France and Italy seem to have it all figured out: The food and drink are local and terrific every day, every bite dripping with tradition, authenticity, and occasionally butter.
The key to becoming a great food region, then, is picking your battles — constantly balancing the new and chic with the authentic and sustainable, and working within a restricted palette of styles and ingredients. For example: Barring radical climate change, when it comes to sushi, wine, and tropical fruit, the Upper Midwest will likely have to be content with following the lead of others.
But when it comes to Midwestern staples such as cheese, and beer, and meat, that’s another story entirely, and one that Chef Lenny Russo of Heartland (above, left) understands quite well. Heartland’s menu is built upon locally sourced food, and the restaurant serves world-caliber cuisine by dialing in on the best of this agricultural region’s many offerings.
Viewed from this perspective, pork is a natural choice for Heartland — Iowa and Minnesota are the nation’s first- and third-biggest pork-producing states, respectively. We visited Chef Russo and Sous Chef Chad Townsend (above, right) at their sprawling, farmers market-proximate gastro-fortress in Lowertown, St. Paul, for a look at the restaurant’s ambitious pork program.
In addition to delicacies such as coppa, bacon, terrines, guanciale, and bologna, the team at Heartland is working to make prosciutto. In process since February 2010, the restaurant’s prosciutti are slated to age for a total of three years before they’re ready to serve — the process involves salting, dry-curing, fermentation, and aging in an environment designed to control temperature, moisture, and the risk of contamination.
HEAVY TABLE: So, we’re raising all of this pork here in the Midwest. Some of it is great pork. What happens to it?
LENNY RUSSO: That pork gets raised here… and then it’s shipped off to California! The people who are doing the development of this American charcuterie are mostly on the coasts. They can’t get the quality of pork that they need, so they come here to the Midwest.
So when I was in New York in May at the James Beard Awards, I tracked down Cesare Casella, who is the dean of the Italian Culinary Academy. Now he has a restaurant called the Salumeria Rosi on the Upper West Side. He does his own charcuterie and has his own restaurant, just like us.
So I asked him, I said: “Cesare, are you making your own prosciutti? I noticed the stuff that you have here is from Italy. Is it because you have stuff curing?” He said: “No, the reason we’re not doing it is because we can’t get the quality of pork that we need.”
HT: So, you can get the good stuff from just around the corner.
LR: We can. We believe — Chad and I, and Mike [Phillips] and probably a few other people, I think [Andrew] Zimmern’s on board for this — that we can have an outstanding charcuterie program of strictly Midwestern raised meat.”
HT: And meat’s just part of the story here with Midwestern food.
LR: Obviously, some of the best cheese in the country is being produced in Wisconsin. We have some great cheese in Minnesota, and in Iowa… And beer, of course. We have a regional microbrew program here [at Heartland] that’s all Midwestern stuff… well, except for the NA [non-alcoholic], ‘cuz nobody gives a shit about that. [laughs]
The idea is here’s another product we can produce that’s homegrown that brings more jobs, more commerce, and makes for a stronger economy. It’s good for everybody.
HT: How did you get started with your pork program? It seems like working on something like making prosciutto would be a little intimidating.
LR: Chad and I read a lot, plus we worked on other cuts of meat before we did this prosciutto. Mike Phillips helped us with this first batch — we wanted to work with someone who had done it before so we didn’t stumble and make a mistake — this is a $1500 investment. You don’t want it to go rancid on you.
And three years down the road, it’s no longer $1500, it’s a lot more. A year like this on the dowel, and then two more years. In January, Chad will take these down and lard them, and rub them in crushed black peppercorns, which will keep the bugs off. You don’t want a fly laying eggs on your ham.
HT: You’re really excited about this Mangalitsa breed of pig — what’s the story behind it?
LR: It’s a heritage breed developed by Crown Prince Frederick of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 1800s. It’s a lard-type pig, meant for long-term curing. If you don’t have that stabilizing fat, you take the chance that the meat will go bad on you.
HT: They’re pretty scarce at this point, at least around here…?
LR: [Pointing to a rack of curing prosciutti] That’s last year’s batch; there were four Mangalitsa pigs raised in the state of Minnesota at Provenance Farm in Taylors Falls. We got two and a half. They kept one, sold half to a neighbor, we got the rest. This year they’re raising 18, and we’ve got first right of refusal on all 18.
HT: Chad, you’re taking an active role in heading up the charcuterie program around here. What’s the advantage of working with the Mangalitsa pig?
CHAD TOWNSEND: The marbling. The fat cap on these guys is anywhere between 4-6 inches, so you get a lot of fat that gets rendered — we make lardo, we make guanciale, all that good stuff.
The fat we get, we render so we can saute it, we use it for pie doughs, we make lardo, we grind it up for sausage… It’s a lot more rich. You get more of the fat content, you can balance that with herbs and vinegars to cut through the fat.
HT: I know you guys are working with pretty close to whole animals here — how are they to work with?
