There’s a picture of my grandfather, I think it’s probably taken in the 1970s, standing in a friend’s basement, smiling with a sausage grinder by his side and many, many links of tubed meat hanging from the rafters around him. I’ve always loved this picture of him, and when he died my mother found his old sausage grinder and gave it to me. So I guess in a certain, overly poetic sense you could say that sausage making was bequeathed to me. In a more accurate sense you could say that sausage is part of the fabric of my family (along with nearly every other kind of food and unusual amounts of joy taken in discussing various maladies—which I guess you could say is the fabric of nearly every Italian family).
Sausage was part of family culture.
With every afternoon spent at my grandparents’ house, hard salami was served as antipasto along with cheese, bourbon and occasionally smoked fish or pickled vegetables. This was especially true during the times after my Seattle relatives had visited and, having taken pity on us landlocked Idaho Italians, delivered a nice large Molinari or other tasty bit that simply never graced the shelves of Idaho grocers, who catered to mostly Mormon or country tastes.
During summers, my grandmother particularly enjoyed belting out the “Ready, Ready Red Hot” song at our cabin in the mountains when the sausages would come off the grill in time for dinner. It was her bellowing, not the dinner bell, that let you know it was really time to head to the table.
At family gatherings, where adequate seating was always in short supply, a constant state of musical chairs was at play. Seating was a hot commodity and you didn’t get up to refresh your drink or use the restroom unless you were damn well sure you had to. But if you did leave the room, and if you did really want to sit on the couch again and if there really was no space, you simply made space by “sausaging in.” At which point someone else on the couch would loudly admonish you for “sausaging in,” saying something along the lines of “Ow you bastard! Just sausage in why don’t you?… Hand me another piece of salami.”
Growing up in a time before “workout couture,” sweat suits were made of thick, not so stretchy cotton and seemed to only come in particularly ugly colors. No velour. No name brand on the ass. Just lots of pinching elastic. Around my families’ houses, these sweat pant ensembles were called “sausage suits,” and tended to be the outfit of choice to force upon anyone under the age of 12. Anyone unfortunate enough to be wearing one on Christmas morning (read: myself and nearly every one of my cousins) was christened “Salsicce.” This was especially true if you were wearing last year’s sausage suit, having yet to open the present containing this year’s sausage suit, and the outgrown sweatshirt and pants were particularly tight and casing-like around the meat of your skin. Today, this tradition lives on mostly through passing judgment on those wearing “workout couture.” Usually this takes the form of a not so whispered comment in reference to a passerby wearing a crushed velvet hoodie and matching pants, “Look at that lady over there next to the gravy packets! Any asshole knows you don’t wear your sausage suit to the grocery store… You know… Salicce!”
When not calling strangers sausage-resembling assholes, but rather enjoying family barbeques by the Payette River, a kielbasa or two were always thrown on the grill. Always at the behest of my father. And as a boy, graduating from a grilled hot dog to enjoying a portion of the two foot, fat-studded sausage was to be among the men. To this day my brother’s favorite way to grill is to acquire about 17 varieties of sausage, burn the hell out of them and serve them with little thought to side dishes, condiments or even napkins.
So yes, in a certain way my family story is a story of sausage. I started making sausage shortly after my wedding, when a few friends were nice enough to ignore my request for a Kitchen-Aid grinder attachment and get me a larger, meaner grinder from Cabella’s as a wedding present. Since that time, sausage making has become a sort of monthly or bimonthly ritual with friends coming over to enjoy a few beers and to grind some meat, stuff it into casings and then grill it and stuff it into our faces.
When Charcutepalooza’s fifth challenge rolled around as sausage making it was good timing—my freezer was nearly barren of the stuff. Already having a good batch of chorizo on hand and not really feeling merguez, I opted for an old favorite and a new experiment, both my own recipes.
What I really love about sausage, outside of the obvious benefits of pork fat and portability, is its ability to become nearly anything. The down home Texas Hots that you get at a Hill Country barbeque joint are every bit as perfect as uber-fancy duck and foie links you might find elsewhere. At the risk of understatement, sausage is what you put in the casing. So long as it has enough fat, adequate seasoning and you’re able to follow a few basic parameters, the chances for creativity are really there for the taking. What you get out of your sausage is what you stuff into it.
