Don't make sausage--or pâté, or rillettes--alone. That's the mission statement of the Meat Club, an informal group of meat-project enthusiasts who have been gathering these past few months to tackle DIY kitchen projects that might daunt the solo cook. This past Sunday, eleven members of the ad hoc club met in North Oakland to tackle French boudin blanc, a suave, emulsified sausage made from pork, chicken, and cream.
By 5 p.m., host Lisa Kramer was setting up the four stand mixers that members--a loose affiliation of friends and friends-of-friends, roughly divided between food-industry professionals and accomplished hobbyists--have hauled over. Suzanne Drexhage, owner of Berkeley's cafe-wine bar Bartavelle, and Kelsie Kerr, who worked as a chef at both Chez Panisse and Cafe Rouge and co-authored both volumes of The Art of Simple Food with Alice Waters, were calmly chopping some 15 pounds of boneless pork shoulder, sourced from Cafe Rouge.
Sean Timberlake of Punk Domestics arrived, his apron emblazoned "Go Pig or Go Home." With him was Karen Solomon, author of Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It, her own apron a frilled, hot-pink number inscribed with a not-exactly-family-friendly word (let's just say it rhymes with stitch). Aprons are definitely the accessory of the moment, since by the end of the night we all will be well greased with what Drexhage dubs "pork shmoo." Previous Meat Clubbers still remember the "lard explosion" of the first meeting, when the group made ciccolli, a slow-cooked, spreadable pork terrine from Emilia-Romagna that involves intense rendering.
Spread out wherever there's room for a pan or a cutting board, the eleven of us each found a job: measuring and grinding spices; cubing chicken breast; slicing creamy white pork fat into strips; trimming the crusts off a loaf of white, fine-crumbed pain de mie; sauteing sliced onions in butter. The meats and fat are mixed, salted, and spiced, then spread out in hotel pans and popped into the fridge to chill before grinding. This is something I learned in my time making large quantities of sausage in the kitchen at Sausalito's Headlands Center for the Arts: keep every part of your sausage-makings, from the meat to the grinder blades, as cold as possible. As with pie crust, you want to keep your fat firm, not softening into paste. Cold meat and cold fat grinds smooth and clean, without clogging.
It's especially important on the large scale we're working with tonight. We've decided on roughly three pounds of finished sausage per person, which means starting out with some 30 pounds of meat, which is a lot to process in a home kitchen without trough-sized mixing bowls or a walk-in refrigerator. So, we filled the largest roasting pans we could find with our raw meat mixture and headed to the dining room to snack while they chilled.
Of course, the break table was a feast of DIY. I bring the test batch of beignets I've just made, with a jar of crab apple syrup (otherwise known as jelly that never set, but who needs to know?) for drizzling. Sean sets up his new signature treat, the Mason jar relish tray. Each mini-jar is filled with homemade preserved, fermented, or pickled treats, from kimchee and hoshigaki (Japanese-style dried persimmons) to bread-and-butter pickles, pickled turnips and sweet peppers in oil. Elaine added a jar of her homemade butter; Lisa provided bread and a creamy round of Cowgirl Creamery's Mt Tam cheese. Amy's Mendocino Navarro Chardonnay and my bottle of SF Mead Company's "California Gold" are kept back for later, when we've finished with the heavy machinery. If you haven't seen a deluxe KitchenAid whapping around six pounds of sausage mix, well, it's a sight that warrants sobriety.
Back in the meat room, we fed the chunks of meat and fat into the hoppers, watching the coarse-ground ground meat snake down to the bowls, dumping each heaping bowl into empty roasting pans as they filled. Then, we changed out the grinding disks from coarse to fine, and ground the sausage again. Kelsie suggested sending the mixture through the fine disks one more time for ultimate smoothness, but faced with 30 pounds of meat, and both emulsifying and stuffing still ahead of us, we demurred (although you certainly can).
The meat got divided into five- and six-pound piles, according to the size of our assorted mixers, then paddle-slapped in batches until fluffy and smooth. Then, it went back into the fridge to chill, while we started rolling hog casings like stockings or, yes, condoms, onto the cone-shaped stuffing attachments.
Hog casings are cleaned, empty hog intestines, usually sold frozen or packed in salt. If you get them salt packed, you'll need to soak them until they're re-hydrated. I ask the group where they'd source hog casings; they suggest Avedano's, Cafe Rouge, Golden Gate Meats, and Ver Brugge Foods. (I'd add in Marina Meats.) It's a good idea to call ahead, since it's an item that may need to be special ordered.
