The burger: When the new Saints ballpark opens across Broadway Street from his Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market in 2015, chef Lenny Russo is going be ready. Burger-wise, anyway.
Russo didn’t serve a burger at the original Mac-Groveland incarnation of his local-local-local restaurant. “We couldn’t bring in the whole animal – because we didn’t have the room – consequently, we didn’t have the byproduct,” he said. Translation: Heartland 1.0 lacked have the physcial resources to deal with the hefty shoulder clods that Russo prefers to funnel into his burger.
That all changed when the restaurant relocated to spacious new Lowertown digs in 2011. The trade-up afforded Russo all kinds of fun-and-games opportunities.
Including a burger, ground fresh from that muscular shoulder meat. It's sourced from seemingly every top-flight restaurant’s go-to heritage breed grass-fed beef supplier, and a familiar name to Burger Friday readers (I swear, there's no kickback involved). Yes, I'm talking about Peterson Limousin Farms in Osceola, Wis. Or, in Russo-speak, “Andy and Wayne Peterson,” a knee-jerk familiarity that's natural to this most farm-focused of chefs.
Once again, the Petersons' product is of such superior quality that it requires almost nothing to catapult it into hamburger fabulousness. Sometimes the meat is so lean that Russo grinds a bit of the animal’s fat back into it. Seasonings are simple, just a splash of Worcestershire sauce and a bit of salt and pepper before the patty hits the charbroiler grill. Lightly charred and cooked to a fragrant, deeply pink medium-rare, it’s the kind of patty that runs appetite-inducing juices from the very first bite.
Another chief asset is the burger's first-rate bun. It's baked on the premises, naturally, by the talented Ben Buirge, a deeply golden beauty that's just barely toasted on the grill. It's one of those rare burger buns that couples milky softness with an inner strength, one that stands up to the patty’s prodigious juiciness. If they're available for sale for the home-cooking crowd in the restaurant's Farm Direct Market, I haven't seen them. Here's hoping they are. Perhaps Russo could sell them alongside the exceptional cinnamon-packed breakfast rolls that I can’t seem to stop consuming.
Russo knows that a great patty and an equally top-notch bun don't require investing in a lot of embellishment. Restraint would be the word that best describes the modest garnish roster. Tender lettuce, a tomato slice possessing more flavor than a late-November tomato should have, and a couple super-tangy bread-and-butter pickle slices. That's it. And it works.
Actually, there's one more item: two (house-made, naturally) condiments. There's a gutsy mustard, but it's upstaged by an ever-changing ketchup formula, made using “whatever fruit we happen to have in the house,” said Russo. “Sometimes we’ll add peppers, which technically are also a fruit. We’re always doing something wacky.” Whatever the combo, it's a welcome break from the universality that is Heinz. We would expect no less from Heartland.
Fries: Included, and made from potatoes Russo taps in southeastern Minnesota and southwestern Wisconsin. The crew hand-cuts them, stores them in the freezer and pulls them out when needed, and they're terrific, twinkling with coarse salt and brimming with unadulterated potato goodness.
The kitchen serves them by the generous handful, pairing them with wide, shallow trays filled with ketchup and mustard. What a great idea: the tray's surface area -- much larger than the standard mini-ramiken or stainless steel portion cup -- means you can drag those long fries through a pool of sauce, really bathing a significant percentage of each fried potato in a maximum amount of that excellent ketchup. Genius.
Celebrate: Ok, so he's not including a burger on his three fixed-price ($75) four-course New Year's Eve dinners -- one beef-pork-duck, another featuring freshwater fish, the third vegetarian -- but consider reserving a table in Russo's serene, loft-like dining room for your ringing-in-the-new-year venue.
Price: $14. Dinner only, bar only.
