Sunday, October 9, 2011

So Many Years of Sausage

In recent days I have become reacquainted with a kitchen passion of mine, sausage making. After a bit of cajoling from their new Chef (me), the owners of Willabys have bought the grinder head we needed to complete our Hobart mixer and I am in business. Not only is owning a grinder a good move financially, it opens up a whole new arena for charcuterie on our catering menus.

There is nothing difficult about making sausage. Oh yeah, you do need the right equipment; grinder, stuffing cone, a few different sized dyes (they determine the size of the grind), and a smoker should you so desire. And you do need the right supplies; meat, fat, spices and the casings. Naturally, and lastly, it goes without saying, you need the interest, the desire and ultimately the passion for doing it right.

Sausage making doesn't convey the art of so many other parts of the culinary world. It is essentially taking the bits of meat that aren't wanted for anything else, grinding them up and shoving them tightly into a pig's intestine. There are jokes about how one doesn't want to see sausages being made and other unkind and untoward remarks on the subject. However, when you place a wonderfully made and perfectly cooked sausage in front of most people, the level of happiness and satisfaction is unrivaled. Sausages are simple yet remarkably flavorful and represent the one of the most basic and joyful relation people can have with food.

Thirty years or so ago, I was one of those cooks who had never seen sausage being made and I gazed, no gaped, in wonderment as we actually ground our own meat and stuffed into casings our very own selves at the 4th St. Grill in Berkeley. And not only that, we made two types which we affectionately called (in the kitchen, anyway), red dogs and white dogs. The red dogs were all pork with a mix of dried red chiles and the white doggies were pork and chicken seasoned in a southwesterly (as my Indian friend Anthony used to call it) direction with fresh green chiles and cilantro. It was here in Mark Miller's kitchen that I first grasped the concept and the technique for making sausages and it remained with me, although somewhat deeply imbedded.

I made a few stabs at sausage making up in the Napa Valley and even turned out what was a pretty decent Moroccan spiced lamb sausage while working for the California Cafe Corp. I went down to LA to help a friend of a friend open a restaurant called Gilliland's in the summer of '84 and I ran into the Venice Beach sausage king, Jody Maroni. He had been content vending sausages he was buying, the usual Coney Island, Kielbasa, etc, and over a grinding machine at his uncle's butcher shop and a small payoff, I showed him a number of different styles of making fresh sausage. He now has a sausage kingdom.

I moved back up to the Bay Area and became Executive Chef at Tourelle in Lafayette, CA, where we made a few different types of sausage, but the one I remember best was the Duck Pepperoni. I ended up on Cape Cod for a summer season shortly after Tourelle closed for major renovations and representing the Ocean Edge Resort, we knocked the socks off a tasting event on the Cape with a variety of sausages, including Duck with Roasted Garlic and another version of the Moroccan Lamb Sausage (with plump currants and plenty of cumin).

In 1990 I found myself as the Chef at an unlikely and very early champion of "American Regional Cuisine" called the Mackinaw Inn in North Lake Tahoe. We were way ahead of our time and most of Tahoe was still stuck in the Steak and Lobster phenomenon of the 70's, but we forged ahead nonetheless, with a kitchen built around a mesquite grill, a giant wood-burning rotisserie and a wood-burning pizza oven.

At the Mackinaw we cut and cured our own hams (and this was 1990, remember, way before it was hip to do "whole animal butchery"), roasted whole chickens, lamb legs and the hams over the rotisserie in front of the dining room and made yes, countless sausages and even our own hot dogs (for the bar menu). I couldn't have done any of this without my friend and sous-chef Jim Miller wielding his razor sharp butcher knives, and we nearly drove ourselves crazy trying to keep up with making game sausages by boning out pheasant hind-quarters, a fat-free chicken sausage and three or four different kinds of pork sausages, utilizing the by-products which the pig so generously gives. And oh yes, we perfected the hot dog.