Into the home stretch, now: Time to stuff! This was a duet for four hands: one to feed the hopper, one to manage the coiling sausage as it filled. By this point, the mixture was thick and sticky, with a tendency to suction itself into the hopper. It has be pushed down firmly, in long up-and-all-the-way-down strokes. My partner in pork-shmoo, Jeanne Brophy, discovers a trick that keeps the mixture from forming a vacuum that sucks the casing back into the tube: she makes a ring with her thumb and forefinger and "cleans" the sausage mix from the pusher as she goes, pushing the meat back down into the hopper as she pulls the pusher up. Don't overfill the casing as you go; this is a soft filling that will expand as it cooks. It's hypnotically satisfying, watching the filled coils snake down. We tied off the ends, like tying a balloon, and brought them over to where Sean was swiftly twisting them into links, twisting in alternate directions to keep the links from untwisting themselves in the car and BART rides home.
It will be after 11 p.m. by the time I finally made it back to Bernal Heights, shmoo on my shoes and some three-plus pounds of sausage ready for poaching, as elegant as sausage can be. But first, with wine and mead, we toasted another project completed.
The key to stress-free sausage making is keeping everything--the meat, the bowls, the paddles, and especially the grinding attachments--very cold. This keeps the fat in the sausage mix from softening into a smeary paste, which can clog the grinder and stuffer. Chill your bowls, paddles, grinding and stuffing attachments in the freezer for at least an hour before you start. Allow extra time to chill your meat mixture before grinding and before stuffing.
Makes about 3 pounds of finished sausage
1 1/4 lb boneless pork shoulder,
1 lb skinless chicken breast
1/2 lb pork fat
1 1/2 tbsp sea salt
1 bay leaf
2 1/2 tsp black peppercorns
1 allspice berry
1/4 tsp caraway seeds
1/4 tsp coriander seeds
1/4 tsp dried thyme
1/8 tsp cayenne
1/8 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 medium onion, peeled and sliced
1 tbsp butter
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
Hog casings, soaked and rinsed
Chop pork shoulder into rough cubes, removing any stringy, gristly bits or glands as you go. Do the same for the chicken and pork fat. Mix pork, chicken, and fat together, sprinkling with the salt and mixing well. Chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
While meat mixture is chilling, grind the spices to a fine powder in a spice grinder. Measure 1 tablespoon of the powdered spices and mix into meat.
Using the coarse disk on your grinder, grind the pork and chicken mixture. Return the mixture to the fridge while you replace the coarse disk on your grinder with the fine one. Grind the mixture through the fine disk.
In a saute pan over medium heat, melt butter. Saute onions, stirring frequently, until soft and translucent. Remove from heat and let cool.
Mix bread crumbs into cream and let soak for a few minutes. Mix ground meat with onions, cream mixture and thyme. Scoop meat mixture into the chilled bowl of a stand mixer. Mix with the paddle attachment on high speed for 5-7 minutes, until mixture is fluffy and smooth.
Bring a small pot of water to a simmer. Add a tablespoon of meat mixture. Poach for a few minutes, until cooked through. Drain and let cool for a few minutes. Taste for seasoning, and add additional salt and/or spice mix to the meat mixture as needed. If desired, poach another test spoonful after seasoning to taste again.
Return mixture to the fridge to chill for another 15-20 minutes. Put stuffing attachment onto stand mixer. Roll hog casing onto stuffer. Feed meat mixture into hopper, pushing with a wooden or plastic pusher. Fill casing loosely. Tie off at both ends, then twist at 4 to 6-inch intervals to make links. Alternate the direction of the twisting with each link, i.e, twist to the right to make the first link, then twist to the left on the second, and so forth. This will help keep the links from unwinding.
Bring a wide, deep pot of water to a gentle simmer. Using the tip of a sharp knife or a fondue fork, poke a few small holes in each sausage. Add links to simmering water and poach for 10-15 minutes, until cooked through. To avoid sausage blow-ups, don't let the water go above a simmer. Remove links and let cool, then refrigerate or freeze until needed.
To cook sausage, saute in over medium heat in a small amount of oil or clarified butter. Turn frequently to brown all sides, about 5-6 minutes.
Elaine Wu, Amy Cleary, Kelsie Kerr, Suzanne Drexhange, owner of Bartavelle, Dana Velden, Sean Timberlake, Jeanne TK, Karen Solomon, Lisa Kramer.