Homemade Hot Dogs

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Living 500 miles from my home town, I try and plan one long weekend home during the summer to spend some quality time with my dad. Ever since I was young, he has been a major contributor to the family cooking, employing varying degrees of adventure. When I was five or six, I remember him bringing home the strangest fruit he could find at our small-town grocery store: a star fruit, pomegranate or mango. I recall the first time he brought home the latter – it was unripe, but never having before seen a mango, we didn’t know what to expect and its astringent taste dried out our mouths. Now, decades later, my childhood home finally has cable (we lived too far out in the country when I was growing up) and one of my dad’s go-to channels is the Food Network. A physics major in college and a builder by trade, he particularly loves Alton Brown and his scientific explanations and home-built cooking devices.

So nowadays when my dad and I catch up on the phone a few times a week, we often talk food. He was so impressed by my latest charcuterie exploits that I sent him homemade duck proscuitto and a copy of Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie for Father’s Day. We have since been making plans to build a homemade smoker out of an old mini-fridge.

And then: the emulsion challenge.

The timing was right – I would bring my grinder home and my dad offered to set up a work table in the garage. The local grocery store has expanded since the days that mangoes were considered exotic, and now I figured I could buy almost any ingredient I might need once there. We decided on late morning, on the 4th of July. And what would be more patriotic than homemade hot dogs? Our plans were made.

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While my dad’s had made sausage with my grandparents countless times, it had been a few decades, so I took charge of seasoning (garlic, salt, pepper, paprika, mustard) and chopping the beef stew meat for the first trip through the grinder, along with just a bit of pork fat (fat back).

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We ground the meat first through a large die and then again through a smaller die, keeping it as cool as possible in a metal bowl atop ice. Ruhlman and others cite temperature as being a main element in keeping the texture firm and not mealy, so we started with nearly frozen meat and a chilled grinder as well.

I’ll note here that I also skipped the step that called for curing the meat with pink salt overnight. In speaking with the same butcher, a man who owned both a butcher shop and a gun shop side by side in a neighboring town so small it doesn’t even have a stop light, who also refused to sell me pink salt until he quizzed me on my curing experience, he noted that if I was planning to eat the hot dogs in the next few days and didn’t mind a brown versus pink color, then I could skip that step. Again, its about knowing how the ingredients work together. I was learning… In fact, for one of the first times in my memory, my dad – a man who could fix or build anything – was learning alongside me.

Next we cleaned the grinder and put that and the meat back into the freezer while we re-grouped. I must admit, I was a bit worried about the next step. I had asked the butcher from whom I bought the beef and casings if he had any tips, and his response was, “Keep it cold and don’t break the emulsion.” The long directions, according to Ruhlman, included adding liquid, and mixing the meat until it reaches specific temperature points; however the emulsifying step under the hot dog recipe only noted a quick two minute spin in a food processor, with no added liquids. I read the recipe aloud to my dad (neither of us were much on following directions when cooking, preferring to wing it based upon experience and instinct) and we debated what to do. For the first time the two of us – both a bit stubborn – feeling equally comfortable with the same task. Then I realized: we’re cooking. And we’re using ingredients with which we are familiar. While we may never have ground meat into a sticky paste to stuff in a clean pig intestine (I couldn’t find sheep casings), we understood the concept. We decided just to go for it.

 

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So we put the very cold, almost frozen ground meat into the food processor and let it run for two minutes as the recipe indicated. And we both agreed that it just didn’t look paste-y enough. I suggested adding a few ice cubes and a minute later my dad added a tablespoon of red wine vinegar and then a touch of water. Finally, we agreed that it was starting to look like an emulsion. How did we know? I’m not sure; we just trusted our collective instincts.

 

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Finally we could stuff the hot dogs. Admittedly, in the larger pig casings and without the tell tale pink tinge, they did look a lot like sausage. Which I guess a hot dog technically is.

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Maybe an hour later, with a pint of my dad’s homemade beer in hand, we threw these on the grill. The texture was right – smooth, with a bite from the casing. But the flavor was garlic-y and mustard-y with just a touch of smoky spice. Either the best hot dog I have ever had – or just a flavorful smooth sausage. But in the end, did it really matter what it was called? I just called it a good afternoon cooking with my dad.

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Stuffing Sausage

Maybe I’m getting old. But if you had asked me nine years ago  if I would have thought that my big Saturday afternoon excitement would be making sausage – under the watchful eyes of my co-charcuterer’s nine month old – I would have laughed at you. Why nine years? Well because my co-chef, Keith, was the friend who introduced me to my now-husband, Steve, nine years ago last month. Keith had invited me out to a show at a local music club at which he was the MC. Steve played guitar in the headlining act. I noticed Steve right away – a combination of his dimples, searing solos and the beer I was drinking – and had asked Keith to introduce us. By the end of the night I had taken introductions into my own hands; the next day Steve called Keith and asked for my number. The rest, as they say, is history.

