by Mark Frano
It is very tempting to take the low road when making fresh sausage. The process of transforming ground pork butt into slippery links is undeniably suggestive. Trying not to giggle like a schoolgirl at a slumber party as the sausage is extruded from the horn of the press is tough. In the interest of good taste, however, I will take a different tack.
If you have ever witnessed a balloon artist twisting a long, squeaky tube into a giraffe, you get the picture. Not as colorful, mind you, but similar. Being able to eat your creation at the end of the process, however, is a major perk, sadly lacking for balloon-giraffes.
It all starts with some sort of ground meat. Pork, lamb, even fish. Combine with some spices, pack tightly into an intestine, and voilà: sausage! Now, you have to get past the whole intestine thing. They are not pretty—internal organs rarely are. Still, they are critical to the whole deal. In order for your sausage to take shape it requires a vessel. The intestine acts like a girdle keeping all that goodness neatly contained. If you prefer, you can refer to the intestine as a “natural casing”—a nice euphemism.
Once you have selected a protein, the spice mixture can vary widely. This is one of the most interesting aspects of sausage. The mixtures come in so many styles. Every country has a take on sausage, each style uniquely reflecting its region. The Polish have their garlicky kielbasa. In Spain, the chorizo is loaded with smoky paprika. The Chinese have a slender, dried sausage called la chang. Any dim sum feast usually features a sticky rice dish studded with la chang, all wrapped and tied neatly in a lotus leaf—a more palatable vessel than an intestine, I think.
In America we have, well … the hot dog. A distant relative of German wurst-style sausages, hot dogs are rarely as distinctive as other sausages. In fairness, though, Louisiana, with its Creole-Cajun bent, has brought an interesting array of sausages often referred to as boudins. They are often stuffed with bayou critters like crawfish, alligator or shrimp. Andouille, though often associated with Cajun cooking, originated in Normandy and Brittany. The exiled Acadians who settled in Louisiana had their origins in these coastal regions of France. Eventually andouille was adapted to suit the bayou region, and it no longer resembles the original, although it has retained its French name. So American sausage is not as pedestrian as it may at first seem.
Once you’ve combined the protein and the spices, the process of making sausage takes its risqué turn. The blend is packed into a sausage press, which is not unlike an apple press. Downward pressure is applied with a plunger until the mixture is forced out of a long horn at the base of the press. The natural casing has previously been threaded onto the horn to receive the meat. (Giggle.) Sorry—you would think I could be more mature about this.) A long tube of sausage emerges. It coils neatly, like a rope on the deck of a schooner. Here, your options include twisting off links, in the manner of the balloon artist, or leaving the coil as is.
If you are making a fresh sausage you are almost done, as a short rest period of 24 hours is all that is necessary before cooking it up. The dried or smoked versions of sausage require additional steps.
Aging sausage, with or without smoke, yields a completely different product. In this procedure’s highly controlled environment, the fresh sausage shrinks into a wrinkly, concentrated, leathery delight. The process preserves the sausage but also changes its character completely.
Great examples of dried sausage include the wonderful French saucisson. Often seasoned with wine, milk and/or cognac, saucisson is a contradiction. Its rustic appearance belies its very sophisticated and refined soul. The Italians offer a dizzying array of dried sausages, from the plump sopressata to finocchio—a fennel salami laden with umami. The Italian offerings vary greatly from region to region and bear virtually no resemblance to the ubiquitous American pepperoni that blankets bad, fast-food pizza in our country. Germany’s wurst comes in more variations than the performance getups sported by Lady Gaga, whose “meat dress” undoubtedly inspired butchers everywhere. But I digress. From Weisswurst, a traditional white veal sausage seasoned with lemon and cardamom, to Landjäger, a smoky sausage that has fortified hunters in the Black Forest for centuries, the Germans eat more fresh and dried sausage than anyone else. Sausage, pretzels, and dark beer are an Oktoberfest trifecta.
Many of the most satisfying comfort-food dishes I concoct in my own kitchen have sausage to thank for their goodness. Risotto with wild mushrooms and crumbled Italian sausage, infused with Parmesan, is magic in a pan. Gumbo, the king of stews, has at its core a deep, dark roux and a generous amount of spicy andouille. And white beans have no better friend than sausage. Consider a cassoulet studded with garlic sausage from Toulouse, or Portuguese kale-and-white-bean soup with linguica. I would be lost without these dishes, especially as the long Vermont winter presses me into culinary, hibernation mode.
I celebrate the sausage as one of triumphs of the carnivorous diet. On its own or as an element in a dish, sausage always inspires—even if it does make me giggle.
Moroccan Merguez with Fennel and Peppers
Exotic and perfumed, merguez is about as distinctive as sausage gets. Made with lamb and scented with cumin, orange, thyme and harissa, merguez reflects the spice-inspired cuisine of North Africa.
1 ½ pounds of merguez
2 fresh fennel bulbs, sliced
1 large Spanish yellow onion, sliced
1 red bell pepper, sliced
2 cloves garlic, coarsely minced
3 tablespoons good-quality extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup white wine
juice of a half lemon
2 navel oranges, peeled and sliced into rounds
2 cups pearl-style Israeli couscous
1. Sauté the merguez in one tablespoon of the olive oil until browned and rendered.
Deglaze pan with white wine. Transfer to bowl, retaining the liquid.
2. In the same pan, sauté the fennel, onions and peppers until soft in the remaining two tablespoons of olive oil. Add the garlic toward the end. Season with salt and
3. Add the merguez, with its liquid and lemon juice, back into the pan. Keep warm.
4. Prepare the couscous. Fluff and add a drizzle of olive oil to keep from clumping.
5. Serve the merguez and vegetables over the couscous on a large, colorful platter. Garnish with the orange slices.
For the sausage-challenged, a few helpful definitions:
andouille: a heavily smoked, spicy sausage made from pork and tripe
boudin: a Cajun sausage combining cooked rice, pork, onions, green peppers and seasonings
cassoulet: a meaty, slow-cooked casserole originating in southwestern France
finocchio: an Italian salami flavored with fennel
harissa: a North African hot-chili paste, with other spices added
la chang: a dried, hard, normally smoked Chinese sausage, usually made from pork, with a high fat content
Landjäger: a semi-dry sausage from the Germanic alpine region, popular for snacking while hiking or hunting
linguica: a mildly spicy, Portuguese smoked pork sausage
merguez: a spicy lamb sausage from North Africa, typically served with harissa and couscous
saucisson: a dry French salami, typically made from pork
sopressata: a dry Italian salami
umami: a savory flavoring produced by a combination of amino acids and nucleotides
Weisswurst: a spicy Bavarian sausage made from veal or pork, in a pork casing