Rhulman lays out the basics extremely well in Charcuterie, but the Cliff’s Notes version is this: get the right meat to fat ratio, always measure by weight, always grind cold, bind adequately and stuff. I’ve found that stuffing using a piston-type stuffer yields much better meat and fat definition than using the stuffer attachment that comes with most grinders. Most grinders rely on a worm to move the meat forward and while this works great for pushing large chunks of meat to the grind, it gets a little sloppy for your waiting-to-be-tubed meat, especially if you’re garnishing it.
I served these two sausages on their own, maybe with a little tortilla and mustard. Because while sausage can definitely be a fine component in soups or other dishes, it also deserves it’s own time in the spotlight. And because I ate them with my brother, who wouldn’t want them any other way.
*I realize my measurements switch back and forth randomly from metric to standard, it’s just the way I do it. Most digital kitchen scales should be able to accommodate both.
Jalepeno and Cheese Smoked Sausage
Making this sausage occurred to me a few years ago when I was standing in line at Kreutz Market. They had recently introduced a jalapeno and cheese variety of smoked links to their menu. It piqued my interest and I asked the older woman at the counter what it was like. Keep in mind, this woman has probably worked this counter (or the one down the road at Smitty’s) since about 1950. She said, “It’s just like the regular sausage… ‘cept with jalapenos and cheese.” I don’t know if elderly women give the silent “dumbass” at the end of sentences, but it was palpably there. I ordered the sausage, it was just like the regular sausage, except with jalapenos and cheese.
4lbs pork shoulder removed of sinew, cut into 1 inch dice
1lb pork belly or fatback, cut into 1 inch dice
1.5 ounces of kosher salt
15 grams fresh ground black pepper
55 grams fresh chopped garlic
2 roasted poblano peppers, removed of seeds and skins
1 cup red wine vinegar, chilled
1lb sharp cheddar cheese (I like Tillamook) cut into ¼ inch dice
.5lb fresh jalapenos, removed of seeds and ribs, cut into ¼ inch dice
10ft hog casings
In a large bowl, combine all ingredients except the vinegar, cheese and jalapenos. Put in the freezer to chill thoroughly, an hour or more. Put your grinder equipment and mixing bowl in the freezer as well. Soak your casings in a bowl of water, changing the water occasionally while the meat chills. Assemble the grinder and using the medium die, grind the meat and fat into the mixing bowl set in ice. Transfer the mixing bowl to your stand mixer, add the vinegar, jalapenos and cheese and mix for a good minute or so until the meat and fat bind. Transfer the mixture to your stuffer and stuff into casings.
If you’re going to smoke this sausage, which I recommend, don’t twist it into links but tie the ends with string and hang in your smoker and smoke over oak, at about 225 for 1 ½-2 hours. Eat it with yellow mustard and tortillas. Or with some Ranch Style Beans, in deference to Guy Clark.
Fig, Prosciutto and Pecorino Sausage
I’ve been wanting to make this sausage ever since I discovered my old neighbor had a fig tree that I had access to. It basically takes one of my favorite antipasti, stuffed roasted figs with prosciutto and pecorino, and puts it in a sausage. And while I usually opt to go old school and simple with my tubed meat, the result here is good and unusual—strong earthy, cheesy flavors offset by the sweetness of the figs. Think of it as the stinky cheese of forcemeat, because this is a powerful sausage. That’s right, I said powerful sausage.
3.5lbs pork shoulder, sinew removed and cut into 1 inch dice
1lb pork belly or fatback, cut into 1 inch dice
1lb prosciutto, cut into 1 inch dice (most good Italian delis will have some end cuts laying around that you can buy at a considerably discounted price, do this if you can and save a few bucks)
20grams kosher salt
10 grams black pepper
20 grams fresh garlic
.5lbs dried or oven roasted fresh black mission figs, cut into ¼ inch dice
.5lbs Pecorino Romano or Pecorino Toscano, depending on how strong of a flavor you want, cut into ¼ inch dice
½ cup dry white wine, chilled
½ cup apple cider vinegar, chilled
10ft hog casings
In a large bowl, combine all ingredients except the vinegar, wine, cheese and figs. Put in the freezer to chill thoroughly, an hour or more. Put your grinder equipment and mixing bowl in the freezer as well. Soak your casings in a bowl of water, changing the water occasionally while the meat chills. Assemble the grinder and grind the meat and fat into the mixing bowl, set in ice, using the medium die. Transfer the mixing bowl to your stand mixer, add the vinegar, wine, figs and cheese and mix for a good minute or so until the meat and fat bind. Transfer the mixture to your stuffer and stuff into casings. Link into 6” links.
This is great simply grilled and served as an antipasto with a little aged balsamic.