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.”

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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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Lemon Juice Day + Lemon Curd Tart

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I feel summer leaving and I hear fall knocking. It’s less than a month away, and let me tell you, I’m ready for it: Apple cider slushies from County Line Orchard, autumn-colored mums on stoops, fuzzy sweaters, and making my Halloween costume… However, we have a lot of stuff to do before summer disappears completely. We have a BIG September coming up. We’re going to be traveling a lot. And I’m trying not to think about it all, lest my anxiety goes into overdrive.

But before September arrives, let’s pucker up: It’s National Lemon Juice Day!

I had no grand plan going into this post. Mostly, I wanted to share a sunny lemon recipe before summer ends. But then I fell down a rabbit hole reading about the history of lemon juice and medical science. We’re going to talk about scurvy first, and then I’m going to give you a lemon tart recipe. Sound good? That all goes hand in hand, right?

Before the 1800’s, there was a deadly scourge plaguing the British Navy’s sailors: scurvy. Scurvy was a disease caused by a severe Vitamin C deficiency. Those inflicted would suffer from things like hallucinations, bleeding gums, weakness, and wounds that wouldn’t heal. Untreated, scurvy would eventually lead to death and it is estimated that, between the years of 1500-1800, 2 million sailors died of the disease. Far fewer were killed during combat.

It wasn’t until 1747 that Dr. James Lind, a Scot and ship’s surgeon aboard the HMS Salisbury, discovered that lemons could be used to prevent scurvy. Lind’s fellow crewmembers were afflicted with an outbreak of scurvy, so the doctor began an experiment using 12 sick sailors. One group was given seawater, while others were given sulfuric acid or cider. Two of the men were given two oranges and lemon. While most of the other sailors remained ill, one of the sailors given citrus was healed, and the other had greatly improved by the end of the six day trial. Using this information, Lind published A Treatise of the Scurvy in 1753. The work linked a lack of scurvy with citrus fruit, as well as other fruits and vegetables, though at this time, Vitamin C was not pinpointed as the key.

But Lind’s discovery was ignored! To give you an idea of the cost: During the Seven Years War, which began three years after Lind wrote his Treatise, of the almost 185,000 men who enlisted in the Royal Navy, around 1,500 died in combat, while another 133,000 died from disease, mostly scurvy. It wasn’t until years later that the wider community learned the secret, after another Scottish physician in the Royal Navy, Sir Gilbert Blane, wrote a pamphlet entitled On the most effective means for preserving the health of seamen, particularly in the Royal Navy. He also pushed for monthly health updates from sailors, and began advocating for sailors to be given citrus during times at sea. The suggestion was finally implemented in 1795, almost 50 years after Lind’s first scurvy treatment experiment.

Incredibly, it turns out that Lind’s discovery and lack of traction was not even the first time this had happened. In 2016, a cure for scurvy was found written in a book of household remedies in 1707 by housewife Ebot Mitchell, from Gloucester, England. Mitchell’s “Recp.t for the Scurvy” includes alcohol and a healthy serving of orange juice to combat the illness. Had her recipe been more widespread, thousands of lives could have been saved.

I found it amazing that the use of citrus juice to combat scurvy has been forgotten and rediscovered more than once in the history of seafaring. The disease killed thousands before knowledge of its treatment became widespread. Eventually, however, the cure became very closely associated with the British Navy: If you’ve ever heard a British person referred to as a “limey,” that nickname comes from the practice of British sailors eating lemons, and eventually limes, from the Caribbean while at sea. Meanwhile, in the United States, the citrus cure for scurvy wasn’t commonly used until after the American Civil War, when many men succumbed to the disease.

So, you could basically consider this lemon tart a health food recipe.

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Lemon Tart 
Makes one 8-inch tart.

Ingredients: 
For shortbread crust:
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp whole milk
1 1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
10 tbsp unsalted butter, cubed and very cold

For curd filling:
3/4 cup lemon juice
2/3 cup sugar
1/8 tsp salt
zest of 1 lemon (about 1 & 1/2 tsp)
3 eggs
8 tbsp unsalted butter, cubed and room temperature

Instructions: 

In a small bowl, combine the vanilla, egg yolk, and milk. Whisk to combine.

In a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Pulse to combine. Add in the butter and pulse until butter is in pea-sized pieces. Add in your egg-milk mixture and pulse until the mixture combines and begins to pull away from the sides of the processor bowl.

Pour the mixture out onto a lightly floured surface. Pull the dough together, kneading a few times until all dry streaks are combined. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 35-40 minutes.

Once rested, press the dough into an 8-inch pie pan using your fingers. Using a fork, poke holes all over the top of the dough. Refrigerate the dough as you preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Before putting in the oven, fill the pastry shell with parchment paper held down by dried beans or pie weights. Bake for 20 minutes, remove parchment and pie weights, and continue baking for about 15 minutes, or until lightly golden brown.

Allow the tart crust to cool for at least half an hour before beginning the curd.

For the filling, add the lemon juice, sugar, lemon zest, and eggs to a heavy-bottomed saucepan and whisk to combine. Place over medium heat and begin continually whisking, adding a few cubes of butter at a time. Continue whisking after all the butter has been added, until the mixture begins to thicken. Remove from heat.