CT: Yeah, all of our animals show up in six pieces — the shoulders, the heads and necks, the middles and the hind quarters. And then we butcher it from there — that’s everything from beef to buffalo to pork to wild boar.
It’s a lot of fun, because you can do a lot more — you use trotters, for example — boning them out, stuffing them with forcemeat and then braising them or steaming them, and then roasting them. Typically when you get carcasses, you’re not getting the feet for trotters, or the heads for head cheeses or the liver for pate or braunschweiger… so among other things, we’ve been doing a lot of braunschweiger.
HT: Sounds like there’s a real eye for detail required in all this specialized meat production.
LR: Chad’s very much like me in this way. We’re both obsessive compulsive about shit, which is why we get along so well. When I hired him, I could tell right away from watching him work — how organized he was, and his degree of cleanliness — the place is spotless; it has to be… you know, it’s really important for me to have someone with the same kind of mentality. You have to be really organized and have stuff planned out.
HT: You the way you guys are working here, curing your prosciutto, for example — you’re following the Italian style and tradition?
LR: Straight up. The only difference being that they have more facility for the long-term cure — they’ve got 70 degrees, 70 percent humidity, they have controlled environment aging rooms — that’s what we need.
We need that next step. I know that they’re building some retail space across street — I’m hoping maybe someone like Mike with Green Ox will go in over there and help to create this sort of market neighborhood. We’ve got Jim [Golden] with Golden’s [Deli], and us… the more the merrier. People are like “You want the competition?” I say, “Yes! I do! I want critical mass!” I want a little meatpacking district, not unlike what used to be here.
HT: You mentioned that you’ve got a food label already and a HACCP plan in place for making food. In addition to your retail space here, is Heartland going to start distributing?
LR: We’re already being asked to distribute. I’m looking at the spring… when the farmers market is back in session, we want to open for brunch on Saturday and Sunday, and that’ll be the next expansion for our business. We’ve got the bacon, and sausage, and local duck eggs, and heritage breed chickens, and there’ll be 10,000 people who appreciate local food.
If we want to start selling across state lines, the USDA will need to get involved, and they’ll need an on-site inspector with their own bathroom. We have that capacity here, though. Chad could schedule his production days, and the inspector would come and test and monitor and make sure the product is up to snuff.
[The interview moves from the aging room to the chef’s table; we’re presented with a Mangalitsa pork chop (upper left) and a Swabian eye round roast (lower right). We start with the Swabian.]
HT: Good Lord, that’s tasty — really juicy and tender and just strong in flavor in the best possible sense.
LR: Yeah, and this is the eye round, which is probably the least tender. This cut comes from the leg. It’s the lowest amount of fat of any of the rounds… and it’s still super juicy and tender.
[We then move on to the Mangalitsa]
LR: This looks like it’s from the rib, here. You can tell the difference between the [breeds of] animals. It almost tastes like it’s drenched in olive oil.
HT: Yeah, it tastes distinctly grassy.
LR: It’s pasture raised, and it’s high in unsaturated fat like olive oil, so it kind of has some of those qualities.
HT: But this wasn’t prepared with olive oil…?
LR: I don’t have any olive oil in the house at all.
BECCA DILLEY: Really? Why is that?
LR: There are certain items you can’t really incorporate in a regional menu or they kind of take over, and olive oil is one of those flavors. That’s rubbed with sunflower oil, probably, or grapeseed. [To the line chef:] Is this grapeseed?
As soon as someone starts producing olive oil in the Midwest, I’m all over it… but the closest we can get right now is Arkansas.
HT: It’s really light, and surprisingly delicate — is this rare?
LR: This is medium rare. We generally serve it rare to medium rare. Trichinosis in the state of Minnesota, I think the last instance was in 1926, and it wasn’t with pork. It’s not unusual for someone to order their pork chop medium rare. [Pioneer Press food writer] Kathie Jenkins did it.
HT: it’s very respectful to the flavor of the meat.
LR: We get a lot of requests for medium-rare pork chops. The most frequent request is for medium. It’s rare for us to get a request for any of our meat to be done well done.
HT: Clearly this taste doesn’t just spring out of nowhere — it takes a while to get the flavor profiles you want, and there’s got to be a lot of work being done all the way back at the farmer level, right?
LR: Obviously we’re in development; stuff is going to take a long time. Even just what we’re feeding the animals — we talk to the farmers about it, and when we have grass-fed beef being grown by somebody and we know he doesn’t have enough grass to feed all those heads of cattle and they supplement them with corn, we ask them to add flax, so we can balance that out again.
HT: Have diners been receptive to what you’ve been doing with pork? Has there been a process of education?
LR: I don’t want to say that we’re educating people or that we’re trying to educate people because I think that can sort of smack of some sort of superiority, like “I’m smarter than you.” That’s not what it is — what we’re trying to do is at least get them to think about it and help them make an informed decision about what they want to eat.
Learn more about this business in The Heavy Table’s Atlas of Ethical Eating and Drinking.