Abra Berens + Chicken in Lemon Cream Sauce

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After a longer-than-I-intended-hiatus, we’re back at it, and I’m beyond excited to welcome my guest today, Abra Berens! If you live in Chicago, and are even a little familiar with the Chicago food scene, you may recognize her name. For several years, Abra was the chef at Stock Cafe, the restaurant within Local Foods, a Chicago store that showcases goods and produce from several local vendors. She is now the chef at Granor Farm, an organic farm in southwestern Michigan, where she creates dining experiences based on crops grown at the farm.

Abra’s career in food started with a family influence. “My dad grew up in a pickle farming family,” she told me, “but he and my mom were both anesthesiologists. When I was young we were still farming while my parents were working in hospitals. I’ve worked in restaurants since I was 16 mostly because I didn’t want to work on our family farm any more! And it just evolved from there. I never intended to work in food my whole life, but I also never wanted to leave it.” 

After attending school in Ann Arbor, she worked there for several years at Zingerman’s Deli. “It was my time at Zingerman’s where I started to see that food touched so many aspects of people’s lives, from the producers to the customers to my co-workers.” Working in food began to make a lot of sense to her. “Zingerman’s connected me to Ballymaloe, where I went to cooking school.”

After six years in Ann Arbor, Abra moved to Chicago, where her husband was born. But eventually, the couple decided they wanted a more rural life, and Abra wanted to get back to cooking directly from a farm. But they didn’t want to go too far from Chicago, so Granor Farm in Three Oaks, Michigan, was “the perfect solution to all of those needs.”

Her work at Granor Farm is important to her, because she loves connecting people to their food. “I feel incredibly lucky to have grown up with a large garden, animals, and seeing industrial production of food,” she says. But many people live lives distant from that experience. “We are facing huge hurdles in terms of the sustainability of American agriculture–farmer shortages, soil health, farm income, food access and security. These things will only get better if our populace takes a real interest in food and agriculture. Thankfully, food is delicious and we can all be a part of the change simply by eating! Where that food comes from speaks to the people who are part of that food chain.” In her work at Granor, she brings the food chain, and the realities of farm life, closer to her guests. “You can’t respect the product without knowing something about the people who grow it–their successes and their hurdles. If we want to have a successful food system, we need to understand what that means to the people doing the growing. Similarly, people are often let down by the quality of their food. By knowing even a little about how it grows and seasonality, one is more likely to find food that they are excited about that tastes great and lasts after you get it home.”

She told me that the most fulfilling part of her work right now “is cooking food that is so closely linked to the ground and farmers who grew it.” The menus she creates for Granor begin in seasonality. “Sometimes that list is the most special items that we want to highlight. Sometimes it is what we have a lot of and need to use up. No matter the dish, it always has a direct connection to how we farm and what we want people to know about our plot of land and work.”

While Abra works hard at Granor, she couldn’t do it without a team that includes many hardworking men and women. But she particularly finds Granor to be an amazing place to work as a woman. In fact, as she told me, PureWow magazine recently named Granor one of America’s Best Restaurants Run By Women. “Granor’s Farm Manager is Katie Burdett, who has really revolutionized our farm,” Abra said. “And cooking and growing have long been women’s work, but there are serious hurdles to women running businesses in those two industries. We are lucky at Granor Farm to be able (with the unending support of the owners of the farm) to provide a space for women to come and work and learn and hopefully leave with the tools to carve out their own space in this industry.”

As with every feature post, I asked Abra to share a family recipe that has some importance for her. She sent her mothers recipe for chicken in lemon cream sauce. “My mom was a tremendous cook,” she said. “I feel so fortunate that she put so much energy into making delicious and creative meals regularly. I also feel so lucky that it was over food that we connected with each other as a family. It gave me a tremendous amount of reverence for the community and bonds that sharing a meal creates.”

Abra's Mother

This particular recipe “was an arrow in my mom’s dinner quiver. She took a cooking class from Le Cordon Blue in Grand Rapids once and this is the only thing any of us remember her making post class. One day we didn’t make this and the next we did, and now it is a family classic.” 

As good as it is, its ease of preparation is part of the appeal. “It was always a special occasion dinner because of the last minute nature of the sauce, often for dinner parties or when my sisters and I would come home from college. I’ve learned since that the sauce can hold fine warm and so doesn’t need to pull the cook away from the party–simply hold the cooked chicken in a warm oven, make the sauce, and then reheat and thin with a bit more cream (if needed) just before serving.” She added, “I love it because it was how I learned to make a pan sauce, and it goes with any sort of vegetables, be it spring, summer, fall, or winter. So this recipe bridges how I learned to cook (meat and cream focused) and how I cook now (just enough meat and cream to ground a big plate of vegetables).” 

