Americans spend about two billion dollars on packaged dinner sausage every year. That’s a lot of sausage! We clearly love our minced pork meat, garlic and spices. Until recently, I counted myself among the population of satisfied shoppers exchanging crisp dollar bills for those savory links. That changed when I began to realize I was becoming less and less satisfied. Frankly, I found many of the sausages I purchased too heavy with the overpowering flavors of fennel seeds, red pepper flakes or nutmeg. Like sharks in a tank of minnows, packaged sausages tended to bully every other ingredient in a dish.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t have anything against fennel seeds, red pepper flakes or nutmeg. It’s just that difficulties arise when this zany cast of characters takes over. I recently prepared a sweet potato and sausage soup, and ended up tasting fennel seeds in every spoonful instead of the candied potato goodness I was craving. That’s when I decided to take sausage-making destiny into my own hands, and began to thrust them into bowls of raw meat, herbs and spices.
Had anyone predicted this new passion of mine years ago, I would have laughed. That’s because I made a pact with myself when I was a child that I would never make sausages from scratch. Growing up in Italy, I watched my parents toil, labor, sweat, occasionally argue with each other over technique, and sweat some more for days on end as they made their own homemade sausages. I told myself then that I would buy them ready-made as an adult, and use the extra free time to have some fun instead. Besides, it was messy business.
Much to my delight, I discovered the process to be surprisingly easy and fast. Anyone who has made meatloaf can make this sausage mixture, and in the same amount of time. It is also not particularly gruesome which I hope is reassuring to the squeamish. Best of all, it liberates us, allowing us to select the seasonings we desire.
In all fairness to the more exacting methodology of artisan sausage makers, I consider what I make to be ‘sausage making 101’ at best…however tasty. I say this because I do not cut and grind the meat myself. I also do not use casings, the scrubbed and salted intestines of pigs, which also means I avoid needing to rinse them and check them for holes. Finally, I do not get to spend hours of my life wiping beads of sweat off my face as I crank the sausage stuffer to fill those intestines.
All this simplicity does comes at a price. The sausage I make resembles loose, ground meat more than actual sausage once cooked. It is therefore perfect for recipes that require sausage removed from its casing. Pasta dishes, soups and savory pies immediately come to mind.
To make this casing-less sausage, first prepare 2 garlic cloves by removing their skins, slicing them in half and removing their internal green sprout, which is bitter. Place the prepared garlic cloves and 1/2 tablespoon of Kosher salt in a mortar and crush to a paste. Then add 2 teaspoons of apple cider vinegar and mix well.
In a large mixing bowl, add 1 lb. of ground pork meat, 1/2 cup of loosely packed chopped parsley, 1/2 teaspoon of optional chili flakes, 1 tablespoon of kosher salt and the salt, garlic and vinegar mixture you have just prepared. To make sausage meatballs, add 5 slices of food processor-ground bacon and 1/3 cup of Parmigiano-Reggiano to the ground pork. The extra fat in the mixture will allow the meatballs to keep their shape when cooked. Mix very well. To test the sausage’s seasoning, fry a small patty in a pan with a smidge of oil. Add a little more salt or spices if required. Store, sealed in clear food wrap, in the refrigerator for up to 48 hours.
Feel free to add or swap out spices at will. The benefit of making the sausage mixtures ourselves is that we now man the flavor controls.
making sausage, spinach & mushroom pie
To prepare, make sure you have 1 17-oz. package of frozen puff pastry (2 sheets) on hand and that you’ve either defrosted it for 1 hour prior to making this recipe or that you placed it in the refrigerator overnight so that it’s no longer frozen.
Slice 1 large onion into thick-ish slivers.
Heat a heavy-bottomed, 10-inch skillet over medium heat with 1 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add onion and mix well. Sauté for about 15 minutes or so, stirring occasionally, until it begins to brown. It will smell sweet and savory.
Add salt to taste, mix well and transfer to a medium bowl.
As the onion cooks, clean and slice 1 6-oz. package of mushrooms.
In the same, now empty skillet, melt 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter. When it stops foaming, add the sliced mushrooms.
Sauté on medium-high heat for 7 minutes or so, until the mushrooms give up their liquid and it evaporates in the pan. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper and mix well. Transfer the cooked mushrooms to the bowl with the onion.
In the same skillet now empty again skillet, add ½ lb. of sausage, (CLICK HERE FOR HOMEMADE RECIPE) with its casing removed. With a potato masher, break the sausage mixture down until it resembles hamburger meat. When it is fully cooked, transfer it to a small bowl so it can cool.
Wash 1 large bunch of spinach, and place them in the same, now empty again skillet. They will cook in the small amount of drippings left over from cooking the sausage and with the little water still stuck to their leaves. Mix well and cover for a couple of minutes, until the spinach wilts slightly. Transfer it to a bowl and, once cooled, squeeze excess water from its leaves. Add to the bowl with the onions and mushrooms and mix all three ingredients together.
At this point, preheat the oven to 375°F. Roll out one sheet of puff pastry on a lightly floured surface. Line a 9″ baking pan with parchment paper and set the rolled-out puff pastry sheet on top. Gently press down on the puff pastry sheet to adjust to the shape of the pan.
It looks so pretty, doesn’t it???
Line the bottom of the puff pastry first with ¼ lb. of thinly sliced provolone or Swiss cheese.
Then cover the sliced cheese with the cooked sausage.
Finally, add the cooked onion, mushroom and spinach mixture.
Roll out the second sheet of puff pastry and place it on top.
With kitchen scissors, cut around the round of the baking dish, leaving a 1-inch border.
Pinch the two puff pastry edges tightly and then gently tuck them underneath, so that it creates a rounded effect along the edge of the pie. For a decorative effect, pinch the crust between two finger of one hand and the thumb of the other hand.
Make an egg wash placing 1 egg with 1 tablespoon of milk in a small bowl.
Lightly paint the egg wash all over the pastry.
Place the pie in the oven and lower the temperature to 350°F. Bake for 30-45 minutes, until the pie is golden brown. Allow to cool for 10 minutes before devouring. Makes 6 servings.