Monday, October 01, 2007

Mortadella Pinata

Oh sweet mother. I've never been more grateful for our later class times than today. Because I learnt today that handling and making force meats and sausages is (1) not an appropriate early morning activity for me and (2) still disgusting and messy after lunch and coffee. Thankfully, Charles eased us into it by giving us a nice morning intro explaining about brines, cures and other flavoring items. Child's play compared to the graphic day of meaty gnarlyness ahead.

(One thing he did say was that we could use a tea to brine things, or at least just to flavor them, which confused me a little. Then I realized that he meant to bring different seasons to a boil to bring out flavors, like a tea. It's a very obvious and self-explanatory idea but I always think it's the simple and obvious things you never thought of that are more exciting to learn. In retrospect, all my exciting lightbulb moments seem to happen in response to painfully obvious bits of information. Does this make me a massive geek or a massive idiot? Hmmm.)

Anyway... I can't believe how much fat goes into a sausage. Of any kind. It's so wrong! And kind of disgusting. The idea of 60% fat in a sausage is appalling. I think somewhere in the back of my mind I must have known this disgusting (and heart-healthy!) fact and chose to ignore it and to make myself feel better about eating sausages. But, honestly, of course it contains insane amounts of fat - that's why they're so good and juicy and delicious! It reminds me of that Chris Rock joke about Krispy Kreme donuts: Krispy Kreme donuts are so good that if I told you right now that they had crack in them, you'd go, (nodding) "I knew something was up. These donuts are just too damn good." (Um, the rest of this joke is too dirty to be included in a school assignment. Awkward!)

That being said, having now watched and participated in the process, I am definitely more reluctant to eat force meat, particularly hot dogs and other mousse-textured meats. Something about its almost creamy texture seems completely unnatural and wrong. It's like the ultimate act of food removal. I generally fear and question things that no longer even vaguely resemble what they looked like in their natural state.

To use a SAT analogy (which might be totally wrong because I bombed my SATs):

Pig : Mortadella as Papyrus : Pinata

So, after today, I'm definitely looking to cut pork pinatas out of my life. If only I could convince Jason, my processed-food hoarding boyfriend...

Anyway, I know there's a double standard to my acceptance and continued consumption of salamis and other coarser ground sausages, but, I feel they're at least closer to the muscular texture of the animal. Either way, today served as an excellent proof point for the old adage, laws are like sausages; it's better not to see them being made.

(Side note: does anyone else find it ironic that this quote was from a German politician? A county almost entirely nourished by forcemeats and boiled, pickled vegetables.)

Thankfully, in today's class we weren't asked to do any of the finely pureed meats (well, except the seafood sausage). We made sweet Italian pork sausages, hot calabrese lamb sausages, herb chicken sausage and a seafood sausage. I was looking forward to trying the lamb sausages and Italian pork sausages, but definitely not excited for the seafood sausage. Again, it was something to do with the mousse like texture and the expectation of a fishiness.

Thankfully, my group indulged my lamb addiction and agreed to work on the lamb sausage. The way the seasonings smelled when combined with the meat was just heavenly. The recipe actually called for a fresh head of fennel but since we didn't have any, we subbed it with fennel seeds. Chef exchanged the whole fennel head for 1/2 tsp of fennel seeds, which seemed totally disproportionate to me, but he explained how intense the flavor of the fennel was in the seeds verses in the fresh vegetable. I personally aren't a big fan of fennel so the option to place less fennel in was totally fine by me. And! I never knew that wine was used in the sausage making process. It just never occurred to me because I never tasted it. I always assumed it was just meat and fat and some generic seasonings like salt, pepper, paprika, etc.

Anyway, we passed the meat through the grinder using the 1/8" plate, which left us with a large chunky consistency that, let's face it, looked absolutely disgusting. Even my deep rooted love of meat (and particularly lamb) and fat couldn't muster a crush on the stuff. It was just too goopy and mushy. We passed it all through the 1/8" plate again to make sure everything was well mixed and at the right consistency before moving on to checking the seasonings by making up a small patty and cooking it. This was when I realized that the fennel seeds we put into the sausage were completely hidden in the meat. I'm certain they added a great seasoning to the meat, but they were well blended and really just enhanced the flavor of the lamb and spices. We were very happy with the consistency and seasoning we'd had in the sausage, but we didn't realize that we had to actually puree a portion of the mixture (about 1/3) to provide a binding agent for the sausage before we could force it into the casing.

