Tips and techniques


Apologies for the less than appetizing photograph.  Sausage isn’t the most photogenic food.  But it is delicious, especially when you take the time to make it yourself (and extra-specially when you manage to do it without a proper grinder!).

I use a food processor all the time to grind chicken thighs for meatballs, burgers, and sausage, but I wasn’t sure it would work with pork.  Chicken thighs are naturally lean and have little connective tissue, but the cuts of pork often used for making sausage — butt and shoulder — are tougher, more sinewy, and usually require slow, moist-heat cooking to make them tender.  Could my trusty Cuisinart chop the meat finely and evenly enough to make a tender sausage?  A 12 dollar slab of pork butt and an hour or two of my time seemed a reasonable gamble.

There are a few hard and fast rules for making sausage.  The meat has to be very, very cold so that it’s chopped, not mushed.  Once it’s ground and seasoned, it needs to be mixed vigorously — this makes the mixture sticky so it holds together.  And sausage has to be fatty — a ratio of 3 or 4:1, meat to fat — which usually means you have to grind some fat back into the mix.  (Full disclosure:  I broke this last rule.  The piece of meat I bought was pretty fatty — 5:1, maybe — and the sausage turned out fine.)

You can stuff the mixture into casings, if you like, or cook it as bulk sausage, which is less time intensive and just as tasty.  I cooked most of the sausage in patties (for the freezer) and browned the rest for dinner tonight (with broccoli rabe and barley).  It received rave reviews from the whole gang.

Pork sausage with garlic and herbs

Yield:  About 3 lbs. bulk sausage

3 lb. boneless pork butt (the fattiest one you can find)

2 tbsp. olive oil

1 Spanish onion, finely chopped

1/4 c. minced garlic (6-8 cloves)

1 tbsp. finely chopped, fresh thyme leaves

1 tbsp. finely chopped, fresh sage leaves

3 tsp. kosher salt

3 tbsp. white wine (or just use water)

Freshly ground, black pepper, to taste

Using a very sharp knife, cut pork into cubes no larger than 1-inch square.  Place in a gallon-sized, zip-top plastic bag and freeze for at least an hour, or until meat is fairly firm but not frozen solid.  (When the meat is partially frozen, the food processor will chop it.  If the meat is too warm, you run the risk of processing it into a gooey paste.)

While pork is in freezer, warm a skillet over medium heat.  Drizzle in oil, then add onions.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are tender, about 8 minutes.  Stir in garlic and herbs and cook two minutes more.  Transfer onion mixer to a small container with a lid and refrigerate until cold.

Using a food processor, grind pork in three batches.  Hold the machine steady with one hand while you push the pulse button with the other.  Process, scraping down the bowl once or twice, until meat is well-chopped (but still chunky) and cohesive but not so long that it becomes pasty.  Transfer ground meat to a mixing bowl and repeat with remaining batches.

Add onion mixture, salt, wine or water, and pepper to ground meat.  Mix very well with a spoon, your hands, or a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until seasonings are well-incorporated and mixture is sticky.  Refrigerate the mixture overnight, if possible, before cooking.  You can freeze the uncooked sausage, stuff it into casings, or form it into patties.  Cooked sausage freezes well, too.

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I go through a lot of stock.  I use it in soups, stews, and braises, and for cooking and reheating grains.  Chicken stock is my favorite for general cooking, but since I only roast a chicken once a month, I end up making a fair amount of vegetable stock, too.  And recently I’ve found that in some dishes — especially simple vegetable and bean ones — I actually prefer it.

The basic ingredients in vegetable stock are carrots, celery, onions, garlic, parsley stems or thyme sprigs, and bay leaf (just like in a meat-based stock).  Then you can add pretty much any other vegetable you want, except for those in the cabbage family (broccoli, turnips, etc.) or greens in a large quantity (though a few chard leaves won’t hurt).  For a darker broth, brown the vegetables in a little olive oil first.  For a more complex, flavorful broth, add mushrooms and a dash of soy sauce.  For a sturdier broth, use leftover bean-cooking liquid in place of some of the water, or throw in a few potatoes.  Vegetable stocks don’t take as long to cook as chicken stock — 30 to 45 minutes should do it.

Basic vegetable stock

Yield:  About 3 quarts

3 tbsp. olive oil

4 carrots, peeled and cut into large chunks (or try parsnips)

4 stalks celery, cut into large chunks (or try fennel)

2 onions, peeled and quartered (or 1 onion and 2 leeks, washed, trimmed, and roughly chopped)

4 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed

Handful mushrooms, any kind you like, halved

12 c. cold water

2 potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks

Handful parsley stems

2 bay leaves

A few sprigs thyme, if you have it

About 10 black peppercorns

Heat a large pot or dutch oven over high heat.  Drizzle in oil, then add carrots, celery, onion, garlic, and mushrooms.  Cook, stirring frequently, until mushrooms release their liquid and vegetables are nicely browned, about 8 minutes (turn down heat if vegetables brown too quickly).

Pour in water and stir with a wooden spoon, scraping up browned bits from bottom of pan.  Add potatoes, herbs, and peppercorns to the pot.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer gently for 30 minutes or until vegetables are tender.  Strain and discard vegetables.  Freeze for up to three months.

