Cleanin’ out my Cabinets: Italian Sausage

Making sausage has been on the to do list for a few years now.  I love sausage dearly in all varieties and the general idea behind sausage is how I like to cook: take the cheap cuts and make them into something tasty.  The main reason I’ve never made it myself, aside from some ground sausage I never put into a casing, is because I was never able to easily find casings.  Pretty stupid to actually put that in writing since anything I could possibly want can be delivered in two days via the internets, but it’s true.  I’d seen them in the supermarket in Middlebury once but failed to pull the trigger, so a couple more years passed and now here we are.

A month or so ago I noticed that sausage casings magically appeared in the deli case of my local Stop & Shop.  I pounced, thinking that there was a high likelihood I would miss my window again and spend years lamenting it.  Pounced may actually be underplaying it, I may have walked rapidly to the register hiding the casings in my coat nervous that someone would take them from me.

Nothing welcomes you back to Pete's blog after a multi-week holiday break better than a super sh*tty out of focus shot of a container.  You're welcome y'all!

Nothing welcomes you back to Pete’s blog after a multi-month break better than a super sh*tty out of focus shot of a container.  You’re welcome y’all!

The above statement isn’t entirely accurate, since if I remember correctly that was the same grocery store visit where I discovered Stop & Shop had a bit of a pricing anomaly on their salted fatback.

Another recent addition to the Stop & Shop shelves.  Salt pork (belly) has always been available, but the salted fat back made something that is usually not easy to find very accessible.  Plus, you know, it was two cents

Another recent addition to the Stop & Shop shelves.  Salt pork (belly) has always been available, but the salted fatback made something that is usually not easy to find very accessible.  Plus, you know, it was two cents

If I could have bought every $0.02 package of salted fatback without risking my marriage, I would have.  I knew I would never find a bargain like this again.  Ever.  A week later when I checked again the price had been raised to a nearly unfathomable $2.99 a pound and a I felt like a fool for not purchasing all ten packages previously.

Both the casings and the salted fatback would keep for months, so I left them in the fridge to occasionally stare at and daydream.  A few weeks later, whole pork shoulders were on sale for $.89 a pound and my fridge/freezer was officially loaded with the basics for some sausage making.  I got started by rinsing the excess salt off of the fatback and cubing it.

Pure snow white fat.  Lovely.  Like the ivory of fat.  Or me showering in February

Pure snow white fat.  Lovely.  Like the ivory soap of fat.  That analogy doesn’t work.  How about, “the whitest fat not attached to the author.”  That one stinks too, the humor in this post needs to improve and fast

Since most sausage recipes would call for normal fatback, you need to adjust your approach with salted fatback and remove the majority of additional salt you would add during prep.  Other prep items that were done off camera: deboning the pork shoulder and cubing the meat.  At that point, about 2 hours before the real business of sausage making would get started, the fat, meat, and the grinding plates for the Kitchenaid grinder all went into the freezer.

Quick note on the freezing of all items which was previously covered in (one hit wonder) Uncle Timmy’s Stupid Recipe’s For Jerks: keeping the fat and meat ice cold is essential for making good sausage.  In the case of Italian sausage, you want the fat and meat to be visibly separate inside the casing, not all smeared together.  Since grinders get very hot very fast, the freezing of the actual grinder in addition to the fat and meat helps keep everything as separate as possible.

Back to the sausage, all told I had 7-8 pounds of shoulder meat and a little over a pound of salted fatback.  That requires a lot of seasoning, so to start I lightly toasted a 1 ounce container of fennel seeds in a pan and poured them into a mortar with a few peppercorns.

I wish I used my mortar and pestle more but I don't.  Most of the time it's wear I rest my vegetable brush on the countertop

I wish I used my mortar and pestle more but I don’t.  Most of the time it’s where I rest my vegetable brush on the countertop

After a quick few rounds of pestle rotation in the mortar, the pepper and fennel seed were ground to a fine powder that would be easier to distribute throughout the meat.

Smelled pretty strong, but, again, I was seasoning a lot of meat with this stuff

Smelled pretty strong, but, again, I was seasoning a lot of meat with this stuff

The seasoning went into a bowl with the frozen cubes of pork and fat, a little salt, a few tablespoons of sugar, a couple chopped cloves of garlic, and a whole bunch worth of torn parsley.  Once everything was tossed and well combined, the bowl went back into the freezer for another hour.  And this was a very full and very large bowl.

