'Hell' on Meals: A Damn Good Cookbook

Monday, November 16, 2009 52 comments

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

Family Album

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


  • Jenn said...

    I have never tried bison meat before. I've always been intrigued by it before. I wonder if they'll have it in my butcher shop. i do want to try that bread though.

  • The Diva on a Diet said...

    What an interesting and innovative recipe! Thanks so much for sharing it, Noodle! My husband is a HUGE fan of bison - this sausage bread's got his name written all over it! Personally, I'm not a big fan, but with all that flavor going on and the unusual twist of turning it into a bread, I might yet be a convert. I can't wait to try this!

  • Daily Spud said...

    Wow - if I ever get anywhere near Minneapolis, we are going to Hell's Kitchen, 'k?

    And it is still on my list to make that Mahnomin Porridge - I really am convinced that it could change my views on sweet rice. In fact, I'd imagine that Chef Omer could be very convincing about a lot of things!

  • Palidor said...

    Sounds like an interesting read. I love the recipes you chose! The sausages look so tasty, and putting them in bread is sheer genius! I love the way you served it too. I can't even begin to imagine how awesome that tasted with the warm runny egg yolk.

  • Chef E said...

    I agree, and you seem to know a good read, so I will check it out. Love the poem girl! Email me I have a question...

    Love that sausage and bread...

  • Dewi said...

    Wow, this is an amazing finding to me. I love bison, never really made it into sausage. Thanks for the recipe. And oh, not to mention that mouth watering bread.

  • Anonymous said...

    This is excellent! A very unique bread with bison sausage! We are huge fans of bison of course and I always have ground bison in my freezer, I will definitely be making this!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Thanks for your great comments! Trust me on this one - you will LOVE this bread.

    I've got an exam tomorrow so I've been resisting opening up this blog, tweeting and all the other fun stuff. When that's done, I'll be FREE . . . until the next assignments are due . . . Will return shortly to reply properly!

  • Sarah said...

    The book intrigues me, we lived in iowa for 9 years and man do my friends have stories! Must be the shear boredom of living in a small town ;)
    The recipes look delicious.

  • kate said...

    I ate some of this bread at the restaurant and nearly died with joy. I will be happy for life to be able to make it all at home. Gah. Thanks for listing this, and thanks to Mitch too, for letting you.

  • Lori said...

    How in the world did you choose what to make? Each of the foods you mentioned sound so wonderful. I do like your choice though. You can't get much more interesting and unique that Bison Sausage Bread. Wow! And with coffee in it? I just keep staring at the picture wondering what it tastes like. :)

  • Unknown said...

    Damn! That's one amazing looking bread! I'm self cannibalizing as I'm reading this - too hungry to make it right this minute, but it's definitely on my list.

  • Anonymous said...

    Man, did that guy ever hang out with Tony Bourdain? If so, I bet they tore it up when they were younger!

    Somehow, some day, I must get myself to this restaurant. What amazing food! And the sausage bread? That is some serious genius thinking, there!

    How cool that you got to cook for him:)

  • Midge said...

    My, but that looks really good. And to think I posted something on making an all-in-one breakfast food (in my case banana-cino bars) just this week!

  • Karen said...

    Oh, my! This sounds like heaven. We have plenty of venison and will be making sausage with some of it. I'm going to bookmark this and give this bread a go. It looks just wonderful with the egg on it for breakfast!

  • Angie's Recipes said...

    I am pretty sure it tastes damn GOOD! I am thinking 2 slices of German black bread with one large slice of sausage would make me the happiest person in the world! You have done a damn good job in making this sausage loaf!

  • Forager said...

    Bison sausage? Wow. I am slightly obsessed with eating different animals and I have no idea how I can get my hands on bison in Australia - but I want to try some now!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Oh my gosh!!

    I completely forgot to come back and reply to each of your kind comments!

    Kat - There are so many great dishes there, it'll many visits to try them all! I'm always torn between this, the porridge and pancakes. But now that I know how to make 2 of 3 . . . 8-D

    Unplanned Cooking - I've got her novel down as a must-read! You'll really enjoy how she wrote this one.

    Dawn - At first, I thought this would have chunks of sausage but it's actually all incorporated into the dough so you get the essence if not the texture. A most excellent bread!

    ValleyWriter - It's definitely not a run-of-the-mill cookbook! I hope that Chef Omer considers a full-on memoir, though: this one is sometimes a little light on details that might be really interesting to read!

    Jenn - I hope you find bison meat! Now that you mention it, I wonder how it would turn out with different kind of sausages? If you're game to try, let me know how it turns out!

    Diva - Please let me know how you and husband like it if you get a chance to make it! The flavor is literally a cascade - first sweet, then savory, then spicy, then back! (And all other combinations in between).

    Duo - It is, it is!! I'm hoping to make another loaf for holiday brunch this week.

    Spud - It will be our first stop! And Chef Omer is a very intimidating presence, although he was nothing but super kind during the demo. I'm trying to work up the nerve to go to Hell's Kitchen and ask for him to see if he remembers me. But I don't handle rejection very well . . . 8-P

    Palidor - I can't even begin to tell you how good that egg was on top of the bread, which I toasted first. I even took a picture of it with yolk just soaking into the bread [drooling!] From now on, this is the ONLY way I'm going to eat this bread!

    Chef E - I hope you do! He's really an intriguing personality and I admire the fact that he doesn't try to make any excuses for what's past. I had to do the poem - an ode to this awesome bread!

