Jimmy Dean, who died last month aged 81, may be out of the news cycle, but he's lodged in the lining of my heart as firmly as a small piece of Polish sausage. You see, thanks to a strange concatenation of events, Mr. Dean recently (sort of, maybe) saved my life. Allow me to explain.
A few years ago, when I first took an interest in preparing and eating foods other than sardines, croutons, and March of Dimes gumballs, a friend bought me a Bass Pro Shops Sausage Kit. I suspect his intention was to steer my new hobby away from creme brulee and polenta and toward the more gender-appropriate piles of ground meat. I'd already inherited an antique meat grinder, so I should have been all set.
Unfortunately, not only am I lazy, but I also have trouble assembling anything more complex than a Duplo set. Plus, I spent much of 2009 living out of my car. So, until June, the sausage-stuffing apparatus sat in a mildewed box in my trunk. It wasn't until I'd settled down in southern Connecticut, the Fertile Crescent of hot dogs, that I decided it was time to pump my own casings full of coarsely ground pork shoulder and tenderloin.
Upon googling "sausage," I learned that Jimmy Dean, the man whose name has long been linked with tube steak, had just shuffled off this greasy coil while watching TV at his home in Varina, Virginia. This was no coincidence, I thought--it was synchronicity, almost as though the spirit of Mr. Dean was passing me the torch.
On a sunny afternoon I began carrying the components of my sausage stuffer out to the porch for a photo op. In short order I became distracted (by meat) and started doing something (eating meat) in my kitchen, leaving my front door ajar. Through a window I saw that an unsavory-looking character had noticed the open door and then, instead of minding his own business, decided to make a beeline for it.
If you ever have to chase a would-be intruder off your porch, it helps to have a forty-pound elbow pipe handy. My visitor, who didn't appear to be selling Mormonism, Thin Mints, or magazine subscriptions, jumped backwards into the driveway, lamely offered that he was "looking for a Band-Aid," and beat a cringing retreat. Repelling the invasion made me feel manly enough; doing it with a sausage-stuffing machine made me feel like the Duke, the Gipper, and Conan the Barbarian, all rolled into one.
I celebrated victory by stuffing my first breakfast sausage. The process is somewhat intimidating, but once you've got the hang of it, you'll wonder why this skill isn't taught as early as Kindergarten. It is, after all, one of those "rewarding hobbies" likely to "keep kids off the street," to say nothing of the fact that it makes a breakfast far superior to Fruity Pebbles. Ingredients-wise, all one needs are pork, kosher salt (i.e., non-iodized; nothing about this will be kosher), cracked or ground pepper, sage, thyme, paprika, and whatever else you want in in there. Adjust proprortions to your taste, but please try to use common sense.
As Mr. Dean once put it in an ad, according to his obit in the New York Times, "Sausage is a great deal like life. You get out of it what you put into it." I recommend ground cayenne or ancho peppers.
The stuffing (n.) is a simple matter. Just grind it, chill it, and grind it again, working in the spices with your hands. The stuffing (v.) is really a trial and error deal. First you'll need natural hog casings, which come with the Pro Shops kit. These look like shredded, nicotine-stained latex gloves out of a horror movie. Also, they'll be totally encrusted in salt, so remember to soak (at least a half hour) and rinse them prior to use. Pull a strand of casing over the extruder pipe of your stuffer. The casing looks too small for this, but, as you'll soon learn, it can stretch to truly unsettling dimensions.
Depress the plunger slowly. The casing will survive a fair amount of pressure, but overeagerness may result in misshapen or even ruptured links. Use your hands to slide the meat down the casing until an agreeable form is achieved. You can tie knots in the casing ends themselves, or around the ends with butcher's twine. Refrigerate your links if you aren't eating them immediately (you are, aren't you?), and freeze them if you don't plan to finish them in a few days.
I prepared breakfast sausage as an offering to the great spirit of Jimmy Dean, but of course there are innumerable varieties with which to experiment: bangers (U.K.), chorizo, andouille, boudin noir, and, of course, good old franks.