Pour curd through a metal strainer straight into the cooled tart crust. Use the back of a spoon to push the curd through the strainer.

Allow the curd to cool to room temperature and then refrigerate for at least 2 hours as the curd sets.

Sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar (optional), and enjoy!

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It’s quite lemony, which is my favorite. If you’d rather make it a bit sweeter and less tart, you can use equal parts lemon and sugar. Also, if you’re looking for more lemon juice recipes, might I suggest one of my favorite summer desserts of all time (to squeeze in before summer is completely over): Lemon Atlantic Beach Pie.

I wish you fair winds and following seas!

Lemon Atlantic Beach Pie

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What? It’s July now? Where is time going?? As amazing as summer is in Chicago, it can sometimes feel like a sprint. Almost every single one of our summer weekends are already booked. I’m not complaining, of course. It’s just always amazing to me how, when warm weather finally arrives, Chicagoans rush to pack in every ounce of living that we can. It’s because we know that in a few months it will be dark and cold again and, as much as you’ll want to see your friends, you’ll want much more to stay inside, curl up on the couch, and watch TV. Anyway, we’re now in summer-mode, which means we’ve been outside far more than we’ve been inside, and baking seems like a distant memory to me. However, also with summer comes a slew of backyard BBQs, and the tricky question of what to contribute. Luckily for me, I have discovered the perfect potluck dessert solution: Lemon Atlantic Beach Pie.

My initial interest in this recipe sprung from my love of superstition. Along the coast of North Carolina, where seafood is a staple, an old wives’ tale says that eating dessert after consuming seafood will make you terribly sick–with the single exception of a lemon pie, made from condensed milk, with a cracker crust.

Atlantic Beach Pie is known up and down the North Carolina coast. Sometimes it is called Harker’s Island Pie, and sometimes Down East Lemon Milk Pie. While searching for recipes, I came upon many variations. Some used Ritz crackers for the crust, instead of saltines. Most recipes were topped with meringue, instead of whipped cream. And all recipes called for condensed milk, but some were very, very particular that Eagle Brand condensed milk had to be used.

What was once just a local favorite has been brought into the national spotlight by Bill Smith, chef at Crooks Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In 2014, Chef Smith’s recipe for Atlantic Beach Pie made its way around the internet and was featured on food websites, from NPR’s Found Recipes to Food52’s Genius Recipes.

Once you have a bite of this pie, you will understand why. It’s as though a key lime pie and lemon meringue pie had a baby. Salty, sweet, tart, and buttery; it’s a magical mix of simple flavors. Summer in a bite!

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Atlantic Beach Pie

Lemon Atlantic Beach Pie
Makes 1 9-inch pie. Slight variation of this recipe from NPR.

Ingredients:
For crust:
1 1/2 sleeves of saltine crackers
1/2 cup melted butter
3 tbsp sugar

For filling:
14 oz. sweetened condensed milk
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup combination of lemon and lime juice (about 2 large lemons, 1 small lime)

For whipped cream, optional:
1 cup heavy cream
1 tsp vanilla
2 tbsp powdered sugar
Sprinkle of sea salt, for garnish

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

For crust:
In a food processor, or with your hands, crumble saltine crackers into very small pieces, but not into a powder.

Add sugar and combine. Add the melted butter and mix with your hands, continuing to crumble the saltines.

Pour into a pie pan and press with your hands until the crust is shaped to your liking.

Chill for 15 minutes, then bake for 18 minutes. Leave the oven on at 350 degrees.

Allow the crust to cool as you make the filling.

For the filling:
Add condensed milk and egg yolks to a bowl. Beat with a hand mixer (or in a stand mixer) until thoroughly combined, about 1 minute.

Add lemon and lime juice to the mixture and continue to mix very thoroughly, approximately one more minute.

Pour the filling into the pie shell and bake for 16 minutes, just until the filling has set.

Chill for at least an hour and a half. If topping with whipped cream, beat together 1 cup of heavy cream, vanilla, and sugar until soft peaks form.

Top cooled pie with whipped cream and a sprinkling of sea salt.

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In terms of pie, I really feel like I’ve found my “one”. It’s a perfect balance of flavors, and, honestly, one of the easiest desserts I’ve ever made. Little baking, very little fuss, and only 6 ingredients! Sheesh, you probably already have most of the ingredients in your house!

I already took it to a July 4th BBQ and I can’t imagine that I won’t be making it several more times this summer. If you’re looking for a simple dessert to impress people, give it a try. And, if you do, let me know. I want to see if other people are as impressed with it as I am. Three cheers for summer desserts and easy living!

Citrus Shaker Pie

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I’m somehow surprised every year when citrus season sneaks up on me. I can never wrap my head around the fact that it’s in winter, because my favorite citrus recipes seem so light and summery. Wishful thinking, I guess. In celebration of all the beautiful citrus fruit at our disposal this time of year, I made a Shaker pie, slightly altering the original recipe, which uses regular lemons. Instead, I used two of the yummiest members of the citrus family: blood oranges and Meyer lemons.