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Chicken Breasts in Lemon Cream Sauce

Ingredients:
6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup white wine
1 lemon (for zest and juice)
1 cup heavy cream
Salt, to taste

Instructions:

Pound the chicken breasts until thin. 

Season liberally with salt and pepper. 

Heat the butter and olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat until hot. 

Pat the chicken breasts dry and pan fry until cooked through on one side (about 5 minutes). Flip and cook the other side (about 4 minutes). 

Remove the chicken breasts to a serving platter and tent with tinfoil to keep warm.

Add the white wine to the pan to deglaze (scraping up any browned meaty bits) and allow to reduce until almost dry (about 2-3 minutes).

Add the cream and a big pinch of salt and cook until bubbling.

Add the lemon zest and juice, and return to a bubble.

Remove from heat. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.

Just before serving, pour the cream sauce over the chicken and serve. 

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Abra told me there are some big and exciting things happening for her soon. “We’ve added several months to our dinner series at Granor Farm–now from May through February. Farm dinners and local agriculture don’t stop after first frost. I’m so excited that we are going to be able to showcase produce from our farm through the dead of winter.” Second, her first cookbook, Ruffage, is coming out in March of 2019! “The premise for the book is that each chapter focuses on a vegetable: what to look for at the market, how to store, and other notes. Then there are several different preparation techniques (like for asparagus raw, roasted, and grilled) and a base recipe for that. After the recipe there are three variations to show how you can prep the veg the same way and then vary the ‘accessory’ flavors to make a whole new dish. The idea is to give readers the tools to make a myriad of dishes by selecting great produce and mastering a few techniques.” Ruffage will be available at all national bookstores and on Amazon.com in March. 

If you want to find out more about Abra’s work, you can visit her website, or follow her on Instagram or Twitter @abraberens. If you’re interested in making reservations for a Granor Farm dinner, you can do that here.

Abra, thank you so much for sharing your story with me! I can’t wait to see what you have coming up in the future!

 

First two photographs provided by Abra Berens.
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Zeny’s Chicken à la King Hand Pies

Kristina

Today, I’m so excited to have my dear friend Kristina Alto as my guest. I met Kristina almost three years ago, when we were working for the same company in downtown Chicago. We worked in the same department and hit it off quickly, bonding over our love of food, pop culture, and our not-so-secret dream of leaving our office jobs for careers we were more passionate about. Kristina has a dual degree in international politics and political science from Loyola, but while pursuing jobs in that field, she “began craving something else,” she told me. “I found that I really wanted to do something creative, that I wanted to make something. I found an outlet for that in writing and baking.”

She has always loved being in the kitchen. “I remember begging my mom to let me wash the dishes after dinner when I was young and didn’t know what I was doing,” she recalled. “I still remember the first thing I tried making on my own – some sort of weird chip dip that was more mayonnaise than anything else. But I was probably 9 and anything tasted good on Ruffles potato chips.” Amen.

Baking, on the other hand, is newer to her. “I started playing around with scones. From there, I found more recipes I wanted to explore.” Her husband’s enthusiasm helped her follow her interest. “Conrad encouraged me to take the plunge and just go for it. I can’t say what made me decide to go to pastry school as opposed to jumping right into a kitchen but I’m so grateful that I did.” At the end of 2015, she left her office job, and by early 2016, she was enrolled at the French Pastry School, studying to become a pastry chef. “School was the perfect transition from cubicle to kitchen,” she told me. After finishing her program, Kristina started working for one of Chicago’s most popular bakeries, Hoosier Mama Pie Company.

Kristina and I have been trying for over a year to get together to cook. A while back she told me that she was interested in making one of her Filipino grandmother’s recipes. There are two recipes that Kristina remembers especially fondly: Puto, a Filipino steamed rice cake, and Chicken a la King. “I can still picture her in the kitchen of our Skokie apartment, standing at the stove while I sat at the table – or under it,” she said.

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Her grandmother, Zenaida (Zeny for short), grew up in Quezon City, in the Phillipines, the second youngest of eleven siblings. Kristina told me, “She loved to sew and she was incredibly dedicated to family – especially to my mom and uncle. She made it a point to visit us in Chicago as often as she could and I can’t tell you how much I loved having her around. Her stays always meant lots of great food and new play clothes. She was a whiz on the sewing machine so I always had a solid stash of fun play clothes – they were usually ridiculous skirts.” A girl after my own heart.

