This is a big deal whenever John and I visit his parents in central New York. John’s dad, Lou Migliaccio, goes to the butcher and orders about 40 pounds of pork butts – that’s about four big butts (no jokes, please).
The first order of business is to clear about half the dining room table, then cover the exposed half with newspaper. Then you have to find some good sharp knives, which always entails a certain amount of hollering about why the knives aren’t sharp. The last time we visited, I brought my new chef’s knife, a Wusthoff Classic 8-inch (a Christmas gift from brother-in-law Paul). Once the knives have been examined, denounced as no good and discarded or pronounced acceptable and honed, the butts are removed from their wrapping and the carving commences. John and I wear latex gloves when handling the meat, but Lou sniffs at such namby-pamby things. Oh, and put on a hat to keep errant hairs out of the meat.
Start by carving off the big sheets of fat that usually live on one side of the butt, and any big lumps that appear here and there. The trick to making good sausage is to leave enough fat in the mix so the sausage isn’t dry when cooked. Lou also tries to remove most of what he called “old lady skin” – an unpleasant, wrinkly membrane that will jam up your grinder. Then you break down the butt into slices and chunks. Good slices become pork sirloin steaks, which are nice on the grill. Leave a little meat on the big bones, and keep them to throw in your spaghetti sauce.
When the meat’s been cut up, then it’s time to set up the grinder. We have a duplicate of the old grinder John’s parents have – you clamp the base onto a sturdy surface, put in the grinding knife and corkscrew, attach the handle and away you go. It works best to have someone feed the pieces of meat into the bell of the grinder and someone else crank the handle. The ground meat comes out the other end of the grinder, where you’ve placed a large pan to catch it. Keep pushing the ground meat to the rear of the pan until the pan’s full. Usually, we get two big pans (like overgrown lasagna pans) full of ground pork.
This is when you season the meat, and this is where my mother-in-law, Muriel, gets into the act. Season the meat with salt, black pepper, paprika, fennel seed and red pepper. Muriel will tell you how much is too much. Err on the conservative side, because the flavors will blend overnight in the refrigerator. Knead the seasonings into the meat and do a thorough job, so the seasonings are blended evenly throughout the meat.
Now’s the fun part. Make a small patty of sausage and fry it up, then taste the results. If you’re not happy with the seasonings, adjust them accordingly. In the Migliaccio household, this usually entails arguments over how hot is too hot. Repeat the “trying out” process until you’ve reached accord on the seasoning. Then take a quarter to a half cup of water and sprinkle it over the pans of meat. Unless you’ve got an enormous, empty refrigerator, you’re going to need to transfer the ground meat into some more compact container; in the Mig household, this is usually an empty plastic bread bag. Pack the meat into your container and refrigerate overnight. Then break down the grinder and wash it carefully in soap and very hot water. Dry carefully to prevent rusting. Bag up the discarded fat and other debris, along with the newspaper, and toss it out. Put the reserved pork steaks and bones into frost-proof containers and put them in the freezer.
The photo above is Lou setting up the grinder the next morning. Muriel’s in the background. Observe the multiple pound package of ground sausage meat in the foreground.
That’s Part One. Part Two to follow.