Italian sausages with the snap of real hog casings filled with juicy pork and the perfect balance of cheese, wine and herbs. Fire up the grill!
Another fabulous family cook pops out of the woodwork of our wacky family tree! Uncle Frank is the husband of my mother’s younger sister, Dot. He is a retired DC fireman, father of 10, currently a custom home builder, and (most important for our purposes here) a very good cook. Lucky us! Breakfasts at the Principe house would put an IHOP buffet – should an IHOP buffet serve Rapa brand scrapple – to shame… and that’s just on your standard Wednesday. Breakfast not your thing? Pfft! If you need a soup, Uncle Frank’s your man. Other than one unfortunate incident where he went all not-in-a-good-way-free-form on a pot of pasta fazool (yes, I do have the memory of an elephant … a bizarre elephant but an elephant nonetheless), that man can toss things into a pot and come up with the most delicious combinations.
Total aside, but a fond (erm…) memory of my childhood: You never wanted to get into a car with the man if he uttered the words, “Hey, let’s go for a ride.” Let me tell you, from yearrssssss of experience, that meant just one thing: you would never return! Ah, yes, a bit of an exaggeration. Let’s just say, on a car ride with the man who has the directional sense of a blind mole in his own underground tunnel system (that’s good, people; very good), you experienced parts of the country unknown to the average person, cow, or even blind mole. Want to find a farmstead for sale in rural Pennsylvania? Why sure, load up fifty kids, a mess of sandwiches, and let’s get going! One sleeping hiney cheek later (gone comatose from hours of sitting cockeyed next to a cousin or six) and you are staring right into the maw of an uninterested cow and wondering nervously if the “for sale” sign is a very bad omen for your coming teen years.
Anyway, back to Uncle Frank being a very good cook …. He makes some damn fine Italian sausage and I think perhaps it’s in his blood. Frank Joseph Principe, Sr., is a second generation American. His grandparents, the Prencipes (the name change came somewhere during the transition), emigrated from Troia in the Apulia Region of southern Italy at the turn of the twentieth century. The Apulia Region is known for its fennel sausages and, full circle, here we are to learn from the son of the son of a son of the region.
Bucking centuries of advice to the contrary, I was looking forward to seeing just how the sausage is made. What started out in the Nineties as an excuse for the men’s card group to spend a day together drinking beers, telling stories and grinding pork has turned into a twenty-plus year tradition of sausage-making for Uncle Frank. The card group – Uncle Frank, Dad, Uncle Don, Uncle John, Steve Melloy, and Chuck Long – would get together for their day of sausage making just before Christmas and then split the links among themselves and a lucky few.
Though packed rather unceremoniously in freezer bags tossed into repurposed grocery bags, nobody was disappointed by the links inside. When cooked (especially grilled or pan-fried on cast iron), you get the snap of real hog casings; juicy pork flavor that has the perfect balance of cheese, wine and herbs; and a coarse enough grind that you get a meaty chew to your sausage, not a mouthful of mush. This sausage is reason enough to learn how to make the perfect sub roll; a match made in heaven.
I asked Uncle Frank if these were the best sausages he’d ever eaten. He said that, no, in fact, they are second best (though better than most he’d had in Italy). The best, hands down, are to be found at Trinacria‘s in Baltimore. His insider tip: If you go there, know that there are only two parking spaces out front so this a two-person job. If you can’t get one of the two spots, have the driver circle the block while you run in; give yourself a few extra minutes to peruse the other goods but not too long; the neighborhood is not good. Tasty sausage AND an adventure.
On to the sausage making (finally, no?!) … We got to Uncle Frank and Aunt Dot’s mid-morning to start shenanigans. After saying hellos and sending the locusts and d’Epagnier cousins off to see the neighbor’s menagerie of farm critters, we were shoo’d down to the basement kitchen to get down to business.
