Chefs cook differently from the way you and I do. Not just better — though there’s that. Differently.
Chefs tend to have sous chefs and dishwashers, for starters, but that’s not really a big difference if you have a teenager or two around. What’s really different is that in a professional kitchen, dishes are prepped in steps that can stretch over several days. Vegetables are washed and chopped in the morning. Sauces, broths, and purees of this and that are made ahead of time and stashed away in the walk-in. By the time an order comes in and the cooking starts, much of the cooking has already been done.
When you and I decide it’s time to get dinner started, however, we’re usually starting from zero with a pile of ingredients. If we decide we need court bouillon, it’s probably not in the fridge already. And we can’t scoop three-quarters of a cup of mirepoix out of the prep bin. Instead, we need to dice about half a carrot, half a celery stalk, and a quarter of an onion. And then try not to forget about the remainders in the fridge.
All of which is to say that I usually approach chefs’ cookbooks a bit warily. A good one will add to your arsenal of techniques — for example using a court bouillon (a quick vegetable broth) to boost flavor in simple dishes. But not everything we love about restaurant dishes translates well to the home kitchen — from the layers of prep steps to the larger scale to the number of ingredients.
And all of that is to say that the new cookbook by Lenny Russo, while it does fail a few chefy translation tests, will challenge and delight and inspire you — and might even change the way you look at Midwestern flavors.
Heartland: Farm-Forward Dishes from the Great Midwest is Russo’s first book, and it has been a long time in coming. Russo has been cooking in the Twin Cities since 1985, and at his own Heartland in St. Paul since 2002, and he has never been content to stay in the kitchen. He is a tireless writer, speaker, and advocate for the food of his adopted home. (Disclosure: Russo wrote a lovely introduction to my Minnesota Farmers Market Cookbook and contributed several recipes, but I don’t know him personally.)
In Russo’s 30 years in the Twin Cities, he has made his name, and later Heartland, synonymous with local, seasonal cooking. (And he did so back before we all started to reflexively add “blah blah blah” to the end of that phrase.) Heartland includes about a hundred recipes, all of the sort you wouldn’t be surprised to find on Russo’s menu: heavy on the game and the fruits and vegetables that thrive in Minnesota.
He calls them “Farm-Forward Dishes from the Great Midwest.” But what really holds this collection of recipes together is love. There is so much love in this book.
Love is what brought Russo to the Midwest. And there is love, of course, in his long, personal introduction and in the essays about farmers and ingredients he intersperses among the recipes. There’s even love in the choice of illustrations, which are paintings and collages by beloved native son George Morrison.
But especially, there is love in the food. Love for the pork and the trout and the hazelnuts and the morels and the bison and the shell peas and the ramps and the tomatoes and the corn. Love for the way flavors naturally fit together. Love and respect for seasons and sustainability and abundance and scarcity.
As I said, I don’t know Russo personally, and I don’t know if he’s a sentimental guy, but I feel like he’s kind of baring his soul here.
Spending some time up close and personal with his cooking style can teach you a little bit about love and cooking. It can be an act of love to procure four kinds of meat and a dozen spices and spend three days making a Midwestern country pate. Love not just for the people eating it, but for the animals, who after a healthy, happy life, deserve to be made into something deliciously wholesome.
A few weeks of eating like both a chef and a guest at Heartland is enough to remind you that, while you certainly can’t cook like this all the time, it’s worth it to put a little extra thought, a little extra time, a little extra effort into what goes on the dinner table. That pate was the perfect way to celebrate the first really warm evenings of spring. Both a surprisingly light black bean and pork stew and a refreshingly sweet fricassee of chicken in a cider-cream sauce were like farewells to winter.
Both the ricotta gnudi in marinara sauce and fat, creamy polenta fries are reminders that even weeknight dinners should be fun. And the chestnut panna cotta and cornmeal Marsala biscotti will snap you out of a flavor rut.
Most of the recipe issues that came up had to do with salt and scale — mountains of polenta fries, a vat of black pepper dressing, and most amusingly, a stew that called for ten pounds of cubed pork, five pounds of onions, and a pound of beans. (A 7-quart Dutch oven holds half that, for the record, and it’s tight.) A couple of recipes just plain didn’t work, perhaps thanks to typos or scaling issues: a pea puree as thin as water, tuiles that just wouldn’t tuile.
But I now have court bouillon in the freezer (left over from the pea puree). And that extra mirepoix — after I had scooped out three-quarters of a cup for the polenta — came in handy. And I got to experience just a little bit of the passion and love that have made one of the pillars of Minnesota cooking who he is.