Monday, October 20, 2014

Zena Hosts: Sweet Italian Sausage Tasting

I like sausage.  I expect it to contain weird pig parts. We should be using every part of the animal if we can. Get over it.

Surely the origin of sausage in particular is connected to using the entire beast, and then learning to preserve it. Sausage is one of the oldest meat products in history (1500 B.C. by one account), and the world has many varieties to choose from.

Piglets at Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield MA -  May 2014
In particular I love fresh, sweet Italian sausage - meaning it's not cured or salted or smoked, and it has to be thoroughly cooked before eating. It's relatively inexpensive, versatile, quick if it needs to be, and usually very tasty. It can also contain a host of ingredients like stabilizers and binders and extenders (like starch-based fillers) and tenderizers, in addition to the necessary salt and added fat and spices and sugar.  When I buy locally I can hope that these additions are natural and necessary and mostly about taste, and that the quality of the starting meat product is humane and free of antibiotics. Unnecessary gook saps my superpowers, and I know the effects can be much worse for mortals.

I purchased my sausages from six area retailers and organized a blind taste testing with a dozen or so friends and superheroes. Here is the lineup (in alpha order descending):

6 sausages, three votes, funny stickers went on the place cards and comments onto sticky notes
OK so maybe we don't know exactly what the ingredients are, or where they came from, but one thing for sure - we were only tasting pork sausages today (no beef or chicken or turkey or vegan options). We expected salt (which does three things - it binds the meat, inhibits bacterial growth and gives the mixture flavor), black pepper, maybe some fennel seed, other flavors like wine or vinegar or mustard, and herbs & spices such as parsley (usually), paprika, garlic, oregano, basil, ginger, sage, coriander, red pepper flakes and/or onion. Uh, just about anything, actually.  It may have a bit of sugar, but "sweet" only differentiates this sausage from "hot" Italian, which would have much more red pepper. Fat is key: a ratio of about 80 percent meat to 20 percent fat is about your minimum - 30% would be typical. We need that fat for flavor but we don''t want gristle. We want our sausages firm but not too dry. We want it to smell good and be tasty. Sausages are ugly so today we won't talk about things looking delicious.

Sausages are laid out on the left in the aluminum pans. Our feast also included a lovely potluck of salads, bread and desserts

I cooked about a pound of each - sweet Italian only. No pre-boiling. No poking holes. No cutting or changing the shape of the links until it was time to check that the interior was cooked through.

Despite long discussions about the need for perfect weather with other gods and goddesses leading up to this event, I can only figure someone was pissed at me for something, because the day of our party it was raining for the first time in a month, so we ended up being indoors instead of cooking on the grill. The sausages were simply browned and cooked through on the stove top in a skillet lightly seasoned with olive oil, then kept warm in tightly covered dishes in a 200 degree oven until we were ready to taste.

I have special powers and that included being the only one that knew which of the choices, A to F, were which. Each guest got three stickers to vote with, and comments were to be written down on Post-its for me to decipher later, but this crowd was boisterous and loud and really fun so we knew EXACTLY what was on everyone's mind, except Po, a puppy brought by the Mistress of the Hounds, who was quiet but probably thinking SAUSAGES the whole time.

Anyway, here are the results:

Cardona's (A) - $5.69/lb
These were small, red, compact links that LOOKED like hot Italian when I opened the container, but didn't taste like it. It had plenty of black pepper and fennel. This one got 6 stickers. Tasters, not yet silly on wine, because I could still read their handwriting, remarked "Tender and flavorful; nice consistency to the meat and not too peppery; nice flavor; moist, great flavor; robust - not just pepper but more; good sausage flavor; yum, salty."

Smaller, compact sausages from Cardona's
Falvo's (B) - $3.29/lb if you buy 3 pounds
These were large and lean (the lady behind the counter told me when I bought them that they were leaner than usual). When I was cooking them I got a lot of gray "gook" in the pan (blood?), which didn't appeal to me. They smelled strongly of sage. This sausage got NO stickers. Comments included "Bland; too dry; is this really sausage?; not a lot of seasoning - kinda plain; blah, dry; bland, not much flavor; good meat flavor but bland; and my favorite, 'As an Italian I am offended that this is called Italian sausage. I think it's neither.'" My tasters, neither sober nor professional, totally rejected this product.

This was the only sausage where we got "gook" in the fry pan
Garofalo (D) - $4.49 if you pay cash; $4.69 if you use a credit card (sheesh)
This went into the pan as one, large one pound plus link. It had lots of small fatty deposits seen through the casing. This choice got 13 stickers - a clear winner!!! This is what we thought: "Pow!; Can never have too much pepper cuz I like hot/not sweet - this is more like hot than sweet; great flavor; very flavorful; pepper and fennel is good - bit of a [huh?] to it; pepper! the best; hot black pepper, salty; too much pepper for my taste; and little spicier than (A); YUM A&D fave so far peppery LOVE" (assume wine assisted with the last taster's expert opinion).

Sausage from Garofalo's - lots of visible fat through the casing

Pellegrino (C) - $4.29/lb
This was also one large link that had lots of large bits of fat. These guys got 6 stickers, tying for second place with Cardona's, with friends saying "Mild by really nice; fatty, blah, had to spit out a hunk of fat; yum, fennel; and nice flavor." This was one of my "go to" sweet Italian sausages over the years and I still like it a lot, but it didn't go over as well as I thought it would, keeping in mind, of course, that there were mostly mortals at this tasting.

Our Store
This is a picture of Pellegrino's from the parking lot that I took from their web site because it seems I don't have a picture of their sausages like I do the rest. My apologies to all.
Roma: (F) - $5.19/lb
This one didn't have any visible fat globs, and was really pink. It was very wet and slow to brown, and there was a lot of excess fat in the pan, more than any of our other sausages. It got only one vote, with comments like this: "Weird texture, grainy, nice flavor; not a fan; not for me; dry - tastes too dry and bland; kinda plain - needs more seasoning; somewhat plain but tender, not fatty, needs more seasoning," and, to the point - "meh".
The sausages from Roma's took forever to brown. They were "wet".
Sindoni (E) - $5.49/lb - available from Hannaford's
This one was pretty fatty, with four stickers from our noisy testers. Comments included "Peppery and fennel?; this one is OK; little fatty but OK; too fatty, yeah, gristle." Nobody too excited over this sausage, but it did come in third. Too bad, because I really like the idea of a local outlet being sold out of our chain grocery stores.

Sindoni's sweet Italian sausages are available from area Hannaford's
These were all so very different - that was a real surprise to all of us - but the great variation made our sausage tasting a much more worthy culinary experience than we expected. I was SO impressed with Garofalo's that I'm now much more willing to set my GPS and drive into deepest, darkest Schenectady to get a stash of their sausages for the next time I'm dreaming up a batch of anything (spaghetti sauce, sausage and peppers, lasagna, etc.) that includes sweet Italian sausages. BRAVO!!!

Zena, Goddess of Fire

PS: I'll share my recipe for Pickle Soup - one way to use up leftover cooked sweet Italian sausages - in the very near future.  (: 


llcwine said...

The sausages you got from Roma...was that from the butcher or from the Deli counter...I like the grilling sausage from the deli counter, but do not like the ones from the butcher....

Zena G.O.F. said...

I got the ones for our tasting from the butcher. Why in the name of Zeus would Roma's sell TWO kinds of sausages, especially if one is almost terrible? I hope they read this blog and plan a tasting of their own. Next time I'll try the ones from the deli - thanks for the tip!!!

LorreS said...

That definitely explains why I was so weireded out by the taste of the Roma sample we had. I always get the sausage from the deli counter.