Once a year in Portuguese communities around Hawaii, families and neighbors would gather for the morcela, the annual pig killing — a long day of hard work that supplied salted and pickled meats and fresh and smoked sausages to sprawling families.
A few months ago a much smaller band — five students and teacher David Izumi, a high school engineering teacher whose hobby is home food smoking — gathered in the indoor-outdoor kitchen at Hope Chapel Kaneohe Bay for a contemporary version of the morcela.
We skipped the actual pig-killing, buying 120 pounds of pork butt already coarsely ground, seeming miles of casings made from pork intestines, plus a gallon of pig’s blood for the blood sausage Izumi planned to make, food service-size canisters of spices, and half a ton of garlic and onions.
What felt like days later — though it was just 10 hours spread over a Friday evening and Saturday morning and afternoon — we headed home with 20 pounds each of Portuguese-style pork sausage, destined to become breakfast, lunch, dinner and Christmas presents.
Ironically, though Izumi is a smoked-meat master, he’d made sausage only a few times before. And "it never came out — either it was too salty or not enough taste," he admitted. "The hard part was following the recipe; I always want to do it my way." And so he did that weekend, attempting blood sausage (and quite successfully) with little more than his culinary instincts.
The first task was mixing the pork with spices and flavorings, which we did, each tailoring the recipes to his or her own taste. Marylene Chun; her brother Nathan Chang and his wife, Sherry; and Jorene "Jo" Pacyau started with a recipe Chun and Izumi had pieced together.
But Pacyau doesn’t like cinnamon, so she skipped that ingredient and passed on the red wine, too. But she does like heat, so she used 5 heaping teaspoons of minced Hawaiian chili peppers. The Changs preferred a less spicy sausage so went easy on the hot stuff. Chun, too, treaded her own way.
I followed my own recipe, based on one that appears in my upcoming book, "Celebrating Island Style," while Izumi focused on his blood sausage.
Working with roughly the same flavor palette, all of us produced sausage with distinctive tastes, proving the old adage that you can give three cooks the same recipe and get three different dishes.
We learned valuable lessons:
» It’s vital to "test" the flavors by frying a small patty of sausage when you’re done mixing; in every case we found we had to adjust the seasonings.
» Refrigerating the mixture overnight mellows the flavors; you might need to adjust again. Guaranteed: You will use much more flavoring than you first thought necessary.
» Sausage-making is distinctly NOT a solo activity. It takes at least two pairs of hands to wrestle the slippery and anemic casings onto the spout of the sausage stuffing machine, and two pairs of hands to crank or press the machine (depending on the type) while the stuffed sausage emerges from the spout and is tied off. And every time you get going good, the casings burst. Throughout the day, you’d hear the dreaded sound, "pfffffffft," signaling the disastrous explosion of a casing air bubble.
Sausage-making sounds easy: Grind the meat or buy it ground; flavor it, mixing with gloved hands; stuff it in casings with a sausage-filling device; then smoke, steam or fry. It is straightforward, no complex cooking technique required.
However, as Nathan Chang observed after all of us had been on our feet for five hours, "Not easy work, man!"
"But the rewards are worth it," Izumi said. At which point he was skewered by five pairs of stink eye.
"We’re getting sooo good at this," crowed Sherry Chang a while later. "What good does it do to get better at this when we’re never, ever, ever, ever going to do it again?" Chun shot back.
Well, maybe not never, ever, ever, ever. That sausage was delicious. And you can’t buy it anywhere.
To smoke sausage at home, you need a home smoker (commercial varieties sell for as little as $50 in hardware and home supply stores), or you can use a covered barbecue grill for a small batch.
Commercial smokers come with lots of conveniences: pans for wood shavings and for water (which helps prevent flare-ups from dripping grease), grill racks and hooks for hanging meat, adjustable air vents and more. You can buy wood-burning or gas-fed smokers.
You also need a source of smoke — generally wood chips, set in a heat-proof pan over a heat source that causes chips to burn and smoke. Sausage is generally smoked hanging, but links can also be placed on racks.
To smoke with a barbecue grill, light a short, hot fire of wood or briquettes. When the fire is ashy and glowing, push the coals to one side and place a heatproof metal pan of kiawe or other wood shavings atop them.
Close the barbecue and let the smoke build up. Place the sausage on the grill on the opposite side from the fire and smoke 1 hour or more, as desired.
In place of wood shavings, you can use small, dry, broken branches of fruit wood (such as guava).
» North Dakota State University: www.ag.ndsu.edu (search for "sausage")
» Bradley Smokers: www.smokingmeat.com
» Jack Schmidling Productions: schmidling.com/saus.htm
» National Center for Home Food Preservation: www.uga.edu/nchfp (under "How Do I?" click on "Cure & Smoke")
» For supplies: www.sausagemaker.com, www.sausagesource.com