Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Sausage: The New Thanksgiving Tradition

We’ve never had any real food traditions at my family’s Thanksgiving dinner. There was the year when my father, with the discriminating taste he has, insisted that the pilgrims probably ate fresh lobsters, being on the eastern seaboard and all. And there was another year when some family friends joined us for dinner and brought the sickly sweet candied yam casserole, a horror-inducing dish so offensive it makes Christmas fruitcake seem like a thoughtful if not scrumptious gesture.

Three years ago, however, when my carnivorous boyfriend joined us in New York for Thanksgiving dinner, my mother decided she needed to win him over with something really special on the table. Seeing as she doesn’t know much about beer, she decided to go the sausage route. Boyfriend is something of a sausage connoisseur. He has a favorite sausage bar in San Francisco and can tell you the best dog to order across the map, from Berlin to Barcelona to London.

Somewhere, somehow, my mother found a recipe for sausage stuffing.


It starts out with raw turkey links, but not the kind used for breakfast, cut into chunks (not crumbled). It requires “peasant bread,” which I thought meant a big round fresh baked loaf of something white and a little squishy on the inside, but apparently refers to some specific type of pre-sliced sandwich bread (as I learned after a punishing grocery shopping trip this year). It takes lots of chopped onions and quartered mushrooms sautéed in butter, as well as fresh thyme, parsley, and sage. There’s chicken broth in there somewhere, and possibly celery—and if there isn’t celery, well then, it certainly wouldn’t hurt.

The funny thing is, I don’t know where in the world she’s hidden the recipe, so I only have a loose idea of how to put it all together. I know it’s baked outside the bird. I know the basic ingredients, and I can guess well enough how they all come together. But my mother has become a stickler for this one side dish, insisting, “It just came out so good the first time, I’m not going to risk messing with it.”

I’m not much of a recipe-follower myself. I might cook two or three things a month from a set recipe; the rest of the time I work off ideas gathered from reading recipes as well as my own experience and some common sense about what’s fresh and available. My mother doesn’t cook a whole lot at all, and she certainly doesn’t follow recipes regularly. She never buys fresh herbs, and I can’t remember the last time I came home and found a real onion at my disposal (there’s always a few jars of that powdered stuff in the cabinets).

As much as I pooh-pooh my mother for her lack of fresh onions, garlic, and aromatics, I will keep my lips shut tight when it comes to the sausage stuffing. We’re on year three with it now, and it is just so damn good. It’s fluffy and moist. It’s flavorful. And it’s unexpected. Who wouldn’t be surprised to find sausage on the Thanksgiving table (unless maybe your last name is Soprano)? Despite the fact that she prepared two big casserole dishes of the stuff, every last bit of it disappeared before the table was cleared--and there were only five of us this year! In fact it was the only thing we polished off completely that night. Next year, I’ll try to get my hands on that recipe index card before my mom files it away again.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Pasty

It’s pronounced “pass-tee,” almost like “Patsy,” as in Kline, if you transposed the tee and the ess sounds. As a word, “pasty” has that awful problem of having a somewhat similar meaning as its similar-sounding cousin “pastry” while still being something completely different.

A pasty is nothing more than pastry with some sort of savory food tucked up inside. It is usually shaped like an empanada or a turnover, though it can also be rectangular or in the shape of a log.

The English will put just about anything inside a hefty butter crust: pork pie, minced pie, bakewell tart, beef Wellington, sausage roll, chicken of tarragon pie, and of course the pasty. You can find pasties with steak and Guinness, steak and kidney beans, beans and vegetables, vegetable and chicken, ham and peas. Just about the only thing I haven’t seen available in pasty form are baked beans, which the English prefer to slather on dry toast and eat for breakfast.

I for one am certainly not going to knock the English for their fine appreciation of pie crust at all meals. In the last two weeks, I’ve ventured to try two pasties, and I’m honestly on point try more; but fitting more pie into my daily routine has proven more difficult than I imagined.

When I do indulge here in London, it’s typically in the chocolate category, and something just feels wrong about munching down both a Cadbury bar and a pastry-wrapped hunk of stewed meat in the same day.

On a business trip up to Nottingham not long ago, I found myself in need of sustenance around 11:45 in the morning, a time when calling up a colleague for lunch is completely out of the question. So I popped into a horrid little chain called Greggs (think low-grade Dunkin Donuts, only with savory foods, too) and ordered a Cornish pasty, which they were predictably out of (in England, 99 percent of the time you can absolutely count on the fact that thing will not go according to plan).

I asked instead for a chicken pasty and scurried away with a hot little piece of something exciting warming my hands through a flimsy wax paper packet. I nibbled the first bite cautiously, as you would a hot dumpling from Chinese soup, and found that method to be in good form. Out dribbled some steaming whitish-grayish ooze. Upon further nibbles, I found the gray matter to be like chicken pot pie sauce, or badly made roux. With the hand-held pie cooling, I chomped a bit more and finally found three or four little hunks of chicken.

It was a somewhat underwhelming experience, eating all that shell and gravy to find less chicken then you would expect to find in a can of cat food. Still, it reminded me of the deep south in America, where people slop chicken gravy on their biscuits after church on Sunday.

The other pasty experience begins at this great Jewish bakery I’ve found up the road from my house in an area called Stamford Hill. The bakery is stellar, with black-and-whites, bagels, challah bread, and miniature doughnuts. Its downfall is that it’s closed on Fridays for Shavuot.

One day while walking by, I stuck my head in to see if there would be any enticing snacks for me to eat on the rest of my walk home. I love eating and walking at the same time. There were two pasty-looking things, one with potato and onions and one with Soya. I got the Soya. The pastry was the butteriest and flakiest thing I’ve ever eaten. It was light as air, but buttery to the touch. The Soya was scant and was all but lost in the elegance of the pastry.

From what I’ve gathered, Cornwall in particular is known for its pasties. Train travelers in the U.K. might recall having seen signs for a chain shop called West Cornwall Pasty Co., as they have a stall in nearly every major station in Britain. The next time I’m in Cornwall (or Victoria station for that matter) the pasty will be at the top of my list. Some sight-seeing …