There was a time, not so long ago, when "imported" was the perceived mark of quality for the most delectable and desirable foods. No longer: A growing number of Minnesota-based chefs are reminding diners that in many ways the best meals come from our region. By using fresh, wholesome ingredients harvested from our state's woods, prairies, and waters or grown on local farms, these innovators are bringing it all back home. Here are some of their favorite dishes.
Lucia Watson: The Freshest Fish
Lucia Watson's interest in cooking was kindled by her grandmother Lulu over a woodstove at the family cabin on Rainy Lake. For nearly 30 years, Lucia's Restaurant in Minneapolis has served up fresh food, using seasonally available ingredients procured, whenever possible, from local farmers and suppliers.
True to her Minnesota roots, Watson, the author of Cooking Freshwater Fish, lists walleye as her favorite fish to eat. But just as the ice comes off the lakes, her thoughts turn to crappie.
"Crappie is so precious in particular because you can't buy it," says Watson, noting that early spring is prime time for crappies. "Just coming out of that cold water, they have a freshness that is really wonderful. The flavor of their meat is so clean, and it's not fishy."
Crappie Tempura (serves 4)
2 cups ice-cold beer or water
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
12 small crappie fillets, patted dry
Platter of flour, mixed with salt and pepper
Beat eggs lightly. Add ice-cold beer or water and mix lightly. Add flour and beat a few times with fork or until loosely combined but still lumpy. Heat canola oil (enough to cover fillets) to 340 degrees in fryer or cast-iron pan.
Dip fish in platter of flour, shake off excess, then dip in batter. Slide fillets into hot oil and fry until golden—3 to 4 minutes. Drain on paper towels and serve at once with ginger dipping sauce (see recipe below).
Follow the same recipe to make tempura using large chunks of fresh, seasonal vegetables such as asparagus, mushrooms, red onions, and sweet potatoes.
Ginger Dipping Sauce
5 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon finely grated ginger
1 tablespoon finely minced garlic
1 tablespoon orange zest
1 tablespoon dark sesame oil
5 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons finely minced scallion
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons lime, lemon, or orange juice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
Pinch of red chili flakes
Combine ingredients and stir well.
Lenny Russo: Goose Calling
For more than 30 years, Lenny Russo has been showing Minnesota diners that local, sustainable, and organic food makes the finest fare. Russo, chef and proprietor of Heartland Restaurant and Farm Direct Market in St. Paul, sources all his ingredients from within a 200-mile radius. Accordingly, Heartland's menu changes with the seasons and with what its farmer-suppliers bring to its back door.
One of Russo's favorite fall and winter dishes, goose breast with hazelnut sauce uses geese raised at Wild Acres Game Farm in Pequot Lakes. The preparation could be adapted for a wild Canada goose, especially, notes Russo, if the bird ate grains such as corn or barley, which boost the fat content that gives the dish its savoriness. Heartland serves it with preserved cranberry farro (a soft wheatberry).
"It's a combination of savory and sweet and salty," says Russo. "Without personifying them too much, we let the ingredients talk to us and tell us what to do with them."
Goose Breast With Hazelnut Sauce (serves 4)
2 boneless goose breasts
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
8 ounces toasted hazelnut sauce (see recipe below)
Score goose breasts in a crosshatch pattern on the skin side, making sure not to penetrate the meat. Season both sides with salt and pepper. Heat large fry pan over medium heat, place goose skin side down, and slowly render fat until skin becomes crisp. Lower the heat if necessary to ensure skin is nicely browned but not black. Drain fat, leaving about a tablespoon behind. Increase heat to medium high and flip goose breasts to sear flesh side until browned (about 2 to 3 minutes). Remove goose from pan and allow to rest. Place skin side down on cutting board. Slice on radial bias. Fan pieces out equally on four plates and spoon hazelnut sauce over goose. Serve immediately.
Toasted Hazelnut Sauce
1 cup glacé de viande (see recipe below)
¼ cup hazelnuts, toasted and chopped
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground (preferably Tellicherry)
In a nonreactive sauce pot, heat glace over medium heat to a light simmer. Stir in hazelnuts. Season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.
Glacé de Viande
1 cup red wine
10 black peppercorns, 2 thyme sprigs, 1 bay leaf, 1 peeled shallot, 2 garlic cloves, placed together in bouquet garni (mesh bag)
1 gallon game-bird stock
Pour wine into a nonreactive sauce pot and add bouquet garni. Heat over high flame until reduced by half. Add stock and return to boil. Decrease heat to steady simmer and reduce stock by three-quarters, periodically skimming fat from top. Discard bouquet garni and pour glacé through a fine sieve lined with moistened cheesecloth.
Judi Barsness: Foraging for Flavor
Since 1995 chef Judi Barsness has called the North Shore home. As executive chef and co-owner of Chez Jude in Grand Marais, she creates menus that reflect Minnesota's seasons, using locally grown and wild ingredients.
Barsness works with harvesters and foragers around Minnesota and Wisconsin to procure wild rice, morel mushrooms, hazelnuts, and other wild edibles. Ramps, foraged close to home on the Onion River, give her wild-rice orzotto a sweet spring-onion flavor.
Wild Rice Orzotto With Morels, Ramps, and Hazelnuts (serves 8)
2 cups cooked wild rice
1 cup cooked orzo
½ cup butter
½ cup spring ramps or leeks, white part only, sliced
1 teaspoon minced garlic
½ pound asparagus, trimmed, cut in ½-inch sections
2 baby green-top carrots, diced
3 cups morel mushrooms, quartered (never eat raw)
3 sprigs fresh thyme
¼ cup combined fresh rosemary, thyme, and parsley, chopped
¼ cup coarsely chopped toasted hazelnuts
½ cup cream sherry
½ cup shredded Parmesan cheese
Salt, pepper, grated Parmesan cheese to taste
Cook rice and orzo separately in chicken or vegetable stock or broth. Use three cups broth for each cup of rice and orzo.
In a large skillet, melt butter and sauté ramps and garlic until soft and translucent. Add asparagus, carrots, mushrooms, and herbs; cook over medium heat until vegetables are tender and juices absorbed. Stir in cooked rice, orzo, and toasted hazelnuts. Add cream sherry and simmer until 1 tablespoon remains. Stir in shredded Parmesan cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper and grated Parmesan. Serve hot as a side dish. Scoop onto plates or use a mold for a more artistic presentation.