Because the pork has to be seasoned the night before sausage-making, Uncle Frank had the meat waiting for us when we got there. He had boned bone-in pork butt that was plenty fatty so there was no need for additional fatback. You are looking for 25-30 percent fat to ensure that your sausages are juicy, not dry and compact. Me: “What does that look like?” Uncle Frank (pointing to the giant tray of pork): “…This.” Ah. Fear not, puddin’s! There is a method to ensure correct fat content just a pic or so below. That pan you see above is holding half of the 24 pounds of pork. The bonus of having 10 children, countless nieces and nephews, grandchildren, and now greats is that Uncle Frank and Aunt Dot have containers, contraptions, and gizmos that can handle 24 pounds of pork sausage-making with room to spare. The recipe below can easily be scaled down for a smaller kitchen.
While it’s been some years since the card group has gotten together to make sausages, Uncle Frank seemed pleased as punch to have BD work in the kitchen with him, happily cracking open beers after the grinding started. I stayed on my side of the counter, taking notes and pictures, asking questions, and listening to Uncle Frank reminisce about food, family, his friends, and life, in general. All the while, this two-man operation was pushing the pork mixture through the largest grinder setting, one time through. Though they are using a large meat grinder, Uncle Frank said that the card group used to use the grinder attachment on a KitchenAid mixer. His nose curled rather oddly when I asked if a food processor can be used. Let’s take that as a no.
Probably the most crucial part of sausage-making is the taste test. This is the one and only time that you can taste (without fear of pork-borne-illness-causing-death-even-though-they-say-trichinosis-is-nevermore) and, if need be, correct seasoning and fat content for your entire batch of sausage. In our case, there were two batches: one with and one without red pepper flakes. After each batch was ground into its respective container, the gents smooshed out a patty of each and fried them. We tasted them for juiciness, salt, and seasoning. Not enough pepper? Add more! This is the time to correct. Sausage should be flavorful enough to stand on its own so don’t be shy with the flavorings.
This is also where you know if you’ve got enough fat in your sausage. When you fry it, it should be juicy and tender. If it’s too dry or seems tough, grind some of the fat back and stir into your sausage mixture. Fry another patty to make sure you’re happy with the result.
At this point in the process, if you have a sausage extruder, you will need to make nice with sausage casings. They are packed in salt and need to be untangled, rinsed and soaked in cool, clean water. If you do not have an extruder, you can simply pack the loose sausage meat in individual containers or bags and freeze or cook from that state.
Lucky us, Uncle Frank has an extruder! Above, he is pulling the casings from the salt like a verrrryyyy long knotted noodle. With a bit of patience, it’s easy to get them unknotted; and there are plenty in this 10 oz. container so that if one or two have a blow-out, you’re not going to run out. After stuffing the 24 lbs. of meat, there were plenty o’casings left in the 10 oz. container for another day.
Once the extruder tube was lubed with a healthy slathering of olive oil, Uncle Frank opened one end of a casing and slid it onto the tube, continuing to slide it down until that one casing was almost all the way on (looking like an overly long saggy stockings on a cankle), leaving about two inches which he knotted close to the opening.
While Ryan fed the sausage meat into the hopper in a steady stream, Uncle Frank guided the forming sausages off of the hopper to maintain a consistent thickness, giving two to three twists every four inches or so to create the links. Make those twists tight so they don’t pop apart during poaching.
Having done this for a few decades, Uncle Frank makes this look easy. I imagine I would have anything from the size of a breakfast sausage link to the size of an Idaho russet … but these? Artistry, I tell you.
After eight hours of sausage making, lunch eating, talking, laughing, and a little beer drinking, I understood the draw to the sausage making days of the card group. Much like my girls’ weekends with sisters and cousins, it’s not so much the doing as it is the scheduled togetherness. There’s something indulgent (and, I think, necessary) about having nothing on the agenda but the enjoyment of each other’s company and leaving the day-to-day for a few hours. Making the time for those who are important is a great way to bank happy for those times when you’re having a hard time getting hold of it.
I couldn’t tell you what we talked about all those hours together … a little of this, a little of that…. lots of laughs, and learning bits and pieces about a man who, after all these years, I realized is the only man who has known me since I was born. Uncle Frank was there when, as a toddler, I lost my father to the Vietnam War and, as a grown woman, my dad to cancer. Simply put, he is caring and kind, even when you are asking him for the nine hundredth time to hold still with the jiggly hog innards so that you can get a decent picture. And he even smiled for the camera. Good man, that Uncle Frank… excellent sausage-maker, too.
