Bison Sausage Bread
Poem for Damn Good Food
Too many paths to hunger sated,
All choices on which I stopped to dwell
And be one diner, long I waited
'Til Chef appeared as I debated,
And said, "Buy the book or go to 'Hell'.
by Tangled Noodle
(inspired by "The Road Not Taken", Robert Frost)
Delicate Lemon-Ricotta Hotcakes, adorned with fresh berries . . . Huevos Rancheros, piled high with Spicy Black Beans . . . mammoth Caramel-Pecan Rolls, each one big enough for two but too good to share. . . and, of course, the near-mythic Mahnomin Porridge.
These are all signature dishes at Hell's Kitchen, Chef Mitch Omer's wickedly popular duo of restaurants, where the décor is postmodern Gothic and tattoos accessorize the servers' ensembles (except at Sunday Brunch, when the ink may be covered by comfy pajamas). Until recently, the only way to enjoy the aforementioned dishes was to descend into Hell's Kitchen's new underground digs in Minneapolis or trek north to Duluth, where the dead of winter makes it a special kind of purgatory for those of weak constitution. But now, I can add my own kitchen to the list of infernal locales.
With Damn Good Food: 157 Recipes from Hell's Kitchen, Omer and co-author Ann Bauer, a novelist and former food critic, reveal not only how to make the most tempting 'un-comfort' food - as when you're groaning over your stuffed belly - but also the mad, bad and dangerous mind behind it all. As a fan (or is it minion?) of the restaurant, I was thrilled to receive the book from publisher Minnesota Historical Society Press/Borealis Books. So, fair warning: this is not so much a review as it is a recap of a journey from bad behavior to good food, and all points in between.
"Mitch Omer is insane, and I mean that in the best - but also most literal - way."
Ann Bauer, Damn Good Food
Mitch & Me (photo by Susan Berkson)It takes only one glance at Mitch Omer's nearly six and a half foot tall, cowboy-booted, shock-white maned figure to realize he's no ordinary being in a chef's jacket. I learned that firsthand when he appeared at the Minneapolis Farmers' Market cooking demonstration where I was making his Mahnomin Porridge recipe a few months back. It was a nerve-wracking pleasure to meet him - after all, it's not every day that a home cook like me prepares a signature dish under the gaze of its creator. Fortunately, he approved of my attempt. Looking back, however, that gentleman-chef in the baseball cap and neatly-tied ponytail belied the manic, wild-haired personality whose antics, ranging from droll (ice-fishing in the buff) to destructive (badly beating a young man while high on drugs), are concisely described by Bauer, who is one of Omer's closest friends, in pages that are equal parts memoir and cookbook.
The first part of DGF tracks Omer from a loving but behaviorally-troubled childhood in Des Moines, Iowa to wild adulthood replete with shorts stints in local detention facilities and an erratic career path as a bouncer, roadie, line cook and finally, an honest-to-goodness chef. Despite the sordid tales of drug abuse, infidelity and general recklessness, this book is not about penitence: Omer makes no excuses and offers no apologies for his past conduct. Interspersing the dark episodes of bipolar disorder, morbid obesity and suicidal thoughts are bright spots of food memories and culinary creativity that remained undimmed by his dissipation. There is his beloved Aunt Fran's Chicken and Noodles, re-printed from her original handwritten recipe card; Lobster Risotto with Roe and Fresh Peas, from his days of apprenticeship at the highly-regarded (now closed) New French Café; and Hell's Kitchen Ham and Pear Crisp, considered by many to be one of the best sandwiches in the Twin Cities.
Gratuitous Food Shot: Mahnomin Porridge
Still, for a chronicle that mixes damn good food with sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, there is a conspicuous absence of one particular vice: food porn. Oh sure, there are tempting close-ups of hotcakes and caramel buns, but the photos of Hell's Kitchen's best fare are chastely low-key in black-and-white. I get the feeling that if I were to ask Chef Omer why this is so, he'd tell me that his food is meant to be eaten, not ogled! (Or words to that effect.)
