Thursday, August 30, 2018

the problem with John Cook Deli Meats

Desperate to find some real Italian sausage this past Sunday, I traveled out to the John Cook Deli Meats branch near Apgujeong Station. Once again, I was greeted by the lovely smells of charcuterie and barbecue the moment I walked in. My goal was to buy a couple pounds of sausage to crumble up and put into my homemade spaghetti sauce for this Friday's luncheon. The last time I'd swung by, I asked a staffer for help in finding andouille, and it was while the staffer and I were rummaging through the basket of sausages that I saw plenty of Italian. This time around, I found only two tiny packs with two tiny Italian sausages in each pack, so I went to the counter, where I saw more sausages waiting to be vacuum-sealed, and asked the lady for about two pounds of sausage. It didn't occur to me to think any further than that, or to ask any questions, which is what I should have done.

When I got home and began making my sauce, I unwrapped the sausages and immediately saw they were tightly sealed inside fibrous casings. I tried gently ripping the casings off before giving up: they were stuck too tightly onto the meat, and they ripped off into ugly strips, even after I tried helping the casing off by making longitudinal cuts with a sharp knife. Shrugging, I gave up with the rippage and cuttage and sliced the sausages into little disks, cutting right through the casings and hoping for the best. When the sauce was made, I dumped the sausages in and simmered the sauce for a good hour; by the end, the sauce—a combination of Babish's and Kenji L√≥pez-Alt's recipes—had become infused with the flavors of all the ingredients, including the sausage, but when I tried a sample of the sauce, the texture felt wrong. Part of the problem was the sausages themselves: the casings were edible but unpleasantly chewy. Another problem had to do with some of the vegetables; their strange texture added an unwonted gristly crunchiness to the proceedings. The sauce itself, meanwhile, was magnificent, so in the end, I decided to strain the sauce, separating out the solids from the liquids. I bagged the solids—veggies and sausage—in a Ziploc and stuck them in my freezer. I turned to the liquid remainder, which tasted truly amazing, and decided to re-buy more mushrooms and make my own Italian-style pork sausage, which I could then crumble and cook to achieve the consistency and mouth-feel I was after.

Which is what I did. I bought a ton more shrooms, sliced and chopped them up, and dunked them into the sauce. I bought a few pounds of ground pork and used a fairly standard recipe, at double strength, to turn the pork into Italian sausage. I cured the meat overnight, then crumbled and pan-fried it the following day, draining the fat and pouring the meat into the now-remushroomed sauce. Result: awesomeness. No strange textures, no annoying bits of sausage skin, nothing. Just sauce, the way God intended. I think my coworkers will like this.

So what the hell happened with John Cook? Well, the more I think about it, it's not entirely John Cook's fault: I share a measure of blame because I didn't have the wit to remember one crucial technique. You see, back when I'd first made feijoada, I learned how to remove fibrous sausage casings without leaving a ripped-up mess on the meat. The technique is actually quite simple: heavily dampen a paper towel, wrap it tightly and completely around the sausage, and leave for five minutes. After five minutes, cut through the sausage skin longitudinally, and the skin ought to peel off fairly obediently. Worked like a charm when I tried it months ago, but I somehow forgot about that technique in the heat of the moment this time. It was a huge tactical mistake to cut the still-skin-on sausage into disks: that move only multiplied the problem by producing dozens of ringlets of sausage skin.

So that's where I went wrong. That said, John Cook also takes some of the blame because I now see that the sausage-making part of the store is a bit lazy: the reason why all of those in-house sausages—andouille, Brats, Italian—look the same when packaged is that John Cook's sausage-makers are using pretty much the same techniques to put those sausages together. The ingredients are different, but the method is the same. Italian sausage, at least as it's sold in the States (and keeping in mind that the term "Italian sausage" is an American label for only one kind of sausage from Italy), normally has a natural-skin casing, not a fibrous one. Fibrous casings are more closely associated with dry sausages like Swiss Landjaeger. So even though I should have used the proper technique to remove the fibrous casing, the fibrous casing should never have been there in the first place.

This means that John Cook sausages probably shouldn't be my go-to when I want sausage meat to crumble into a recipe. They're meant to be pan-fried whole, which is how I'll enjoy them from now on. Live and learn.


John Mac said...

Your cooking is from a whole other universe than mine. Still it is fascinating. I learned a lot about sausage today. In fact you could say I never sausage a post before!

Charles said...

Did not know that technique for removing sausage casings. I will have to try that sometime.

High Street used to have proper handmade Italian sausage on occasion, but I think the consensus was that they are gone now, right?

Kevin Kim said...

They seem to be gone, yes. I'll miss them and their jacked-up prices. But maybe something will arise in their place...?

Kevin Kim said...


Ark ark.