Merguez Sausage

February 24, 2008

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I decided to start my sausage-making attempts with merguez sausage because, not only does it incorporate some of my favorite flavors – spicy and lamby with North-African influences, but you can’t find it around where I live.  It didn’t hurt that I could cheat on grinding the meat as my local butcher, Danny Rohrer, carries ground lamb.  The way I saw it, I was going to attempt to make and stuff the sausage, and learning one step at a time was enough.  

With preground meat, the sausage-making was a snap.  I tossed the spices into my KitchenAid, mixed in the lamb, and incorporated the red wine and water until the mixture had achieved what is called its “primary bind.”  All this means is that the spices and meat have come together in a sticky ball.   I tried to work quickly to keep the meat well-chilled, apparently a key point in sausage-making.  Charcuterie warns often that letting the meat get warm will affect the final texture of the sausage, and recommends chilling between steps of the process.  

So warned, I put the bowl of sausage in the freezer to get cold again and pulled out the sheep intestines, “natural casings”, I had received in the mail earlier in the week.  And this is where things began to get a bit dicey.  You can at this point merely portion your sausage and use it loose in recipes or in patty form, freezing what you will not use in the next day or so.  Or you can attempt to wrangle it into a sheep intestine to form links.  Upon my first whiff of the casings, I will admit to having doubts about the whole process. 

But the book said to soak the casings and so after separating out 3 strands from the salty lump of intertwined casings, I put them in water and walked away for a half hour or so.  Which vastly improved my state of mind.  I came back ready to rinse and rerinse the casings, determined that I could do this.  The smell having dissipated rendered the casings much less scary, kind of slippery and wiggly and amazingly strong for something so thin.  It wasn’t until I started to rinse the insides of the casings that they began to knot up on themselves, which made the process an exercise in patience.  Finally (and more quickly than it seemed, I’m sure), the casings were ready.

I hooked up my KitchenAid food grinder attachment with the sausage stuffer, slid one of the casings up over the tip, and promptly had to call for help.  R. obliging left his accounting homework behind and came to the rescue.  Between the two of us, we wrestled the sausage into the casing, though it was not an easy job.  We have some ideas for the next round (freezing the meat in indivdual balls or tubes that would fit into the feeder tube?), but if anyone has any suggestions on how to sucessfully tame a KitchenAid sausage stuffer, they would be much appreciated.

To celebrate the sausage wrangling, we took the last of the unstuffed sausage and fried it up with potatoes into an impromptu hash.  The spicy red-pepper flavors of the lamb merguez mingling with the crisp potatoes.  Along with eggs sunny-side up, yolks golden and still runny, we sat down to breakfast for dinner, always a comforting reward at the end of a hard job…

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Merguez Sausage

     adapted from Charcuterie, makes quite a bit of sausage

  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 2 tablespoons garlic, minced 
  • 3/4 cup roasted red pepper, diced
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon spanish paprika
  • 1 tablespoon fresh oregano, minced

combine all above ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment on.  add

  • 3 pounds ground lamb

mix until incorporated and add

  • 1/8 cup dry red wine, chilled
  • 1/8 cup ice water

mix on medium ~ 1 minute until mixture has a uniform and sticky appearance.  place bowl in refrigerator to chill.  portion lamb sausage.  stuff into casings if you dare.  double wrap any sausage you are not going to use within 3 days in cling film and freeze.

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Making Bacon at Home

February 8, 2008

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 My first shot at making bacon seemed much less like cooking to me and more like an exotic collecting expedition.  First I had to come up with pork belly, then curing salts – neither of which was to be found at the local Food Kitty.

 The curing salts were easily enough found online under the name Insta-Cure #1, so I clicked through and impatiently waited for them to arrive on my doorstep.  I have read about the health concerns associated with nitrites, but my sources said they were crucial if I wanted to smoke the meat at low temperatures for any length of time, preventing the dread botulism.  And since I had decided early in the process that I would give smoking the bacon a shot, this seemed necessary. 

 (Apparently it’s not a deal breaker if you finish the bacon in a low oven, though I’m not sure how this would affect the need for the nitrites.  Another experiment for another time.) 

 The pork belly was a little more difficult, with no luck at the local grocery or on a trip to a couple of fancier places in the DC area.  (To be fair, I should have called ahead.)  But I hit pay dirt at an asian grocer, Lotte Plaza, in Ellicott City, MD.  I lunched out in front of a case of pork bellies for a good ten minutes before choosing two perfect pieces.

  At home, I started the process, using the basic cure recipe out of Charcuterie and adding maple syrup to one belly section and fresh ground black pepper to the other.  I adore peppered bacon, but I thought I try out the sweet cure and see how it worked.  This part took a total of ten minutes (including the dithering over the maple syrup and my amazement over how truly pink the pink curing salt really is), and the bellies went into the fridge to cure.

The next week consisted of me peering into the fridge and poking at the bellies to try and ascertain whether anything was actually happening in there.  R. was much better at actually remembering to turn (and occasionally massage) the bellies on a dailyish basis.  But really when it came down to it, flipping them every day or so was all that was required.  Not exactly high-maintenance.

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Finally the week was up.  The bellies seemed to have firmed up upon poking, so I rinsed and dried them and fired up the grill for some smoking.  Full disclosure here – I own a gas grill, not exactly what anyone seemed to be calling for in the how-to-smoke sections of anything I read, but I decided try and see what happened.  I soaked some hickory chips I had been “aging” on my back porch for quite a while in hot water and made a packet for them out of aluminum foil.  I set half of my grill on the lowest setting, put the packet on that side and the bacon on the high rack on the other side, closed the lid and waited for the bacon to come up to 150°F.  Four hours later (and 15 minutes before I had to be at work), the thermometer alarm went off.  The bacon was beautiful and smelled, well, you can imagine, like smoky goodness.

On Becoming a Charcuterista

February 6, 2008

charcuteriecover.jpgI guess it’s appropriate to begin my new identity as Charcuterista with bacon. It’s an enduring love affair I’ve carried on through my life. One of my favorite professors in college, a vegetarian for 25 years, once admitted to me that bacon was the one meat she still craved; I can believe it.

This adoration, coupled with a more general urge to know how foods are made and where they come from, led to my Christmas wish list this year. I stumbled across Charcuterie by Michael Rulhman and Bryan Polcyn in Harvard Books while visiting some friends in Boston over Thanksgiving. Flipping through the pages, I realized that these traditions (something approaching the power of magic in my head thus far) were possible, and not only that, actually doable.

Part of the attraction of charcuterie for me is the utter abandon of it – the sensuousness of a silky, thin slice of prosciutto; the shattering crisp of bacon; the unctuous spicy flavors of sausage. Part of it lies in the opening for creativity, variation, and the ability to make something new and different.

But the most important part I see is the possibility of forming a new relationship with what I am eating. I am not a vegetarian, nor am I terribly interested in becoming one, but I am interested in how what I eat affects others. I feel like charcuterie is a way to make more with less, a way to use parts that might otherwise be wasted, and a way of intensifying meats so I can use less of them.

My first project, of course, had to be bacon.