Sausage is becoming a power ingredient, bringing dimension and depth to appetizers and entrées
By Laura Yee, Senior Editor
Mention meat stuffed in casing?sausage?and the image that?s evoked is of a simple staple most commonly connected with breakfast or rustic, homey fare.
But sausage is broadening in appeal, its status rising in chefs? repertoires as a versatile and valuable ingredient.
Whether it?s loose or enfolded in casing, sausage is recognized as an ingredient that can pack and impart complexity and bold flavors. The popularity of ethnic cuisine?from Italian to Mexican, Spanish to Moroccan and other Mediterranean locales?is also jump-starting interest in sausage as chefs discover the many versions that exist around the world. For restaurant concepts that are American but whose menus have globe-trotting tendencies, it?s easy to turn to sausage to convey a taste of another country or region. Sausage?s profile is also expanding beyond pork to include seafood, lamb, duck, chicken, turkey and just about any other protein that can be found on the center of the plate.
?People are ready for these big flavors now,? says Bruce Aidells. The author of ?Bruce Aidells? Complete Sausage Book: Recipes from America?s Premier Sausage Maker,? (Ten Speed Press, 2000), Aidells began making sausages 20 years ago, adding a sophisticated spin to them. ?People also have less fear of fat, so fat as an ingredient in sausage is more acceptable. But it?s also because diners are more knowledgeable and familiar with the different kinds of sausage.?
Thierry Haxaire pays homage to sausage at his annual fall sausage festival at L?Express, a 24-hour restaurant in New York City. Though the restaurant is French, influences in the sausage extravaganza are global. Borscht arrives tableside garnished with sausage meatballs while grilled squid is stuffed with chorizo and drizzled with walnut vinaigrette. Rabbit sausage is gilded with carrot brunoise and basil oil, while chipolata is accompanied by smoked onion and tomato. For entrées, grilled merguez is paired with couscous and baked lemon, and pork and rosemary sausage is partnered with roasted-garlic mashed potatoes. He also serves squid ink paella with chorizo, chipolata and garlic sausage, and Mexican sausage with cilantro-scented fresh corn succotash.
Glen Manfra, chef of Sopra in Miami, also has strong rapport with sausage, which shows up as a regular on his expansive Italian-inspired menu. Fresh sausage with garlic, tomato, mozzarella and escarole tops wood-oven flatbread. Grilled fresh luganega (Northern Italian-style sausage) is served with truffled rösti potatoes and broccoli rabe sautéed with garlic and chile and garnished with balsamic syrup and Parmesan. Garlic parsley sausage shows up in shiitake, portobello and porcini risotto with basil, shallots and truffle oil while the sausage of the day plays a role in the traditional dish of orecchiette pasta with broccoli rabe, diced hot and sweet peppers, tomato, shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano and toasted breadcrumbs.
Sausage stands out in the search for items that are simple to prepare. Flavored with a full complement of spices, it is ideal either as a stand-alone protein or as a seasoning agent.
?The thing about sausage is that it is a great way to add depth of flavor and seasoning without having to use prime cuts,? says Kevin Taylor, the executive chef who owns five restaurants in the Denver area.
For Niçoise, his latest venture, Taylor wanted to create an affordable casual restaurant inspired by the Mediterranean and the Basque region of Spain. With appetizers and entrées all under $20, sausage fit right in, showing up as chorizo in roasted clams in a spicy pepper broth and in roasted cod with fennel, clams and basil.
Charles Weber, who recently opened Zuzu in Napa, Calif., also appreciates sausage for its heft, seasoning attributes and textural usefulness. Bits of Spanish chorizo are folded into Spanish rice and shaped into a paella cake that is seared then served with steamed clams, tomato and saffron. At Weber?s tapas and wine bar, the classic Spanish torta of eggs, potato and onion is offered, but the menu also includes a version with chorizo. ?It adds a nice authentic flavor,? he says.
Weber?s Spanish version of antipasto features chorizo as well as dry-cured sausage, from blood sausage and merguez to various types of imported Spanish salami.
At Le Tarbouche in Washington, D.C., its Mediterranean and Lebanese influences mingle in a meze offering of petite lamb sausages with olives and herbs while Olives in Boston presents a rendition of Portuguese-style scaloppine using turkey and turkey sausage.
For Franco Dunn, co-chef and owner of Santi in Geyserville, Calif., sausage melds naturally into his take on regional Italian. At the Sonoma County restaurant, Dunn prepares sausage, pancetta and other cured meat while his kitchen counterpart and business partner Thomas Oden ages house-made balsamic vinegar in a series of nine barrels.
?Most people think of the fennel-based sausage probably because it came here from the south [of Italy] and it became the standard, but there are many incarnations of [Italian] sausage, varying from village to village,? Dunn says.
A sausage sandwich on the lunch menu, for example, is Calabrian inspired, with hot pepper, garlic, wine and fennel, while wild boar sausage ragù with rigatoni takes cues from Northern Italy. ?We generally use pork?it has a sweeter, richer flavor than beef but we also use other kinds of meat, depending on the dish,? says Dunn.
For example, a mixed grill of sausage may include lamb sausage spiraled onto a skewer and grilled. The dish is served with bagnet ros, a Piedmontese-inspired sauce made with tomato, garlic, vinegar, sugar, carrots, celery and a melange of spices including cloves, cinnamon, allspice and black pepper.
To build on the popularity of regional food?appealing to locals for its familiarity and expected by visitors?sausage can be a useful vehicle. At Elizabeth?s on 37th in Savannah, Ga., the seasonal Vidalia onion is stuffed with sausage, sage, orange zest and cheese. For a menu featuring ethnic American specialties, Zinfandel in Chicago served Pennsylvania Dutch mixed grill that featured wood-grilled pheasant breast with saffron noodles, braised oxtail on parsnip-potato mash and smoked duck pistachio sausage with fennel ?faux-kraut? and spiced kumquats.
The Napa River Grill in Louisville, Ky., bills itself as a restaurant inspired by the West Coast but it also ventures to other areas. Menu offerings include barrel-stacked lasagna?layers of Monterey Jack cheese, mozzarella, Parmesan, Italian sausage and tomato basil sauce?as well as a jambalaya risotto with fighting prawns and andouille sausage in a Creole fumet.
While sausage can help convey a style of food, it also can have a personality of its own. At F&B in New York City, the Sea Dog translates into salmon sausage with lobster sauce, tomato, corn and lemon while the Healthy Dog is a vegetable sausage served with pesto hummus, grated carrots and niçoise olives.
At Andalu in San Francisco, which boasts ?international small plates,? house-made venison sausage is served with bacon-braised cabbage; at Metronome in New York City, rigatoni is tossed with homemade duck sausage with white beans, broccoli rabe and roasted garlic.
Santi?s Dunn prefers sausages that have traditional Italian roots and thus is not likely to offer Thai basil, but he is sure someone in the country has it on the menu. ?In America, we always want something new,? he says. ?Sausage is one of those things that can meet that kind of demand.
Clams, Chorizo and Bell Pepper Broth with Basil Purée