Address book: 289 E. 5th St., St. Paul, 651-699-3536. Open 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, with food orders available through 9:30 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday and through 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Talk to me: Have a favorite burger? Share the details at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At some point during the ten seasons of Top Chef, the annual Restaurant Wars episode became an even bigger deal than the finale. The appeal of the challenge is obvious. Not only does the task force our chefs to step out of their comfortable roles at the midway point of the season to complete the seemingly insurmountable task of building a restaurant from the ground up in a day, but it’s also one that’s rife with the type of explosive drama reality show producers crave. Orders need to be placed! Flatware need to be classy! Padma’s cleavage must be acknowledged the second she walks in the door!
You have to assume local chef Sara Johannes wanted more fireworks in her mostly stagnant season of Top Chef, but I can’t imagine she wanted to make the impression she made on tonight’s episode, which unfortunately saw her exit. This was cringe TV at its worst (best?), an hour of television that made me wince on more than one occasion.
Things just didn’t go well for Sara’s team from the start. Based on names alone (Nina, Shirley, Carlos, Justin), the team appeared poised for victory from the beginning, but quickly became derailed over a lack of commitment on their restaurant’s theme. Naming themselves Found, the team’s idea was to center their menu on “Modern America,” an all-encompassing melting pot that would effectively allow each chef to stay within their chosen style of cooking. The other team took a more direct approach with Fin, a seafood restaurant that was unified by both style and flavor profiles. Travis is praised as the best front of the house person in Restaurant Wars history, while Nicholas wins for combining black drum and oxtail. That's hardly the story in this episode, however, but congrats to them both.
I have no idea why Sara decided to be such a martyr in this challenge, but I was practically screaming at my TV when she volunteered to not only take the front of the house position, but to also make a dessert. Restaurant Wars is never an easy challenge. There’s absolutely no need to make it as hard on yourself as possible.
I’ve written before that Sara’s sleepy yet direct approach can come off as slightly condescending, but dealing with Justin (who also volunteered for his role as Found’s executive chef) in a productive way couldn’t have been a walk in the park. Justin showed a petulant side during last episode’s judging panel, and it’s an attitude he’s now made his calling card. From tantrums over Nina buying the wrong plates to his sharp words to Carlos at Whole Foods (apparently they went shopping before solidifying their menu? Why?), Justin was in bad spirits the entire episode, an attitude that surely contributed to the chaos in the kitchen. At one point Sara rightfully points out that they don’t have a big enough coffee maker to serve 120 people and his retort was to say “Can we be positive?” in the least positive way possible.
But Sara’s just as guilty, if not more, for Found’s failures. It’s expected that there will be some backlog in the kitchen and some unwanted waiting time for the VERY IMPORTANT Chase Sapphire Preferred diners, but Found didn’t even seem to have a shell of an ordering system in place. Meals went out in random segments, wrong plates went to the wrong people, and Sara apparently broke a dining taboo by issuing a “verbal fire” for the judge’s appetizers instead of submitting a formal ticket.
The judges were impatient, especially Padma, who was absolutely dismayed by Sara’s very strange choice of not formally introducing or explaining the dishes. She offers no details for three of the dishes, is prompted by Padma to explain one, and then remembers to explain her own, a choice that struck Padma as conceited. Sara was clearly frazzled despite her icy demeanor (and killer blue dress with matching head scarf), but all of this was truly bizarre to behold.
Found had a few good dishes (Shirley’s poached cobia and Nina’s pork tenderloin drew judges’ praise, as usual) but the rest of the restaurant was dragged through the mud. Carlos’ fish wasn’t cut properly, Sara’s nectarine brown butter cake was missing its crucial mascarpone ingredient (the emulsion broke due to the kitchen’s high heat) and Justin revolting-looking rabbit drew an audible laugh from Tom Colicchio.
I didn’t expect Sara to survive this week due to how weird the vibe was at Found, which is why I actually wanted this to be a double elimination. Sara and Justin both let their sides of the restaurant down, while also delivering subpar dishes. Executive chefs often go down with their sinking ships. That wasn’t the case here, but I at least hope Justin’s stock is severely diminished after his display in this week’s challenge. 95% of the viewing public blamed the loss on Sara’s attitude (more of that bossy bitch narrative I can’t for the life of me grasp), but Justin was the one who had a clear lack of faith in his team from the onset and was a bit too eager to blame them for their loss in front of guest judge David Chang.
