Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Fresh Manchurian sausage

Situated up in the northeastern regions of China, Manchuria was once a vast land of little but wilderness. It is such a cold region extending even into Russia that Vladivostok lies to its southeast, and in its northernmost regions permafrost reigns.

This is the land of nomadic peoples who somehow managed to conquer China at least twice -- leading to the short-lived Later Jin dynasty, as well as China's last imperial house, the Qing -- and the latter especially left a distinct stamp on the culture and foods of North China. 

Fond of wild game, the Manchus who established the Qing brought a taste for venison with them, a taste that they perhaps indulged in more than the deer population could withstand.

Raw sausages
So, as the Manchu rulers settled down in Beijing, supply outstripped demand, and the deer they were accustomed to enjoying gradually disappeared. An enterprising chef somewhere along the way met this challenge with aplomb and found a way to imitate one  particular food the Qing nobles enjoyed: Fried Deer Tails. And that is the dish we are going to look at today.

To be honest, I have to take the word of others as to whether this really tastes like the original dish, as I have never tried real deer tails. However, that doesn't really matter, as this is one tasty sausage even without the venison.

Ground pork and liver are mixed with green onions, garlic, seasonings, and pine nuts before being stuffed into sausage casings. Much easier than it sounds if you have a sausage stuffer at hand, this actually comes together quite quickly, so that everything but a last minute fry can be done way ahead of time, making it perfect for a party.

I have taken a few small liberties here, the main one being the substitution of chicken livers for pork liver. I prefer the lighter taste of the chicken ones and enjoy the way that they sidle up to the pork with all of the familiarity of the ingredients in a French pâté.  In fact, if you ate this without knowing its background, you might think that it was a very exotically seasoned dish out of Dijon with maybe a detour through Paris's Chinatowns.
Cooked and cooled

So, if anything, this shows how much similarity there is between what are probably two of the greatest cuisines the world has ever known: Chinese and French. Ginger, though, as well as soy sauce, sesame oil, and Shaoxing rice wine place this sausage squarely in the realm of Chinese cuisine.

This is an uncured sausage, so it is poached until completely cooked through to prevent it from spoiling. Then, just before serving, the sausages are slowly fried in peanut oil to crisp up the exterior and give some nice textural contrast to the soft, meaty interior.

Honestly, if I didn’t know better, I would be happy to put one in a toasted bun with a nice slathering of mustard and enjoy it with a nice, cold beer.

Fried “deer tail” sausages  
Zha luwei 炸鹿尾  
Makes four 8-inch sausages

4 ounces very fresh chicken livers (about 5)
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine
3 feet salted sausage casings
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine
2 ounces fatback (solid pork fat; see Tips)
1 pound good quality ground pork (about 30% fat; see Tips)
5 tablespoons raw, shelled pine nuts
3 tablespoons finely minced ginger
¼ cup finely minced green onions
5 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
1½ teaspoons sea salt
Nuts, onions & garlic
2 tablespoons filtered water
¼ cup roasted sesame oil
Filtered water, as needed
2 cups peanut or vegetable oil

½ cup balsamic vinegar
Pinch of sea salt to taste
Either peeled, grated, older ginger or finely julienned young ginger
Or, ½ cup garlic vinegar from the Pickled Garlic recipe

1. Rinse the chicken livers and pat them dry. Remove any discolored areas and sinews with a paring knife. Cut the livers into small (¼ inch) pieces, place them in a small bowl, and pour a tablespoon of the rice wine over them while you prepare the rest of the ingredients; this will remove most of the impurities and give you a cleaner flavor (see Tips).

2. Place the sausage casing in a medium work bowl and cover with cool water. Rinse the casing carefully inside and out under running water. Squeeze all of the water out, pour a tablespoon of the rice wine inside the casing, and swish in back and forth inside the casing to further cleanse it; drain the casing.

3. Finely chop the fatback and mix it with the pork. Coarsely chop the pine nuts so that some are at least cut in half while others are more finely minced (see Tips). Add these to the pork, along with the ginger, green onions, 5 tablespoons rice wine, sea salt, water, and sesame oil. Drain the chicken livers, rinse briefly, and add them to the pork mixture before stirring it to combine the ingredients evenly.

Pierce the links
4. Stuff the casing according to manufacturer’s directions. Use kitchen twine to tie off the ends and then tie off sausage in four links, each of which should be about 8 inches in length.

5. Place the sausages as one coil in a large pan and cover with filtered water. Slowly bring the water to a boil and then gently poach the sausages for about 30 minutes; about 10 minutes into the cooking, use a bamboo skewer or toothpick to pierce each sausage in a couple of places, preferably where bubbles are forming (see Tips). Remove the cooked sausages to a plate and cool, and then cut them into links and remove the twine. (The sausages may be made ahead of time up to this point; refrigerate them if not serving them within a couple of hours.)

6. If you are not using the sauce from the Pickled Garlic recipe, mix the balsamic vinegar and salt to taste with either with the grated older ginger or the julienned younger ginger; taste and adjust the seasoning. Divide the sauce into small, individual serving bowls.

7. Just before serving, heat the oil in a wok or frying pan over medium heat until a wooden chopstick inserted in the oil just barely bubbles (see Tips). Wipe off any moisture on the sausages and gently place them in the oil. Slowly fry them on both sides until golden. Remove from the oil, drain, and slice on a steep diagonal. Serve immediately with the vinegar sauce.


Scrape off the tough fibers
Over the years, I’ve found that cleaning livers with wine really is a good way of getting rid of any off-putting flavors and smells. Most of the bile gets washed away, as well as the blood. Take the time to remove the tough strands in the livers, as they otherwise will make themselves known to your diners.

Use a good quality, organic, free-range pork if at all possible. Don’t use lean ground pork, as the sausage will be too dry, and do not eliminate the extra fatback, as this is what makes the sausage juicy. Pork sausage must contain a healthy dose of fat – there’s just no way around it.

Each sausage stuffer is different, so you might have to chop the nuts finer if your machine is unable to handle anything larger than a lentil; check the stuffer's instructions for how finely ingredients must be chopped.

Pierce each link after about 10 minutes to help keep the sausages from bursting, which not only doesn’t look very appetizing, but also dries out the meat. You want to keep as much fat in the sausages as possible, so limit the piercings to no more than three per link.

For the same reason, you do not want the sausages to explode in the hot oil. The best way to achieve this is to let the links come to room temperature (take them out of the fridge for an hour or two before frying), and insert them into oil that is not too hot. As they slowly fry, their internal heat gradually rises, and so there are no sudden bursts of juice popping out, which can be quite dangerous.

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