Lenny Russo knows meat, but he seems to have earned an honorary degree in fat. His description of the fat from the Mangalitsa (a rare-breed, lard-type hog) he has been serving at his restaurant lately is a script of subtle differences. Comparing it to conventionally raised pork fat, the Mangalitsa (from Provenance Farms in Taylor’s Falls) is at once more stable, yet softer; healthier, but more abundant; high in unsaturated fat and oleic acid, yet richer-tasting; clean, but also decadent.
I’ll also add: this stuff is addictive. If a good pork chop beats strong and clean like a pop song, a Mangalitsa chop seems positively orchestral.
As a secret fat-eater myself -- an indulgence that began with chunks in childhood with chunks of ribeye fat, and continued, underground-like, with bits of oxtail and pork shoulder during the fat-drought of the 1980s and ‘90s -- what a relief it is to be sitting in Russo’s lovely little oak-bunker of a restaurant on a quiet, bird-lined street in St. Paul, slowly carving fat slices from a hunk of cured, fried Mangalitsa pork. Here, it doesn’t feel the least bit illicit. It feels good in a public way, as if a stone-and-mortar wall between the fat eaters and the lean eaters is crashing down.
The art of curing, smoking and grinding meat for short- or long-term preservation -- or charcuterie -- depends a lot on the way a chef mixes the fat with the lean. Historically, chefs and home cooks raised lard-heavy breeds (known evocatively as “chuffy pigs”) expressly because they were thinking of sausages and pates. The Mangalitsa hog, a rare Italian heritage breed, produces an impressively thick blanket of fat on its back (think "Princess and the Pea") as well as impressive intramuscular marbling. In addition to this, the meat tastes rich, dark, almost winy. In terms of pigs well-suited to charcuterie, the Mangalitsa is king of the chuffies.
Some skills in the kitchen are more art than science, and charcuterie is one of them. In addition to good solid technical knowledge, it requires intuition, a sure hand with the knife, and a prophetic instinct for what will taste good after years of aging. That’s right: some of Russo's preparations won’t be ready to taste for almost three years. Last month, he rubbed two of the mammoth Mangalitsa hams with a paste of salt and spices and set them to cure on a top shelf in his walk-in cooler. Once the cure has penetrated to the bone, he will rinse them and hang them in a cellar to dry and age. If you want to taste the fruit of his labors, the pink gossamer sheets of Mangalitsa prosciuttto will be hitting the menu in approximately two years and nine months. (Though you can watch for ribs, chops and sausages coming soon.)
From Sesame Street to St. Paul
If working in the porcine arts requires an intuitive knack, it might have been Russo’s childhood that planted the seeds for his future dexterity in the kitchen. As he describes it, his Italian-American neighborhood in Hoboken, New Jersey, was a lot like Sesame Street, the foodie version. His mom would send him downstairs to get vegetables from his great-grandfather’s produce stand; then he would pinball down the block, picking up sausages from the pork store and cups of fresh mozzarella from the dairy below the apartment. Even though it was an urban setting, the food he grew up with felt local.
So when he came to Minnesota in 1985, after cooking in French kitchens for more than ten years, he was eager to get his hands onto local delicacies from the prairie and the lakes. Often it takes an outsider to spot what we natives take for granted, and true to form, he continues to mine the area for interesting cheeses, farmstead meats, and local summer vegetables. Even though some people think that our climate is too harsh to sustain a prominent reputation for our native foods, Russo thinks that the foodshelf in the Upper Midwest is among the best in the world.
But it’s the strength of the Midwestern barnyard that really interests him (as it does other chefs in town who seriously practice the art of charcuterie, such as Mike Phillips of Craftsman) because, without doubt, our farmstead meats are world-class.
Great-Grandma vs. Molecular Gastronomy
No matter which way you turn it, the source of good Midwestern food always comes back to the farm. Looking thorugh Russo’s menu, you can see the roots of farmhouse food conservation: lamb rillettes, fromage de tete with garlic chive aioli, game bird liver mousse with wild leek jam. Russo admits it: he’s more interested in great-grandma cuisine, from here or from Europe, than he is in molecular gastronomy, “In the farmhouse, someone’s grandma is making bread, or she’s making a roast. And you can bet she’s not using an immersion circulator.”
Russo is nominated this year for a James Beard Award for best Regional Chef. It will be the first time he’s been nominated, which is surprising because he’s been around -- not around the block, but on the same block, in St. Paul -- for many years.* A presitigious award would certainly train the spotlight on him. But it’s my hunch that it will be his way with the pig that brings him the long-term, down-home, recognition that he deserves.
*In June, Heartland will be leaving its St. Clair Avenue location to move to St. Paul's Lowertown neighborhood, in a large two-story space overlooking the St. Paul Farmers' Market. The new project will be called Heartland Restaurant and Farm Direct Market; in addition to an expanded restaurant, there will be a charcuterie, a produce and farm product market, and event spaces. Opening date will be July 15.
Amy Thielen worked in New York for 8 years, cooking with chefs David Bouley, Daniel Boulud, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. She also developed recipes for Country Living Magazine, tested recipes for Martha Stewart, and worked on two cookbooks. Now, she lives with her husband and son in Park Rapids, Minnesota, in a house so lodged in the woods that the wolves' howls are louder than her neighbor's barking dog. She teaches cooking classes at Cooks of Crocus Hill, writes food stories for the Star Tribune, and keeps a blog called Sourtooth. Her last post for Simple, Good and Tasty was Upcoming Workshop Helps Chef Put More Local Food on Their Menus.