This Pasta Recipe Changed the Way We Cook With Beets

October 23, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten

The organization of Abra Beren’s debut cookbook Ruffage tells you most of what you need to know: Instead of categories like breakfast, lunch, and dinner—or even meat, salad, and pasta—the chapters are determined by vegetables, from asparagus to turnips.

The idea being: You go to the farmers market and see beets that are so beautiful you have to take them home, but then what do you do with them? Just flip to the beet chapter and find out.

It is there that I spotted beet-dressed pasta with golden raisins and poppy seeds, which I had to make immediately (and you should, too). Of course, to cherry-pick one recipe would be an injustice to the collection, which I now turn to any time I want vegetables to lead the way, which is often.

Below, I chatted with Abra about how Ruffage came together, why she’s so smitten with vegetable purees, and how you can make this beet pasta sauce your own.

EMMA LAPERRUQUE: The scope of this book is huge—there are over 100 recipes and over 200 variations. How did you land on this concept?

ABRA BERENS: The lessons I learned farming really transformed the food that I make—so the book came from those experiences, growing ingredients.

We also sold primarily at the farmers market and I wanted to provide a resource to answer the questions that people have: What do I do with a beet? Can I grow carrots? What the hell is kohlrabi? Why do I store basil on the counter but parsley in the fridge? Stuff like that.

To start answering some of those questions, I started writing a column for the Traverse City Record Eagle. The book, for me, is really inextricable from that column. It’s the format I became comfortable with—an essay with recipes that are a deep-dive on a single ingredient. Then the book allowed me to do an even deeper dive.

I’m fixated on this idea that we have the same ingredients year in and year out, so how do we make the same ingredients feel new and different?

EL: How do you think that idea plays into the beet chapter?

AB: The beet chapter is a really perfect example of the book's style. You learn to prepare beets a couple ways, then change the accessories. You could have steam-roasted with smoked whitefish, sour cream, and dill. Or you could just as easily put it with apples and cheddar. Or pecans and feta. Or a cherry salad with sherry vinegar. They all function the same way. Then, a beet puree takes the same vegetable, blends it, and uses that to dress pasta. But you could also use it to bind a risotto. Or thin it out to make a soup. I've been putting it on sandwiches a lot in place of mayo.

EL: I love the beet-dressed pasta so much. Can you tell me more about that recipe? Did you taste it somewhere? Or had the puree around and wondered what you could put it on?

AB: I hosted a dinner at the farm that was a full beet dinner, showcasing all the colors and uses, and I made a beet risotto. Originally I thought it would be a plain risotto with beet greens folded in and pickled beets on top. But I wasn't happy with how it looked, so I blended the beets and used that puree to color the whole thing. There's just so much power in beets' color. I still make that dish pretty regularly, but I wanted this book to be as approachable as possible, so I made the main element something people easily understood: cooking dried pasta and dressing it with a sauce. Then, if people feel confident, they can move on to the risotto.

EL: In the recipe, you say that cream is optional. Are there any other dairy products—or other fatty, rich ingredients—that you think would work instead?

AB: Certainly you could use coconut milk or coconut milk. I think I was nervous that it would feel too austere without the cream, but lately, I haven't been using the cream—just more olive oil. You could even use some walnut oil, because walnuts and beets go so well together. Sometimes I'll add cheese, like feta or torn mozzarella or burrata. But it's also nice with a hard cheese grated on top, like Gruyere.

EL: And do you think people can substitute in different vegetables besides beets?

AB: Totally. It's no accident that we also use pasta for the eggplant puree in the book. I find that to be like a vegan Alfredo, but even richer and smokier.

EL: You have a bunch of purees in this book: cauliflower, celery root, corn, eggplant, parsnip, peas, sunchokes. What is it about vegetable purees that you love?

I think I'm so fixated on purees because they feel like that sweet spot between what I do as a chef and what I do as a home cook. A puree feels fancy, but it's often the recipe with the fewest ingredients, and it lasts so long and is so versatile. That speaks to the restaurant mentality of: How can you leverage a single ingredient to really be a workhorse? I find purees to be a workhorse. Plus, they're so comforting.

EL: This recipe reminded me of the kale sauce in Six Seasons, which is really heavy on the kale and light on the oil and cheese, almost like a pesto without the fun stuff. I kept thinking: Is this going to work? Is it going to taste good? But when you season it properly and dress it on something like pasta, it tastes incredible.

AB: It's funny, as a chef, I've always been nervous about making things that are too simple, because it doesn't feel like I'm doing enough. But at the same time, it's my job to be a conduit for these ingredients to really shine. With so many things, you could add a ton of butter and Parmesan and it would taste amazing. But with a recipe like this, it's bold to keep it simple.

This post contains products that are independently selected by our editors and writers, and Food52 may earn an affiliate commission. What’s your favorite way to use beets? Let us know in the comments.

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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.