It’s not an overstatement to say this: To know chef Lenny Russo is to know Midwestern cooking. As the son in an Italian immigrant family, he knew no other way than to cook food from “outside his back door.”
That may not seem like a big deal today. Every restaurant that wants you to take it seriously bandies about the “local” moniker. But Russo, and his Lowertown St. Paul restaurant Heartland, have been the standard-bearers for what is now known as North American Midwestern Regional Cuisine. A thing that had no such title when he arrived in the Twin Cities in 1985.
His new cookbook tells the tale of that cuisine. If you are the sort of person with a garden, with a farm share, with a cabin on a lake, or simply with a belief that your backyard is as good as anyone else’s, then this book is for you.
Heartland: Farm-Forward Dishes from the Great Midwest is a book for the realistic Midwestern cook.
On my shelves right now, I have dozens of cookbooks that suggest I grill asparagus with citrus, and implore me to toss spring peas with creme fraiche and garden herbs. There are porny photos of heirloom tomatoes, ready to explode their juices all over the page. All of which is fine if it’s August.
By contrast, Heartland’s photos are a more restrained brand of sexy.
Instead of rosy peaches drooping seductively from a tree, there are rustic pots of cassoulet, that fatty, meat-heavy stew that’s the equivalent of poking winter in the chest. There’s a blood-red elk roast over toasty and prudent wild rice. A happy torte of pastry contains not nine shades of tomato, but kale.
This book is for the Minnesota cook. It’s for the person who believes that cooking has to happen pretty much daily, and not just when the sweet corn is ripe.
It’s also invaluable to the forager or tinkerer. Arm yourself with this book if you’re a zealous wild mushroom hunter. Lobster mushrooms, morels, shiitakes, and chanterelles are some of our most glorious natural gifts. Russo offers over a dozen ways to use them, including one that highlights also forageable dandelion greens.
Heartland includes recipes for crayfish, which can be trapped for at least four months out of the year.
Though he’s staunch about using only produce culled from the upper Midwest, it doesn’t mean he’ll settle. Russo has the occasional craving for things not available here. Undeterred, the dude will tinker, and win.
He grew fond of okra during time spent living in the South, so he planted some of the archetypal southerly veg in a Wisconsin garden. It worked. The plants adapted to the hot summer and humid air that came in from the St. Croix. A curious gardener might get similar inspiration from the book, and find ways to utilize product not previously thought of as ours.
Be like Russo. Don’t settle. Nobody’s backyard is better than ours. Get Heartland the cookbook for proof.
Heartland: Farm-Forward Dishes from the Great Midwest
By Lenny Russo
Available March 3