The recipe that Kristina decided to share with me and you is Chicken à la King, which is often served over rice, or the way Zeny made it, served with slices of French bread. “It was one of my absolute favorites because not only was it delicious but it was pretty much the only meal we could have without rice.” Instead of either rice or bread, Kristina wanted to bring her Hoosier Mama experience to the table and try to bake the mixture into a hand pie.

She told me, “Chicken à la King is definitely not a family recipe but I wish I knew how my grandma came by it. When my mom moved to America from the Philippines, my grandma gave her a Filipino cookbook. It was a slim paperback with a bright yellow cover with brown pages and she used it every time she came to visit us in Chicago, writing notes and recipes in the blank spaces. Her Chicken à la King recipe is handwritten in one of the blank pages and my mom had to text it to me, with a few clarifications.” The ingredient “cherry wine” Kristina decoded to mean “sherry wine.” She summed up her choice: “Chicken à la King is demonstrative of my grandma’s love of cooking and trying a new recipe, and the hand pie dough is a nod to my own kitchen adventures. Strangely, even though this isn’t a Filipino dish, it’s what I always think of when I remember her.”

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Chicken à la King Hand Pies

Ingredients:
Dough:
Enough pie dough for two two-crust pies. You can use your favorite recipe. I provide a link to instructions on how to make the dough we used, below.
Chicken à la King:
2-3 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tbsp flour
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup evaporated milk, scalded
1/4 tsp salt
Black pepper, to taste
1 cup cooked chicken, diced
1/2 cup mushrooms, sliced
1/4 cup pimiento peppers, diced
1/4 cup green peppers, diced
1 egg yolk, slightly beaten
2 tbsp sherry wine
Egg wash:
1 egg
1 tbsp milk or cream

Instructions:

For this recipe, Kristina used the Hoosier Mama Pie Company pie dough.

Melt butter in saucepan.

Add chicken stock, flour, and milk gradually, stirring constantly. Cook slowly until thick. Season with salt and pepper.

Add chicken, mushrooms, peppers, and pimientos.

Blend in egg yolk and wine, and continue cooking until the mixture thickens.

Allow to cool in the pan while you roll out your dough. Roll the dough out to about 1/8-inch thick. Using a bowl, trace 5-inch circles in the dough and use a knife to cut them out. You’ll have enough dough for 12-15 of these.

Line one large cookie sheet with parchment paper.

Beat an egg and milk in a small bowl. Brush the egg wash all over one side of one of the rounds, particularly coating the edges of the circle. Spoon about 2 tbsp of the Chicken à la King mixture, being careful not to overfill. Fold the circle over, pressing the edges together, and sealing the edge with a fork. Place the rounds on the parchment paper-lined cookie sheet. Continue with all of the remaining dough rounds. Place the hand pies into the freezer for 15 minutes, while you preheat your oven to 375 degrees.

Bake the hand pies for 30 minutes, or until golden brown, turning the pan 180 degrees about halfway through.

Allow to cool, and enjoy!

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These were really, really delicious, and Kristina and I put away several before they had even cooled. But my favorite part of making this recipe with Kristina came after we finished the filling. Kristina told me that she had never made this recipe, and hadn’t had it since her grandma made it. She said she was worried it wouldn’t turn out. After we mixed everything together, she tasted a bite and said, “Oh! That’s exactly like I remember it!” It was so nice to see how happy she was to remember that flavor. That’s the magic of a family recipe!

Thanks so much for sharing your grandma’s recipe with all of us, Kristina!

Aunt Mary’s Breakfast Casserole

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I’m very, very excited to welcome my guest today. Emelyn Rude is a food writer and culinary historian. Her first book, Tastes Like Chicken: A History of America’s Favorite Bird, was published last year by Pegasus Books. Tastes has been written up in Nature, the scientific journal, and has received great reviews from The Boston Globe and Kirkus, as well as mentions in The New York Times and on NPR.

While remarkable that Emelyn has already published a book, I actually came to know her name when Mayuk Sen of Food 52 wrote an article about a Kickstarter campaign started by a woman trying to fund a magazine focused on food history. Obviously right up my alley, I wanted to find out more about the magazine, and Emelyn herself.