Steve and I have gotten married in the interim and Keith and his wife now have a son and daughter. We’ve both bought houses and spend a lot less time drinking beer and watching live music. And as much fun as we had back in the day – a good Saturday afternoon involved cheap dogs on the grill and a six pack – I kind of love that our interests have shifted in similar ways towards better food and drink. When Keith and I chatted at a recent Memorial Day barbeque we talked bacon curing and wine making. Keith said he was game for any project – and when Steve took a gig when he was to sous-chef my sausage making, I knew just who to call.

At Keith’s house, we set up the newer manual meat grinder – one I bought off ebay for twenty bucks because grandma’s sturdy grinder didn’t have a sausage stuffing attachment. We shared the dicing and de-boning duties of four pounds of pork butt steaks and then roughly followed Michael Ruhlman’s spicy Italian sausage recipe – adding homegrown dried hot peppers in place of cayenne and leaving out the basil because we didn’t have any. At Keith’s suggestion we decided to run the meat through twice – first through a medium die and then again through the smallest.

We, admittedly, had a few challenges: the silver skin (I think?) and some of the tougher pieces of fat kept getting stuck in the grinder so we had to take it apart a few times to clear it out so the meat could be properly ground. I won’t mention that perhaps at one point Keith then put the grinder together incorrectly. However, he quickly made up for it with his brawn – he was, at one point, sweating with pulsing temple at the exertion of the manual grind. But it was worth it! The meat had a silky and uniform texture by the time we got to stuffing, and that step – which I thought would be the hardest part – was really the easiest.

 

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We got nine lovely if somewhat non-uniform links from our almost four pounds of bone-in pork, pictured here with the smallest grinding die. The end sausage was a bit wonky, and, well, we needed to test our creation, so Keith fired up his cast iron skillet and grilled up a link to share.

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Verdict: the texture was smooth and uniform, with the perfect amount of fat. We did try and take care to keep the sausage chilled while working with it, and Keith had put the grinder into the freezer for twenty minutes before we used it which also helped. The flavor was delicious – a bit spicy with a nice heat that hit the back of your throat after the initial taste. Our only complaint was that we wished we had remembered the basil to balance the tablespoon or so of dried oregano that we had used.

Once the stuffing and cleaning and cooking was done, like old times, we cracked a beer – but this time a good local micro brew, better than what we could afford almost a decade ago. We cheered our afternoon’s work and I thought about how much has changed in the past ten years. We may each go to bed a few hours earlier now, and an afternoon beer is more the exception than the rule, but if getting old means eating homemade sausage and drinking a better with a long-time friend, then I don’t mind it one bit.

Sausage Patties

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By now, my family has gotten used to my kitchen gadget requests. Having grown up in rural Western New York, where grilling, hunting, fermenting and all realms of do-it-yourself food preparation and preservation reined out of necessity, not Next Food Network Star aspirations. So when I asked my mother and then my father if they had an extra meat grinder kicking around, each said they knew my grandmother had at least one.

“I remember making sausage with her and Grandpa,” my mother said. “We’d sit around all afternoon filling link after link.” She added, “The grinder we used was a big one – table top sized. I don’t know if you can get it back to Boston on the plane.” That was the dilemma. I was heading to my hometown for a quick weekend visit for a family birthday party, and was limited to what would fit in my suitcase – and then what could be stored in my city apartment. My husband’s instruments and studio equipment took up much of our duplex’s basement, thus whatever I acquired would have to find a home in our second floor kitchen.

On my last morning in town I called my grandma with my request: Did she have a grinder I could take home with me? I’d be stopping by in an hour to visit, regardless.

What she had setting out when I arrived fit into a large plastic zip-top bag. Perfectly cleaned and organized, I shouldn’t have doubted that Grandma would have known right where it was. My visit was so brief, I didn’t have time to ask what her favorite recipes were, or to recount stories of making sausage or ground beef with Grandpa, who had been gone now nearly a decade. Her eyes still dampened when she spoke of him.

“Next time you drive home, we’ll find the big grinder in the barn,” she told me. “You can have it. We’re not using it any more.” It’s true: with Grandpa gone and her kids all moved away, there’s no need to buy meat in bulk anymore and no one is bringing home a whole deer to be processed and frozen during hunting season. In many ways the old way of life is being replaced by the growing business of industrialized and processed food. Those who still make their own sausage perhaps are hunters – and there are still plenty of those left in my home county – but fewer are processing their own livestock or purchasing whole animals to save on costs like my grandparents had to fifty years ago when they were bringing up five kids on a laborer’s salary. Today a large family on a small budget can often afford to buy cheaply produced versions of what my grandparents had to do themselves. The quality may be different – but the new attitude is: who has the time or equipment to grind their own meat anymore? Even my grandmother buys white bread and cold cuts. The square footage of her garden and her canning output decreases every year. She enjoys the process, but with her bad back and cataracts its just so much easier to buy what she wants to eat.

