buckwheat, oats, rice, bulgur, freekeh — just to name a few). The recipes offered support a variety of different dietary needs (some of the recipes are vegetarian/vegan and some include meat). Even better, since these grist-y ingredients have an excellent shelf life, they can be considered a season-less ingredient, which adds to their versatility. While I grew up watching crops get planted, then harvested, we never ate the grains grown on the farm. Things like flour, wheat berries, bulgur, and buckwheat were purchased at the local UFA Co-Op grocery store for my grandmother to use. Now that I find myself as a grown up in my own kitchen, I too rely on grocery stores and supermarkets as the source for grains, beans, and legumes. With Berens’ Grist as my guide, I found so many recipes and strategies to get me excited about cooking.
One of my favourite sections in the book are the “a week’s worth of black beans without any boredom” and “a week’s worth of barley without any boredom” because if an author is going to advocate in favour of batch cooking, then it is helpful when they provide a week’s worth of suggestions and recipes. I find the most challenging aspect of cooking with grains/beans/legumes is the actual cooking of them. Using Grist, I felt encouraged to cook ahead and once the batch was ready, all I needed to do was pull the container from the fridge and I was already on my way to having a meal on the table. The suggestions she gives are useful and delicious — when wondering about what I would make my daughter for lunch one day, it was Berens’ easy offering of making a black bean hummus to slather on a BBLT (black bean, lettuce, tomato) Sandwich that I settled on.
Batch cooking grains can be easily overlooked but with Berens’ recipes, having a week’s worth of grains on hand to use is enticing! With the big batch of barley that I cooked ahead of time, one of the ways we enjoyed the barley was for breakfast by using it in the recipe for Barley Breakfast Porridge w/ Spiced Milk, Dried Cherries, and Nuts. Grist serves as inspiration — barley can be used in breakfast too and, porridge doesn’t ever have to be made only using oats. Having said this, her recipe for Cut Oatmeal w/ Brown Sugar, Heavy Cream and Salt is heavenly — dry toasting the oats adds such great flavour (and so does that healthy dash of Drambuie!).
And it’s not just the “week’s worth” of suggestions that has me excited — Berens also gives variations along with the main recipes. So that when I had boiled buckwheat waiting in the fridge, I was able to find a recipe to suit my needs and the ingredients I had on hand. I made the Buckwheat w/ a Soft Egg, Shredded Carrot, Kale and Pickle Liquid Dressing for lunch one day. I swapped out the egg for chickpeas on my husband’s plate and, it was such a hearty, delicious lunch. I love these types of salad assemblages and what makes it even better is that dressing! It’s the combination of liquid from a jar of pickles and mayonnaise that has my mouth watering!
While wheat flour is what home cooks primarily use, Berens encourages us to consider other types of flour too. Intrigued by her section on barley flour (can be used 1:1 for AP flour), I made her Barley Pancakes for breakfast. Pancakes aren’t exactly the most flavourful thing and are usually a vessel for copious amounts of butter and syrup, but in this case, the use of barley flour adds so much flavour! A rich, nutty taste that only gets better with butter and syrup — these are so good that I batch cook them and freeze so that my daughter can take them in her lunch. Another alternative to wheat flour is buckwheat flour. I’ve used it before, and I really appreciate the earthy, nutty flavour. Here, Berens uses it for making Buckwheat Crepes — I used a lighter buckwheat flour, so my crepes didn’t have that lovely colour which the darker variety of flour imparts but they tasted great, nonetheless. I served them with egg and sautéed kale (a variation suggestion from the book) and the whole dish made for a perfect lunch. The great thing about crepes is how versatile they can be — filled sweet or savory, they make an excellent snack or superb supper.
With just a small sampling of recipes that I’ve made from Grist, with over 140 recipes (with more than 160 variations), I haven’t even scratched the surface of all the great things Berens offers in her book. Well-researched, I appreciate all the facts and information she provides, as well as the discussions on the modern food systems at work in the US. Just as with her earlier book, Ruffage, Grist is beautifully photographed by EE Berger and illustrated by Lucy Engelman. Not only is Grist a practical guide, but it is also a compendium on cooking with beans, legumes, grains, and seeds.
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.
One thought on “Book Club Tuesday: Grist”