First of all, I was very interested in how and why Emelyn got interested in food writing in the first place. “My career in food writing started when I took a class in college called ‘The History of Dietetics,'” she said, “which was essentially the history of what people did to be healthy. I think my first paper was an exploration of how the phrase “You are what you eat” changed throughout history, and I was hooked. How I got into more popular food writing was more of a pragmatic thing. After I graduated from college, I started working for restaurant groups and was barely scraping by. I noticed a job posting by VICE saying they were looking for freelance food writers, so I pitched a story and they took me on. The rest of the writing gigs grew from there.” Amazing.

This, of course, led me to ask why exactly she wanted to write a book about the history of eating chicken specifically. She told me, “The subject was actually the topic of my senior thesis, which was inspired both by that class on the history of dietetics and by the fact that I have never been a fan of eating chicken. (Ironic, I know!) I must say that the only thing more entertaining than chickens are people interacting with chickens, so it’s an oddly fascinating subject.”

Her love of food history and writing eventually led her to the idea of a food history magazine. Originally called “Repast,” Emelyn had to change the title because the same name was already used for a magazine published by the Culinary Historians of Ann Arbor. “EATEN is a food history magazine intended for a popular audience. I personally love food history and really enjoy researching and writing articles in the field, but I noticed a certain divide in how food publications deal with culinary history. These kind of pieces either get highly academic in food studies journals or become kind of shallow for more popular mainstream glossies. But these stories are interesting and important, so I wanted to create a popular platform on which to share them. A few emails and a Kickstarter later, EATEN was born!”

Emelyn explained to me that the plan is for each volume of the magazine to have a theme. “EATEN Volume 1 is themed ‘The Food of the Gods.’ I am super excited about some of the articles we have lined up for this. Scholar Ken Albala wrote a very entertaining piece entitled ‘What Did Jesus Eat?’, butter historian Elain Khosrova wrote something on the ancient rite of Tibetan butter carving, a wonderful young woman in France named Alice Spasaro interviewed Trappist monks reviving ancient beer brewing traditions. Some exciting things!” When I asked Emelyn how she was able to get such talent to participate in the magazine, she said that she did the same thing I did to get her–she shot them an email. Sometimes it’s best just to ask!

I was so pleased when I reached out to Emelyn and she said she’d be happy to participate in a post and while we were chatting on the phone, Emelyn was already brainstorming a possible recipe that we could use. “My family doesn’t have too many recipes that we share and pass on. My mother is not a big cook and I don’t think my grandmother was either.” The casserole she chose is the exception. “I almost never eat cottage cheese but I enjoy it in this casserole. It is also one of the few recipes that I would call a ‘family recipe’ of ours.”

Food runs in the family, even if recipes don’t. “My mom may not have cooked all that often, but she was always interested in food. In fact, she met my dad when the pair of them were both getting their master’s in Agricultural Economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She looked at food as more of a commodity and thing to trade while I have become more fascinated by the culinary aspect of things.”

The casserole that she chose was a recipe from her grandmother’s sister, Mary. “Mary was a military wife and had to do a whole lot of entertaining,” Emelyn told me. “This was one of her go-to brunch dishes when she had guests. It was absorbed by my side of the family the year that Aunt Mary’s husband was away in Vietnam. She spent Christmas that year with her sister (my grandmother’s) family and made this dish for Christmas breakfast. It was such a hit with everyone that it became a Christmas tradition.” In addition to Christmas, Emelyn said that it has also become a New Year’s tradition for her family.

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Aunt Mary’s Breakfast Casserole

Ingredients:
10 eggs
1/2 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups of cottage cheese
4 cups cheddar cheese, shredded
2 4 oz cans of green chiles

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Beat the eggs and add the cottage cheese, cheddar cheese, and chiles. Mix until fully combined.

Mix together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add to the egg mixture and mix until fully combined.

Bake for 1 hour, until a knife inserted into the middle comes out clean.

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Keep in mind, this is a recipe to serve a crowd, but it’s easily halved for a smaller group. And I have to admit: Cottage cheese? Green chiles? I was skeptical. But after I made it I had to write Emelyn and tell her how good I thought it was. Her response was, “It’s kind of creepy, but weirdly delicious…” Emelyn says that for her the dish means “family and presents and holiday cheers and lots of hot sauce, English muffins, and orange juice to go along with it.”

If all goes well, Emelyn hopes to have the first volume of EATEN ready to ship on November 17th. If you’d like to pre-order the magazine, you can do that here. The plan right now is to release one volume quarterly.

In addition to the magazine, Emelyn also hopes to write more books in the future. “I definitely do intend to write more. I just have to find a subject worthy of all that effort!”

Thank you so much for sharing your story and your recipe, Emelyn!