It pains me to write a negative review of a cookbook.
I love cookbooks. I read Michael Twitty’s beautiful Piglet review this year describing the labor of love that is a cookbook. I recall reading Kristen Miglore’s acknowledgment of #brisketgate (a relatively minor and somewhat humorous cookbook error). I gave out personal cookbooks as favors at my wedding and I remember the distinct, adrenaline-rush feeling of panic and humiliation when I realized we had instructed our guests to throw 2 cups of chopped carrots into the Bolognese instead of 2/3 cup.
Cookbook errors are painful. I hate to be the one to point them out. But my experience cooking a dozen recipes from Heartland: Farm-Forward Dishes from the Great Midwest by Lenny Russo has, unfortunately, been one of identifying and lamenting so many errors that it seems necessary to warn others.
Having eaten many great meals during my 7 years in the Midwest for graduate school, I welcomed a book that’s about “North American Midwestern Regional cuisine.” I looked forward to gaining a better understanding of what that meant.
Heartland is a restaurant cookbook—it’s written by the chef-owner of a beloved farm-to-table restaurant with the same name in St. Paul, Minnesota—and it has all the hallmarks of one. There are complex recipes requiring equipment many don’t have (vegetable juicer), unusual ingredients (wild boar), recipes within recipes, and ludicrous quantities that made me question whether the recipes were intended for a home cook (how often does a home cook need 7 pounds of vegetable slaw?).
But I don’t shy away from restaurant cookbooks—I own and love many. The recipes in this book look and sound refined and creative: Grilled Marinated Quail with Watercress and Pickled Shiitakes, Stone Fruit Catsup, Hazelnut Ravioli with Mint Butter. I was excited to cook them.
Unfortunately, this is where the positivity ends.
Some of the errors were minor. “Crème fraîche” appeared at least twice as “crème fra che.” The Wild Mushroom Farro recipe instructs you to find the recipe for Parmesan broth on another page, when it's on the same page, directly below.
These were just sloppy and made the cookbook seem thrown together. Okay.
Then there were deeply problematic errors in weights for dry ingredients. Have you ever tried folding nearly a dozen beaten egg whites into a large blob of semi-hardened Play Doh? I don’t recommend it. That was my predicament when I realized too late that the weights for the cake flour and the cocoa powder in the Chocolate-Maple Roulade were nearly double what they should've been.
The recipe indicated that 1/2 cup of flour was equivalent to 4 ounces and a 1/2 cup of cocoa powder minus 1 tablespoon was equivalent to 3 1/2 ounces (the King Arthur Flour conversion chart lists 1 cup of cake flour as 4 1/4 ounces and 1 cup of cocoa powder as 3 ounces).
I had already stirred the weighed ingredients into my egg yolk mixture. Curse words were uttered. I took to the mixture violently with a hand mixer and eventually just used my hands to attempt to mash the whites into the rest of the batter. I managed to get it combined and poured it into a pan (size wasn’t specified in the recipe). The resulting cake was dry as you might expect and cracked when I attempted to roll it with the chocolate-maple mousse. The mousse was fine, but after using up nearly a pint of (expensive) maple syrup on this recipe, I was disappointed that the dish didn’t have more maple flavor.
Having been through that experience, I started checking other recipes. The Cranberry Shortcake recipe indicates that 1 1/2 cups of flour is 12 ounces. But 12 ounces of flour is closer 2 2/3 cups. In other places, the weights are correct (Raspberry Linzer Torte), or not listed at all (Classic Buttermilk Flapjacks). Another doesn't list cups at all (Spicy Oatmeal Crackers). It seemed that not only were the recipes not tested as written, but they were not proofread by someone with cooking knowledge.
Nearly every recipe I tried had an issue that would have been solved by better editing—some so minor that I wouldn’t mind them if they weren’t part of an overall pattern. Some were frustrating, but easily overcome. And some were disastrous (see above). I had reached a point where I just didn’t trust the recipes anymore—not a good place for a home cook to be.
The recipes I tried weren’t all disasters, though. When I'm trying a new cookbook, I look for recipes that offer me something I never thought to try: a novel combination of flavors or a method that upgrades similar dishes I’ve tried before.
Of the 12 recipes I tried, two stood out as legitimately special. The Stewed Chicken was reminiscent of a much simpler cider chicken that we make as a weeknight meal that just involves chicken, apple cider, and cream. I wasn’t sure all the extra ingredients and steps in Russo’s recipe would improve it significantly, but I was wrong. I didn't want to stop eating this chicken. The Wild Boar Ragu is pretty standard up until you add a cinnamon stick and finish it with a bunch of grated unsweetened chocolate. This is just the kind of unexpected combination that I love to find in a new cookbook. Served over polenta, it was quite delightful.
Most of the other dishes left me mildly disappointed, however. The Preserved Cranberry Vinaigrette tasted like a more refined version of the balsamic dressing in grocery store salad bars. The Black Pepper-Mint Butter, with only 1 1/2 teaspoons of mint in 1/2 pound of butter, had no detectable mint flavor when it was used as the sauce for the Hazelnut Ravioli and the sautéed wild mushrooms. The flapjacks were perfectly fine, but not better than my usual recipe for pancakes.
Once, I attempted to adapt a recipe so it was more home cook-friendly. I replaced the Crayfish Stock in the Hazelnut-Crusted Lake Cisco with Micro Greens Salad with a high-quality seafood stock purchased at a gourmet shop. I also subbed salmon for the lake cisco. The result was inedible (I should have known better). I don’t blame the book for this one, but the experience left me reluctant to tinker with other recipes.
In the end, this book confirmed the suspicions many home cooks have about restaurant cookbooks. It feels like an afterthought of a too-busy chef. Even the narrative was lacking: The six-page introduction describing Russo’s path to opening the restaurant left me wanting more of the story about the region, the food, and his inspirations. Maybe it’s that the farm-to-table story is familiar now, or it’s Russo’s modesty, but the narrative felt common, and—even with the stories in the headnotes—I’m still not sure I know what makes his story unique.
I have no doubt that Heartland the restaurant is a glorious place to eat a meal. And I have no doubt that Lenny Russo has poured his heart and soul into the food that he cooks and the food community he is a part of in Minnesota. But the cookbook does not feel like a product of his vision. It feels like a rushed side project.
When I first received the book, I was struck by Garrison Keillor’s blurb on the back. He finishes his comment by saying:
“My compliments to the chef and thank goodness it isn’t me.”
This seemed like a particularly odd thing to say about a cookbook. Shouldn’t a cookbook inspire the reader to be the chef? But after cooking from this book, I realized that Garrison Keillor had it right all along. I won’t be cooking from this book anymore. But I would love to eat at Lenny Russo’s restaurant if I am ever in St. Paul.
What has made a cookbook lose its spot on your bookshelf? Tell us in the comments!