When I got home, I figured out the puzzle of putting together the grinder and screwed it into place on my tabletop. I cut up my bone-in pork butt and minced the garlic and ginger – seasoning inspired by the charcuterie master Michael Rulhman rather than my grandparents. They had no ginger growing in their garden, I was sure.

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As I cranked the three pound of pork through the small grinder, I actually longed for the large table-top one. How could they have used this small device for anything other than the most modest of projects? My arm tired halfway through – my grandmother was certainly tougher than me.

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But then I got into a rhythm. Every minute or so I transferred the ground meat to a metal bowl in ice, to ensure that the meat was kept cold – both for food safety reasons and to keep its texture firm, not mushy. Three pounds of pork butt took less than ten minutes to grind. I made some into patties and rolled the rest into a log, wrapped it in plastic wrap and then a plastic bag, to be defrosted and eaten later. The whole process took less than thirty minutes, including clean up. Sausage in casings would come later – I didn’t have the right attachment with this grinder – or maybe I’d have to drive home and pick up the table top version and finally take the time to ask Grandma how she used to flavor her sausage and if she had any advice. I’m sure she did.

Sausage is a humble food – one that is relatively easy to make (with the right equipment) and good for enhancing a fatty, cheap cut of meat (a high fat ratio is, in fact, a necessity for making good sausage). But I actually want to make it even slower next time. I want to ask my grandmother or my parents for the stories of when they made sausage in the past. Where did the meat come from? How was it seasoned? Sausage was the food of my rural ancestors – and I will honor them by finding a space in my tiny city home for the large meat grinder, by preserving the recipes and methods of my grandparents for the next generation. Even, for something as humble as a breakfast food.

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Smoking in the City

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The biggest question I had was: how do I smoke 5 pounds of pork without my neighbors calling the fire department? The answer, I discovered, was much easier than anticipated. Smoking may be time consuming, but is not difficult. In fact, one of the hardest decisions I had to make what choosing what hunk of meat I planned on smoking for my inaugural attempt.

While I had a few pounds of Chestnut Farm country-style ribs in my freezer, something about smoking felt very “Go Big Or Go Home” so I went to my local butcher and checked out his offerings. On one hand, I wanted something big enough to withstand a few hours in the smoker, but I also wanted a cheaper cut of meat to hedge my bets in case my first smoking effort was a failure. The verdict: a 5 pound, bone in pork thigh, which came in under twenty dollars (and is locally sourced, humanely raised, antibiotic free, yada yada).

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The day before I planned to smoke, I made a dry rub with salt, pepper, cumin, coriander, brown sugar, paprika and ground hot pepper. Sweet and spicy – just the way I like it. I covered the pork in the rub and wrapped it in plastic wrap overnight.

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The next day I turned my charcoal grill into a smoker. Which, simply put, meant that I put a smallish mound of coals on one side of the grill and lit them, letting them set for maybe ten minutes to heat up. Next I put my smoke box of water-soaked hickory chips on top of the coals. I checked the temp with a grill surface thermometer and placed the pork on the grill when I confirmed that the temp was between 200 – 300 degrees (which it was after the ten minutes or so of prep above). This is the magic smoking temperature range that I thought would be hard to maintain (spoiler: it wasn’t!). The grill top was lowered and I just let it sit there, checking maybe every half hour or so.

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For a three hour smoke, I added more coals each hour and I added more hickory chips after about an hour and a half, at which time I also flipped the pork. But in all, the temp stayed pretty constant around 250 degrees, and when it dipped to closer to 200, I added a few more coals.  The smoke wafted out of the half-closed top vent a bit, but nothing to call the firemen about. And yes, my entire block smelled like a smoke house. In the best possible way. After three hours I put the pork in a covered roasting pan in a 250 degree oven with an inch of liquid (I used half-water, half-cider) for another three hours and then, willingly, impatiently, DUG IN.

I’m sorry I was not able to take any pictures of the delicious dark brown crust, or the half-inch red ring around the edges of the meat that I’ve heard is the marker of a good smoke. Please forgive me for not photographing how I used forks to shred the tender pork or transcribing the exact ingredients and measurements of the whiskey barbeque sauce I served atop the meat. But, after smelling smoking pork for six hours, would you have the patience to document everything before digging in? I didn’t think so.