Peter Berley is in constant motion. A chef whose career has spanned three decades and embraced macrobiotics, biodynamics, veganism, vegetarianism, flexitarianism, organics and locavorism, he’s also a born contrarian who questions everything and is never quite satisfied. He cooked for years at the famed Lower East Side vegan Angelica Kitchen, and penned two inspired meatless cookbooks, the James Beard and IACP award-winning Modern Vegetarian Kitchen, and Fresh Food Fast (both co-written with Melissa Clark).
His most recent book, The Flexitarian Kitchen, (which I co-wrote) incorporates seasonal produce and sustainably raised animal protein into menus designed to be shared by vegetarians and omnivores, like a dinner-table version of Hicks’s Peaceable Kingdom.
Peter can create a gorgeous locavore meal even when surrounding farmland is covered in snow, so when my husband and I get invited to his Bed-Stuy apartment for dinner, we show up hungry. We find the chef waggling several oversized fingerling potatoes in each long-fingered hand and bantering with his wife, Meggan. Tonight, the Berleys are joined by a handful of friends, foodies all, including one of their daughters, Emma, who’s studying at FIT and arrives with a load of laundry.
The guests help and hinder. Tal tells us his father is a butcher in Jerusalem as he breathes in the perfume of the onion-strewn short ribs and beef shanks on the stove. His partner, Iri, samples the Belgian-style Ommegang ale that Peter used to braise the beef; we all crowd in to scoop up spoonfuls of potato and herring salad as he tries to toss it with crème fraîche; and Tageré actually lends a hand, slicing buttery shortbread dough into plump rounds. The counter is heaped with the spoils of a trip to the Greenmarket and Park Slope Food Co-op: red cabbage, apples, local honey, piles of onions. Most of it is locally grown, with some exceptions like olive oil, lemons and vanilla—and the organic dill from who-knows-where that called to something deep within Peter’s Ashkenazi soul.
Sautéing onions with caraway, Peter laments that people don’t use these pungent little seeds more. Ditto the rutabaga, which the underdog-loving chef considers an unfairly maligned root—and the beef shanks, an affordable, oft-overlooked cut that’s succulent when braised. The cabbage and apples emit fragrant steam as Peter bastes pears with honey. His recipes tend to feature accessible ingredients in unexpected combinations, and they rarely require multiple pairs of hands or fancy skills or equipment.
Tonight’s menu (reproduced on the following pages) is far from fussy—it’s a homey expression of the place, the time, and the man doing the cooking. As we eat the buttery mash, sweet-tart cabbage and rich, deep-flavored beef, Peter waxes poetic about the rutabaga (the original jack-o’-lantern and a staple in Ireland before the potato). Warmed up and drunk on deliciousness, the guests alternate teasing his food-nerdiness and praising the disappearing meal. Peter takes it all with the same grace that allows him to tend several simmering pots at once. He’s at his best when there’s a lot going on, and in his kitchen, there always is.
All recipes serve 8 to 10 people.
PICKLED HERRING AND POTATO SALAD WITH CRÈME FRAÎCHE AND DILL
Peter buys Blue Hill Bay pickled herring from the Acme Smokehouse, a fourth-generation Greenpoint business that is the country’s largest producer of smoked fish and herring. He likes that the company “doesn’t put any weird stuff in the herring.” This recipe, which he calls “Northern European peasant food,” is simple to make, and since it is served cold and can be made up to three hours ahead, it’s an ideal starter for a dinner party.
2 lbs. fingerling potatoes, scrubbed Salt
3 (12-oz.) jars pickled herring
2 c. crème fraîche
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1⁄4 c. chopped fresh dill, plus sprigs for garnish
Cracked black pepper
1. Place the potatoes in a large pot with salted water to cover and bring to a boil. Cook until tender. Drain and let rest until cool enough to handle. Slip from their skins and slice the potatoes into 1/2”-thick rounds.
2. Drain the pickled herring, reserving about 1/2 cup of the brine. In a large bowl, toss the herring with the potatoes, crème fraîche, lemon zest and juice, and chopped dill. Drizzle with a little of the reserved brine, then add salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate until chilled.
3. Serve garnished with sprigs of dill.
ALE-BRAISED BEEF SHORT RIBS AND SHANKS
Peter went to the Park Slope Food Coop to buy short ribs, only to find that there weren’t enough. So he added shanks, a similarly affordable cut that braises wonderfully and adds interest to the stew.
You can make this up to three days in advance. If you plan to, don’t bother skimming the sauce, just reduce it, add the meat back into the pot, and refrigerate. Once cool, you can easily remove the hardened fat from the surface of the stew. Reheat covered, over low heat.
6 lbs. beef short ribs and/or beef shanks
2 T. olive oil
1 lg. bottle (1 pt., 9.4 fluid oz., about 3 1⁄4 c.) Ommegang Abbey Ale or other Belgian-style ale
2 t. whole black peppercorns
3 lbs. onions, peeled and thickly sliced
1 qt. chicken or beef stock or water
1. If time allows, presalt the meat at least 8 hours—or up to 3 days— before cooking to tenderize and season it: rub the meat all over with 3⁄4 teaspoon kosher salt per pound. Place the meat on a platter, cover loosely with paper towels, and refrigerate overnight or up to 3 days.