After combining everything together again, we began the messy and strangely snappy process of the stuffing the casings. For me, this was the worst part of the entire process. It was difficult to have control of the casing and the rate at which the meat was coming out because everything was so oiled. It was just a big, oily, slippery mess. There was just too much to have to keep an eye on: the length of the remaining casing, the fullness of the casing, the pressure of the meat, the stuffed but unfinished length of sausage, all of it was just too chaotic for me to wrap my head around. Saddest of all was that my link of sausages was very inconsistent, varying in size from 3 inches to 2 inches to 5 inches. Also, some of the breaks in the sausage didn't stay in place resulting int some sausages have a random lack of meat in the middle. In the end, despite having all three team members working on it, few of our sausages were up to snuff.

Most disappointing, I think was when we all began tasting the sausages and I found the lamb sausage dry and crumbly and gritty, nothing at all like the fatty goodness of the chicken or pork sausages. I think that the pureeing of the forcemeat ended up destroying the texture because the test patties we had before we pureed any of it was juicy and delicious. But, without the puree, the sausage would have lacked a good binding agent... unless we put more fat? What a scary thought, particularly since we already know how much went into this batch.

Italian sausage was good, but I thought it lacked a little flavor and was a bit sweet for me. I would have liked a stronger peppery flavor, or at least something that more clearly defined the meaty quality of the sausage. Again, even though the recipe called for fennel, I couldn't taste the fennel at all, at least, not directly. Its so weird and yet very interesting. I would love to try and make the sausages again and have half a batch have fennel and half without and see if I can taste a difference. It just is so bizarre to me that I could find the herb so strongly flavored and not taste it at all in the sausage.

Of them all, I liked the chicken herb sausage most. The meat was light and soft and juicy with just enough texture to give the sausage a good spring to it when you bit into it. I especially couldn't believe how juicy it was when I found out that there was no additional fat added to the chicken thighs. Apparently, the fat on the thighs themselves is enough. A scary thought when I remembered just how much fat we added to the lamb sausage when it still turned out dry. Regardless, of them all, I would probably make the chicken one at home. It was the most well-rounded and full-flavored of them all.

There was one other 'sausage' made that day, but it didn't strike me as sausage-like, other than the oblong shape. The seafood sausage, made from a puree of scallops and white fish was springy, almost al dente, and had a strange fishy taste and smell. It wasn't a strong fish smell like you get at seafood markets, but more like a deep musky earthy fishiness. The flavor wasn't particularly unpleasant, but certainly unexpected, which threw me off. I didn't love it enough to finish my helping, even with the lobster tail on top. Something about the whole texture/flavor/concept seemed wrong and unappealing. Most interesting, though, was the process of making the sausage. At one point, the team working on them had to add in nearly three cups of cream into the puree. It seemed impossible, but watching Chef work it into the mix, it looked like the puree was just drinking it down. So very amazing. It nearly doubled in volume, of course.

Chef also made pickles for us to try with a particular type of pickling spice and brine. They were deliciously sour and sweet with a good bite to them from mustard seeds. I don't generally enjoy pickles much but after trying these, I think I just haven't had the right kind. These were just great.

(P.S. I've been eating the pickles randomly since class and they just get better with time! They go great on a roast beef sandwich, by the way.)

And finally, today's masterpiece were fillets of smoked trout. Oh MAN! was that good and not that complicated! We took a few hotel pans with racks in them and lay down trout fillets leaving a little room for a aluminium foil 'boat' filled with hickory chips:

We lit the chips in the broiler and while still on fire, lay it down with the trout and covered them up with aluminum foil:

And threw the whole thing in the convection oven to cook the fish. Naturally, because the fish was covered, the fire would go out, but we just took it out and re-lit the fires a few times and everything worked out fine. In the end we were left with these beautifully oily and browned fillets that smelled like a great grill out by the lake. They were so light and smoky and intensely flavored I almost couldn't believe nothing else was added to the fish.

I would crawl across the desert for another taste of that trout.