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Sausageby Gary Allen

A sausage is nothing more than seasoned, chopped or ground meat—but, around the world, this simple food appears in countless varieties.

Sausages always contain salt (indeed, the word “sausage” is derived from the Latin salsus, meaning “salted”). Salt preserves perishable protein, killing some bacteria, outright, through osmotic pressure. It dissolves globular protein from the meats, which then acts as a binding matrix for the bits of meat and seasonings when the sausage is cooked. Globular protein is dissolved when the meats are ground or kneaded, but becomes smoothly firm when the sausage is cooked (that’s why sausage doesn’t have the texture of hamburger). Of course, salt also adds flavor, accentuating the flavors of other seasonings – an effect that is especially noticeable in cold sausages, like salumi.

Sausages were probably first invented to avoid wasting blood, offal, and small scraps of meat by packing it into handy edible containers – the stomachs, bladders and intestines of freshly-butchered animals. The first mention of sausage appears in Homer's Odyssey (XX: 24-27), written almost three thousand years ago:

...rolling from side to side
as a cook turns a sausage, big with blood
and fat, at a scorching blaze, without a pause,
to broil it quick...

They also show up in the world’s first real cookbook De Re Coquinaria (written in Rome, fourth century CE, and attributed to Apicius—a famous gourmet who lived three hundred years earlier). This was not the Roman Joy of Cooking—it was meant to be used, not by home cooks, but by full-time chefs who prepared meals for discriminating diners, the sort of people we would call “foodies.” In Augustan Rome, sausages were no longer made for the sake of economy, they had become delicacies in their own right, deserving the respect of gourmets.

In De Re Coquinaria, we find Lucanicae, a sausage named for Lucania (today’s Basilicata). It’s a complicated recipe, incorporating ingredients that are virtually unknown today (rue, ground laurel berries and liquamen – a fermented sauce, something like Thai fish sauce), as well as cumin, parsley, pepper and savory. It’s the ancestor of Portuguese linguiça and Italian Luganega. Luganega is made all over Italy, and its formulation varies widely – but the version from Basilicata is closest to what we call “sweet Italian sausage” in the US. It’s flavored with salt, pepper, fennel seeds, and sometimes red pepper flakes. If it’s called “hot Italian sausage,” more red pepper flakes are added, along with some paprika to provide enough color to allow timid diners to know what they’re getting before they bite into it.

Here’s an old-fashioned recipe that uses Italian sausage in a way that has been largely, and undeservedly, forgotten. It is a nicely balanced blend of sweet, sour, and savory. Serve this over shaped pasta, such as campanelle, chiocciole, fusilli, or radiatori.


Salsiccie con Uova
For a pound of hot, cooked, pasta:

Ingredients

  • 4 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 4 medium links of sweet Italian sausage
    (about 3/4 pound)
  • 1 1/2 cups seedless red or black grapes
  • 2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
  • salt and pepper to taste (may not be needed)

Method
  1. Prick sausages all over with a fork. Cook sausages in two tablespoons of oil and a couple of ounces of water in skillet, turning frequently. As the water evaporates, sausages will begin to brown, and a nice fond will form on the bottom of the pan. Deglaze with more water, scraping up the browned fond, and continue cooking until sausages are nicely colored and firm.
  2. Remove sausages to cutting board. Slice the sausages at an angle, about a quarter-inch thick. Return the slices to pan. If the pan seems dry, add remaining olive oil. Brown the cut sides of the sausage, then add grapes. Cook, stirring, until a few of the grapes begin to burst, giving up a bit of their juice.
  3. Deglaze with balsamic vinegar.
  4. Toss with hot drained pasta, adjust seasoning if necessary, and serve.

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