Unfortunately, Sara wasn’t able to defeat Louis in Bravo.com’s Last Chance Kitchen tonight, which means her Top Chef career is officially over. Sara might have gone home in pretty mortifying fashion, but at least she did it on an episode where she got to show off a Twin Cities area code t-shirt, proudly emblazoned with both “612” and “651.” Minnesota is still proud.
Yes, the recipes are the major component of our annual Holiday Cookie Contest.
But we also appreciate the stories behind each recipe. Here are some tales, culled from the 300-plus entries in our 2013 competition, that captured our attention.
“For me, these recipes are home. I sat in my mom’s kitchen last night typing up this recipe, asking her to interpret parts where old spills and stains had made it too hard to read. She told me how these were the first cookies her mom made each Christmas season. How the flavor reminded her of her own mom’s kitchen.” -- Elisabeth Johnson of St. Paul
“I knew they were a hit when my mother-in-law brought back the empty Ziploc bag and asked for a refill." -- Kim Carroll of Hastings
“Everything is in sync when I’m in a kitchen.” -- Chuck Minni of Farmington
“It is not Christmas unless we make these cookies.” -- Mary Ann Kjos
“The attached is a family favorite. It is scrawled on a recipe card. Is it from a friend? The paper or a magazine? Its origin is unknown.” -- Roberta Swanson of Minneapolis
“When my mom would make these cookies, it kicked off the Christmas season. The smell and taste of these sugar cookies will always and forever remind me of the excitement of Christmas as a child! As a mother, I hope I am making the same memories for my children as I kick off the holiday season every year.” -- Julie Millikan
“Although I am only 13 years old, I feel like I am very experienced. Ever since I was little I would help my mother bake cookies and desserts. Now that I am older I bake things of my own. Someday I might even want to set up my own bakery and sell my baked goods. It will take a lot of work but with strong will and perseverance I know I can do it.” -- Holly Anderson of Farmington
“I’m not sure where I found this recipe. The card that the recipe is written on is quite worn. However, our family of four children, their spouses and 15 grandchildren prefer this cookie over many of the other cookie recipes that I make. Just this past week a teenager from the church I attend asked me to make a batch for the young people’s get together they were having, after the Friday night football game.” -- Ruth Nystrom of Worthington, Minn.
“One year I ran out of time to make them for Christmas Eve and they were crushed. I’ll never forget the looks of disappointment on their faces. I now make sure that I take the time to make these cookies so I can give them this little Christmas treat that they so look forward to.” -- Rita Strafelda of Cottage Grove
“I didn’t have a grandmother who taught me baking and spent time with me to build memories in the kitchen. My baking skills are self-taught and through perseverance I have reaped the fruits of my labors.” -- Libby Bourgeois of Elk River
“My paternal grandmother was a “champion of cookies” in my family growing up. Each year our family gift was a turkey roaster filled with various holiday cookies that she would bake. The roaster was tied with scraps of cloth to keep it shut. I aspired as a young wife and mother to bake as well as she did. I don’t use my turkey roaster, but all year long, I save up Kemp’s ice cream pails to use to put my cookies in to give to family and friends.” -- Kristine Runck of New Ulm, Minn.
“My mom made these every Christmas . . . a nice variation from all those sugar cookies.” -- Kathy Papousek of Robbinsdale
“I challenge you to take time out of your busy schedules and enjoy the simple things in life. Get off the couch and put away the electronic devices. I can guarantee that you won’t have any regrets.” -- Patsy Athman of Pierz, Minn.
“As a young bride, I loved visiting my mother-in-law at Christmas and peeking into those vintage tins to discover beautiful cookies filled with rich flavors. Our family recently packed up her home in preparation for her next stage in life. Mom has Alzheimer’s now, so her home is no longer filled with the fragrances of her baking. Looking through her kitchen items, I found her index card notebook filled with her favorite recipes. How I remember consulting these handwritten notes, so precious now, because Mom no longer remembers these special recipes.” -- Linda Hansen of Albertville, Minn.