Tahoe was not for me, nor was I for Tahoe, and I returned to San Francisco to try to make some headway into what was, for me, the Mecca of restaurant life. I started off as a sous chef at Embarko, a brilliant shooting star on the Embarcadero that flared out far too early, and after a couple of low level Chefs jobs, found myself, in 1994, at San Francisco's bastion of Creole/Cajun cuisine, The Elite Cafe. The Elite was still packing them in by blackening redfish, filets and anything else they could find, but the allure was running thin. I was hired, essentially, to drag the place kicking and screaming into the 90's and to give it some kind of connection with the direction food in San Francisco was going.

We didn't muss and fuss with the menu all that much, but instead added specials; lots of them. And one that I added that became a hit and got me back into my sausage making ways was a "fat-free" spicy smoked chicken sausage that we made right there in that tiny little kitchen. The recipe was delightfully simple: boneless chicken legs, skin and all; heaping piles of thrice (yes thrice) blanched garlic, mustard seeds and red chile flakes; all ground together and stuffed into a casing. And that was it. The garlic served as the binder and the only fat in the dish was the not insignificant amount contained in the chicken skin.

We stuffed the sausages on a grinder that was crammed into a back corner of the kitchen at the end of a narrow aisle-way that was the only path to the downstairs (where most everything was stored) and somehow managed to find the time and space to crank out about 200 "bird dogs" a week. We also devised a method of smoking them which involved turning off the oven pilots, setting wood chips afire over the stove burners in saute pans, and heaving the smoking pans into the ovens where the sausages had been placed on racks. It was madness and it was, in its own funny way, brilliant. We served two of the grilled smoked "bird dogs" over creamy polenta topped with a roasted tomato-mushroom ragout.

I left the Elite after nearly three and a half years, my longest tenure ever as a Chef anywhere, for another position in another Creole/Cajun style kitchen. This time, however, rather than inheriting an operation that had been up and running for 14 years (and found change to be uncomfortable) I would be writing my own menu, creating my own recipes and even naming the place myself. The owners of Cobb's Comedy Club, passionate New Orleans diners had made me an offer too good to refuse and I jumped.

Jumping along with me to Belle Roux (the name I'd suggested that was adopted) was my recipe for the "bird dogs", but now I had the opportunity to do something I had wanted to try all along, which was create a smoked Creole "style" sausage of my own. I had been quite happy using Hobb's venerable Andouille sausage for all of my "red" pork sausage needs (jambalaya, gumbo, etc...), but I wanted to make my own, to see what I could come up with creating my own recipe. Frankly, it was a huge success. Both of the subsequent reviews of Belle Roux mentioned the rich spicy smokiness of this sausage and I even posed for the photos accompanying one of the reviews with garlands of sausages wrapped around my neck and arms.

It was here, at Belle Roux, where I had reached my highest peak yet with sausage. I was making over 150#'s a week of two sausages, both my own recipes; I was featuring the two of them in our best selling appetizer, a sausage "sampler" and I was using the Creole style pork sausage successfully in both our jambalaya and our gumbo, as well as featuring it, grilled, over red beans and rice. Best of all, Hobbs Shore, a man I considered a "guru" of sausage and meat curing had even asked me for my chicken sausage recipe. Hot dog!!

But the restaurant business is a funny animal, and I found myself moving along again and leaving my passion for sausage making behind until now, at this most recent (and hopefully long term) stop at Willabys Catering. It seemed to me that in this Pacific Northwest environment homemade sausages as both an appetizer and in pastas would be a winner.

Additionally, it seems that no one in our Salem/Willamette area is doing anything remotely like this and the potential exists for us to perhaps take our dogs to the public and see if we can generate some interest. I do hope so. My excitement for sausages has been re-kindled after having been kenneled for so long and I can see that it may be something that brings us acclaim above and beyond our catering.

