No one has done more to define Midwestern locavore cooking than Lenny Russo, the Hoboken-born chef who has been frying sunnies, advocating for Mangalitsa hogs, and funding foragers in St. Paul for going on 30 years. Good news: He has just published a cookbook on his cooking and sourcing philosophies and methods, and we’ve got one of his most famous recipes for you right here.
But first, why did it take this long for Russo to write a book, and why did he want to do it at all? “The first time someone asked me to write this book was probably 1988,” Russo told me. “They offered something like forty thousand dollars, but I never had the time. People kept asking me and asking me, but when Burgess Lea Press asked and said all the profits would go to the nonprofit of my choice, which is Urban Roots in St. Paul, I thought: Finally. This one is consistent with my values. I’ve given away just about every cent I’ve ever earned, so why don’t I do it? I’ll do it. This is the way I can get my values and the whole of what I believe in across. As well as a few ribald stories.”
Ribald stories like what? Like the time he tried to give Al Franken tongue. The rough story is, Thomasin Franken, Al Franken’s daughter, was at Heartland talking to Russo about teaching cooking to disadvantaged kids, something they’ve both done. Al Franken came by to pick up his daughter, and also to buy some smoked beef tongue. “I grab it and hand it to him, and he says 'You just can’t give it to me, I need to pay for it.' I said, it’s like $5 worth of beef tongue man, f*** it. And then everyone’s like, he’s a senator now, he can’t just take the tongue. So I’m like, if you’ll legislate on a beef tongue, you’re a cheap bribe. Is that how the senate works? I can get stuff done all day.” And thus concludes the story of how Russo tried to give senator Al Franken tongue.
But seriously folks, the book is the distillation of the life’s work—so far!—of one of our most important chefs. “I’m a big picture guy,” says Russo. “When I was a child I learned that I can’t learn a concept by breaking it into its parts, and building up to a whole. I have to read the whole book to the last chapter to see the whole thing, then go back and fit the little parts in. The way I’ve cooked has always been that process, seeing the entire food-landscape here, and then how something like butter fits in. Writing the cookbook was communicating those ideas. Who we are as a people, how we relate to the land, how important it is to our lives every single day—whether we recognize it or not. These are big issues that people don’t think about every day. But I do. I wanted to get the message out to more people than can come to the restaurant, and in a fun and entertaining way. The cookbook is how to do that.”
It’s a truly remarkable document; a critical book to understanding the groundwork, and the ingredients, that have created the foundation for the new Northern food movement we’re all so lucky to be eating within. The famous Heartland Midwestern Cassoulet is a perfect example. Make it and you’ll be sourcing from maybe a dozen, maybe twenty local farms, to create a taste of here that has changed our cities.