Thought a human being would give a little perspective on the size of the bowl.  Sort of worked.  Thats a normal sized high school soccer coach if that helps

Thought a human being would give a little perspective on the size of the bowl. Sort of worked.  Thats a normal sized high school soccer coach if that helps

With the meat and fat nearly frozen again, I started assembling the extremely cold pieces of the Kitchenaid grinder  as quickly as possible to avoid them warming up too much.  Then, working fast, the frozen meat went through the grinder on a coarse grind setting since I wanted the finish product to be sausage and not a puree.  We’ve all seen me grind meat on this blog before, so no picture needed for that piece of the process.

Once the meat/fat/parsley mixture was completely ground, it went back into the freezer for a half hour, then into the mixing bowl portion of the Kitchenaid along with a cup of a dry red wine and red wine vinegar mixture.  I used the paddle attachment on the mixer to combine the liquid with the meat and make sure that all fat, meat, and parsley were evenly distributed in the sausage.

This was relatively unappetizing to watch for some reason.  It looked like the meat was trying to escape with every rotation before it was foiled and fell back into the bowl

This was relatively unappetizing to watch for some reason.  It looked like the meat was trying to escape with every rotation before it was foiled and fell back into the bowl

Once it was well combined, I separated the ground mixture into two approximately even portions; one which would go directly into casings (for sweet Italian sausage) and the other which would get added seasonings (for hot Italian sausage).  The hot Italian portion went back into the freezer.

With the grinding complete, I switched out the grinder plate with the sausage stuffing attachment on the Kitchenaid.  There are some people who go bonkers on the internets about not using these attachments because they can make the sausage too hot which will cause it to nearly emulsify instead of staying in sausage form.  This includes people I trust as sound food advisors.  But, it was what I had and I had to make do.

First step was removing one of the casings from the cold water it had been soaking in for a couple hours, finding an end, figuring out how to open it, and bunching it up on the stuffing nozzle.

You might feel like your mind is in the gutter for some of the associations this imagery conjures, but then you remember that you are looking at a whole lamb intestine bunched up on a plastic nozzle

You might feel like your mind is in the gutter for some of the associations this imagery conjures, but then you remember that you are looking at 15′ of hog intestine bunched up on a plastic nozzle.  I expected no aroma/flavor on the casing , but it was actually kind of nice, like griddle seared hog fat.  And yes that smells nice to me

We loaded the meat into the tray and slowly started pushing it down into the stuffer where I would carefully feed it into the casing.  Keeping the pipeline full of meat was a pain, as was trying to keep the thickness and density consistent.  At least for round 1, it was a two man job.

That's some clenched face effort right there.  I really wanted this to be the light hearted, polka soundtrack sausage making that Kramer and Newman did together, but it ended up being serious work

That’s some clenched face effort right there.  I really wanted this to be the light hearted, polka soundtrack sausage making that Kramer and Newman did together, but it ended up being serious work

The casings have a natural curve to them, which made it easy to coil the sausage as it filled the casing.  This was key since otherwise I have no idea where I would have laid down a 15′ stretch of forcemeat.

I think this isn't even the full coil, we had a couple more feet to go.  That chip bag clip in the middle was soooo unnecessary

I think this isn’t even the full coil, we had a couple more feet to go. That chip bag clip in the middle was soooo unnecessary.  Also unnecessary, the four extra casings in the background that I had no need to soak and went unused

Once the sausage was fully in the casings, we carefully went through and twisted the sausage every 4 to 5 inches to make the individual links.  Then went through and tied a knot between each link with kitchen twine to make it easier to hang.

Kristi found Conman's posing for the foto hilarious.  He does know the secret to good action shots

Kristi found Conman’s posing for the foto hilarious.  He does know the secret to good action shots (hint, no action).  Also, I guess the random items strewn all over the butcher block is telling of the number of hours we’d been hanging out and imbibing

With the sweet Italians fully prepped, they went onto a laundry drying rack to hang and dry for a few hours.  While the rest of the crew watched the NFC championship (yes, this all happened awhile ago), I ground up oregano and red pepper flake in the mortar and mixed it into the remaining near-frozen sausage meat along with paprika to make the hot Italians.

I then went about loading into the casings solo, which wasn’t as hard as I expected, but only in hindsight did I realize that I packed the casings much more dense and fat when working alone.  I’m guessing I just got distracted and wasn’t feeding out enough casing.  This meant that when twisting the sausage into links a couple links burst which gave me some extra sausage meat to eat.  But first, the drying rack.