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Wednesday May 13, 2009 La Cusinga and Me

This words below are from our website describing La Cusinga.  The story, however is much deeper and much richer than these introductory words can describe.  La Cusinga represents a noble and successful effort to preserve this section of unspoiled coast and to keep it alive as a model of what true ecology can accomplish.  The dreams and visions of John Tresemer, the owner of La Cusinga and the Finca Tres Hermanas that surrounds it, have been realized here in what is a true example for all who would preserve and protect what remains of this, or any natural wonder. 

La Cusinga 
La Cusinga Lodge is a coastal rainforest eco lodge dedicated to marine and terrestrial conservation and environmental education. Its location on the southern Pacific coast provides guests with sweeping ocean views and a relaxing beach vacation. In addition La Cusinga is part of a private nature reserve that supplies the visitor with an unparalleled look at Costa Rican wildlife and rainforest. The reserve consists primarily of 250 hectares of virgin rainforest that borders thousands of more acres of privately protected forest. On Costa Rica’s still wild south-western Pacific coast, La Cusinga Lodge borders Ballena Marine National Park which was developed to protect the humpback whales that frequent the coast. La Cusinga Lodge was established in order to share the unique site with Costa Ricans as well as international visitors. Besides getting exposure to rural Costa Rican culture and beautiful vistas, visitors have access to highly prolific areas of primary tropical rainforest and unspoiled coast, all conveniently accessible. 

i returned to La Cusinga this past January, 2009, with a dream in mind.  I wanted to create a cuisine for our guests that would bridge the gap between what La Cusinga offered physically and spiritually, and what they were putting in their bodies when they ate here.  I knew from having previously lived in Costa Rica for over two years that there were organic farmers and that sustainable agriculture was being practiced, but at that time it had been limited in its scope as well as its distribution.  

My first steps upon returning were toward the local Feria to seek out and communicate my ideas with the growers and vendors who could provide me with a local, organic and sustainable product.  The fertile valleys of San Isidro that lie over the coastal mountains and to the Northeast of our Pacific location are rich and productive but are only now exploring the potential that they hold.  

I had in mind a vision that would support local farmers, fishermen and food artisans and one that would recreate (or perhaps, create) a new cuisine of Coastal Costa Rica.  I visit the markets each week to talk with growers and to develop the  relationships that I believe will be mutually beneficial as Costa Rica experiences its rapid growth on an international level
Organic farming is a new and not heavily supported concept in our part of Costa Rica.  It is a brave step for farmers to make, as local communities of both growers and consumers have never placed, or not known to place, an importance on farming organically and sustainably.  I feel a responsibility as a Chef here to be at the forefront of those encouraging and supporting these pioneers  

I came to La Cusinga almost three years ago not knowing what to expect.  My first time through here was characterized by a lack of understanding and appreciation on my part as well as an inability to recognize or connect with the local "flavor" that would make for a coherent package for out guests.  I now feel as if I have made a "connect" with the property and the vision.  I am not completely satisfied and hopefully, never will be, until we are able to produce, right here at La Cusinga, the greater share of the produce we serve.  However, the groundwork has been laid with local farmers and the availability and quality of organic produce is impressive.

Now at La Cusinga I serve a variety of organic lettuces and braising greens.  My salads include wedges or slices of rich red tomatoes as well as sweet !00 and yellow pear cherry tomatoes.  I roast organic beets and marinate them in balsamic vinegar to be served alongside the lettuces and topped with a locally made organic goat cheese.

My soups are made from roasted and steamed local organic vegetables and tiny organic yellow creamer potatoes have found their way onto my plates, nestled against filets of locally caught fish.
I am now using a local organic cocoa powder that still contains the nuggets of cocoa butter unlike the fined cocoa powder in the markets.

And better still, I am able to use palmito (hearts of palm), ginger, cilantro and its sawtooth leafed cousin culantro coyote, mangoes, hot and sweet chiles, mandarina limes and yucca root from our own Finca Tres Hermanas to serve in my dining room at La Cusinga.   The connection from jungle and farm to table is evolving.  May it continue to grow.