The humble sausage is truly inspired. Traditionally cobbled together from leftover bits of ground pork and spices and stuffed into a casing from equally modest beginnings, sausages are peasant fare and hearty feasting all in one. Sausage-making, with its use of all things tail to snout, appeals to the parsimonious as well as to the creative butcher intent on honoring the whole animal without waste.
But sausage is made of much more than pork these days; butchers are stuffing casings with not only mainstream chicken and turkey, but also lamb, veal, and even salmon, in combinations that keep up with current flavor trends, things like Buffalo chicken and lamb tandoori mango.
Martin's Quality Meats & Sausage in the Reading Terminal Market offers more than 50 flavors that rotate and change with the season. Martin's grinds around 75,000 pounds of sausage weekly in its 10,000-square-foot production kitchen in Mickleton, all from scratch. And its non-pork sausage now outsells the pork, says company founder Martin Giunta.
Giunta has sausage-making in his blood. Both of his grandfathers had butcher shops in the Italian Market dating to the early part of the last century. What some now consider trendy - cut-to-order meat, housemade charcuterie, butcher's special cuts - was simply the norm in his family. Giunta learned the business and found himself gravitating toward sausage-making.
"It's very creative," he said. "I like playing with recipes and flavors." Some of his popular recipes include turkey, hot pepper, and onions; and Luganega, a northern Italian sausage made with parsley and Romano cheese that comes in veal, turkey, and chicken versions. Turkey andouille, chicken chorizo, and lamb with garlic are a few more options. He is especially proud of Buffalo chicken, which incorporates blue cheese and hot sauce.
Because of their durability, plump visual appeal, and the snap they lend to every bite, most sausages are made with natural casings taken from the collagen-rich intestines of pigs, sheep, goats, or cattle. Natural casings have been used for centuries: a thin sheath that allows the meat to be infused with smoke on the grill and the flavors of accompanying ingredients.
At Whole Foods, the meat case is stuffed with sausages from poultry to lamb, ground in-house daily. Lamb-sausage flavors, made from lamb shoulder and stuffed into a natural lamb casing, include Merguez, a North African sausage spiced with paprika, cumin, chili and garlic. Another big seller is he Tandoori mango, which delivers a South Asian punch from bits of mango, ginger, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, and turmeric.
Kensington Quarters head butcher Heather Thomason is wild about what she calls her leg of lamb sausage, a well-balanced link made with garlic, rosemary, and a bit of chili flake. Not as spicy as Merguez, it's one of two non-pork sausages at the Kensington butcher shop, which exclusively sources locally raised animals. "I also make a chicken-and-herb sausage - but because it is so lean, I do add a little pork fat to the mix to keep it juicy."
Because most poultry sausage doesn't have that extra smidgen of fat, it's not as forgiving as pork when it comes to throwing it on a hot grill. You'll get the best result cooking it at a medium temperature in the oven or on the edges of the grill, just until the meat thermometer registers 165 degrees.
Thomason, who left a career in graphic design five years ago to farm livestock and then learn the butchering trade, loves sausage because making it lets her use every bit of the whole animal. "Our trimmings are really good meat and go into what becomes high-quality sausage," she said. Besides grilling and baking, lamb or chicken sausage can sub for pork Italian in what is known as "the pasta" at Thomason's house. "I bust the sausage out of its casing, sauté it with some garlic in olive oil, add kale, and toss it all over a short pasta like orecchiette or fusilli and top with Parmesan - it couldn't be easier."
For something completely different, Whole Foods offers a mild Italian salmon sausage made from Atlantic, sockeye, coho, and king salmon. The salmon flavor is mild, brightened with bits of fresh bell pepper and Italian spices. Ideal for grilling or pan frying, this sausage also pairs beautifully with traditional polenta, a make-ahead casserole meal that oozes cheesy goodness.
The salmon sausage, which also comes in spicy sriracha flavor, is made at Whole Foods' regional seafood facility once a week and arrives in stores on Thursday nights for the weekend. "Even though it sounds a little unusual, the trick to salmon sausage is thinking about it like regular sausage," said Whole Foods marketing spokesperson Kerry Shepski. "Focus on complementing the flavor profile for preparation. For example, grill the Italian salmon sausage and serve on a bun with horseradish mustard sauce or sautéed peppers and onions. Just always make sure that sausages are cooked right through to the center and reach the appropriate internal temp, which is 145 degrees for salmon."
"A meat thermometer is one of the most important tools in your kitchen," said Giunta. "It takes all the guesswork out of cooking." His personal go-to quick sausage meal is a baked medley of chicken links made with provolone and parsley, cut-up potatoes, olive oil, and salt and pepper. "It's flavorful, simple, quick, and it's all in one dish. What's not to like?"