Thing of beauty.  You can see how fat and stubby the hots are.  Kristi went into the basement and found me this rack to dry the sausage on.  We are unclear if it was left by our previous neighbors, or if our current neighbors currently hang dry their sweaters on it and stuff.  Not a good neighbor, folks.  Not a good neighbor

Thing of beauty.  You can see how fat and stubby the hots are.  Kristi went into the basement and found me this rack to dry the sausage on.  We are unclear if it was left by our previous neighbors, or if our current neighbors hang dry their sweaters on it and stuff.  Not a good neighbor, folks.  Not a good neighbor

The extra hot Italian sausage meat was fried up in patties and served on potato rolls with sauteed broccoli rabe and melted provolone.

The regular sausage was tasty and had a starring role in a couple of Sunday Gravies, but the hots were so effing good.  Really flavorful, but went so nicely with a little cheese and rabe

The regular sausage was tasty and had a starring role in a couple of Sunday Gravies, but the hots were so effing good.  Really flavorful and went so nicely with a little cheese and rabe

The sausage sandwich was delicious, as I’m sure you’d guessed I would say.  The hot sausage had a lot of heat and strong flavor which played well with the cheese and rabe.  Not a sausage you’d want to eat before riding in an elevator with coworkers or having a conversation with a close talker, but very tasty.

The cased sweet Italians and hot Italians went into a tupperware in the fridge for a couple days until I decided to freeze them all.

Thats about 4 pounds worth, and the hots were in a different container.  I made a lot of sausage

That’s about 5 pounds worth, and the hots were in a different container.  I made a lot of sausage

The regular Italian sausage was solid and worked well as an ingredient in a couple rounds of Sunday Gravy.  Nothing too notable about the flavor, just tasted like a good sausage.  Though, this whole sasuage making experience made me realize how much more fat is in the regular Italian sausages I buy and eat than what I made.  Not a bad thing, but it really does make those versions more enjoyable when grilled on their own.

Since then I’ve made more sausage, which I will likely document soon.  I wouldnt grade it as highly succesful as this round, but a good experience regardless.  Till then.

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Cleanin’ out my Cabinets: Smoked Pork Shoulder Ragu

Brother John and (new) Sister Julie’s wedding was last weekend in Grayling, Michigan.  When describing the setting of the wedding to people at work, I used the unfortunate choice of words “family compound” which caused extensive Kennedy jokes while I was out.  In reality, it was good old Matabanic Lodge which I’ve discussed previously in posts about Poutine and Dumplings.  Since it was the summer in Michigan and the Hub Hollow gang was in tow, it meant a lot of this:

I still haven't figured out how to make a quality iced coffee in the massive commercial coffee maker at Matabanic, but I'm working on it

I still haven’t figured out how to make a quality iced coffee in the massive commercial coffee maker at Matabanic, but I’m working on it

a little of this:

"A little" is not accurate as I'm sure you've guessed.  One of my favorite beers fresh and cold in large volume.  Became a constant source of argument in the morning over who forgot to ice and disconnect the tap

“A little” is not accurate as I’m sure you’ve guessed. One of my favorite beers fresh, cold, and in large volume.  Became a constant source of arguments in the morning over who forgot to disconnect the tap and ice the keg

a healthy dose of evening music:

I attempted to take this picture about 25 times.  No matter how many iPhones I am convinced to buy, they take sh*tty low light pictures

I attempted to take this picture about 25 times.  No matter how many iPhones I am convinced to buy, they take sh*tty low light pictures

and one awesome wedding:

That's not Julie, that's the officiant.  John is celebrating Julie rounding the bend with her father in a guided riverboat

That’s not Julie, that’s the officiant.  John is celebrating Julie rounding the bend with her father in a guided riverboat.  It was a pretty awesome setting for a wedding and amazingly no drunks canoed by shouting regional dialect curse words

There were 23ish family members and close friends at Matabanic for the wedding, plus a gaggle of children.  Despite the intimidating size of the crowd and my previous failures cooking for large groups of people, I decided to volunteer for a meal.  In theory with the help of Brother Tim.  I say “in theory” because Tim was likely to resume his normal role of helping early on, getting bored, then criticizing, punching and complaining about timing intermittently. And that was before I remembered he would be on crutches from recent surgery.  Oh well.

My goal, in honor of Julie’s sister Katy and John who both worked at Spannocchia in Italy, was to make a variation of Cinghiale al Pappardelle but with ingredients I could find in middle-of-the-hand Michigan.

