Wurst to first Sausage, long regarded as being too fatty for zTC our own good, is making a delicious return to haute cuisine and healthy diets.

January 21, 1998|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff

Chef Cindy Wolf calls it comfort.

Cookbook author Helen Witty calls it "a lovely medium."

California entrepreneur Jody Moroni calls it "haut dogs."

Whatever you call it, sausage -- once high on the hit list of the Calorie Police -- is making a comeback.

Spiced up and slimmed down, sausage is showing up on restaurant menus, in gourmet grocery stores, and in current cookbooks. It's accompanying such trendy foods as pasta, polenta and rice pilaf. It goes in salads and sandwiches, in soups and stews.

And besides being versatile, sausage of the '90s is often generally better for you, because it's less likely to be made of pork and more likely to be made of leaner meats, such as chicken or turkey. It may be made of seafood -- shrimp, salmon, scallops, even lobster -- or it may be made with duck or venison.

"I'm a big fan of sausage," said Witty, author of "The Good Stuff Cookbook: Over 300 Delicacies to Make at Home" (Workman, 1997, $24.95). The book covers such things as breads, relishes, dessert toppings and "charcuterie," French for things made by meat cutters -- including sausage.

"Sausage is lovely as a medium for blending all kinds of flavors -- flavors that you can't get by sprinkling things on the outside of food."

Witty says that sausage made with lean meat and little added fat is a perfect fit in a healthy diet. She also noted that people are choosing to return to their diet foods they formerly banned. "People are saying, it's OK, we can have a little bit. I think maybe we're a little bored with the notion that we should eat this or that or the other thing."

Her book includes a recipe for poultry sausage with smoked bacon, spinach and sun-dried tomatoes and another for poultry sausage with pancetta (Italian unsmoked bacon), pistachios and orange zest.

"I dare say you could put anything in them," she said. An Italian deli near her home in Connecticut offers turkey sausage with broccoli rabe, and chicken sausage with cheese. "And in Scotland, there's a sausage that's nothing but oatmeal." Witty said she was in Canada recently where she had caribou sausage. "It was delicious."

Although there are some safety precautions that have to be observed, Witty said, there's nothing daunting about making sausage at home. It involves chopping ingredients, grinding meat and either forming it into patties or stuffing it into casings. "People aren't scared by meatloaf, are they? And here we have a kissing cousin of meatloaf."

"Talk about comfort food!" said Cindy Wolf, chef-owner at Charleston restaurant in the East Harbor area of Baltimore, of the appeal, both past and present of sausage. Sausage is just one of the "comfort foods" that are coming back into fashion (meatloaf and macaroni and cheese are other examples).

Of course, as a Southern chef, Wolf never lopped some traditional comfort foods from her menus, and her current one has a number of sausage items on her menu, including a grilled chicken sausage over creamy grits.

"I like making chicken sausage," Wolf said, "because we use breast meat -- so there's no fat. I put in just a little bit of bacon for taste and moisture."

Wolf agrees with Witty that sausage offers a way of bringing unusual ingredients together. Future menus are likely to include seafood sausage and venison sausage seasoned with "earthy" spices such as mace, nutmeg and allspice, she said.

And, besides the comfort of homemade sausage, Wolf said, there's a certain pampering element to finding sausage on the menu. "You know the chef took the time to make fresh sausage."

Making fresh sausage is how California entrepreneur Jody Maroni decided to support himself after leaving Berkeley back in the '70s. His sandwich stand with the "wildly experimental" types of sausage he made created a big hit on Venice Beach in Southern California in the '70s and is fairly famous today.

He learned his skills at an early age: His father back on the East Coast had a "fancy butcher shop" and one of Maroni's first chores as a child was making sausage in the shop. "He had a recipe for sausage with cheese and oranges in it" that was quite popular, Maroni said.

When he graduated from college, Maroni migrated to Venice Beach, a community noted for its artists and eccentrics. He built himself a "New York style" deli cart, invented the persona of "Jody Maroni," and went out to the boardwalk ("One of the few places where people do walk in California") to sell sausage sandwiches.

"It was when Chez Panisse and that whole American food thing was starting," he said. "I was taking what I knew about food and applying it to sausage. I was big into duck sausage for a while. I put herbs, spices fruits inside the sausages. I started developing my take on traditional sausages, making them lighter [in fat], toying with them."

Today he makes and sells 14 different kinds of sausage, from Yucatan chicken and duck sausage with cilantro and beer to pork sausage with figs, Marsala wine and pine nuts -- to Bombay curried lamb and pork sausage with Monoucka raisins.

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