When it comes to a versatile ingredient for dinner on a budget, sausage is king.
For starters, a little goes a long way. You can easily feed four to six people with the creative use of a single pound.
It's a perfect vehicle for delivering flavor, a toothsome combination of ground meat, fat, and spices available raw and stuffed into casings, as well as cured and salt dried, ready to eat.
As for its global cachet, sausage is an international star of the culinary world, represented by bratwurst and knockwurst in Germany, kielbasa in Poland, saucisson in France, and chorizo in Spain, to name a few.
And its historical roots run deep: Sausage-making is an age-old method of preserving meat and utilizing trimmings, dating to ancient Babylon, Greece, and Rome.
As a boy growing up in northern Greece, chef Tom Vasiliades remembers making sausage as a way to salvage every scrap.
"Using every bit of the animals we had helped us get through World War II," said the owner of South Street Souvlaki, a popular Greek taverna on South Street.
"Back then, everybody had their pigs, goats, ducks, and chickens. We didn't waste anything and we would make sausage from the scraps."
He remembers using leeks, cloves, and orange peel to flavor the meat, a recipe he has replicated at his restaurant and now orders from a butcher in New York. "We used what we had, what was fresh and available," Vasiliades said.
Indeed, sausage-making has endless possibilities; it can be made with every kind of meat, from leaner chicken and turkey to veal, pork, and beef, and flavored with infinite spice combinations. It is even available in vegetarian form. As for dishes made with sausage, the choices are equally vast.
One of Vasiliades' favorites pairs gigantes, a Greek variety of dried lima bean, with Greek pork sausage, then adds cabbage, carrots, and kalamata olives (see recipe). "Really, you can use any kind of sausage you like with this," he said. "It just depends on your taste."
Chef Walter Staib, who grew up on the staple in his home village in Germany's Black Forest, developed his own sausage recipes for City Tavern, including Pennsylvania Dutch-style veal and herb sausage, mallard duck sausage, and his favorite, Black Forest kielbasa, made with venison, pork, beef, and lamb. The kielbasa is not on the regular menu, but is being featured as a special for the next two or three months.
Staib's sausages are made to his specifications by Rieker's Meats in the Northeast, where Marcus Rieker learned sausage-making the old-fashioned way, from his German father, using no additives or preservatives.
"I think some people are suspicious of what's in sausage," Staib said. "They think of organ meats, that kind of thing. But that's not the way sausage is made, especially these days in America."
Rafael Gonzalez, who recently joined the Four Seasons as executive chef, really appreciates sausage as an ingredient when cooking for his big Cuban family.
"My family came to Miami in 1959 - and like Italians, we have a huge extended family and we love to party," he said. "And every party begins and ends in the kitchen."
Gonzalez can feed a crowd with an adapted version of the Cuban dish picadillo. "I take the sausage out of the casing and use that as the base" instead of ground beef, he explained. "I do the same thing when I'm making pasta sauce, I just cut the sausage out of the casing. You really get a great flavor that way."
Gonzalez is thinking about a menu special of sausage sliders - patties of chorizo, andouille, Italian sausage, on mini-brioche, at the Swann Lounge. "I think it would be delicious. You can put vegetables like broccoli rabe in sausage, cheese."
When cooking with sausage, there's endless variety, Gonzalez said - even if you just grill it on the barbecue and serve with caramelized onions and mustard or as part of a main dish.
And don't forget the classic pairing of sausage with pasta, said Jeffrey Power, executive chef at the Dolce Valley Forge Hotel in King of Prussia. He sometimes pairs orecchiette with broccoli rabe and sweet Italian sausage on the menu at T. Burke's, the hotel's gastro-pub. "The flavors are simple, rustic, and delicious."
Makes 8 to 10 servings
4 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound Greek (or other pork) sausage, cut into 1/2-inch rings
2 onions, diced
4 tomatoes, diced, or 2 16-ounce cans of crushed tomatoes
1 small head of cabbage, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 cans chicken broth
1 pound Greek gigantes lima beans (soak overnight and boil for about 40 minutes; see note)
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon red pepper
1 cup kalamata olives, pitted and sliced
1. Melt the butter, add oil, and saute sausage until it browns, about 3 minutes. Remove and set aside.
2. Add onions and brown, about 3 minutes. Then add tomatoes, cabbage, carrots, and chicken broth. Cook over medium heat about 15 minutes until liquid boils down to a stewlike consistency.
3. Add beans and sausage, pepper and red pepper. Simmer 15 minutes, uncovered. If it's too thick, add a little water.
4. Add olives on top before serving.
Note: Any kind of beans will work in this stew. To save time, use canned or frozen limas.
Per serving (based on 10): 336 calories, 15 grams protein, 25 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams sugar, 21 grams fat, 45 milligrams cholesterol, 998 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 6 servings
1/4 cup olive oil
1 pound raw pork sausage (Italian, chorizo, or what ever you like), meat removed from casing
2 bay leaves
1 cup sherry wine
1 quart of plain tomato sauce
1/2 cup green olives
1/2 cup small diced fried potatoes
1. In a large frying pan, heat olive oil over medium high heat and add the sausage. Cook until well browned (if needed skim off some fat).
2. Add 2 bay leaves and sherry wine, stirring to loosen all the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Bring to a simmer and reduce by three-quarters, which will take about 10 minutes.
3. Add 1 quart of plain tomato sauce (good-quality canned will be fine). Cook on low heat for 30 minutes. At the end, it is optional to add green olives and small diced fried potatoes.
4. Serve with white rice and a side of fried plantain if you like.
Per serving: 509 calories, 14 grams protein, 20 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams sugar, 38 grams fat, 57 milligrams cholesterol, 1,699 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 6 servings
1 pound orecchiette pasta
1 bunch broccoli rabe
1 1/2 pounds sweet Italian sausage, cut into 1/2-inch rounds
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
Extra virgin olive oil as needed
2 tablespoons Parmigiano Reggiano
Salt and pepper to taste
1. In a large pot, cook the pasta until al dente. Drain and drizzle with olive oil and reserve.
2. While the pasta cooks, blanch the rabe for 1 to 2 minutes in a large pot filled with salted water.
3. Cook the sausage in a large frying pan over medium heat. Set aside to cool.
4. When ready to serve, heat a large frying pan with a coating of olive oil and add the pasta, sausage, and garlic. Next add the rabe and the crushed red pepper.
5. Finish with the cheese and salt and pepper to taste.
Per serving: 708 calories, 29 grams protein, 61 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 38 grams fat, 88 milligrams cholesterol, 884 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.