Friday, March 12, 2010

The Whole Hog: Time for Meatballs!

Well. If you read my last entry (Sausage-making party with Ondine) then you know the happy news that I now have 10 pounds of freshly made sausage in my freezer; this breaks down to approximately 3.5 pounds of spicy Italian, 3.5 pounds of sweet Italian, and 3 pounds of Mexican-style chorizo. That doesn't sound quite as nuts as it did when you heard I was making 15 pounds of sausage with Ondine, now does it? Somehow, when you divide it up at the end, you look at it and say, "Well now, that's really not very much sausage at all. We should have made more!" and then you catch yourself and say "Get a grip, girl."

So now that we have all that great product in the freezer, it's time to do something with it. In addition to the 3/4 of a pig in the freezer, I also have 1/8 of a grass-fed, organic cow I bought from Mike and Sally Gale of Chileno Beef ( in there. Let me be frank; since reading about how industrial beef cows are processed in Fast Food Nation I will never buy pre-packaged, commercially ground hamburger again. And after I read about how meat animals are raised commercially in Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma I have tried very, very hard to buy all of my meat directly from ranchers. So it's a darned nice thing to reach in my freezer and take out a pound of hamburger that I know is safe, sustainable, healthy, and delicious, take off the compostable paper (!) wrapper, and get to work. Today's Menu: meatballs.

I like meatballs. I really do. Once again, however, here is a tasty food item where you look at most of the recipes and say to yourself "Self, that looks like waaay too much work. Next!" You know, grate, soak, mix, shape, THEN brown, THEN braise. So, when I found this recipe a few years ago, I was sold. It skips the browning step, instead braising them in some good quality canned tomatoes, but the flavor - the flavor does not taste like you skipped any steps at all. The sausage adds a delicious complexity to the flavor and texture, the meat juices and Pecorino Romano cheese mix with the tomatoes as they bake and flavor the sauce, the sauce thickens and becomes rich as they bake. It takes very little time to mix these simple ingredients together, and then you pop them in the oven, where they tend to themselves while you make the rest of the meal, stress-free. It's a winner!

Old-Fashioned Meatballs in Red Sauce
adapted from The Simpler the Better by Leslie Revsin with Rick Rodgers
(reprinted in Gourmet Magazine, October 2005)

Serve with a nice batch of soft polenta, over pasta, or on some nice crusty bread - do I need to say more?

For The Meatballs:
1 pound grass-fed ground beef (15% fat)
1/2 pound sweet or hot Italian sausage
1/3 cup plain dry bread crumbs, combined with 1/3 cup water
2 eggs, lightly beaten
3 large garlic cloves, minced
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly grated black pepper
1/4 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese

For The Sauce:
1 large can (28 oz) crushed tomatoes (I highly recommend Muir Glen brand)
1/4 tsp salt
Plenty of freshly ground pepper to taste

1/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano

Remove meats from the refrigerator 30 to 60 minutes before cooking, if possible. Remove the sausages from their casings. (Ha! Remember what I said in the sausage recipe? Now you can congratulate yourself on NOT putting them in casings!)

Place bread crumbs in a large bowl and stir in 1/3 cup water. When absorbed, blend together with eggs, garlic, 1/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano, 1/4 tsp salt, and 1/4 tsp fresh ground pepper.

Pre-heat the oven to 425 F. Add the meats to the bread crumb/egg mixture and combine well with your hands. Form into 16 to 18 even-sized balls. As you make them, lay them in a single layer in the bottom of an 9x13" heavy baking dish, separating them by about 1 inch.

Mix the salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper into the tomatoes, and pour them over and around the meatballs. Then sprinkle the tops with the grated cheese garnish. Bake in the center of the oven until just cooked through, around 20 minutes.

A note on the cheese: Freshly grated cheese really is the tastiest, but pre-grated is alright in a pinch. Please note that if you use a micro-plane (a kitchen must-have!) the volume is greater than with a "regular" grater, so don't be skimpy - there's nothing wrong with a little extra cheese!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Whole Hog: Sausage Making Party with Ondine

When I buy an animal from my rancher friend, Mary Pettis-Sarley, ( one of the first things I think about is sausage. Having a few pounds of sausage in the freezer, whether pork or lamb, is like having a pile of money in the bank. When you come home from work, the gym, ferrying the kid home from swim class or some other event with precious few creative brain cells available to conjure up what you will make for dinner that night, you can quick-thaw some sausages and make something truly tasty in a flash. They are splendid on their own, as a flavoring agent for soups, sauces or beans, combined with vegetables such as broccoli for a filling in a calzone, or served over a delicious whole-grain such as polenta, brown rice, or bulghur wheat - or of course, pasta. With that in mind, I asked the butcher to cut up one of the hams instead of smoking it, with the intention of committing it to sausage-making.

It is indeed true that sausages take some time and effort to make, and there was a time (not so long ago) when I wouldn't have dreamed of making them myself. I still buy and stockpile a number of different flavored sausages that I do not make myself from the local, sustainable charcuterer The Fatted Calf. It's also true that casings are not readily available to the public, and that injecting the filling into the casings adds another time-consuming step. Plus, it seems like most recipes involving sausage seem to start with "first remove the casings from the sausages..." So I say, skip it and make some patties! Joel had some strong feelings in favor of our using casings, so to humor him, we chose to make links out of one of our three varieties. All that said, sausages do not take much high-level skill, and when you grab a friend or two and have a sausage-making party, it's a blast! One person can measure the spices while the other feeds the meat into the grinder. Then one can feed the seasoned, ground meat into the chute while the other makes the links. And finally, one person can make patties while the other makes the packages. Meanwhile, once you've gotten past the brief bit of concentration required to calculate the spicing quantities, you can yak away and get caught up on things while your hands do the work.