On the other hand, there are abundant pictures of people - Omer, his family, friends, and cooks and servers, who all look like they're having a helluva good time. There's the one of the chef au naturel in his fishing hut, a strategically crossed leg and a convenient travel mug all that's keeping this a family cookbook. The love affair between his parents, Annie and Dana, is obvious in candid snapshots, as is the deep, affectionate friendship between Omer and his 'first lieutenant for life', Steven Myer. And finally, what is 'Hell' without 'Cyn'? Cynthia Gerdes is Omer's wife, business partner and lifeline, about whom Bauer writes, "Without her he'd likely be a hapless, addled genius, the kind of troubled, high-potential guy people sigh about and say, 'What a shame.'"
The only sighs heard at Hell's Kitchen are ones of utter contentment; the only shame found are with those patrons who inconceivably fail to finish their meals. If there is a particular reason that the book has more photographs of people than of food, perhaps it is this: that Omer's successes - in overcoming his addictions and finding love and a measure of stability - are owed not just to his culinary talents, but also to those individuals who surround him and keep his ever-lurking torments at bay. As Bauer sums up nicely in Damn Good Food's final lines:
"It's only food. But in the case of Hell's Kitchen, it's not only food, and that's the point . . . It's family. It's love. It's life."
A Taste of 'Hell'
I couldn't wait to try the recipes in Damn Good Food, but which would be first? The Lemon-Ricotta Hotcakes were an obvious choice - too obvious - so I opted for yet another Hell's Kitchen favorite, Bison Sausage Bread. This is actually a two-part recipe, beginning with a phenomenally easy Maple-Glazed Bison Sausage; the end result is what Chef Omer calls "a kind of breakfast meatloaf" that packs wallops of savory, sweet and spicy flavors in every dense slice.
As with all the dishes in DGF, this Bison Sausage Bread recipe appears exactly as it is prepared in Hell's Kitchen. Stick to the plan and you'll know what all the fuss is about.
[The following recipes are reprinted with permission from the publisher.]
Maple-Glazed Bison Sausage
(Excerpted from Damn Good Food, page 73)
Makes approximately 8 patties
1 pound ground bison chuck
2/3 cup dried onion
6 tablespoons pure maple syrup
3 medium cloves garlic, minced (1 tablespoon)
2 teaspoons fennel seed
2 teaspoons fresh thyme
2 teaspoons dried sage
2 teaspoons crushed red pepper
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 teaspoon curing salt (see note)
Place all ingredients into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle, and mix on low speed until just mixed, about 3 minutes. Do not to overmix the ingredients as this will compact the sausage and make for a tougher, dryer product. Moisten your hands and pat sausage mixture into 3-ounce portions, about the size of a golf ball.
Bison meat is so low in fat that it should be cooked no longer than 4 minutes per side. If broiling, cook patties on a rack set 4 inches from the heat. For stovetop cooking, use a lightly oiled skillet, preferably cast iron, and cook over high heat. Never press down with a spatula on sausages while they cook as this pushes the flavorful juices out of the patties.
Note: Curing salt is a combination of salt and sodium nitrite. It assists in the preserving and curing of meats and sausages, and helps preserve the natural color of the meats. If you don't have access to curing salts, just substitute sea salt.
Bison Sausage Bread
(Excerpted from Damn Good Food, page 58)
Makes 1 (3-pound) loaf
10 ounces Maple-Glazed Bison Sausage (see recipe above)
1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2/3 cup brewed dark coffee
2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup dried currants*
2/3 cup walnut pieces
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
*Confession: I forgot to buy currants so I used dried cranberries instead.
Preheat oven to 350° F.
Place sausage, brown sugar, granulated sugar, eggs, and coffee into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle. Mix on low speed until ingredients are just incorporated, about 1 minute. Turn speed to medium, and mix 1 minute more. Add remaining ingredients, and again on low speed, mix until just incorporated. Turn mixer off. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Mix on medium speed another 2 minutes.
Brush an 8 x 4 x 2-inch bread pan with melted butter, and dust with flour. Scrape batter into the bread pan, and place on the center rack of the oven. Bake 1-1/2 hours, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean.
Remove bread from the oven and let cool to room temperature in the pan. Remove loaf and wrap securely in plastic wrap. Will keep in the refrigerator up to 2 weeks and in the freezer for up to 6 months.
Damn Good Food: 157 Recipes from Hell's Kitchen, by Mitch Omer and Ann Bauer is available directly from the Hell's Kitchen website, the Minnesota Historical Society, or from your local bookseller!
"The perfect breakfast bread . . . Hell, with eggs, black coffee,
and sausage, the perfect breakfast!" -- Chef Mitch Omer