K.C. Alfred / U-T

Food writer Susan Russo was at home in the kitchen and at the keyboard

From www.sandiegouniontribune.com
By
Chris Ross

The Food section lost a frequent and respected contributor last month with the death of Susan Russo, a freelance food writer, recipe developer and cookbook author. Susan wrote a monthly column, “Get Fresh,” as well as numerous centerpiece stories, usually accompanied by her own recipes.

Her work for the U-T began in 2011 as one of the Superdiners, a diverse group of San Diego foodies who shared their opinions about drinking and dining.

“Susan was an editor’s dream,” said arts and entertainment editor Michael James Rocha, who worked with her when she was one of the Superdiners. “She was not only an energetic writer, but she had a good grasp of the dining scene. It was the perfect combination.”

Susan was 47. She grew up in Rhode Island, and her culinary heritage was Italian-American. “I was rolling meatballs and stuffing artichokes from the time I was a toddler,” she said in a 2015 Superdiner interview. “I especially loved cooking with my mom. She was (and still is) the most patient teacher I’ve ever met.”

Her favorite topic was seasonal produce. A regular customer at the Little Italy Mercato farmers market, she often found herself explaining the more exotic produce to puzzled shoppers and offering them cooking advice. Susan shared those ideas first in her blog, Food Blogga (the Rhode Island pronunciation of “food blogger”), and then in her U-T column. Starting in 2012, she educated us about pomelos, kohlrabi, rutabagas and dandelion greens, to name a few.

In a 2017 article, she reminded us about the virtues of fennel:

“4515. Like my mom’s phone number, this number is embedded in my long-term memory. Memorizing it has saved me untold minutes at the supermarket checkout because the percentage of cashiers who know the PLU code to fennel is significantly less than 10 percent. This isn’t because fennel is a new crop on the block. Fennel bulb, the distinctive green and white, rotund vegetable with a mild anise or black licorice flavor, has been valued for both its culinary and medicinal properties since antiquity. ...

“Native to the Mediterranean, fennel is most revered by Italians, who call it finocchio, a decidedly more delightful sounding name than fennel. When eaten raw, you’ll appreciate its crunchy, refreshing, celerylike texture and sweet licorice flavor. When cooked, you’ll discover it morphs into something positively earthy and sweet as its natural sugars caramelize.”

Susan also was the author of two books, “The Encyclopedia of Sandwiches” and, with Brett Cohen, “Recipes Every Man Should Know,” both from Quirk Books.

One of her recent articles for the Food section was about chowders, in which she revealed a strong preference for the white versions of chowder and an aversion to the red ones. After reading her story, I emailed her to confess that I actually prefer red chowders. Her response was immediate: “I forgive you.”

Several other Food section contributors were Susan’s friends as well as colleagues. Among them is Jill O’Connor, a food writer and cookbook author.

“Susan was a beautiful person inside and out, a brilliant food writer and a wonderful friend,” said O’Connor. “The stories she told that I loved the most were always about her family and the food they prepared together. She taught me how to make true Italian biscotti, introduced me to all the best coffeehouses in San Diego and tried to convince me to love broccoli rabe. The world will be a little less sunny without her in it.”

Freelance food writer Caron Golden also was her friend.

“Susan’s warmth, smarts and humor will always stay with me because they so infused her writing as well,” said Golden. “She was the perfect person to tackle stories on how to enjoy produce — from the most mundane to the most exotic — because the former teacher in her guided her care in explaining her subject while her creativity and way with words made every recipe something you’d aspire to turn out yourself. Each was as irresistible as she was.”

Anita Arambula, a U-T designer, art director and photographer, often cooked and photographed the dishes that Susan created.

“I went back and counted. Thirty-six. That is the number of Susan’s recipes I’ve had the pleasure to cook, style and shoot for the newspaper over the last few years,” said Arambula. “Cooking her food pushed me to be a better stylist and food photographer by introducing me to food trends I probably wouldn’t — or hadn’t yet — made and featured on my personal food blog.”

Freelance writer Nicole Sours Larson also counts herself among Susan’s admirers.

“Susan’s articles taught me to be adventurous with pasta and especially with vegetables and fruits,” she said. “I’ll miss her beautifully written memories of growing up in a food-loving Italian-American family, her culinary creativity and her unfailing kindness and generosity.”

From the archives, here are two favorite Susan Russo recipes.

Classic Italian Lentil Soup

This is a sublimely simple and tasty Italian lentil soup. Serve it with slabs of toasted crusty Italian bread for a comforting meal.

Serves 6 to 8

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large yellow onion, diced

4 celery stalks, diced

4 carrots, peeled and diced

1 cup lentils, brown or black, not red

3 bay leaves

10 cups low-sodium vegetable broth (more may be needed)

2 (8-ounce) cans tomato sauce

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

Several shakes of salt

1/4 cup chopped fresh basil

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

Grated Reggiano-Parmigiano cheese and extra virgin olive oil, for garnishes

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion, celery and carrots and sauté until golden, stirring occasionally, 8 to 10 minutes. Add lentils, bay leaves and broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook until lentils are tender, about 40 minutes. If the lentils are absorbing too much of the liquid, then simply add more broth or water. Once they are just about done, lower the heat to a simmer, and stir in the tomato sauce, red pepper flakes and salt. Taste it and adjust seasonings as desired.

Remove the pan from the heat. Discard bay leaves. Stir in the fresh herbs now to retain their brightness. Garnish individual bowls with grated cheese and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil before serving.

Spinach, Ricotta and Spaghetti Frittata

With creamy ricotta cheese, fragrant nutmeg and chewy spaghetti, this frittata is a symphony of enticing flavors and textures. Pair it with a bitter escarole or endive salad and a bold, red zinfandel wine for a satisfying, rustic Italian meal.

Makes 8 servings

3 ounces spaghetti

2 tablespoons olive oil

8 ounces (2 cups) sliced white button or cremini mushrooms

5 to 6 ounces fresh baby spinach (about 6 cups)

12 large eggs

8 ounces (1 cup) whole milk ricotta cheese, drained

8 ounces (1/2 cup) grated Grana Padano cheese, divided

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg or grated fresh nutmeg

Several shakes of salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cook spaghetti until al dente. Drain and set aside. Preheat broiler.

In a 10- to 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat, warm olive oil. Add mushrooms; sauté 5 minutes, or until lightly browned. Add spinach and cook until just wilted. Season with several shakes of salt and freshly ground black pepper.

In a medium bowl, whisk eggs. In a small bowl, mix the ricotta cheese, 1/2 of the Grana Padano cheese, nutmeg and several shakes of salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add to the eggs and gently mix. Pour into the skillet, being sure to cover the vegetables. Reduce heat to medium-low.

With a spatula, gently move the egg mixture from side to side, allowing the eggs to seep to the bottom of the pan. Do this for 5 to 7 minutes, until the eggs start to solidify and a crust begins to form around the edges. Add the cooked spaghetti to the frittata, pressing the strands into the egg mixture. Leave some spaghetti exposed on top of the egg mixture as well. Give the pan handle a jiggle, and when the eggs appear nearly set, evenly sprinkle the second half of the Grana Padano cheese over the top of the frittata.

Transfer the skillet to the oven. Broil for 5 minutes, or until the top puffs up and turns golden brown. Keep a close eye on it so it doesn’t burn. Let cool for a few minutes before slicing into wedges. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Recipes created by Susan Russo.

chris.ross@sduniontribune.com