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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Momere’s Baked Beans

In addition to her grandparents, Janet is blessed with having two great grandmothers, Alice and Janet (the source of her name), as well as a great aunt through marriage, Joyce.  What’s really amazing is that she also has a great-great grandmother, Simone.  Now, in the Ryan family we called our grandparents Grandma and Grandpa, but things are done a little differently in Kristi’s family.  Janet is Grandma Net, Alice is Grandma Ali, Joyce is Joycie, and Simone is Momere (pronounced “Mommer” in the VT translation of French).  Hence the name of the post.

Momere is 98 years old and still lives on her own down the street from Net and Kristi’s parents.  She mostly wears clothes that she made herself, has a husky laugh that makes me feel like I am pretty funny, and keeps her house at a balmy 80 degrees using a wood burning stove in the winter.  I’ve had a few queasy mornings there after after the family Christmas parties.

Joycie and Momere chillin' at one of the summer parties. Note the baggo (or "cornhole" in Ryan terms) game going on in the background. Thank god it's become the lawn game of choice at family events since I almost killed three bystanders the last time I attempted to play horseshoes

In the time I’ve known Kristi, Momere’s eyesight hasn’t been great which has limited her ability to cook, but everyone in the family talks often about how good her cooking is.  Kristi has told me on multiple occasions about how amazing her baked beans are and since I’ve never cooked baked beans myself, I decided recently that I wanted to get my hands on her recipe.  The only obstacle was that unlike my need to write down recipes since I only cook things once or twice, Momere has an arsenal of dishes that she’s cooked hundreds of times over nine decades.  So, the recipes are entirely in her head and she probably hasn’t had to measure out the proportions for the past 20-30 years.

Janet loved hanging with Momere. And, no, she wasn't DJ'ing, that's a new hearing aid which seems to work much better than previous ones

At Casey and Mark’s wedding a few week’s ago, Aunt Tiffany and I asked Momere to share her recipe for baked beans.  As she said, the proportions are all to taste, but the key ingredients for her recipe were soldier or navy beans (“careful to pick out any rocks or bad beans”), salt pork (“always look for the pieces with the least fat and most meat”), maple syrup, white sugar, and mustard.  She also gave specific instructions on cooking time (“at least 6 hours at 275”) and a good way to test whether the beans are ready (“they are done when you blow on them and the skin comes off”).

With that information and a little online research, I was ready to get started by picking through, rinsing and soaking a pound of navy beans.

Couldn't find soldier beans, but navy beans were given as a second option. I am usually lazy with beans and use the canned version but this effort was worth an exception

After an overnight soak, I had this underwhelming result.

I think I expected them to quadruple in size overnight or something, but they only got a little bigger

I strained and rinsed the beans again then reserved them while I prepared the rest of the ingredients.  Next up was the salt pork which Kristi picked up for me at the grocery store.

Kristi didn't let Momere down and got a pretty meaty piece. It helped that I reiterated that point unnecessarily about a thousand times before she left for the store. I'm lucky to be married folks, lucky to be married.

I hadn’t cooked with salt pork much previously aside from attempting to use it a couple years ago after being introduced to it at Ryan Thanksgiving.  My Aunt Jeannie uses slices of salt pork draped on top of the turkey to flavor the bird and keep it moist, but I mostly tried and failed to use it in breakfast preparations.  It’s really salty stuff, so after cutting off about a third of the slab to use, I rinsed it thoroughly to remove excess salt, then transferred to the cutting board to trim the rind off.

I think the rind is skin, but not sure about that. Also, salt pork is made with fatback, so even a meaty piece still has a lot of fat

Most recipes called for 1/4 to 1/3 of a pound of salt pork or bacon per pound of dried beans, but since I like my beans salty and porky I erred on the high end and used a little under a half pound, which I cubed into small pieces.

I knew the fatty pieces would almost completely disappear during cooking leaving only delicious flavor. Oh, and fat.

Next step was giving a yellow onion a medium dice and measuring out some mustard.  As I researched online, most recipes called for ground mustard, but I really got the sense from Momere that she meant prepared mustard when she gave the recipe.  So, I went with my ample gut, and decided to go with Grey Poupon as a semi-homage to Momere’s French-Canadian heritage.

Although I was planning on a quarter cup, I was totally guessing since I had no idea what the prepared equivalent of 2 tablespoons of ground mustard would be. But there was a third of a cup left in the bottle, so that's what I went with.

To make sure there wouldn’t be clumps of individual ingredients and everything would be evenly dispersed, I decided to combine ingredients prior to adding the beans.  Starting with whisking together the mustard with the maple syrup and a little water.

Action shots!!!! I was really enjoying myself more than made sense at this point

Per Momere’s recommendation, I began taste testing the liquid since it was key to the success of the beans.  I started with a half cup of maple syrup and a couple tablespoons of white sugar but added more of both until it got to the sweetness level I was hoping for.  It ended up at around 3/4 cup of maple syrup and 1/4 cup of sugar which was a little sweeter than I wanted, but it would be diluted by adding a few cups of water before cooking.