So, on a recent school vacation day, I invited my friend Ondine, a 25% stake-holder in this year's Duroc breed pig, to come on over for a sausage-making event. She arrived with five pounds of cubed pork and some seasonings. I, meanwhile, thawed out ten pounds of pork, and checked to see if the casings I purchased from Niman Ranch five years ago, and had been storing in heavily salted water in the deep freeze, were still good - they were (!) I gathered my recipes, doused my meat-grinding attachment for the KitchenAid mixer in boiling water, and got ready to go to work.

Having agreed that Italian-style sausages are one of the major backbones of cooking, we chose sweet and hot Italian sausages to be our main products for the day, and Mexican style chorizo as our third variety. Then, our first order of business was to cut the meat into strips that would fit easily into the feed tube of the grinding attachment for my mixer. As we cut, we assessed whether or not we needed additional fat; we agreed that a little more backfat from my stash was needed to reach the desired ratio of 3/4 of a pound of fat to 3 pounds of meat. (Of course I asked the butcher for all of the fat - I'll be making lard later!)

If you are making sausage, it is easy for your inner Puritan - (or the voice of your mother) - to jump in and say "No! No more fat! No, I said NO! That's enough!" But here's why it's necessary to hush that joy-killer up: first, be aware that home-made sausage is way leaner than most store-bought sausage. Bruce Aidells, in his Complete Book of Sausage, states that commercial sausage can contain from 30 to 50% fat. His recipes, meanwhile, range from 15 to 25% fat; compare that to the ratio for store-bought lean hamburger, which is 15-22%. When you cook the sausages, the fat melts right out and can be drained off (or left in for flavoring or as a sauce base.) However, if you decide to craft lean sausages, there is no fat to be released in cooking, so, needing to give off something, the sausages give off their other juices instead, leaving you with a very dry, tough, piece of (well-spiced) meat. Also, do you remember the discussion of good pig fat in the introductory "Whole Hog" entry? ( Executive summary: pig fat is much better for you than you might think. If you've bought a nice, clean living pig, why not indulge in a little of its tasty fat?

Here are our recipes:

New York-Style Spicy Hot Sausage
from Bruce Aidells' Complete Book of Sausage

This is a well balanced spicy sausage - a great all-purpose blend which goes well in tomato sauce, on pizza, or with broccoli.

3 lbs pork butt, cut into long pieces, about 1" wide
3/4 lb pork back fat
2 TB anise-flavored liqueur, such as Sambuca (optional)
2 TB anise or fennel seeds
1 TB minced garlic
1 TB red pepper flakes
4 tsp kosher salt
2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp ground cayenne pepper
1/4 cup water, as needed
Medium hog casings

Combine the pork and fat with the liqueur, anise seeds, garlic, red pepper, salt, black pepper, and cayenne in a large bowl. Grind everything through a 3/8" plate. Moisten with the water, and squeeze and knead the mixture until it is well blended. Stuff into casings, and tie into 5" links (or make into 1/4 lb. patties.) The sausage will keep for 3 days in the refrigerator, or 2 to 3 months in the freezer.

Tavella Family's Sausage
from Sunset Magazine, November 2003

This sweet sausage is unusual in its use of cinnamon and nutmeg as its main seasonings. This gives it a lovely aromatic, nuanced flavor.

1/4 cup dry red wine
2 tsp pickling spice (bay leaf, juniper berry, mustard seed, whole allspice, peppercorns, whole cloves,whole mace, cinnamon stick, cardamom seeds, pepper flakes, ginger)
5 lb ground pork butt (shoulder) including around 20% fat
2 TB salt
1 1/2 TB fresh ground black pepper
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp fresh ground nutmeg

Step 1: In a small saucepan, bring wine and pickling spice to a boil. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. Pour through a strainer into a large bowl; discard solids.

Step 2: Add ground pork, salt, pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg to the bowl. Mix very thoroughly with your hands to distribute spices evenly.

Step 3: Shape about 1/3 cup (3 oz.) pork mixture into an oval-shaped patty about 1/2" thick. Place on a waxed paper-lined baking sheet. Shape remaining mix into patties, separating them with layers of waxed paper.

Homemade Chorizo
from California Rancho Cooking by Jacqueline Higuera McMahan

Ms. McMahan, an eighth generation Californian, grew up on one of the last Spanish land grant ranchos in the San Francisco Bay Area; this is one of her family recipes. The classic way to eat this tasty sausage is with eggs and tortillas.

2 lbs. boneless pork with some fat
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp cumin seed, crushed very fine
1 TB sea salt
4 to 6 TB powdered red chile, preferably New Mexican, Californian, or mixed, or powdered red chile and pureed chipotle en adobo
1 to 2 tsp chile seeds, reserved from whole chiles (optional)
1/4 cup paprika
1/2 cup red wine or cider vinegar
2 TB port wine

Grind the pork, using the coarse plate in the meat grinder.

Combine all of the spices, then add to the ground meat and work it in well with your hands. Let the mixture meld in the refrigerator for 24 hours; the flavors will intensify as it sits. Freeze excess in either patties, or small packages.

Christine's notes: Due to the high content of spices and liquids, this sausage is very loose and will fall apart when cooked. The vinegary scent as this cooks is divine....