    Greg - This seriously gives Mahnomin porridge a run for its money. It's recipes like these that make me forget how hellaciously cold it gets in Minnesota; they make it all worthwhile!

    Reeni - Thank you! I can describe the flavor but it really has to be tasted on your own! As I wrote to Palidor above, the egg on top was insanely delicious.

    Elra - Thank you so much!! This is about as good as it gets with me and bread-baking. Both the sausage and bread recipes are truly wonderful flavors. I hope you'll give them a try!

    Andrea - I totally encourage you to give at least the sausage a try! I love bison burgers and the sausage just has a bit more flavor to it.

    Christine - Damn straight!! Chef Omer had it right when he called this something like a 'meatloaf of bread'! 8-)

    Erica - Thank you! I hope you do try bison - it is a leaner meat than beef but even more flavorful.

    5 Star - I can honestly say that your posts on bison are main reasons that I've looked at it as a more versatile ingredient than just another type of burger! Hope you'll enjoy these recipes!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Sarah - Both the sausage and the bread are quite tasty! My husband's family is from NE, IA and MN, and they all tease each other about each states' quirks! I think it's the incredibly frigid weather that makes us goofy on occasion! 8-D

    Divina - I definitely couldn't turn this down either. The bread is incredibly hearty so the slice with an egg on top was very filling.

    Trissa - I hope you do but please do continue with the sausage en brioche! I'd love to hear how that turns out!

    Menu planning - Thank you so much!

    Kate - I was all about his Mahnomin porridge, which I posted several weeks ago but this bread is so close to replacing that! I hope you'll check out the Hell's Kitchen website for a video on Chef Omer's peanut butter - it goes great with this. (I'm actually mildly allergic to peanuts but I will eat it with this bread, that's how good they both are!)

    Lisa - They both are! I'm hoping to make a loaf to serve the family during a post-Thanksgiving breakfast. When I have a bit more time after the holidays, I'm going to try out a few more of his recipes. First up: Lemon Ricotta Pancakes! 8-)

    Lori - It was total selfishness: I picked from my absolute favorites! 8-) That's the tough choice with some of these recipes - you either have to make it yourself or plan a trip up here to MN. Of course, I would vote for the latter so that we can both go to Hell's Kitchen and indulge! 8-)

    MrsLavendula - [LOL] It will certainly have that kind of effect!

    A Cupcake or Two - I hope you'll enjoy it! Before this, the only coffee in a baked good that I've experienced were mocha cakes and other pastries. But I assure you, this is really wonderful!

    Toni - You should've seen how I was while it was baking! The aroma was wafting throughout the house and I had to stay away from the kitchen so that I wouldn't keep opening the oven door! 8-)

    Juliana - The flavor combinations are truly amazing!

    OPC - According to Jacques Pepin in the intro, Chef Omer makes Bourdain look like an angel! 8-) You are most welcome to Minnesota where a former North Carolinian would be most pleased to show you around (after a Hell's Kitchen breakfast, natch!) As for cooking for Chef Omer, I was super nervous but he was really kind. Whew!

    Midge - Oh, I will definitely stop by and check it out! (It's the last 3 weeks of classes so all my projects are coming due, which means my blog reading is suffering). I think all-in-one breakfast are not only delicious but also efficient! 8-)

    Nora - Thank you! It turned out almost as good as the original! 8-)

    Karen - Could you please send some venison sausage my way? If you do make it with venison, please do let me know how it turns out! And you will so love the egg on top!

    Zerrin - I don't think I could serve this bread any other way! The egg was a perfect complement to it. I hope you have a chance to try some kind of bison as the meat is actually rather healthier (lower fat) than beef. But I do wonder how this bread would be if we used a different kind of meat?

    Chow and Chatter - Believe me when I say it was my absolute pleasure to make and eat this bread for this post! 8-D

    Angie - You are so right! It is a delicious bread but now you are making me so hungry with your mention of German black bread and sausage! And it's already midnight!!

    Forager - [LOL] You may have to start a new blog post series on eating different animals, especially with all your exotic travels!! Sorry I haven't been by recently - my overall blog reading has suffered due to classes. (Darn education!) I'd be interested to hear if you can find bison in Australia. Good luck!

  • Table Talk said...

    Wowee! I have maxed out on food prep in (progress), so this one won't make it into the line up for tomorrow. But lucky you! I will save this one to include on Christmas morning.
    Happy Thanksgiving---enjoy your break!

  • Sam Hoffer / My Carolina Kitchen said...

    I've been traveling the last couple of weeks and looks like I've been missing some fine food. Oh, another cookbook added to my wish list.

    I also love the crab bites I see in the previous post. Shame on me for being gone so long without internet access.

    Hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

  • Brenda said...

    Yikes and yum! Intense and opinionated food as well as damn good :)

    Funny you wrote a poem. I wrote an ode to Guajillo chiles recently on my blog. Not sure exactly what took me there, but seems like us food bloggers are an inspired bunch!

  • Manggy said...

    I guess they are lucky to have you supplying the color photographs, eh? ;) I'm a little taken aback by the bread but if you like it, then I'm game (I don't do savory baking all that often, can you tell?) I had been wondering about this book for some time now!

  • gastroanthropologist said...

    I loved reading this post, just fun and great writing. Bison sausage in bread? I'll give anything a shot, but when I saw it fried egg on top I thought this absolutely perfect for breakfast. Will have to check out this book when I get to a bookstore back home.

  • catty said...

    wow I hadn't been on your blog for a while and had forgotten how amazing it is, lovely writing and great photos, and amazing recipes! Have a great weekend ok!


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