2. Preheat the oven to 300°.
3. Pat the meat dry with paper towels. In a large, ovenproof Dutch oven, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the meat (you may need to work in batches), and reduce heat to medium-low. Brown the meat slowly, turning, until it is golden brown on all sides, 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer the browned meat to a platter.
4. Pour off the fat and return the pan to medium heat. Pour in the beer and bring to a boil, stirring to scrape up the browned bits from the bottom of the pot.
5. Return the meat to the pan and add the peppercorns, onions and stock or water. If you did not pre-salt the meat, salt to taste (about 4 teaspoons salt).
6. Bring to a simmer, then cover with parchment paper or a heatproof plate. Braise in the oven, turning the meat several times, until it is meltingly tender, 3 to 31⁄2 hours.
7. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the meat and onions to a large, deep serving platter, and cover with foil to keep warm. Place the skillet half over a burner (so the flame touches only half the pan) over high heat and simmer, skimming the fat that collects on the cooler side of the pan, until the sauce has reduced by half. Pour the skimmed, reduced sauce over the meat and serve.
BRAISED RED CABBAGE WITH APPLES AND CARAWAY
This is a bacon-kissed variation on a recipe Peter has made for years, which he published in his first cookbook, The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen. If you prefer to leave out the bacon, use 3 tablespoons of unsalted butter in place of the bacon fat—the dish is great both ways.
4 slices bacon
1 T. extra-virgin olive oil
2 c. chopped onion
1 T. caraway seeds
2 large, tart apples, peeled and chopped
1 large red cabbage, about 3 lbs., halved, cored, and sliced 1⁄2-inch thick
2 T. maple syrup
Cider or red wine vinegar to taste (2 to 4 T.)
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Place the bacon in a large saucepan over medium heat and cook until just beginning to crisp, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel–lined plate and crumble.
2. Pour off all but 3 tablespoons of the bacon fat and add the olive oil (if the bacon did not release enough fat, add more olive oil for a total of 4 tablespoons).
3. Add the onion and caraway seeds and cook until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the apple and 1⁄2 teaspoon of salt and raise the heat to medium high. Cook and stir for 1 minute.
4. Add the cabbage, maple syrup, crumbled bacon, and 3 cups of water. Bring to a simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally, until the cabbage is tender, about 30 minutes.
5. Uncover and simmer, stirring frequently, until the liquid is syrupy, 5 to 10 minutes. Season with the vinegar, black pepper and salt to taste. Serve hot or warm.
SPICY RUTABAGA MASH
Rutabagas taste like rich, buttery turnips, their honeyed flavor underlined by a slight intriguing bitterness. The cayenne and garlic here help empha- size their sweetness. While rutabagas in most supermarkets are waxed for long storage, you can sometimes find unwaxed ones locally, which Peter considers a sign that they have been stored well. They should be firm and unwrinkled.
5 to 6 lbs. rutabagas (about 6 medium), peeled and cut into 2” chunks
1 stick unsalted butter
1 T. chopped garlic
1⁄4 t. cayenne pepper
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the rutabaga and boil until it can be easily mashed with a spoon, about 30 minutes. Drain and return to the pot.
2. In a small saucepan, melt the butter. Add the garlic and cayenne and cook until the garlic is softened but not browned, about 2 minutes.
3. Add the seasoned butter to the rutabagas and mash until smooth. 4. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot.
HONEY-ROASTED PEARS, WHITE CORN SHORTBREAD AND QUARK
Honey and butter bring out the wonderful sweetness of roasted pears. The shortbread, a variation on Peter’s favorite almond shortbread, are made with masa harina, a white corn flour used in tortillas and arepas. Masa contributes a warm, corn flavor and wonderful, sandy texture to the cookies. Quark is a smooth, slightly tangy fresh cheese made of cow’s milk. If it’s hard to come by, crème fraîche or Greek yogurt also work well.
White Corn Shortbread:
2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. masa harina (available in Latin groceries)
2/3 c. raw sugar (demerara)
2 sticks butter, cut into 1” pieces and chilled
2 t. vanilla extract
10 small, ripe-yet-firm pears, halved lengthwise
1 stick butter
1/2 c. honey
3 to 4 c. quark cheese, for serving
1. For the shortbread, combine the flour, masa harina and sugar in a food processor and pulse to combine (or whisk in a bowl). Add the butter and vanilla and pulse until the butter pieces are the size of peas (or cut the ingredients together with a pastry cutter). Gather the dough into a ball, then roll into a 2”-thick log. Wrap well and refrig- erate or freeze until firm. The dough can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up 3 months.
2. Preheat the oven to 350° and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Cut the log into cookies about 1/3” thick and lay them on the baking sheets, leaving 1⁄2 inch between the cookies. With a fork, prick each cookie a few times.
3. Bake until lightly golden, 12 to 15 minutes. Let cool on the bak- ing sheets. Cooled shortbread can be stored in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
4. For the pears, raise the temperature to 400°. Lay the pears cut-sides down in 1 large or 2 medium gratin dishes. Dot with the butter and drizzle with the honey. Roast, basting halfway through, until you can easily slide a knife through a pear, about 20 minutes.
5. Top with a dollop of quark and a drizzle of the honey-butter from the gratin dish. Serve warm alongside the shortbread.