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Don’t let on to any French chefs that I told you so, but you can make a delicious and full-bodied chicken stock with just the leftover carcass of a roast chicken and a few vegetables.  There’s no need to stockpile wings and backs in your freezer or — gasp! — spend good money on a whole chicken only to stew it into a dry, flavorless oblivion for the sake of a few quarts of stock.  The roasted bones and leftover scraps are perfectly capable of producing a rich stock that sets up to a soft jelly.  Homemade stock is purely and intensely chickeny, unlike the thin, salty canned stuff (or even the thin, salty, expensive, organic boxed stuff), and makes a simple soup or sauce truly spectacular.

Poor Man’s Rich Chicken Stock

Yield:  About 2 quarts.

1 tbsp. olive oil

1 large onion, peeled and quartered

2 carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks

2 celery stalks, trimmed and cut into 2-inch chunks

3 or 4 cloves garlic, peeled

Carcass of one 7 lb roast chicken, plus the giblets (use the gizzard and heart, but NOT the liver) and neck, if they were included with the chicken

About 9 c. cold water

8 whole peppercorns

1 dried bay leaf

A handful of fresh parsley stems, if you happen to have them

Trim carcass of any remaining shreds of meat (save this for soup!), pull off and discard large sections of skin and visible fat, and break the skeleton up into 8 or 9 pieces.  I twist off the wing, leg, and thigh bones at their joints, then pull out the back and snap the ribcage in half along the breast bone.  Use a chef’s knife to do this, if necessary — you want the carcass in small pieces that will fit snugly in the pot.

Heat a stock pot or dutch oven over medium-high heat.  When hot, swirl in olive oil and add onion, carrot, celery, garlic, and neck and/or giblets.  Cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables and giblets are nicely browned, about 5 minutes.

Pour in 1 cup of the water, scraping bottom of pan with a wooden spoon to loosen browned bits.  Add carcass, peppercorns, bay leaf, and parsley stems to pan, and pour in enough of the remaining water to just cover.  Turn heat to high, bring to a boil, then lower heat.  Pay attention to the stock while you wait for it to boil — if it’s allowed to boil too long (and this I know from a sorry personal experience), the fat can emulsify and make the stock greasy.  Skim the froth that rises to the surface.   Let stock simmer gently, stirring and turning over bones once or twice, for 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

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Strain through a fine mesh sieve.  If you’re using the stock immediately, skim the fat off the surface.  Otherwise, let it cool at room temperature, then refrigerate.  When cold, the fat solidifies and is very easy to remove.  Stock is a staple in my freezer — I usually freeze it in pint containers, but if you’re more likely to use it in smaller quantities, freeze it in ice cube trays, then pop the cubes into a zip-top bag.

I make bread crumbs two ways, to serve two different purposes.  Fresh bread crumbs act as a binder in things like meatballs and are used for breading and frying.  Toasted bread crumbs make a crunchy topping for gratins and add texture to simple pasta dishes.

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Fresh bread crumbs

You can make bread crumbs out of pretty much any stale bread you have on hand – white or wheat, a crusty baguette, a soft, sweet sandwich loaf, or even pita.  Finely textured white breads are best for fresh crumbs;  for toasted crumbs, I use a denser, heartier loaf.  Cut off the crust if it is very hard or dense or if you want finer, more even crumbs.  For coarser, rustic crumbs, leave it on.  Tear or dice the bread into pieces and toss into the food processor.  Pulse until crumbs are desired size and texture.  Fresh bread crumbs keep well in the freezer.

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Toasted bread crumbs

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  In a mixing bowl, toss fresh bread crumbs with a pinch of sea salt and just enough olive oil to lightly coat (two or three teaspoons per cup of crumbs will do it).  Spread on a baking sheet and bake, stirring once or twice, until lightly and evenly browned, about 10-12 minutes.  Let cool on tray and transfer to an airtight container.  Store at room temperature.

Make it gluten-free: Use a gluten-free bread or — better yet — waffles!  Their toasty flavor and super crispness make them ideal for bread crumbs.

cannedtomatoes13Summer’s tomato bounty is a distant memory, especially here in snowy New England.  So unless you blanched, peeled, sauced, and stockpiled your heart out in August (I didn’t — I was too busy sweating and complaining about the humidity), you’ll be relying on the canned version for the next six months.  I use canned plum tomatoes constantly in my winter cooking.  Here are my three favorite brands.

Best Value

In culinary school, we learned that the best canned tomatoes come from Italy, and the best Italian tomatoes are from San Marzano.  In general, it’s a good guideline.  So I was delighted to find them at Costco, in a whopping 6 lb. 10 oz. can, for just over $3.  The brand name is Nina, which I’ve never seen in a regular grocery store, and the tomatoes are sturdy and pleasantly acidic.  They’re canned in a clean tasting juice, which is especially good for braises.

cannedtomatoes21Best for Sauce

(Also, prettiest can!) Joseph Russo: they are Italian, though not from San Marzano.  The tomatoes break down well during cooking and they’re canned in a thick puree, making them perfect for marinara.

Sweetest

California’s own Muir Glen makes tomatoes so sweet you could eat them straight from the can.  They are petite, firm, easy to dice, and organic, too.  Take that, Italy!  They’re expensive, though, and hard to find around here (unless you want to go to Whole Foods and spend 6 million dollars per can, which I do not) — hence the lack of photo.  But they are awfully good, and I buy them when I see them.