October 24, 2007
I love sausage. I’ve never been a huge meat eater, but I can’t live without all the derivatives, like broth and sauce, the drippings of a roast or sauté, the enticing aromas of a braise, and of course, the nasty bits that make SAUSAGE.
There is something so sexy about charcuterie - the salting, the curing, the occasional smoke, the tactile kneading, stuffing and filling, the tease of waiting for the final result.. There’s the thrill associated with the alchemy at play in the transformation of humble scraps into something exquisite.
Apart from some basic rules you must follow, there’s a major dose of magic and mystery in the process, from finding the proper ratio of flesh to fat to seasonings, to the right temperature and humidity in order to favour the right enzymes, bacteria and molds. You can delve into the romance and history of a regional specialty and try to recreate a traditional recipe, or you can go commando and be as creative as you dare. When it works – wow. At its best, you are rewarded with beautiful firm links to hold and behold that deliver a heady, complex taste you can savour for weeks, or even months. A stash of charcuterie allows you to throw together a gourmet snack or meal in a heartbeat. There’s nothing like a bit of pancetta or chorizo to make a fad dish sing.
I would choose sausage and all its cousins over filet mignon any day. There are all the magnificent hams like Proscuitto di Parma or Serrano (that merit a love-in of their own), patés, terrines and mousses. Strictly speaking sausage, there’s chorizo, merguez, saucisson sec of all kinds (calabrese, rosette, etc.), there’s mortadella, and andouille in all its versions. Come to think of it, I have never tasted a ham or sausage I didn’t like, except for a low-fat lamb-liver concoction once.
I’ve always been drawn to store fronts where sausages dangle, to cold buffets, to antipasto plates, and to sausage books. I find perusing mouth-watering pictures of sparkling sausage and the detailed technique involved incredibly titillating.
And I’ve always wanted to be invited to a sausage party (I’ve only heard of them), but then again, the cleanliness - hygiene aspect, or lack of control thereof, with hoards of people, drinks flowing, a lack of space, and hence possible contamination (all very important considerations in the making of sausage) would probably bad buzz me..
Over the course of my life as a chef, I’ve made sausage here and there - on the job, experimenting at home, I’ve even taken a course.. So, if you don’t count the loose variety, I’ve made sausage on average once or twice a year for 10 odd years. They’ve always turned out, but I’m hardly an expert, which is probably why the urge strikes any chance I think I can make the time, when challenge is beckoning.
So with my last sausage escapade a fading memory, some sanglichon to use up, a mushroom dinner event on the horizon, and a lot of energy coursing through my veins, I felt it was time to make sausage again.
I had forgotten how fun it could be. And how stressful it could be. It didn’t help that I planned it rather poorly, putting 10kg of meat to cure the day before a chaotic schedule with 50 customers booked (big for our shoebox of a resto) ..
The following day, I had no choice, the meat was waiting, and besides, I had extra staff with a stagiare on hand - no problem.
I gathered my meat (several shoulders), some scraps and fat back, cut them up into cubes and put them to cure separately. The rule is 15-20g of kosher salt per kg, with 1-2g of nitrate salt, 5g of seasonings.. Your fat ratio should be at least 30% and you have to make sure you keep your meat is cold. 4C is the upper limit, so -4C (half frozen) is a good place to start, with an ice bath to catch your finished ground meat or at least a quick chill between steps. The remaining specifics vary according to the kind of sausage. Some absolutely require nitrite salt (if they are not cooked), some are seasoned more if served cold, some are ground once or twice or even puréed and bound with an emulsifier. Some are cured and dried, others are cured, smoked and dried, and the simplest are just made fresh and cooked. There are as many recipes for sausage as for stew.. Following a recipe is a good idea, although I can’t seem to do it. A book I recommend is Ruhlman’s recent ‘Charcuterie’ for it’s straight forward explanations and gorgeous photos; it seems to be a good overview of the sausage world using slightly more seasoning than the traditional European recipes I am used to.
Anyhow, so I started by making a reduction of shallots, garlic and red wine, added my spices and mixed them in with the salt and meat. I put the fat in the freezer, my meat in our very cold walk-in, figuring that the next day, I would have an easy time of ensuring my overall mixture would be properly chilled. On the day, I assembled my wet seasonings: more wine, mustard, my sautéed mushrooms. We put the meat through the grinder (on medium) once, added the mushrooms and put it through again. Then we beat it vigorously with the wet seasonings, chilled it some more and started casing (hog’s casings).
That’s when the real fun started – the sausage talk.. It happens naturally as a couple of people start getting their latex covered hands dirty, digging into raw meat, stuffing, receiving and twisting. It takes communication and complicity between the stuffer and catcher for success, and it’s even more fun if a few others are there on the sidelines coaching and being vocal spectators. I was directing the show in all seriousness, hopping in from time to time making sure the kids (Jo, Chantale and Sylvain) got it right, but I couldn’t help but get caught up in the silliness of it all as everyone cracked up at what I was saying, shouting out rebuttal. When you’re doing sausage, the discourse inevitably turns juvenile, at times crude; in fact it was side-splittingly funny for hours.. ‘No, slower, faster, hold it tight, loosen up, you’re too nervous, relax, pay attention, stop thinking too much, feel it, be gentle, you’re going too fast, woah that’s big and hard, wait it’s overflowing, ok now you’ve got it, go go – we’re on a roll, you’re good, we’re good, are you getting tired, don’t stop now we’re almost there..’ You can imagine the rest. In French, it’s much better. It got even juicier with the second batch late at night after service when the wine was flowing.. I couldn’t help but chuckle at customers who might be overhearing the kitchen antics not seeing what was actually going on. It certainly sounded like we were doing a lot more than just making sausage and cleaning up.
The final outcome of our tryst besides a good time: 10kg of less than perfect sausage, and very expensive sausage at that when you count the food cost and labour. The seasoning was spot on though, I couldn’t be happier with that. It was the texture that was disappointing; it was on the dry side. I should have mixed in pork instead of going with straight sanglichon, more fat surely wouldn’t have hurt. Maybe I should have used more liquid and beat it more or used an emulsifier binder, some powdered milk or something. I had always had stellar results before when I was being less meticulous (and probably less cocky too).
Oh well, it was worth it. But now, I can’t wait to go again. This time, I’ll pick a rainy day and use more fat. And I’ll definitely make a party of it, sausage calls for it.