Damned tasty, infinitely versatile, globally and culturally diverse, not to mention inherently comedic (used to full effect by Ben Elton and Richard Curtis in Blackadder, see below) – you just have to love the sausage.
[Whizz forward to the five-minute mark if you’re short on time. Sausage? SAUSAGE?! Genius]
As a species we have probably been making sausages for as long as we’ve been roasting meat over the flames. Once appetites had been sated with charred primary cuts, it was found that meat could be preserved in a variety of ways: Drying, smoking, curing or grinding up and packing into lengths of intestine.
As such, sausages are believed to be some of the oldest prepared foods in existence.
Techniques may have improved in the intervening millennia but the principle remains the same: sausages are about economising and preserving – and finding a tasty way of doing it, to boot.
There are so many varieties and variations that it would be foolhardy to attempt to discuss them all within the meagre confines of a Friday Nibble. Perhaps a book is in order? Hmmmm. Alternatively, for a slightly shorter take on the subject, see this list of the top ten sausages, according to Askmen.com
Think about the difference between a dark, fragrantly spiced black pudding and the smoky notes of a frankfurter, or the paprika hit of a morsel of fried chorizo compared to the delicate flavour of a Bavarian Weisswurst and you start to get the idea.
In Britain, sausages are virtually a national dish. During the war the meagre amounts of meat were padded out with rusk and water, which then boiled inside the casing before the steam burst through in a mini-explosion. This led to them being christened ‘bangers’ – a moniker that has stuck.
The somewhat ambiguous ingredients list present on many sausages has given them some bad press recently with unscrupulous manufacturers bending the rules as far as possible in order to make a cheap product. But there are some seriously gourmet sausages out there and is well worth spending a few extra pence to enjoy the very best.
Sometimes they are best fried or grilled and sandwiched between two slices of bread or wedged into a steaming pile of buttery mash, topped with sticky onion gravy. But to assume that is all they are good for is to do them a great disservice.
For many culinary cultures, a variation on the classic sausage and beans is a virtual staple. It is cheap, it is tasty, it is nutritious, it makes the most of the local produce and is incredibly easy to cook. I particularly like the Umbrian version made with boar sausages and dark Italian lentils.
But my favourite take on this dish has to be cassoulet, a meal I spend a great deal of time talking about, writing about, cooking and eating.
This dish from southern France, like many versions of the combination, is hearty and cheap, what many might refer to as ‘peasant food’. Far from being a derisory and patronising term, for me ‘peasant food’ conjures up images of tasty meals that offer the best possible flavour of an area. Peasant food is something to be embraced and enjoyed.
I’ve made many different versions of cassoulet, every one of them different but each enjoyable in their own right. This one, whilst it may lack the confit duck and pork belly, is simple, rustic and cheap. Slow food at its finest.
Six good quality pork sausages, Toulouse if you can get them
500g of dried haricot beans
Four large onions, two finely chopped
Two bay leaves
Two cloves of garlic
50g of goose or chicken fat
Two tins of plum tomatoes, drained and the tomatoes blitzed in a food processor
500ml of pork stock
A large, heavy bottomed casserole
Salt and pepper
Soak the beans overnight. Drain them, tip them into a large pan and cover with cold water. Add two of the onions, peeled and quartered through the stem so they stay together. Tuck the bay leaves into the mass of beans (a great tip for getting flavour into all orts of pulses)and then simmer for about an hour until cooked. Don’t add any salt until the beans are almost done – about fifteen minutes to go – or they will toughen up. Drain the beans and discard the onions and bay leaves. They've done their work.
Spoon half the goose or chicken fat into the casserole and put on a high heat. Brown the sasuages on all sides, but don’t cook them, then place on a waiting plate. Turn down the heat and gently fry off the onion in the remaining fat. When the onion is cooked add the garlic, return the sausages to the pan and add the tomatoes. Season generously with salt and pepper.
Tip in almost all the beans and mix them in. Save a few handfuls for the top. Layer these on the top of the sausage and bean mix (see photo above) and put into a warm oven (about 150) for an hour.
After an hour the top layer should be crunchy. Stir this into the mix and poke seven or eight holes in the top of the cassoulet all the way to the bottom of the pan. The wrong end of a wooden spoon is ideal for this. Pour the stock into the holes and over the top of the dish. Return to the oven for a further hour.
Let it cool for ten minutes, serve with a ballsy red wine and eat far too much. Delicious.
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