Get to know Abra Berens, Granor Farm, Three Oaks, Michigan
And get a recipe for a better split-pea soup
Soup season is here. “We’ve had the longest, most glorious fall,” says Abra Berens, chef at Granor Farm in Three Oaks, Michigan. “The weather just turned cold. Our fall colors are maybe two-and-a-half weeks behind schedule this year.” Berens follows the seasons more closely than many chefs. A Michigan native who trained at Ireland’s farm-centered Ballymaloe Cooking School, she ran her own farm, called Bare Knuckle, before joining the team at Granor in 2017.
Give a creative young chef access to four seasons of produce and you’re bound to get some interesting recipes. Berens has been publishing hers for years—starting with a Traverse City Record-Eagle column called "From the Farm," and building up to a critically acclaimed cookbook, 2019’s vegetable-centric Ruffage.
Now, just as our gardens are going dormant, she’s sharing the secrets to coaxing surprising and soul-warming flavors from the dry goods hiding out in our pantries. Grist, which officially hit shelves yesterday, is a comprehensive guide to cooking with beans, grains, and seeds. Its conversational tone and charming visuals complement recipes for the likes of barley thumbprint cookies, wild rice porridge, and a lighter brighter, take on split pea soup, excerpted below. Written with a chef’s culinary curiosity and a farmer’s passion for making the most of each harvest, it’s an ideal reference for fall and winter in the Midwest.
Q: You’re a born-and-raised Midwesterner. What dishes or ingredients take you back to your Michigan childhood?
A: My dad is a hunter, so we ate a lot of game meat: venison, game birds… My mom, who was a really incredible cook, used to make this venison sausage quiche that I loved. As far as classic Midwestern stuff goes, I still love a good onion dip. And I remember making hamburger hot pot as soon I could—with mushrooms and potatoes and probably cream of mushroom soup.
Q: How do you define Midwestern food?
A: That depends what we’re talking about. There’s certainly church-basement fare—the brown foods you eat at a funeral or a wedding. Ham buns, casseroles, things like that. I don’t think we should be ashamed of that. That overlaps with immigrant food traditions that bring so much diversity to our diets.
Where I grew up, outside Holland, Michigan, there’s a lot of Dutch influence. I forget the Dutch term for "pigs in a blanket," but it’s so good. [Per the internet, the term—as used in Michigan—is "saucijzenbroodjes."] The Michigan pasty came over with Cornish immigrants. We have the most amazing Middle Eastern food in Dearborn. Think about the Hmong and Senegalese food traditions taking root in Minnesota, or the German chocolate cake made by a Black woman in Chicago whose family came north during the Great Migration…
Thinking about what defines contemporary Midwestern food, and what I want to do as a Midwesterner who cooks professionally, I say: If it’s made here, it’s Midwestern. Especially if it’s rooted in our soil. Michigan is the second-most agriculturally diverse state, after California. Our farms, orchards, fish, game, and foraged ingredients—think ramps and mushrooms—give us plenty to work with.
Q: What Midwestern products do you love right now?
A: There are so many. I’m a big wild rice person. I like to have it on hand. Through Zingerman’s, I found KC’s Best Wild Rice, which is from Minnesota.
Then, I’d say anything [cheesemaker] Andy Hatch is making at Uplands Cheese. Those are world-class cheeses. Same for Leelanau Cheese, Boss Mouse Cheese, and Red Barn. Red Barn was founded by a veterinarian who was disappointed in how dairy cows were being treated, so he started a co-op that prioritizes the quality of the milk and the health of the cattle. Those are the metrics. They’re using high-quality milk, and they’re now making cheese that’s just as good.
The wine and cider coming from the Midwest right now is so good. Larry Mawby was one of the first vintners on the lake to focus on sparkling wine. He’s had opportunities to get bigger, and instead, he’s opened his doors to the next generation of winemakers, providing space for them to come in and learn. Kasey at Shady Lane is making some of the best rosés I’ve had in a long time. Then there’s Bel Lago… The list goes on. Tandem Ciders is now distributing outside Michigan, I think, and Virtue certainly is. They’ve done a great job.
There’s a grower in Michigan’s thumb, Kevin Messing of Sheridan Acres, growing heirloom beans, and he is a gem. Those beans are incredible, and I think he exemplifies a successful farm succession plan—converting his family’s conventional row crop farm to heirloom specialty beans.
Split pea soup with balsamic vinegar
From Grist, by Abra Berens
What is modern Midwestern food? This soup sort of sums it up. It’s what your grandma might have made, but hopefully a bit brighter in flavor, smoother in texture, and no politeness needed. The addition of balsamic vinegar comes straight from my friend Meg Fish’s table. She ladled up big bowls of soup topped with four or five drips of the tangy, sweet liquid, and I’ve never gone back.
1 cup thinly sliced onion
4 garlic cloves, minced
4 anchovy fillets
1 cup white wine or hard cider
2 cups split peas, green or yellow
1 Yukon gold potato (about 8 oz.), peeled and cut into chunks
2 carrots (about 4 oz.), cut into chunks
2 oz. sour cream per bowl, for serving
1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar per bowl, for serving
1 tsp. chili oil (recipe below, or use store-bought) per bowl, for serving
1 tbsp. lemon-parsley mojo (recipe below) per bowl, for serving
Kosher salt, to taste
In a medium soup pot, heat a glug of oil over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, and anchovies and a big pinch of salt and sweat until soft, about 7 minutes.
Add the wine and simmer until reduced by half. Add the split peas, potato, carrots, and 8 cups of water and bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer and cook until the peas and vegetables are tender, about 25 minutes. Either leave loose and chunky or blend with an immersion blender to make the soup smooth. Adjust the seasoning as desired.
To serve, dish the soup into individual bowls and top each with a dollop of sour cream, a splash of balsamic vinegar, a spoonful of chili oil, and a swirl of lemon parsley mojo.
Makes 1 cup
1 cup neutral oil, such as canola or grapeseed
2 tbsp. chili flakes
In a medium sauce or frying pan, heat the oil over medium heat until it begins to shimmer, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat, add the chili flakes, and let steep for 5 minutes. Use immediately or let cool and refrigerate.
Makes about 2 cups
1 cup olive oil
Zest and juice of 2 lemons
10 sprigs parsley, about 2 oz., or 1 cup chopped parsley
½ tsp kosher salt
Combine all the ingredients to make a chunky, oily paste. Use immediately.
Reprinted from Grist: A Practical Guide to Cooking Grains, Beans, Seeds, and Legumes by Abra Berens with permission from Chronicle Books, 2021. Photographs ©EE Berger.