Alla tua salute!
ITALIAN SAUSAGE WITH UNCLE FRANK
24 pounds pork butt with its fat, bone removed, cut into 1-inch cubes
(IF THE PORK IS VERY LEAN add 1-3 pounds pork fatback, rind removed, cut into 1-inch cubes)
1 cup fennel seed
1/3 to 3/4 cup Morton’s table salt (start with the lesser amount; Kosher salt, you will need more)
1/3 cup freshly ground black pepper
4 1/2 cups freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
3 tablespoon red pepper flakes (optional)
3 cup dry red wine
1 container salt-cured sausage casings
THE NIGHT BEFORE YOU PLAN TO MAKE THE SAUSAGE:
In a large container, thoroughly toss together the pork, fennel, salt, pepper, Pecorino, and red pepper flakes (if using). Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
THE DAY OF SAUSAGE-MAKING:
When you are ready to grind the sausage, remove the meat from the refrigerator and add the wine, tossing with your hands to thoroughly distribute.
GRIND THE MEAT:
Using a coarse grind setting, grind the pork mixture into a very large container, following the instructions specific to your grinder.
Form a small amount of your sausage into a patty and fry in a skillet until just cooked through. I don’t mind a bit of pink but feel free to cook to your preference (though over-cooked sausage will be dry). Taste for seasoning and fat content. At this point, if necessary, you can adjust the seasoning of the sausage by thoroughly mixing in the needed ingredient (salt, pepper, cheese, etc.). You can also add in ground fat back at this point if the sausage is not fatty enough. Repeat the taste test until you have the flavor you like. Refrigerate until you are ready to stuff the sausage.
IF YOU ARE NOT USING CASINGS:
Divide the sausage meat into portions and either refrigerate to cook within a day or two or freeze.
IF YOU ARE USING CASINGS:
Put a medium bowl in the kitchen sink and fill halfway with cool water. Open the container of casings (which are packed in salt) and gently pull them out one at a time, unknotting as you go, and place into the bowl of cool water. The length of casings you need will depend on how full your sausages are. Swish the casings around in the water and then drain the bowl. Refill the bowl and swish again. You are looking for clear water (it will start out very cloudy). Clean about 1/3 of the container, you can always clean more if you find you are running out. Leave the casings in the bowl of water until ready to use.
Follow your grinder/sausage extruder instructions to set up the equipment for stuffing sausage. We used olive oil to generously lubricate the funnel end where the casings are loaded. Pull a section of casing out of the water and gently open one end and slide over the funnel, sliding it toward the back of the funnel. Watch for holes. If you come across a hole, cut the casing at that point and use the intact section. Some casings will be longer than others. Leave about 2 inches of casing hanging from the end of the funnel and tie into a double knot before stuffing.
Turn the grinder on and place a large tray under the funnel end of the grinder. Load the hopper with the sausage meat and using the plunger, push the meat down the tube. As the meat begins to extrude into the casings, it will push the casing off the funnel. Hold one hand cupped as you guide the sausage out in an even thickness. Once you get to about 4 inches of sausage, twist two or three quick tight rotations to create a link and keep guiding the sausages into the holding container. Watch the length of casing and and stop the flow of sausage once you get to about two inches of casing left. Double knot off that end. Repeat the process until all of the meat has been stuffed into casings. If you have a blowout or other issues, feel free to squeeze the meat back into the hopper and stuff into new casings.
Once you have stuffed all of the sausages, refrigerate and cook within a day or two or portion out and put in the freezer. While these sausage are terrific poached (in water or wine) and then grilled, you can also use them in your favorite recipe.
UNCLE FRANK’S BASIC COOKING METHOD:
Put into a pan of water, bring heat to a bubble, and poach for 10 minutes. Remove from poaching liquid and grill or saute over medium-low heat (coals) for 20 minutes, turning often.