Once the flavor was right, I added the salt pork, onions and a couple tablespoons of minced garlic.

Worst kept secret on the ADB blog: I keep a jar of store-bought minced garlic in the fridge for when I am out of fresh garlic or feeling lazy. Both were the case on this day

Stirred in the beans, about 2 1/2 cups of water, a couple tablespoons of fresh ground pepper and then the whole bowl went into the smaller cousin of my favorite Le Creuset.

This was looking lighter in color than I expected but I figured the beans and sugar would darken during cooking. Also, sometimes when I post pictures of this Le Creuset in use I feel like I am cheating on my main squeeze, Big Yellow

The lid went on, and this headed into the 275F oven for 6 hours per Momere’s instructions.  While that cooks, here are some interesting Momere facts:

– She has 27 great grandchildren and 15 great-great grandchildren.  Blows my freaking mind.  When I was young I remember showing friends the picture of my oldest brother John as a baby with our father, grandfather, and great grandfather shortly before he passed away.  I thought it was amazing that my brother actually met his great grandfather.
– When Momere was 48 her husband passed away and she needed to find employment to support herself.  In a show of incredible determination, she put herself through nursing school and worked for an additional 30+ years before retiring at the age of 80.  By contrast, I left my relatively cushy job to go back to school when I was 29 in the hopes of finding an even cushier job.  If the previous sentence was shown to a group of seniors along with a picture of me eating a sandwich, there would be universal head shaking and a resounding chorus of, “they don’t make ’em like they used to.”
– After Momere’s husband passed away, it was just her sister, Marcienne who was also recently widowed, in the house with her.  Momere Marcienne (as she was called by the family) and Momere were married to brothers and had brought up their two families in the same house.  They lived about 6 houses away from Kristi’s family so Momere Marcienne and Momere often took care of Kristi and her twin Kate when they were babies and occasionally after school while their parents were at work.  They each had their own twin, and while I love Momere,  I gotta side with Momere Marcienne since she was on Team Kristi.

Momere Marcienne is on the left, Momere is on the right. While my head is exploding with comments on my wife as well as my brother and sisters in-law in this picture, let's keep this a nice blog about Momere and her awesome baked beans, okay?

Back to the cooking.  After about four and a half hours in the oven, I pulled the beans out to check if they needed a stir, which they did.

The top layer was in danger of drying out but you can see the ample cooking liquid below bubbling through in spots

The change in color and rich aroma were very encouraging, and stirring the beans up helped avoid the top layer getting too dry and dispersed the liquid throughout the beans.  After another hour and a half I pulled the beans and had my first taste.  The flavor was great, exactly what I was hoping for, but the big test was Kristi.  I couldn’t have been happier than when she ate the first forkful, then the rest of the small bowl I’d prepared, and said the flavor was right on.

Since the beans were still slightly firmer than I wanted them and there was a good amount of excess liquid, I removed the lid and put the beans back in the oven for another 40 minutes at 325F.  Which got me here:

You know that looks freaking delicious, and the smell matched

The flavors came together very well and each bite had a little salty pork flavor, a little maple, and some tartness from the Dijon mustard.  Just the right level of sweetness too, not the over-the-top sugary sweetness of Bush’s Maple Cured Bacon Beans.  They had a very rich flavor, but not a heavy richness, perfect with a couple sausages or hot dogs.

I OD'ed on these Al Fresco chicken sausages a few years ago and am just now reintroducing them to our meals. They were a good compliment to the beans, as was the yellow horseradish mustard from some Buffalo place that Buschy left in my fridge

The beans weren’t quite as soft as the canned variety, but I wouldn’t say that made them any less enjoyable, just clear that you weren’t eating canned baked beans.  I’d likely do a little more lid-on cooking time and a little more water in the future if I was hoping for softer beans.  I’ll also listen to Momere and cook them until the skin falls off when I blow on them (which it didn’t on mine).

Anyhoo, they were really good.  The next step is to attempt making these the next time I visit VT and see if Momere has any suggestions or changes.  I am already feeling a little nervous about that.  Here’s a poor attempt at a recipe.

Pete’s version of Momere’s Baked Beans

1 lb dried navy beans (rinsed and soaked overnight)
1/3 lb salt pork (rinsed and cubed) – 1/2 lb for saltier/meatier beans
3/4 cup maple syrup
1/3 cup Dijon mustard
1/4 cup white sugar
3 & 1/2 cups of water
1 medium yellow onion (diced)
2 tablespoons minced garlic
Fresh ground pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 275F.  Whisk together mustard, maple syrup, water, and sugar until thoroughly blended.  Stir in beans, pork, onions, garlic, and pepper.  Place in medium sized pot with heavy lid and place in oven for 6 hours (7 hours for softer beans), stirring once approximately halfway through cooking.  Increase oven temperature to 325F, remove lid, stir once, and cook an addition 30-45 minutes or until excess liquid has cooked off.  Remove beans from oven and they are ready to serve.