The grape, according to Abra Berens, doesn’t get the attention it deserves. “It’s one of those things that’s so ubiquitous in the grocery store that it kind of gets glossed over,” says the chef and three-time author — most recently of Pulp, which is out today. And that’s too bad, because especially when they’re in season, Berens notes, “they’re just so, so flavorful and surprising.”
You might recognize Berens’s name from her cookbooks Ruffage and Grist, which featured vegetables and grains, respectively, and drew on the chef’s previous work as a farmer and her involvement in the agriculture community. Pulp, which rounds out the trilogy, is the one that has “always made sense” to Berens, who grew up in Western Michigan, where she still lives. “I cook with so much fruit because we have so much of it around,” she says; the state is second only to California in terms of agricultural diversity. Accordingly, fruit is not just eaten in hand, but — as Pulp’s 215 recipes make clear — also preserved, frozen, cooked, and added to all sorts of savory applications.
Berens hopes to expand the ways cooks use fruit, and centers each of the book’s chapters on a different one (notably, she includes only fruit grown in Michigan). “I really feel like fruit is very frustrating to people, maybe even more so than vegetables or grains or legumes,” she says. “I wanted to be sure that [Pulp] felt very solid and very approachable.”
Berens describes her butter lettuce salad with grapes, walnuts, fennel, and buttermilk as a play on a Waldorf salad. It’s exactly the type of dish she might serve in one of her meals at Granor Farm, where, since 2017, she has cooked one-of-a-kind, distinctly seasonal dinners using the farm’s fruit, vegetables, and grains. The salad is a study in balance, with richness and acidity from the buttermilk, an “easygoing” softness from the butter lettuce, crunch from the walnuts and fennel, and sweetness and texture from the grapes.
Berens likes to compose her salads in layers for a few reasons. For one, butter lettuce can be delicate; not tossing the salad ensures the greens stay fluffier longer and don’t get damaged. Second, layers allow for more even distribution when a salad has a lot of different components. Finally, there’s the aesthetic appeal. At Granor, Berens likes to serve salads family-style on big, wide platters. “When you cover everything with buttermilk and toss it, it gets a uniform, glazed-donut color,” she says. “This way you keep the different colors and textures separate.”
As the culmination of her cookbook trilogy, Pulp shows the confidence and ownership of the form that Berens has gained over the past few years. “I love dressing stuff in just buttermilk and I don’t know if I would have had the confidence in the previous books to kind of leave that to someone,” she says. Even the picture of the grape salad — taken as a bit of a joke, after her barn cat ran over during the shoot — “is an example of feeling more comfortable in my own skin, which is [being] kind of silly at times,” Berens says.
Butter Lettuce, Grape, Fennel, Walnut + Buttermilk Salad Recipe
1 to 2 heads (about 1 pound [455 grams]) butter or other wide-leaf lettuce, core removed and leaves left whole
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup (160 grams) grapes, any variety, halved and seeds removed
1 cup (120 g) walnuts, toasted
1 head fennel (about 4 ounces [115 grams]), thinly shaved and stored in acidulated water
1 cup (240 ml) buttermilk
Step 1: On a large serving platter or individual plates, lay out a single layer of lettuce leaves. Season with salt and black pepper. Scatter a handful of the grapes and walnuts evenly over the lettuce leaves. Add a few pieces of shaved fennel, patted dry if stored in water.
Step 2: Drizzle a bit of the buttermilk all over. Repeat until all of the ingredients are gone and serve.
Reprinted from Pulp: A Practical Guide to Cooking with Fruit by Abra Berens, with permission by Chronicle Books, 2023. Photographs by EE Berger, copyright © 2023.