Having grown up in an Italian family, food has always played such an important part in our lives. The kitchen in my parents home was truly the core of the home where meals were lovingly put together, to be shared in a hearty atmosphere filled with unending lively conversation. It was also the place where cooking rituals were passed from one generation to another. My dad would be so proud to see that his grandchildren, even though of the new generation, have inherited this passion for food and respect for traditional "slow food" approach. Therefore when my daughter asks to participate in tomato canning or sausage making, I think that my dad must be smiling up in heaven but a bit amiss that he is missing out on all the action.
The other day, at 8:53 am, my mother calls me: “We’re making sausages tonight, you want in?”
Now, most people would shudder at the thought of spending their leisure time squeezing 15 lbs of pork meat into intestine casings. But not me. The idea gave me goosebumps – and the good kind.
Making sausages is not for the faint of heart. In part because you’re handling pounds of raw pork, intestines and a meat grinder. But also because someone will inevitably comment on how the much the act of strapping a wet casing onto a nozzle and filling it with meat resembles the use of a common prophylactic. In my case, TWO people felt at liberty to make this assertion. And before you call me a prude – did I mention we were doing this as a family?
One other caveat: since each intestine needs to be blown into before it gets rolled onto the nozzle of the meat grinder, you’d better have someone who isn’t afraid to get up close and personal with pig intestine and nominate them as “casings-blower”. (FYI - I’m almost certain that modern recipes skip this step, but it makes for an amusing bit of comic relief in a process that is pretty intense. Don’t be surprised if you are overcome with the urge to ask the casings-blower to make you a balloon-poodle).
So why on earth would we put ourselves through something that sounds so unpleasant? Well first, I should mention that we generally buy sausages from the butcher. But even the best butchers in town mix additives into their meat. The man behind the counter may look the part – authentically rotund, red-cheeked, moustached and Parisian – but the fact is that they will most likely put preservatives in their meat to extend the shelf life of their product. Since the word “nitrate” is no less disconcerting than the words “Aspartame” and “monosodium glutamate”, I feel that any chance you can make something from scratch (with ingredients your grandma would use) is worth a shot.
A note on botulism: while it is understandable that you would avoid sausage-making for fear of killing your loved ones, fret not. As long as your implements are extremely clean and that you keep the meat chilled, you shouldn’t have to worry about contaminating anyone. In fact, in the 50 + years that our family has made sausage, we have never heard of anyone getting sick – and it’s not because we have magical immune systems. If you think about it, the foods that generally make us ill are the ones that have been processed in a plant somewhere miles from our home. In fact, the last few food-poisoning stories I’ve heard involved pre-packaged, highly processed foods. I promise not to get on my soap box – just a point to consider.
So, dear reader, I ask you to trust me and to trust yourself in this process. If you’re willing to take on this project, make sure to have a few people on board – it makes everything go much smoother and ultimately, makes for better stories. Sausages (fennel, paprika and salt & pepper)
Two large pork loins (about 5lbs total)
Boneless pork chops (about 10 lbs; cut an inch thick)
1 package of casings (from the butcher)
2-3 committed people
Seasonings (to be divided amongst 3 batches of meat):
2 tbsp fennel (anise) seeds
2 tbsp paprika
2 tbsp each of salt & pepper
Extra salt for the fennel & paprika sausages
1) Soak the casings in cold water to soften them (the butcher will have packed them in salt).
2) Remove connective tissue from the meat, cut it up fairly small, and chill it.
3) Meanwhile, have someone rinse each casing three times in cold, running water. This step will remind you of the water-balloon days of your youth; admittedly, the activity of filling casings with water is far less thrilling.
4) Grind the meat in batches, alternating fattier pieces with leaner ones to evenly distribute the fat. Place a cookie sheet under the grinder to collect the meat. It’s important to make sure you’re turning the crank and pushing the meat through the top of the grinder at a consistent, steady pace. Failing to do so will invite comments from the more seasoned sausage-makers in the room.
5) Transfer meat to a large bowl, then add seasonings. At this point, you may want to cook a small meatball to test for seasoning.
6) Place a wet casing onto the nozzle and roll it up gently so that the entire casing is scrunched up against the base of the nozzle. Grind the meat again, so it emerges from the nozzle into the casing, wiggling the casing gently away from the nozzle as it fills. Wait for someone to make the first inappropriate joke about the way this all looks.
7) Periodically, tie the casing to make links. Lay out on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper to chill or transfer directly to freezer bags.