Folks today probably know the Shakers more for their simple, well-built furniture. I decided to write about the Shakers because they  were in the news recently after one of their members passed away, leaving only two (!!) Shakers in the whole world. The reasons vary:  some Shakers who were adopted into the Community  as children chose to leave as adults, others opposed the hard-work and celibate lifestyle, and finally, they just stopped accepting new members. At this point, you couldn’t become a Shaker if you wanted to. While their numbers have dwindled, the Shakers are still one of the longest-lasting Christian sects in the United States.

The first group of Shakers formed in Manchester, England. They were originally known as “Shaking Quakers” because their religion was an off-shoot of the Quaker religion, and because, during their sermons, Shakers often tremble and twitch. A short time before the American Revolutionary War, Mother (as she was called) Ann Lee led a small group of followers from England to the American colonies. As pacifists, Shakers refused to fight the British or swear an oath of allegiance (as it was against their religion), leading to jail time for some. In the years following the War, Shaker religious communities grew and spread through the United States. At their peak, as many as 6,000 members worshiped in communities across the country.

Shakers live piously and communally. Though men and women live as equals and serve equally in religious leadership, they live separately, since marriage and sex are forbidden. Members are acquired through adoption or recruitment. As an agrarian society, Shakers grow or raise most of their own food and live quite frugally, aiming to waste as little as possible.

Which leads us to this little pie, made in accordance with the Shaker lifestyle, simply and efficiently. A Shaker lemon pie is made of whole, thinly sliced lemons, allowed to sit in sugar for a day to allow the peel to break down, which are then mixed with eggs and baked. Very simple and very delicious. Shakers would probably object to me using a non-local fruit, and, OK, traditional Shaker pies are not usually electric pink in color. If you’re a traditionalist, this recipe could easily be modified to resemble a more authentic pie, by replacing fruit with two regular lemons, but don’t rule this one out just yet… Do, however, note that this is not a one-day pie. You will need to allow your citrus to macerate in the sugar for about a day, and up to a day and a half, before baking.

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Citrus Shaker Pie

Citrus Pie Filling Ingredients:
Slightly adapted from NPR, and Smitten Kitchen

1 medium blood orange, plus zest
1 Meyer lemon, plus zest
1 3/4 cups sugar
3 tbsp flour
2 tbsp butter, melted

Zest both the lemon and the blood orange, about 2 tbsp.

Cut the ends off both the Meyer lemon and blood orange, discard.

As thinly as possible, slice the entire orange and lemon, including the peel, into rings. Remove seeds as you go.

In a container with a lid, combine the zest, sugar, and citrus. Mix to coat every ring. Cover, and allow to sit for 24 hours to 36 hours, at room temperature. The fruit will break down and dissolve the sugar. You will be left with liquid and what is left of the fruit. Do not drain, or remove fruit, but do remove any seeds that made it into the mixture.

Beat 4 eggs together well. Mix with entirety of the blood orange and Meyer lemon mixture, flour, and melted butter, and pour into prepared, bottom crust of pie (see below).

Citrus Pie Crust Ingredients:
Slightly adapted from Food and Wine

1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, cold and cut into centimeter cubes
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup water, ice cold
1 egg, for wash

In a food processor, combine the flour, butter, and salt. Pulse together for about 5 seconds. (This can also be done by hand or with a pastry cutter, quickly incorporating the butter into the flour.) Add the ice water to the food processor and pulse for about 5 more seconds until the dough begins to come together.

Pour the contents of the food processor and pour onto a lightly floured surface. Begin gathering the dough together until it forms  into a ball. Cut the dough into two equal parts. As your working with the first half of the dough, wrap the other and place in the refrigerator.

Re-flour your surface and roll out the first half of the dough into a large circle, approximately 1/8-inch thick (the circle should have about a 13-inch diameter). Draping the dough over your rolling pan, transfer to a 9-inch pie pan, making sure you have about 1/2-inch to 1-inch overhang on the sides. Set aside.

Roll out the second half of the dough to the same size as the first; it can be slightly smaller.

Add the lemon-orange filling to the bottom pie crust.

Carefully cover with top layer of pie crust. Cut away any unnecessary dough. Sealing the top and bottom crusts together, create a decorative edge with your hands or a fork. Allow the pie to chill in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes.

After 10 minutes, remove the pie from the refrigerator and begin to preheat your oven to 425 degrees.

Beat one egg thoroughly and brush over the top crust and edges of the pie. Sprinkle with a pinch of sugar.

Slice a few holes into the top of the pie crust to allow steam to release while cooking.

If the pie crust still feels quite cold, wait a few more minutes before putting in the oven. You don’t want the crust warm, but you don’t want it so cold that it cracks while baking.

Bake for 20 minutes at 425 degrees. After 20  minutes, decrease the heat in the oven to 350 degrees and bake for another 20 to 25 minutes.

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Blood oranges are not necessarily as sweet as regular oranges but, with its light raspberry flavor, it moderates the bitterness of the Meyer lemon and creates a bright, tart, but still sweet, and very pretty, pie. Make yours soon, before citrus season disappears!