Damn Good Food by Mitch Omer and Ann Bauer

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Chef Mitch Omer of Hell’s Kitchen in Minneapolis (and in Duluth), MN thinks that heirloom tomatoes “are soooo overrated”; that “frying is not unhealthy — shame on you for giving in to urban myth!”; and that comparing Kraft Macaroni and Cheese to mom’s is “like comparing having great sex to taking a shower with your socks on.”

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Omer, who teamed up with writer (and former food editor at Minnesota Monthly magazine) Ann Bauer to write Damn Good Food: 157 Recipes from Hell’s Kitchen [256 pages, hardcover, Borealis Books], doesn’t hold anything back: not his opinions, not his personal failures and triumphs, not his recipes. Whatever you seek, Damn Good Food delivers. Gritty, profane, knuckle-clenching memoir recounting Omer’s history of drug abuse and his coping with bipolar disorder? Yes, absolutely. Sweet love story? You bet. (I count at least two.) Nostalgic ’60s-era family album with old-timey photos and hand-scrawled recipe cards? Sure. Behind-the-scenes restaurant tell-all, including recipes for all of your Hell’s Kitchen favorites — and I mean all of them — from Annie’s Mustard to the Walleye BLT? Yes. But, even for the acclaimed-by-Roadfood’s-Jan-and-Michael-Stern Mitch’s World-Famous Peanut Butter? The Lemon-Ricotta Hotcakes? The Bison Sausage Bread? Yes, yes, yes! Well, there is one thing publisher Borealis Books declined to include and that’s Omer’s recipe for Pot Brownies. Maybe for the sequel.

According to the book: “Mitch was encouraged to hold some recipes back (“God knows I tried,” says [his wife and business partner] Cyn.). He chose not to do so because he doesn’t do anything “half-assed”…so what you’re holding in your hands is a manual that includes every single ingredient, secret, and cooking tip from the inner sanctum of Hell’s Kitchen.”

In fact, depending on how tender your sensibilities, there may even be moments where you wish the authors had held back, from various disclosures about who was celibate for how long, or moments when Omer gets unnecessarily, perhaps, profane.

For instance, in the directions for roasting the peanuts for the Mitch’s World-Famous Peanut Butter, Omer writes: “Peanuts should be dark brown when done. (If they look like espresso coffee beans, well, you fucked up. Start over.)” I cringed upon reading this, thinking, “Well, that’s just vulgar.” I suppose this makes me a Victorian-era prude. Unfortunately, despite the warning, I left my peanuts in the oven a little too long. I could smell burned peanut from the living room. I rushed to the oven, cracked the door, and peered in. Sure enough, they looked dark and hard, like espresso beans. I fucked up. “That’s squirrel food now,” my husband chirped as he breezed through the kitchen. I may be a prude, but now I’m a prude with six dollars in squirrel food. Omer, bless his heart, had done his best to get my attention.

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

While some of the recipes, such as for the Mahnomin Porridge, are remarkably simple, others call for other recipes instead of ingredients. For instance, for the Rueben (his spelling, not ours, and he does explain why) Sandwich, Omer stops short of having you milk the cow, churn your own butter, and fly to Appenzell to cure your own cheese. But, just barely. Here is the listing of ingredients:

8 thick slices of Caraway Rye Bread (see recipe)
8 tablespoons Thousand Island Dressing (see recipe)
8 thick (2-ounce) slices Swiss cheese
1 ¾ pounds shaved Corned Beef (see recipe)
1 pound Sauerkraut, well drained (see recipe)
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

Omer and Bauer don’t just drop these recipes on us and laugh while we flounder, knowing that we’ll all come flooding back to Hell’s Kitchen when our Huevos Rancheros go hasta la vista, they include real-world advice, such as “Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know about Eggs,” and “Mitch’s Primer on Deep-Frying.” For the Turkey Clubhouse Sandwich Omer writes: “Most of you, I’m assuming, will use store-bought deli meat for this sandwich. But I would love the idea that someone out there, somewhere, is making it with meat from a brined turkey breast. So I’m including instructions.” Omer even tells us how to bring back a hollandaise sauce that has seized.

The end result? Well, I won’t be shy. Let me tell you, based on the three recipes I tried, clearly, I am a culinary genius. My fried eggs, over easy, were restaurant-perfect; my peanut butter, smokey and chunky and sweet, just like at Hell’s Kitchen. And the Lemon-Ricotta Hotcakes? Well, they were so lemony and rich that we had them for breakfast, and again for dinner. I do have one small quarrel with the recipes and that is that nothing took as long as Omer said it would. However, he does describe how everything should look at each stage of cooking, so, as long as you pay heed to the cues he gives you, and don’t get all Victorian when he tries to get your attention, you’ll be fine.