Cinghiale is wild boar, a meat that tastes most like a lean and flavorful pork.  With that in mind, and knowing I likely couldn’t find a large quantity of boar easily in Michigan, I decided to start with a pork shoulder and build a rich slow cooked pasta sauce around the meat.  The flavor of shoulder meat is relatively similar to cinghiale but with a higher fat content.  With that in mind, I wanted to render out a little fat before cooking the pork in the sauce but also add some boar-ish earthy flavors back to the meat.  Which brought this bad boy into play.

The old Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker.  Tim has a ton of experience with this thing which made the process even more unpleasant since it required following orders from stupid jerkface cargo shorts Tim

The old Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker.  Tim has a ton of experience with this thing which made the process even more unpleasant since it required following orders from stupid jerkface cargo shorts Tim.  Also, first time I have ever used “boar-ish” to describe anything other than my behavior

The idea was to debone a ten pound picnic shoulder, divide it into smaller pieces, coat with a mild but slightly Italian-flavored rub, then briefly smoke it over applewood and hickory chips.  When I say briefly, I am comparing it to the normal 8-10 hours one would usually smoke a pork shoulder, so I mean two hours.

After deboning, I think I had 7-8 pounds of trimmed meat which I thoroughly coated with a rub of brown sugar, salt, pepper, garlic powder, dried oregano, dried basil, and a little paprika.

I had a miserable time deboning this shoulder due to the consistently dull knives at Matabanic.  As I drove back to DTW for our flight home I remembered the brand new sharp Henckel knife I had hidden in the attic and let loose with a guttural roar of annoyance

I had a miserable time deboning this shoulder due to the consistently dull knives at Matabanic.  As I drove back to DTW for our flight home I remembered the brand new sharp Henckel knife I had hidden in the attic and let loose with a guttural roar of annoyance

Although the lid stays untouched on a smoker, there is still a decent amount of charcoal and wood chip reloading into the base to keep the temperature between 200 and 250.  I balanced that responsibility with my day long task of overstuffing the wedding guests by serving large amounts of poutine for lunch. I’ve covered poutine before, but wanted to make sure I got credit for multi-tasking so I mentioned it anyway.

Once the poutine was complete and the meat had smoked a little over an hour and a half, I began the sauce prep.  With one of the largest pots in the kitchen heating on the stove, I started running piles of vegetables through Matabanic’s 30 year old Cuisinart knockoff.  Two fennel bulbs, two large yellow onions (very large), 6 carrots, 6 ribs of celery, and a peeled bulb of garlic were all chopped down to near mush and went into the stock pot with a couple tablespoons of butter.

The Cuisinart tactic won't give me any street cred with your Italian grandma, but I've found it effective when trying to make non-bolognese pasta sauce

The Cuisinart tactic won’t give me any street cred with your Italian grandma, but I’ve found it effective when trying to make non-bolognese pasta sauce

After 5-10 minutes of occasional stirring and avoiding anything getting burned to the bottom, I added 2 lbs of sliced mushrooms and stirred some more.

I know the demi glace sounds like an odd choice, but I had seen one recipe for cinghiale that called for a mushroom demi and figured with this volume of sauce it couldn't hurt

I think the first picture was before I added the chopped carrots.  This is a 10 quart stock pot but it really was about as full as it looks here.  I had zero concept whether I was making way too much or way too little sauce

After a few more minutes of cook time, I stirred in two cups of tomato paste until it was well mixed in with the vegetables.  Another few minutes of alternating stirring and pacing, then added salt, black pepper, a liter and a half of red wine, and almost a quart of chicken broth.  Once well combined, I allowed that to come up to heat while I headed outside to collect the smoked shoulder pieces.

I spent about five minutes staring at this blankly trying to decide if I should continue smoking half the meat and only use half in the sauce.  It smelled so good and I was nervous the sauce wouldn't pan out.  When Pete is cooking for you, the secret ingredient is always self doubt

I spent about five minutes staring at this blankly trying to decide if I should continue smoking half the meat and only use half in the sauce.  It smelled so good and I was nervous the sauce wouldn’t pan out.  When Pete is cooking for you, the secret ingredient is always self doubt

Beyond the extremely positive color, crispiness, and aroma, the smoking also appeared to be a success from the amount of fat that had rendered out into the drip pan.  Since this would be cooking the rest of the way in the sauce, I wanted to get a lot of that fat out beforehand.

The pork went to a cutting board where I cut each piece down to roughly the same size, about 3″x3″ pieces.  They smelled really friggin good and I again doubted my decision to use all of it, but in they went into the bubbling sauce.

