Every once in awhile you take on a kitchen project and somewhere in the middle - when the sink is piled high with dirty, grimy dishes, when raw chicken and chunks of fat back cover nearly every inch of the kitchen counter, your clothes, your arms up to your elbows, and there isn't a single inch of uncontaminated space, when the children are clamoring for food and a meal is still hours away - and you think, "Why the hell do people do this?...Why am I doing this?"
That's the question my best friend Jennie Perillo was asking when I invited her and her family to come our place in the country and make sausages in casings with me. Okay, I didn't actually invite her to the house to make sausages. She was duped. It was Memorial Day weekend and we were planning on hanging out, having fun, relaxing, our girls running around the house playing together, our men, with a couple of long necks, kicking up their feet on the deck.
So,I had this great idea, or at least that's what it seemed at the time - what if we did the Charcutepalooza challenge together? What if two old friends got together in the kitchen and made a couple different kinds of sausage and stuffed it into casings? I had never used my new fiery-red Kitchen Aid stand-up mixer with stuffing and grinding attachments. See it there? Gorgeous.(Thank you, Kitchen Aid.)
It was perfect. I couldn't even see where there'd be a hitch. We'd laugh. We'd gossip. We'd cook. We'd drink wine until we couldn't stand. We'd eat home-made sausage for dinner. Everyone would love us. We would love ourselves. Jennie would wear her trademark sunglasses, even in the kitchen.
It was the perfect plan.
Until we couldn't find the blade for the grinding attachment. Of course this doesn't seem like a big deal unless you consider that we had been trying to grind meat without a blade for an hour and a half. There was the slow whining of the Kitchen Aid and the long strips of fat back entwining themselves around the gears, never getting smaller or grinding up, and jamming up the machine. Countless times we stopped, pulled the attachment apart, pulled out all the meat by hand, washed the pieces and started again. There was raw meat everywhere. Eventually, Jennie went on YouTube. Apparently, if you don't have the little piece of metal that actually, get this - CUTS UP THE MEAT - grinding cannot take place. This is when you start feeling a little like Mo and Curly.
We plan B'd it. We decided to grind with my food processor, but neither of us was really prepared for the fact that my processor was made circa 1977 and could maybe process a banana into baby food (which was why I had it, to make baby food) but couldn't even remotely tackle the big chunks of pork fat. Instead it kind of mulched the meat and the fat clogged the blade, and more raw meat sort of went everywhere. And that meant more dishes to clean, and counters and surfaces to scour - which was made doubly hard by the fact that our old, struggling boiler went down that morning and we didn't have hot water, so we could barely wash a dish let alone allow our guests to shower comfortably - and we were no closer to making food or having it in our mouths.
That's when Jennie started mocking my food processor. And me. And muttering unintelligently under her breath as she cleaned raw pork fragments out of her fingernails. It wasn't pretty.
The situation was made worse by my husband, who was charged with going on a booze run and instead took a detour to Loew's and, like many men in the middle of a house renovation, started ogling tools, and supplies, parts for the boiler, and then happened upon a clearance sale on smokers, and during this whole time, had been happily, gleefully sending me 12 different text-pictures of smokers he'd like to buy, from different angles, with price comparisons and pithy commentary. He had no idea how badly we needed the booze.
But the kids were the tipping point - they meandered into the kitchen looking pale, pathetic and half-starved, asking if we could just let them have popsicles for dinner. Jennie and I looked at each other. And we caved.
"Let's make meatballs, skewer them, and stick 'em on the grill." Jennie said, wiping her pork fat-covered hands on her apron and leaning against my sink, where she had just washed, with ice cold water, the last of three loads of meat-strewn dishes. She was resolute.
It was over.
I felt nothing but relief. Screw sausages! I was done. I was already writing this post in my head. That was the title: Screw Sausages! I mentally prepared myself to call Cathy and tell her about my sad, disappointing kitchen fail. I was going to tell her, first thing: Screw sausages!
I chopped down the rest of the meat by hand. We fried off a small patty of the chicken sausage with apple, maple and sage and I brought it out to Jennie's husband, Michael to taste test. He was out on the deck with a beer and a magazine, oblivious to all of it. That's where I told him the news about the sausages, and how it had all gone bad, and nerves were frayed, and hopes were dashed, and everyone was going to be having meatballs for dinner.
He was completely disappointed. Heart broken.
"No sausage in casings?" he asked. It was more whimper than question.
"Nope. We're done..." I told him. I was firm. No way was I going back into that sausage-making hell.
"Um...unless you want to stuff the sausages?" I heard myself speak the words and couldn't pull them back in. Dammit.
Before I knew it, Michael - who isn't a recipe developer, line cook, celebrity chef, cookbook author, or food writer - had changed the whole kitchen. He was interested, inspired, funny, adventurous, curious and game. He saved us. And that gave Jennie and I our energy back. We had renewed purpose. We had sausages to stuff.
