Food Republic’s column Ask Your Butcher seeks to answer FAQs in the world of butchery. Ethically minded butcher Bryan Mayer has opened butcher shops and restaurants and has trained butchers in the U.S. and abroad. He helped develop the renowned butcher-training program at Fleisher’s. Today, he consults with farmers, butchers, chefs and anyone else who will listen. In each column, Mayer tackles a pressing issue facing both meat buyers and home cooks. This week, he delves into the delicious, (somewhat) photogenic world of Italian charcuterie.
Food has always played a part in our superstitions. Noodles and the longevity of life, the tossing of spilled salt over your shoulder in order to blind the devil and the endless ways in which tea can ruin your marriage, misplace your car keys or wreak general havoc in your life. And let’s not even talk about all those air pockets in bread. It’s a wonder anyone can get through a meal unscathed. I prefer my food superstitions to be less foreboding, and more satiating to the soul and stomach. And while many of you have probably consumed your yearly allotment of Hoppin’ John or menudo, I prefer something a little closer to my heritage — the Italian sausage known as cotechino.
You’ve no doubt seen recipe upon recipe over the last week or so detailing how to prepare this traditional holiday season meal from Modena, where it is served on New Year’s Eve alongside lentils, which are said to bring prosperity. Most of these contemporary recipes call for an already cooked cotechino that you’ll slice into rounds and cook through, preferably by pan-frying in your skillet. If you’re lucky, you’ve got a great butcher who has already cased some for you, and if that butcher is exceptionally great, he may have even poached it for you. Stuffed it into a foreshank of pork (zampone)? Put him in your will! All that’s left is to cook some polenta, mash some potatoes, maybe something green and, of course, lentils…for prosperity.
But who can’t use a little good luck year-round, especially through a long, cold winter? And if that luck happens to come in the form of pork, seasoned with warm spices and stuffed into a casing, then luck, thy name is Bryan. Unfortunately for most, this sausage is hard to come by. Sure, if you’re lucky enough to live in Chicago, Rob Levitt and his crew at Butcher and Larder stock their case full. At New York City’s Hudson & Charles, sausage king Ian Halbwachs will go one step further and debone a pork foreshank, stuff it and stitch it back up for you. But then, like the rest of the holiday season, they’re gone. We’re left with sweet Italian, chorizo and breakfast sausage, along with the fleeting memory of that sausage that comes ’round once a year.
Not so fast. We’ve talked about making sausage before. Heck, maybe it inspired you to pick up a grinder attachment or even a standalone model. Maybe you got that sausage stuffer as a gift. Well, drop your devices and grab your spices because it’s time to make some cotechino.
You’ve likely got most of what you need to do this spice-wise: garlic, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and a bit of cayenne (see full ingredient list below). You’ll need about five pounds of pork trim ground either by your butcher or by your new grinder. We’re looking for a good amount of fat, around a 70:30 lean-to-fat ratio. You’ll also be adding about a pound and a half of pork skin to your mix. This can be a bit tricky to deal with. If your butcher can’t grind any for you, you can either grind at home or, if you don’t have a grinder available, mince it. The skin adds a richness and depth of flavor that only skin can.
I like to poach my skins first for about 30 minutes as this makes it much easier to grind. Standard pork casings will do, but I prefer to use the larger beef middles at about two and a half inches in diameter. You’ll want to soak these in cold water for at least an hour before casing. And be forewarned, they can smell a bit strong. Don’t worry, it’s totally fine.
Of course you can opt out of all that and just make patties, but where’s the fun in that? Once you’ve got all your ingredients, it’s time to mix, grind, stuff and poach. You can do this on the stovetop, where you’ll gently bring the sausage to a simmer, roughly 200°F. Remember, you’ve precooked your skin, so this will cook much faster. We’re looking for an internal temp of 145°F on your instant-read thermometer. Most methods I see call for pricking the sausage, so it may poach in its own juices. I prefer to keep all that fat inside, so I poach in chicken stock. Allow the sausage to cool for a couple of hours, slice and pan fry.
If you want to take this meal one step further and really impress your guests, you could stuff this sausage into the foreshank of a pig, or zampone. Again, this came out of the need to preserve and use every part of the pig, and what better sausage casing than the foreshank? There’s plenty of rich, sticky, pork skin flavor and a lining of fat along the inside once you’ve deboned it — all you need is a quick viewing of Roadhouse or No Country for Old Men to brush up on your suturing skills and you’re ready to cook. Just please don’t use dental floss.
You’ll want to master a slip stitch, as this is a great stitch for closing up anything you want to stuff, but you can certainly get fancier and use something like a whipstitch. Bottom line: Make it tight. You’ll also need something a bit sturdier than your typical sewing needle — a trussing needle will do the trick. I like ones that have a flatter point as opposed to a more rounded one. They’ll pierce the thick skin of any shank much easier.
Deboning can be a bit tricky; if you can convince your butcher to do this for you, great. If not, go slow, follow the natural seam between meat and skin and be careful not to poke any holes in it. We don’t want all that great fat leaching out when we poach. Just like the cotechino above, you’ll want to slowly poach the shank at about 200°F for roughly two and a half hours or so in chicken stock. We’re looking for the skin to be soft and pliable, but not falling off the bone. And what of all that pork/chicken stock that’s been simmering away for a few hours? Well, you’ve got yourself some tasty ramen stock to add to your arsenal. Nothing is wasted! I allow the zampone to cool for a couple of hours or overnight, slice and pan fry.
You could take the cotechino/zampone and allow it to simmer in your lentils, celery, carrots and onions for 20 minutes or so, but I usually just add back some of the stock it cooked in for added flavor. Besides, this sausage goes with just about anything; it doesn’t have to be just lentils.
So there you have it — instant good luck year-round. Whether you try the uncased version or head straight to master level and stuff a shank, good luck never tasted so good!
5 pounds pork trim (or coarsely ground) from a fully pastured or wood lot-raised hog. Any mix will do, just make sure it has a good lean-to-fat ratio.
1/2 pound pork skin, cleaned of fat
3 tablespoons salt
½ tablespoon black pepper
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon clove
1 teaspoon garlic
1 teaspoon cayenne
Beef middle casings soaked for at least 20 minutes in cold water
10 cups chicken stock
- Simmer ½ pound of pork skin for roughly 30 minutes or until fork tender.
- As you learned in our sausage class, work quickly, so as to avoid heating up your sausage mix. You want to keep everything as cold as possible. Once meat, fat, skin and spices are ground, I prefer to mix my sausage by hand to ensure the proper bind. That precooked skin will help with the bind. We don’t want to overmix. Once that’s done, allow to sit overnight.
- Stuff each sausage one at a time, as opposed to linking to facilitate easier cooking. If you’re going the zampone route, stuff just tightly enough to leave you room to work your stitches, making sure to seal it tight. Using butcher twine is fine.
- Bring 10 cups of chicken stock to a simmer, roughly 200°F, and poach your cotechino until an instant thermometer reads 145°F. If you’ve stuffed into a zampone, this process will take a bit longer, roughly 2½ hours or until you can pierce the shank with a fork.
- Allow to rest for about 10 minutes if you’re looking to serve right away. I like to cool for a couple of hours or overnight, slice into half-rounds and pan fry before serving, adding even more texture.