Light fluffy snow swirls brightly as I head out for a walk on the rail bed where I see lots of coyote tracks. When I get back to the frost-covered cottage, my face feels frozen and my fingers tingle in too-thin gloves. It’s finally the right weekend to stay in and take on the winter project that’s been on my mind since early fall: sausage.
Sausage is a primary food group in south Louisiana where I come from. When I was a kid, most towns there had mom-and-pop grocery stores with butchers who produced incredibly high quality fresh and smoked sausages. My family patronized Johnson’s Grocery and Meat Market in Eunice, where Mr. Wallace was in charge. (Wallace was his given name; in Louisiana we kids addressed adults we knew well by their first names, but always with an honorific on the front end. Just call me Mr. Ed.) The old-fashioned store is gone now, but Mr. Wallace’s sausage was such a fixture at my grandparents’ house that I mentioned it in my grandmother’s funeral sermon.
I’ve never had finer sausage in my life. I don’t eat a ton of sausage these days because it’s hard to find anything like it. Every year, I talk about making my own. This year, I’m determined to do it.
I want a partner for my project, and I know my nephew Kyle, who lives in Somerville, will be the perfect confederate if I can lure him to Truro for the weekend. In his day job he’s a systems engineer working on The Next Big Thing. But in his heart of hearts what he really wants is to be a neighborhood butcher with a counter like Mr. Wallace’s. He would know all his customers and provide them with high-quality meats from humanely raised animals and waste nothing, nose to tail. I’ve never seen Kyle sparkle like when he’s contemplating how to use an odd cut of meat from his local meat share or discussing varieties of sausage. The boy loves his wurst.
When I call, it turns out that Kyle has cassoulet on his mind. Cassoulet is that sumptuously meaty bean stew from the south of France — and it requires a specific kind of garlic pork sausage. That becomes our organizing principle. On Friday we finish our research and assemble our tools and ingredients. On Saturday we embark on the sausage adventure. On Sunday family and friends will come to a Sunday supper of tarbais beans (the traditional white bean used for cassoulet) stewed with duck and our homemade sausage.
The formula for the sausage is simple: pork, garlic, wine, and black pepper. Following Paula Wolfert in her The Cooking of Southwest France, I also include nutmeg and just a bit of cognac. While the ingredient list is short, the sausage — like all sausages — relies on specific ratios of ingredients and a few techniques for success.
The right fat-to-meat ratio is crucial. I had read you need about 30 percent fat. With less, you get mealy, tough results. A consultation with the butcher at Friends’ Market in Orleans confirmed that pork shoulder would do the trick nicely.
Beyond the right proportions and flavorings, a happy marriage of meat and fat requires that the sausage ingredients be kept refrigerator-cold throughout the process. This avoids what charcutiers call “the smear,” a sad turn of events in which the mixture is not extruded cleanly from the grinder, and the meat and fat do not remain distinct.
As Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn note in Charcuterie, their book on the craft of sausage making and other salty, fatty, smoky pleasures, properly ground sausage should look like good ground beef.
After grinding, the meat is transformed by mixing in a liquid (in this case red wine and cognac), and kneading. The kneading binds the meat by developing the protein, not unlike what happens when bread dough is kneaded, and ensures a uniform texture. A sturdy mixer with dedicated attachments for grinding and mixing is an invaluable tool in home sausage making.
Kyle and I start early on Saturday. We know we might be a bit out over our skis on this one, particularly with guests coming on Sunday. But soon we’re trimming and seasoning the meat. We allow it to chill, and, while it does, there’s time to discuss the history of American anarchism and the finer points of powerlifting.
The grind goes without a hitch, though we have to stop twice to clean the grinding die of accumulated sinew. The meat looks perfect and we’re pumped.
Using the paddle of the mixer, we emulsify the meat and the wine. Now is the moment of truth: Kyle fries three small patties of sausage in a skillet. We call Christopher into the kitchen for a taste. The meat is tender and juicy, the flavors of garlic and wine lingering on the backside of the chew. We wait. Christopher declares it delicious. High five!
Next, we rinse the natural hog casings (we ordered them online) and make the links. Stuffing requires a gentle touch, and four hands are better than two. Kyle feeds knobs of sausage into the hopper, careful not to crowd the piston. I catch the filled casing as it springs off the tube, guiding and coaxing it into a consistent size and shape. Then we twist the sausage into six-inch links and hang them in the cold basement to dry out and tighten.
Sunday supper starts early. The sparkling wine is poured just as the south Truro sky lights up with oranges and purples as it sometimes does. The assembled company agrees that the hearty cassoulet is deeply comforting on a cold winter evening. And while we may never have our own meat counter, Kyle and I savor the satisfactions of our teamwork, of feeding family and friends, and of the chance to pay tribute to Mr. Wallace.
Toulouse-Style Pork Sausage
Makes about 20 sausages
5 lbs. boneless fatty pork shoulder
About 3 Tbsp. kosher salt
About 1 Tbsp. fresh ground black pepper
About 1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
About 3 Tbsp. minced garlic
2 Tbsp. cognac
1 cup minus 2 Tbsp. dry red wine, chilled
10 feet hog casings, soaked in tepid water for 30 minutes and rinsed
Cut the pork into half-inch dice. (When dicing, remove as much silverskin and sinew as possible to avoid clogging the grinder.) Toss the meat with salt, pepper, nutmeg, and garlic until evenly mixed. Cover and refrigerate until the mixture is thoroughly chilled, at least 2 hours. Alternatively, place the diced shoulder in the freezer for about 30 minutes until cold and a bit stiff but not frozen.
Grind the cold seasoned pork through the small die of the grinder into a bowl set in ice to keep it cold. Feed the pieces of shoulder into the hopper of the grinder slowly, being careful not to overcrowd the mechanism as it pulls the meat slowly forward. If the grinder begins to strain or if the meat stops looking crumbly, stop the machine and clean the die.
Once the meat is ground, use the paddle attachment of the mixer (or, if you have a very strong arm, you can do this by hand) to mix on the lowest speed for one minute. Add the chilled wine and cognac and increase the mixing speed to medium. Mix for an additional minute or until the liquid is incorporated and the meat looks sticky.
Fry a bite-sized portion of the sausage in a small skillet to taste for seasonings (make sure to keep the rest of the sausage on ice or in the refrigerator). Add any additional seasonings if needed and remix to incorporate.
The sausage is now ready and may be cooked in patty form or stuffed into the casing.
To make the links, rinse the inside of the soaked hog casings under the faucet. Remove the die and grinding mechanism from the grinder and replace with the stuffing nozzle. Slide the entire casing onto the nozzle attachment (water helps it to slide on more easily). With the mixer running, slowly drop pinches of the sausage into the hopper. It helps to have two people at this stage — one to drop in the sausage and the other to handle the filled casing.
Once the casings are completely filled, twist into links by pinching the sausage 6 inches from the end and twisting in one direction. Pinch off another 6-inch link without twisting. Twist the third link in the opposite direction and continue this pattern for the entire length of the sausage. Or you can tie the links off with butcher’s string.
Hang the sausages in a cool place for 4-8 hours (the colder it is, the longer you can hang them). Once they have dried a bit, refrigerate until needed. They will keep for at least a week in the refrigerator or frozen for up to two months. If you intend to freeze the sausage, wait a day before doing so. This will tighten them up and help them keep their shape.
The recipe Edouard and Kyle adapted for the cassoulet is published with this story on the Indie’s website: www.provincetownindependent.org.