Cookbook Review: “Ruffage,” Abra Berens

Pros: Some decent basic instructions
Cons: Very uneven and unbalanced recipes
Rating: 2 out of 5

I haven’t had much room or energy to cook since moving a couple of years ago, so I haven’t been buying many cookbooks. Part of the reason I gave in and bought Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables, by Abra Berens, is that I’m trying to eat more vegetables right now. The other reason is that it’s from Chronicle Books, and I’ve had great success with their cookbooks in the past. Which is why it surprised me so much that I didn’t enjoy the things that I made from this cookbook.

There’s a section called Strong Pantry that includes notes on a number of things such as oils, acids, seasonings, herbs, grains, beans, pasta, dairy, nuts, and condiments. There are some small “recipes” included here such as basic instructions for cooking beans, wild rice, risotto, some dressings, and crispy chickpeas. I was making a recipe for radishes with chickpeas, cumin, and lime (from later in the cookbook), and I will say that the crispy chickpeas are the one recipe in here that tasted delicious, except that the recipe would have worked just as well with about half the amount of oil (I used 3/4 and still had a fair amount of it left over).

The book is then divided by vegetable in alphabetical order: asparagus, beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, fennel, garlic, green beans, greens, kohlrabi, leeks, onions, parsnips, peas, peppers, potatoes, radishes, ramps, squash (summer and winter), sunchokes, tomatoes, turnips, and rutabaga. Each section has just a couple of recipes, but those recipes typically have variations. Usually those variations just list a new set of ingredients and expect you to follow the original recipe but with the change of ingredients. In most cases this works okay, but sometimes it leaves things unsaid. For example, there’s a recipe of shaved summer squash with parmesan, “lots and lots of herbs”, and olive oil, that has a variation of “w/massaged kale, cherry tomatoes + walnuts”. That’s all well and good, except that there’s nothing explaining what they mean by “massaged” kale. Since this is a cookbook imparting basic cooking knowledge, everything like this should be explained. Also, I made this variation, and it wasn’t very good. The sole dressing is olive oil with salt and pepper, so you’re essentially having plain veggies with olive oil, which is not my idea of a good recipe. Maybe it would be worth mentioning in the pantry section on oils as a quick-and-dirty technique, but I expected more from the flavors of that recipe.

Too many of these recipes rely on huge amounts of herbs for their flavor, and it can be overwhelming. The original summer squash recipe is 2 summer squash to 1 cup of herbs. The “w/buttermilk, tomato + herb salad” variation of the cucumber with cumin yogurt and parsley recipe was overwhelmed by herb flavor–yet without that, it would just taste like buttermilk, because it’s barely more than cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, and buttermilk. Also the cucumbers are supposed to be unpeeled and blistered, and I found them too bitter. I hate to throw out food, but I just couldn’t finish eating that salad.

There’s a grilled corn on the cob recipe with parmesan butter. You’re supposed to heat oil with chili flakes and steep it in oil for 10 minutes, then blend with softened butter, parmesan, and parsley, then spoon it onto plastic wrap to roll it up like a log. The problem with this is that after 10 minutes, the oil is still hot enough to just melt the butter outright, which means you won’t be rolling it up into a log. Also, the amount of parmesan was too small–it made the flavor too subtle.

Now let’s go back to the radishes with chickpeas, cumin, and lime. I was looking forward to this–I love all of the components of this dish, after all. However, they don’t work well together. Lime juice (and zest) and cumin are basically the dressing. The result was very bitter, and only the presence of the chickpeas made it edible.

Even recipes that had flavor combinations I usually loved came out unbalanced and tasting “too much”–whether it be too much of herbs, too much of oil, too much of bitterness, or something else. I’m shocked to find a Chronicle cookbook that I like so little, but there it is.

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