Okay, maybe I’m not a culinary genius, but these recipes make even the most average of average home cooks feel brilliant in the kitchen. And isn’t that what everyone wants from a cookbook? That, and a gripping roller-coaster story of how love and passion triumph over all, even addiction and mental illness?

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Mitch’s World-Famous Peanut Butter
Excerpted from Damn Good Food
Makes about four cups

3 cups salted Spanish peanuts, skins on
6 tablespoons honey
5 tablespoons light brown sugar
2½ teaspoons kosher salt
7 tablespoons peanut oil
5 tablespoons unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Shake peanuts onto a rimmed baking sheet, and place on the center rack of the oven. Roast 25 minutes. Rotate the pan 180 degrees, and roast another 25 minutes, checking occasionally. Peanuts should be dark brown when done. (If they look like espresso coffee beans, well, you fucked up. Start over.) Remove from the oven, and let cool to room temperature.

Place peanuts in a food processor fitted with a steel chopping blade, and process on low until finely ground, about 30 seconds. Do not overblend; you want the peanut butter chunky, not grainy.

Dump ground peanuts into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle. Add honey, brown sugar, and salt, and blend on low speed until thickened and well mixed, about 1 minute.

Add peanut oil and butter to the food processor, and blend on low until completely emulsified, about 11 seconds. Scrape oil and butter into peanut mixture, and mix on low until smooth and creamy.

Spoon peanut butter into a container with a tight-fitting lid. Will keep at room temperature for up to 4 weeks. After setting for a while, some of the oil may rise to the surface; simply mix this back in before serving.

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Lemon-Ricotta Hotcakes
Excerpted from Damn Good Food
Makes 16 hotcakes

6 egg whites
9 egg yolks
⅓ cup unsalted butter, melted
½ cup granulated sugar
1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
4 tablespoons freshly grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon kosher salt
⅓ cup all-purpose flour
Unsalted butter, melted (for the skillet)

Pour egg whites into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a wire whisk attachment, and whisk on high speed until firm peaks form. Reduce the speed to low. Slowly add egg yolks, and then gradually add melted butter. Continue whisking on low speed until well incorporated. Stop the mixer, and add sugar, ricotta, lemon zest, lemon juice, and salt. Whisk on medium speed for 1 minute. Reduce the speed to low, and gradually add flour. Continue mixing for about 1 minute. Stop the mixer, and scrape the sides of the mixing bowl with a rubber spatula. Return the mixer to medium speed, and mix for about 1 minute. Makes about 4 cups.

I find it best to refrigerate the batter for a few hours prior to making the hotcakes. This allows the melted butter to firm up slightly in the mix and keeps the batter from spreading out too thin on a hot griddle. Refrigerated in a covered container, this batter will keep safely for up to 3 days.

To cook hotcakes, heat a large skillet over medium high. Brush skillet with melted butter, and drop batter onto the hot skilled in ¼ cup portions. Leave about 2 inches between hotcakes to allow them to spread. Cook until bubbles appear and bottoms are golden brown, about 5 minutes. Flip hotcakes, and cook another 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the skillet.

I garnish the cooked hotcakes with a handful of fresh blackberries, blueberries, and quartered strawberries, then dust with a vanilla powdered sugar, and serve with a side of peanut butter and warm maple syrup. You can adjust the quantities and ingredients to better suit your personal tastes. That’s what good cooking is all about.

Omer doesn’t say anything about using Do-It-Yourself Ricotta cheese to make these hotcakes, but we think he’d approve.

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Purchase Damn Good Food: 157 Recipes from Hell’s Kitchen at Amazon.com.

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5 Comments

  1. Geoff 10/06/2009

    weird. i had a female bartender that worked for me who thought Kraft Macaroni and cheese was like sex. well, at least the noises produced while making either one. sorry to ruin your lunch.

  2. Jo Jo 10/06/2009

    Interesting article. Fun recipes. Thanks

  3. Grant Gustafson 11/01/2009

    What a poor, pitiful coward Mitch Omer is, to defame the mother of his three children. He, who leads such a colorful life, needs to trash the person who brought his children into being so that he can sell a simple book. It’s evident that he is the next ‘project’ of this current wife, who doesn’t have anything else to do.
    My sympathies.