Online Butcher Pat Whelan writes on meat and food in general and this week he talks about the humble sausage.
It must be our current fascination with all things frugal that every food magazine I’ve come across recently has at least one sausage recipe in it. Toad in the Hole has been resurrected from its 1970s resting place and is seriously sexy again. Just in case you haven’t come across it Toad in the Hole is an English dish of sausages baked in Yorkshire pudding batter and if made properly can be comfort food heaven. Leaving the batter aside every chef also seems to have some take on bangers and mash. They’re attempting to tart it up with a fashionable sprig of rosemary here or a handful of coriander there, but it is still sausage. Dry and plump, smothered in batter or gravy, puffed up with herbs – the pork sausage has had an Oprah style makeover and the audience is going wild.
I suppose it had to happen. During the boom sausages had no need to grace a dinner plate. The abundance of builders in the country had devoured truckloads of sausages in breakfast rolls before most of us even put our feet on the floor. Sausages had a function as a breakfast staple and a child’s tea perhaps. Before the downturn the idea of sausages for dinner would have been alien to many. It’s quite funny how we quickly murdered our inner food snob in light of penury.
However the humble sausage is very versatile and every fridge and freezer in the land should keep a pack to hand and they have a good shelf life for a meat product. There are the obvious uses; a quick sausage sandwich or a cooked breakfast but I have often used a few sausages for stuffing when I haven’t had sausage meat to hand. Chopped small they enliven a dull omelette which is basically a combined cooked breakfast at lunch or suppertime. Then there are the more complicated baked sausages in mustard and Toad in the Hole often served with “frilly” mash. I use the word frilly because few chefs can leave mash alone these days. They have to snip in some chives or throw in a pinch of cumin. Stop playing with the mash, all it needs is butter and plenty of it! Finally the onion gravy is a thing of much debate and getting it right is crucial.
And where did those names come from? Bangers and Mash, Toad in the Hole, weanies (American) and Pigs in a Blanket! If you Google Toad in the Hole you may be told on several websites that it is so called because the sausages resemble toads’ heads popping out of the batter. It’s nonsensical in the extreme. I’ve looked at Toad in the Hole from every angle and there is nothing anywhere in the dish that resembles a toad, let alone a hole! Another suggestion is that Toad in the Hole was the name of an 18th century tavern game where people threw discs into holes in the table; a slightly more plausible answer perhaps but nothing concrete. Pigs in blankets are probably just a visual description. In England pigs in blankets are small sausages wrapped in bacon; a party food or Christmas dinner accompaniment while in America the blanket is usually pastry and more like our common sausage rolls. Weanies or Weaners in America come from the German name for Vienna, (Wien) where a particular pork and beef mix sausage came from.
We all know what a sausage is but if we didn’t have one to hand and a visiting alien asked us to define it in words what would you say? Sausage is a food, generally made from meat mashed together with salt, herbs and spices and put into a long narrow casing. Irish sausages are usually made from pork but every country has its own version and sausage can be prepared by drying, curing or smoking.
For many years butchers made their own sausages. The general idea, shape and size were the same but obviously the taste varied slightly. In my own shop we have a secret recipe for our award winning sausages. When a James Whelan Butcher is deemed ready, and it takes many, many years of service, we reveal the “secret of the sausage to him” in a grand ceremony in the cold room! Regular readers will know that I’m joking of course, but we do make excellent sausages to our own specific recipe. You won’t find a James Whelan Butchers’ sausage anywhere else and I’ll personally stand over the quality, the texture and the taste. While many like the challenge of making their own there are such good sausages available to buy that it seems an unnecessary and painstaking task.
Whatever kind of sausage you are after it can be easily found in today’s market. From the oily Spanish chorizo that works so well in many dishes to the firm Frankfurter or plump and juicy traditional Irish pork sausage there are a myriad of inexpensive dishes to prepare. Try as many as you can. Some you’ll love and others will be too spicy, too chewy, too gritty, too smoky; you’ll never know until you try and don’t just resign the more unusual ones to pizza toppings and buffet platters. Heat them in a pan and see what happens or mix them with some other ingredients or try them cold. The big challenge will be to see if you can create an acceptable dinner with the humble sausage. I am very confident that cooked with a little style and given some respect bangers and mash could have them dancing in the aisles and asking for seconds but you have to stick to the rules:
1. Buy the best possible sausages you can get your hands on. (Butchers are probably your best bet.)
2. Master the art of onion gravy and, whatever the recipe says, cut the onions big and coarse!
3. Leave the mash alone – smooth and naked but for a butter lake is all the perfection needed.
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We hope you enjoyed reading this post by Pat Whelan of James Whelan Butchers. Pat is a 5th generation butcher, cook book author and the director of James Whelan Butchers with shops in Clonmel, the Avoca Food Market Monkstown and Avoca Rathcoole. Sign up to our newsletter for more updates from James Whelan Butchers