When everything fit I have to admit I was pretty proud of myself since I had totally wung the proportions.  That's right, I had no idea if I had made enough for the number of people or the volume of pasta I would be cooking, I was just celebrating that I fit everything in the pot I chose arbitrarily

When everything fit I have to admit I was pretty proud of myself since I had totally wung the proportions.  That’s right, I had no idea if I had made enough for the number of people or the volume of pasta I would be cooking, I was just celebrating that I fit everything in the pot I arbitrarily chose

It was a snug fit, but when stirred, all of the pork was completely submerged in the sauce.

Look, I didn't want to admit it right away, but this thing came dangerously close to Major Dag territory due to me constantly forgetting to take pictures.  I know this is completely redundant with the previous picture, but I didn't have much to work with here

Look, I didn’t want to admit it right away, but this thing came dangerously close to Major Dag territory due to me constantly forgetting to take pictures.  I know this is completely redundant with the previous picture, but I didn’t have much to work with here

And then, in line with my original plan of being able to step away from the kitchen while still cooking for a large group, the lid went on and the sauce simmered for four hours.

During that time I went tubing and showered up, but mostly stressed out about whether the food would be edible or taste like Sweet Baby Rays pasta.  I ended up hedging my bets and established goodwill toward the experimental dinner by putting out a couple platters of sliced gravlax that I cured the night before.  Nope, don’t have a picture of that, just look at last week.  Only difference was I made a little creme fraiche to go with it this time.

As we hit the final stretch before dinner, I spent a solid 30 minutes bringing a huge pot of water to a boil.  While that took forever, I used a large spoon to stir and break up the pieces of now falling apart-tender pork and stir everything together.

I know it looks like chili, but this isn't supposed to be a traditional tomato sauce.  It's a ragu y'all!!!  I feel like that term lets me get away with anything

I know it looks like chili, but this isn’t supposed to be a traditional tomato sauce.  It’s a ragu y’all!!!  I feel like that term lets me get away with anything

Once the water was boiling, I added 8 pounds of dried fettuccine and cooked to the low end of the recommended time so it would be slightly al dente.

With the pasta cooked, I pulled down the enormous hotel pan that has been above the Viking range for as long as we’ve been coming to Matabanic.  Usually these things are used for serving buffet style, and the one I grabbed is actually intended for use as the deeper steaming pan under the shallower top pan.  But I needed the room.

The pasta went in first, then I ladeled in the sauce, pausing after every few ladels to mix, toss and stir the pasta to make sure it was fully distributed.  With about a quarter of the sauce left, I realized I had miraculously guessed correctly and made approximately the right amount of sauce for the pasta (or vice versa) and dumped the rest in to be tossed.  It was definitely meaty, but the pasta was well coated without being overly saucy, like the original I consumed multiple times in Italy.  Plus a little fresh parmesan cheese grated over the top.

I was horrified when I flipped through my phone hours after the meal and saw how many gaps there were in the photos and that this was the last one on my phone.  I didn't even get a pre-cheese or plated picture.  I am an awful person

I was horrified when I flipped through my phone hours after the meal and saw how many gaps there were in the fotos and that this was the last one on my phone.  I didn’t even get a pre-cheese or plated picture.  I am an awful person

You wanna see a jiggling pile of anxiety?  Watch me after I’ve cooked for twenty people and expectantly look at each individual person’s reaction as they taste the food.  It is really poor form on my part.  Anyway, instead of guessing how other people felt about it, I will just say that after the 23 guests, 5 babysitters & nannies, and Kelly (our breakfast cook and overall kitchen wizard) took their first and seconds, there were only 2-3 portions of leftovers.  And now here’s my thoughts:

I love this style of pasta dish where the actual fettuccine is only lightly coated in flavorful sauce but there are plenty of chunks of meat or vegetable ragu in every bite.  I just don’t like pasta swimming in red sauce so the proportions were right on for me with this one.  The flavor was definitely a little surprising at first; you don’t expect a smokey barbeque flavor with your pasta and it was definitely the first taste to come across.  After you got past that first note, the richness of the other flavors in the sauce came through and made for a few layers in each bite.  Overall, the shock of the smoke flavor from the first bite goes away after a few and the pasta just ended up being rich, meaty, and enjoyable.  Not exactly like the pappardelle al cinghiale of my dreams, but close enough that I felt it was a decent homage.

Next up will be my third crack at beef tongue.  I got dis.