Low-fat and Herb-loaded Sausage
In the Deep South, sausage is a part of life. Louisiana cooks make andouille of cubed meat and fiery cayenne, slowly smoked over sassafras or pecan wood and basted with syrup. Boudin is a Cajun sausage, now gaining popularity, made with rice, pork, thyme, and parsley; we include a vegetarian version below. Mexico’s influence brings us spicy chorizo in its various guises, and throughout the South and Southwest, venison sausage, slowly smoked to keep the lean meat moist, is a favorite.
To most Americans, “sausage” means patties or links of ground pork, but sausage making has always been a variable culinary art form, adapting to whatever meats and seasonings were available at sausage-making time, traditionally in autumn. Today, we enjoy not only pork and beef sausages,but also poultry, seafood, and even vegetarian versions. We don’t have to bother with time-consuming curing methods such as drying, smoking, and salting, which helped preserve meat before the advent of refrigerators and freezers. We can eat sausages freshly made or freeze them for later.
How does sausage fit into a modern, low-fat diet? We take a balanced approach to meals and eat almost anything in moderation–including our favorite sausages. If you’re watching your calorie and fat intake, a sensible idea is to use a bit of robust-flavored sausage to season otherwise bland dishes; it adds a lot of flavor but only a few grams of fat.
If your love of sausage gives you a guilty conscience, you’ll find that our Turkey and Pear Sausage is relatively low in fat; coriander seed, basil, and tarragon contribute flavor, and the fruit keeps it moist. Creative tinkering with classic recipes makes it possible to devise delicious yet healthful sausages.
Try making sausage on a quiet weekend, or invite some friends over and make a party of it. The recipes may look complicated, but they’re fun and doable. Making your own ensures that you can pronounce the name of every ingredient.
A good sausage balances the sweet pungency of tropical spices–allspice, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, grains of paradise, mace, nutmeg, and pepper–with the flavors of leafy herbs. Those used most often in sausage making are workhorses in the kitchen and are probably already growing in your garden. Typically, they are the herbs we associate with the Mediterranean region–sage, bay, thyme, lemon thyme, sweet marjoram, Italian oregano, winter savory, chives, and parsley. Herbal seeds, especially caraway, coriander, cumin, mustard, and fennel, contribute much to traditional sausage flavor, and vegetables such as garlic, onion, shallot, mushrooms, and chiles add an incomparable depth.
Basil, cilantro, and Mexican mint marigold may be used in quickly cooked fresh poultry or seafood mixtures, but they rapidly lose their flavor in sausages that require more cooking. We love to experiment with sausage seasonings, and we believe that any herbs are good with any foods if a light touch is used and none is allowed to overpower.
Pan sausage is a good first foray into sausage making. It can be as simple as adding your choice of seasonings to ground pork, beef, turkey, or chicken from the market, then forming the mixture into patties. Or you can grind your own.
Texture, largely determined by the mixing and grinding, is one of the defining characteristics of good sausage. It’s also the badge of honor among makers of Texas home-style sausage–the rural families who still butcher hogs in the fall or those once-a-year hunters who pride themselves on their venison sausage. But texture is also a matter of personal taste, so you may need to experiment to find your favorite.
Most of our recipes start with chunks of meat or other ingredients that are tossed with seasonings and then run through a meat grinder twice, first coarsely, then with the finer-holed plate. When using a food processor to grind meat, partially freeze uniform chunks, then process lightly to avoid making a paste.
A little sugar in most pan sausages helps them brown. We prefer coarse kosher salt to table salt as it lumps less readily. The inclusion of a little fat keeps the sausage from becoming dry and hard as it cooks. With low-fat poultry combinations, we are most successful when we also include moist, aromatic vegetables or fruit.
After mixing your sausage, cook a small amount quickly in a skillet so that you can taste it and adjust the seasoning if necessary before you package it and refrigerate or freeze it. Sausage should be refrigerated overnight to marry the flavors before cooking, or as we say in Texas, “Let it set and sob.”
Traditionally, link sausage has been made by stuffing the sausage mixture into a casing of animal intestines through a nozzle called a horn. The links can be of any diameter and tied with string or twisted off to various lengths. Today, cellulose-based edible casings are also available in the fall in the freezer section of many supermarkets, and many multiuse kitchen appliances have sausage-stuffing attachments.
The casings should be filled evenly but not tightly as they may burst during cooking.
Sometimes we use plastic wrap to form a casing for sausages made from delicate ingredients such as seafood and poultry. The wrapped sausage is then steamed or poached in liquid. Oiled cheesecloth is traditionally used to wrap extra-plump sausages such as the Endless Summer Sausage on page 42.
Traditionally, sausage links were preserved by smoking for long hours over indirect heat at relatively low temperatures, but few of us today have the equipment or conditions at home to do this. The red color of many commercial sausages such as hot dogs, salami, and summer sausage comes from preservatives such as sodium nitrate.
Because our sausages contain no preservatives, they are intended to be cooked and eaten immediately. Before cooking, they can be refrigerated for up to a week or frozen (except for Elegant Seafood Sausage and Cajun Garden Boudin) for as long as a year. Freeze raw patties or individual links on a baking sheet, pop them off, wrap them in foil, put them into plastic freezer bags, and store them in the freezer.
If you have a home smoker, there is no reason not to smoke these sausages a bit if you like the flavor; mild poultry-based blends, especially those with fruit, benefit from a light smoking. Refrigerate the raw sausage mixture for 24 hours to blend the flavors, then follow the directions on your smoker. If you freeze your homemade smoked sausage, eat it within 4 to 6 months, as the flavors change over time.
Most of the recipes below call for fresh herbs; if using dried, halve the amount unless otherwise indicated. All of the recipes can be easily doubled to feed a crowd.
Unless otherwise directed, form all sausage mixtures into patties or stuff into casings, then refrigerate overnight or freeze. To cook, brown lightly over low heat, then add a small amount of water, cover, and steam for a few minutes. Uncover and increase the heat to finish cooking. Cook meat sausages until there is no hint of pinkness in the center. Don’t prick the casings of link sausage when cooking as they will lose too much moisture.
A note of caution: Be scrupulously clean when making sausage. Scrub hands and utensils with hot, soapy water before beginning. Repeat when you’re done or before proceeding to any other food preparation.