We also had perverted jokes to make about lubricating the stuffer and how impossible it is to lubricate the stuffer without it looking like you're giving it a hand job. And there were lots of jokes about sausages and penises, and who was the best "luber", which seems like something out of middle school, but was actually thoroughly enjoyable and primal. I made more than one "playing with my meat" reference, which never really gets old. (We have it all on video, which probably wasn't such a smart idea.) And David, like a prince on a white horse, came back with booze, stories of smokers at drastically-reduced prices, and a much lighter wallet.
Things were looking up.
I chopped all the meat down by hand into a mince. There were still some unruly chunks in the Italian sausage which didn't quite work, but the chicken sausage tasted great, just a little pulpy, a little weighty, which I think served them well. Hand-chopping the chicken was a happy accident. We twisted the sausages, tied them off with kitchen string and wondered how they would ever stay together once they were cut into links, but they did. And we think the 5-7 minutes of par-cooking before grilling really kept the meat holding together in the casing.
We stood over the grill marveling at how the sausages looked perfectly packaged at the ends. And that somehow we had done that. How this wasn't so shabby for our first time. We decided that even though our sausage size wasn't uniform, we felt that this was proof that they were truly "artisanal" and if we sold them at the farmers market, surely we could charge more money for them this way.
But standing there, Michael and I knew it - it was really all so worth it.
We probably could've had an easier time with our bare feet up on the railing of the deck, watching the girls take turns on the tire swing or eating s'mores by the fire, but we wouldn't have gone through this together. We wouldn't have this ridiculous story. I'll be telling the sausage story to our girls when Jennie is old and gray, cranky and decrepit. And I'd never have tried making sausages in casings again.
Michael went back to Brooklyn with a bag of hog casings - which he clumsily, some might say, stupidly, stowed in Jennie's expensive designer hand-bag. Oh, he caught some hell for that - so, there will be artisanal sausages coming out of the Perillo household soon.
Jennie still has a little sausage chip on her shoulder. She thinks Michael and I are nuts, and that there's a brilliant little sausage shop in Brooklyn that can give her home-made sausages without all the fuss, and the dirty dishes, and the contaminated counter tops. She would also prefer it if the bag of hog-casings in the freezer didn't actually touch, rub or come within six inches of anything of hers in the freezer. She's still a little touchy about the sausage. You probably shouldn't mention it to her.
I, however, am making them again next weekend. A true convert. Bring it, Charcutepalooza.
Chicken Sausage with Apples, Maple & Sage
I used Michael Ruhlman's recipe for Chicken Sausage with Basil & Tomatoes from Charcuterie as my guide for this recipe. I used his ratios, Cathy Barrow's idea for topping off the meat with a little cream at the end, and added flavors I knew my kids would eat. As you probably can guess from the post, I was in the weeds for most of the cooking, so I didn't leisurely measure as I went along. But that's the beauty of sausage, really. You can get the basic ratios set in your head and personalize it, add whatever you want and just fry off a test patty and give it a taste. You can keep seasoning, re-seasoning and tasting until you get something you love and that's all your own.
3 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cubed
1 1/2 pounds pork back fat
3 tablespoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/4 teaspoons minced garlic
3 tablespoons, finely chopped sage
1 apple, diced
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup cream, ice cold
1 teaspoon, olive oil (for lubing the stuffer)
Combine the chicken, fat, salt, pepper, garlic, sage and apple in a bowl. Mix everything together. Put meat mixture in fridge to chill.
Grind and paddle the meat as per Cathy's instructions.
Add the syrup and cream. Work the liquids through the meat with your hands or the paddle attachment. It should have a smooth, even consistency.
Fry off a small patty and taste for seasoning. Put the rest in the fridge or place the bowl back in the ice bath. While the patty is frying, get your hog casings ready.
Taste your patty. If you need to re-season, do so and fry off another taste. If it's good, dismantle your grinding attachment and set up your stuffing attachment.
Stuff your sausage as per Cathy's instructions.
After you get a long chain of sausage links, you're going to par-boil them. Put on a pot of water and let it heat to a boil. Drop the sausages in and cook for about five to seven minutes. This will get the cooking process started and also help bind the meat together inside the casing.
When the sausage is done, either store them in the fridge until you're ready to grill them or take them right out to the grill. They will cook for about 15 minutes while you let them brown up. Turn them every five minutes or so.
Serve immediately with a spicy mustard, slaw, Jennie's Pickled Watermelon Rind, corn on the cob and a nice cold beer.
These sausages are even better the next day where they can be sliced, served cold on a platter with pickles, olives, nuts, cheese and a nice crusty loaf of bread.
Charcutepalooza Round Up
Here they are! The Very Best of May's Grinding Posts. Fantastic posts!
1. Grow It Cook It Can It
Honey Biscuits & Sausage Gravy
2. Leave Me The Oink
Jalepeno & Cheese Smoked Sausage
4. The Messy Epicure
Tortas de Chorizo Con Huevos
5. Saffron & Salt
Hummus with Ground lamb & Pine Nuts
6. Cookbook Archaeology
Creole chicken sausage/Sausage and Egg Ramekins
7. Taste food
8. Lick My Spoon
9. Hounds in the Kitchen
Taco Truck Chorizo Sopito
10. Well Preserved
How to Make Breakfast Sausage
Cathy and I can't wait to see what you all do with the stuffing challenge!!