“My mom taught me many things which I am so thankful for and baking is one of them.” -- Liz McPherson of Apple Valley
“I love baking Christmas cookies, boxing them in tins and delivering them. It gives me an opportunity in an otherwise hectic life to connect with people who are important to me.” -- Jeanine Clapsaddle
“Every year I come up with a new holiday cookie to try. I love the adventure of trying something new.” -- Candace Freeman of Melrose, Minn.
“The role these cookies play in my holiday baking is they are a stalwart of my annual cookie baking open house. It’s an open house so guests can drop in or out and do as much baking as they want or just sit around and watch the rest of us; those who are there at the end get to take home a plate or two with all the varieties. I like this better than a cookie exchange because a big part of the fun is just hanging out together baking.” -- Margaret Lund
“Thirty years ago, the love of my life wasn’t the man I married . . . it was his mother. She was the warmest and kindest human being I have ever met. Carol was a down-to-earth cook with ancestors from Germany and Holland and she had recipes galore. One of my all-time-favorite recipes from Carol is ‘German Butter Cookies,’ a simple, elegant and delicious cookie that everyone loves. Enjoy.” -- Jeryl Mitchell of Rochester, Minn.
“Being Jewish we didn’t celebrate Christmas but my mother I loved bonding over Christmas cookie baking. My mother is in her tenth decade and this year we will continue ‘our’ Christmas tradition . . .I can’t wait.” -- Stephanie Wolkin of White Bear Lake
We're announcing the winner -- and four delicious finalists -- in our 11th-annual Taste Holiday Cookie Contest in Thursday's Taste (you can get a sneak-peek here on Wednesday afternoon).
In the meantime, another holiday cookie contest – this time in Cook’s Country magazine – has yielded a Minnesota winner.
She’s Karen Cope of Minneapolis, and her recipe, Dulce de Leche and Cinnamon Sandwich Cookies (pictured, above in a Cook's Country photo), presides over five other highly bake-able finalists, including Black Cherry-Chocolate Linzertorte Cookies, Pretzel-Potato Chip Cookies with Caramel Frosting and Hazelnut Espresso Truffle Cookies. Cope won $1,000 for her efforts, along with a brush with fame, although it sounds as if she's no stranger to the baking spotlight.
“Recently, Cope has gone from strength to strength in the kitchen,” wrote the magazine’s editors. “She told us that four other items that she baked won blue ribbons of the Minnesota State Fair this past summer.”
DULCE DE LECHE AND CINNAMON SANDWICH COOKIES
Makes about 2 dozen sandwich cookies.
Note: Dulce de lece (or cajeta, pictured, above) is a South American caramel made with sugar slowly cooked with cow’s milk or goat’s milk and can be found in the international or baking aisles of the supermarket.
2 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. ground anise
1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 c. sugar, plus ½ c. for rolling cookies
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tbsp. unsalted butter
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
½ tsp. ground anise
1 ½ c. dulce de leche
To prepare cookies: Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, salt and anise.
In a bowl of an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat butter and 1 cup sugar until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add egg and vanilla extract and beat until combined. Reduce speed to low and add flour mixture in 3 additions until just combined, scraping down bowl as needed.
In a shallow dish, combine cinnamon and remaining ½ cup sugar and set aside. Working with 2 teaspoons dough at a time, roll into balls and space them 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets. Bake until edges are firm, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from oven and cool 2 minutes, place cookies in cinnamon sugar and turn to coat evenly. Transfer cookies to a wire rack and cool completely, about 30 minutes.
To prepare filling: In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt butter. Whisk in cinnamon and anise and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in dulce de lece. Spread 1 ½ teaspoons filling on bottoms (flat sides) of half of cookies. Top with flat sides of remaining cookies to form sandwiches. Cookies can be stored at room temperature for up to 3 days.
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