“Man, I am so hungover right now,” groaned Chef Bart Bell of Crescent Pie and Sausage Company to Nathanial Zimet of Boucherie shortly before the start of their hands-on workshop. Zimet responded with a hearty laugh and a nod; both men, it seems, were unaware that their microphones were on—or perhaps they just didn’t care. The entirety of the sausage-making workshop to come was replete with jokes and similarly light-hearted comments, but make no mistake: Bell and Zimet were consummate professionals throughout, even in the face of technical difficulties, and both are certainly masters of their respective craft. The presentation they gave was both fun and edifying, and I found myself quite easily inspired by the amiable Southern chefs.
As they introduced the ingredients with which we would prepare our sausage, the chefs discussed the crucial importance of temperature control to the sausage-making process: sausage meat should be nearly frozen before it is ground to avoid “breaking” the fat, which could otherwise render out during cooking/smoking, leaving the sausage too dry. While a certain amount of fat in a sausage is a good thing, Zimet said, too much makes for a greasy product, and is typical of cheaper sausages. To maintain the temperature and integrity of the meat, every surface it touches, from it’s original storage bowl to the grinder, should, whenever possible, be kept cool.
A highlight of the workshop, for me, was the introduction of tasso,a heavily-spiced and even-more-heavily-smoked hunk of pork butt originating in Louisiana; tasso preparation typically entails a five-day dry spice rub followed by a multi-day stint in a smoker—a far longer process than is required for sausage. The tasso would be a recurring motif in the workshop, appearing in the final sausage (an alligator andouille left smoking overnight in a high-tech combi-oven), our “working” sample sausage, and on its own, as a tasting. The samples, generously portioned, were pleasantly intense in both flavor and texture: the taste—salty, spicy, peppery, and extremely smokey—was to me both familiar and surprising in its utter boldness; the texture, redolent of a quality jerky, though more succulent and slightly easier to chew. While tasso isn’t normally eaten on its own—perhaps because of the strength of its seasoning and the long amount of preparation time it requires—many of us in the audience found ourselves returning to the front counter for seconds, thirds, and even fourths. (After the workshop, this author scored a small container of the tasty stuff, some of which managed to survive the trip home uneaten).
Confident that we reporters and barbecue enthusiasts in the audience had enjoyed our fill of tasso, the chefs segued to the truly hands-on portion of the workshop and called up a volunteer to help operate the Hobart grinder. The plan was to make an andouille-type sausage similar to that being prepared in the smoker, albeit without alligator meat, which had already been used up the night before. Though the initial Hobart demonstration went off without a hitch and we were able to watch as the meat was ground and collected in a bowl, the chefs ran into some technical difficulties while attempting to demonstrate the stuffing process: though there were a number of piping attachments lying around, not a one seemed to fit the end of the Hobart. Event staff searched the Armory high and low for the right piece as Bell and Zimet expertly handled the situation, showing off the preferred hog casing and explaining the difference between piping meat through a dedicated stuffer versus a stuffer/grinder combination (piping through a grinder apparently tends to double-grind the meat, leading to a more finely textured sausage), all the while cracking dirty jokes about sausages. When it became apparent that the right attachment was nowhere to be found, chef Bell, noting that sausage is always open to experimentation, made the decision to simply sauté the seasoned sausage-meat (including the wonderful tasso) without a casing. Though not smoked, the resulting sausage was nevertheless extremely tasty, with a tremendous amount of flavor and texture.
Following this tasting, a short presentation was given detailing the capabilities of the combi-oven used by chefs Bell and Zimet to smoke their alligator andouille. The oven was extremely high-tech and versatile, allowing for a variety of time-and-temperature based settings—quite different than the old-fashioned models used by Zimet and Bell at their home establishments. (Each chef expressed admiration for the capabilities of the combi-smoker/steamer). The end of the presentation turned out to be the ‘big reveal’ of the andouille: as the door of the oven opened, a thick plume of smoke and steam rushed upward, toward the open windows of the Armory’s high ceilings—the sight, for me, was another highlight of the event, one that has stuck in my mind ever since.
When the smoke had cleared, for the most part, chefs Bell and Zimet collected a tray of andouille and brought it back to the presentation work-counter; there, they diced up the sausages for us to sample at our own discretion. The workshop was essentially over, save for a few questions for the chefs from the meat-curing aficionados in the audience, and so we were finally free to enjoy our long-awaited (time seems to slow down when you’re waiting for delicious food) andouille: the casing of the sausage afforded a satisfying ‘snap’ as I bit in, while the inside provided a wonderful, meaty chew—the ratio of meat to fat was perfect. The flavor had all of the spicy smokiness of the tasso along with something more, something undefinable and yet somehow unmistakably cajun. In short, it was worth the wait, and what’s more, the chefs had prepared enough to pass out vacuum-packed samples to interested persons throughout the event. I was happy to be able to bring back a few of the “hot links,” along with some of the tasso, to my friends, the Goulds, with whom I was staying not far from the Armory. It was already a very good day, made even better by the excellent presentation work of chefs Bart Bell and Nathanial Zimet; nicely done, guys.
All photos by John M. Sconzo, M.D.