Sunday, May 27, 2007

Dead Chefs and Hot-Smoked Kielbasa

Time now for our annual (sometimes) James Beard dinner, re-christened Dead Chefs Dinner so as to honor the passing of Julia Child as well.

In years past this has turned into quite a formal affair with many courses, many changes of plates and wine glasses and generally more food and drink than a person has any right to consume at one sitting.

Everyone is expected to bring a dish somehow connected to the departed chef(s) in question. For some reason I was swept away by the idea of making sausages. I didn't have a sausage recipe from either Beard or Child but I was pretty confident they would have enjoyed these sausages, even if it meant bending our rule a little.

(However--and I want to state this for the record--in search of something to hold the water bath inside the smoker since the metal bowl that came with the smoker seems to have sprung a leak, I did use a cake pan that once belonged to James Beard himself. I swear I am not making this up. We also have a copper colander that once belonged to Liberace.)

Originally I was just going to brown the sausages on the stove top and finish them in the oven. But summer is fast approaching and a little voice whispered "smoker" in my ear. So I had a quick consult with two of my sausage references--Bruce Aidells' Complete Sausage Book and Michael Ruhlman's Charcuterie--then set up the smoking unit in the front yard where passersby would get a good whiff of sausage and hickory smoke.

I had ground and stuffed Kielbasa over two days previous. My only question was about the legitimacy of smoking them. I don't claim to be an expert in this area. In fact, I am fairly new to sausage making. I have made Aidells' fresh Kielbasa on several occasions already, though. It's an excellent recipe with lots of garlic, marjoram, dry mustard and coriander. A very full-flavored sausage.

Kielbasa is typically smoked, but I'd venture to say that what you see in the supermarket has been prepared using a "cold smoke" method, where the meat never gets close to the actual fire and has been treated with some form of preserving salt. In the hot smoking process, the temperature inside the smoker reaches about 215 degrees (at least it does in my smoker) and the finished temperature of the meat is 150 degrees or more. No preservatives are required, although you can add them if you like the flavor.

I soaked a small bucket-full of hickory chips overnight, then set 6 1/2 pounds of finished sausage (I did not bother to twist it into links) on the two grates inside the smoker. The sausages were finished in about two hours, measuring for doneness by inserting an instant-read thermometer lengthwise into one of the sausages.

Meanwhile, our farmer friend Mike Klein had stopped by the day before with two pounds of fresh strawberries. It's been a very dry spring so far, this after a balmy January and a record-setting cold snap in April. Mike declared it perfect weather for strawberries, although farmers in our area around the District of Columbia are warning that their fruit tree crops may be a bust if we don't get a good, soaking rain soon.

After some extensive research, my wife decided to use a Julia Child recipe to turn the strawberries into a souffle in two batches. Once the souffles had set, we iced them down in a cooler. So it was with cooler, sausages, ceramic platters and a crate of dessert plates that we arrived at the home of food friends Bill and Cathy where cocktails were well underway.

The menu was much less formal this year, more like a picnic theme that worked perfectly with tables set for 30 guests on the lawn under the tulip poplar trees. Along with my sausages was a boat-load of fried chicken for the entree. There was a creamy cucumber salad, two potato salads, tiny white asparagus in vinaigrette, green beans, a huge bowl of salad, ginger bread and a brown bread.

The hors d-oeuvres were exquisite, including a gorgeous shrimp salad smothered in dill, thinly sliced onions and lemon, asparagus wrapped in prosciutto and cheese, a smoked salmon spread, and of course the traditional brioche sandwiches with sweet onion, mayonnaise and parsley. (Here I need to make a correction: Larry does not make the sandwiches, although he apparently sourced the original James Beard recipe. The sandwiches are made by friends Greg and Ginna.)

Just prior to announcing the buffet, Larry gave a solemn reading from the Book of James, also known as The New James Beard (1981), while my wife quoted a passage from Julia Child's The Way to Cook.

I have to say I was surprised by all the huzzahs over the sausages. They're just sausages, after all. But they were damn good. They came out of the smoker a stunning mahogany color with just the right notes of hickory, nothing overpowering.

My wife was less pleased with the strawberry souffles. Maybe a little less gelatin next time, she said. Personally, I think Julia's souffles pale in comparison to my wife's strawberry trifle.


Rob said...

HA! "No preservatives are required, although you can add them if you like the flavor."

I've got to get going on this sausage-making thing. You're inspiring me.

cookiecrumb said...

Eeeewww! Oooohhh!
How cool is that.