Archaeological evidence suggests humans have been raising pigs for meat since 13,000 B.C. For some 5,000 years, cooks have produced sausage to avoid wasting meat and fat trimmed from the prime cuts of pork and transforming the tougher cuts and offal bits into easy-to-eat, fresh and cured links.

Fast forward to today. According to a Harris Poll funded by the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council in 2016, sales of fresh dinner sausage in the United States in 2015 surpassed $3.85 billion, with breakfast sausage adding another $578 million to the frying pan.

So it shouldn’t be a big surprise that sausage is emerging as a gateway product for cooks and eaters looking to jump over to the sustainably sourced protein side of the fence. The sausage is greener over there.

“Most people I know love sausage. They know what to expect from it. They know how to cook it,” said Joe Grady of Two Coves Farm in Harpswell. And, he contends, they are out there actively looking for new sausage sources.

Grady raises pigs, beef cattle, lamb, chicken and turkey on more than 80 acres of pasture overlooking Harpswell Sound. Most of his 220-pound hanging-weight pigs are sold whole or in halves to customers who specify how they want them broken down into roasts, chops and sausage. A customer who buys half a hog generally gets 60 pounds of meat. Eleven to 12 pounds of that will come back from the processor in the form of sausage.

But Grady also operates a retail stand on the farm where customers come in and buy just what they like. And they like sausage. “I could bring back 40 pounds of sausage from one pig, and I’d sell it in a heartbeat,” Grady said. Grady’s bulk sausage, bulky dinner sausages and skinny breakfast links are priced on par – between $8 and $9 per pound – with that of other sausage-selling farmers around the midcoast.

Sausage-and-apple stuffing, from locally sourced meat, rounds out this Thanksgiving meal. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

While farmers take pains to tailor the taste of actual pork in the mix, they don’t have a lot of say in what their sausages taste like in the end, Grady explains. The usual fat-to-meat ratio is 25 to 75 percent. The sausage can be seasoned by the processor to be sweet Italian, hot Italian, basic breakfast, maple breakfast and sometimes nitrate- or sugar- free, for a price.

But federal and state processing regulations, as well as logistical issues, dictate that sausages processed in the same facility, regardless of the pork’s source, are mixed using the same standard recipe of herbs and spices. So if your regular farmer is out of sausage, find out where he gets it made and you’re likely to find a similarly spiced product from another source.

Butcher Ben Slayton of Farmers’ Gate Market in Wales loves sausage for a different reason. As an artisan butcher who has specialized in breaking down whole, locally pastured animals, his ultimate goal is to get eaters used to eating the whole spectrum of interesting cuts a single animal can offer. But there is no denying a good sausage has curb appeal and gets inquiring customers in the door, Slayton said.

At Farmer’s Gate, as well as its sister location in South Portland called the Farm Stand, the fresh and frozen meat cases typically stock 10 types of house-made sausages at all times. They have names like the Angry Tuscan (pork, fennel, garlic, red pepper flakes), the Viking (onion and allspice) and Asian Dumpling (garlic, ginger, chili). They run $11 to $12 per pound. “You can literally take any dish you love – pasta Bolognese, for example, or Mexican mole – and create a sausage with that flavor profile,” Slayton said.

The versatility of sausage is the reason Slayton gets so excited by it, whether he’s wearing his butcher’s apron or his kitchen one.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer and tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a new cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at [email protected]

 

Christine Burns Rudalevige places herself in the “cook stuffing separate from the bird” camp. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

SAUSAGE, SAGE, APPLE AND RYE STUFFING

My family can’t agree whether the stuffing should be cooked inside or outside of the bird, so when I’m cooking, I do both. I balk at stuffing the bird before it’s cooked as by the time the stuffing hits a safe 165 degrees, the breast meat is leather. So I split this recipe into two pans. I bake one alongside the bird for its last 40 minutes of cooking. When I take the turkey out to rest, I shovel the fully cooked stuffing into the bird’s cavity for the tableside carving show. I then slide the second pan into the oven to bake while the turkey is getting to know its newfound stuffing. Below, I give the instructions for cooking the stuffing entirely outside the bird.

Serves 10-12

6 cups day-old rye bread, cubed

6 cups day-old sourdough bread, cubed

4 tablespoons chopped fresh sage

1 pound local sweet Italian sausage

3 tablespoons butter, plus more for greasing the pans

2 large sweet onions, such as Vidalia, chopped

3 celery stalks, sliced thinly

2 apples, peeled, cored and chopped

2 cups turkey or chicken broth

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Combine the bread cubes and sage in a large bowl. Cover loosely with a dry towel and let sit overnight.

The next day, cook the sausage in a large skillet over medium heat. Use the back of a spoon to break up the sausage into bite-sized pieces. Cook until the meat is no longer pink, 3-4 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove the sausage from the pan. Add the butter to the pan. Once it is melted, add the onion and celery. Cook until the onions are almost translucent, about 4 minutes. Add the apples, stir to coat them in fat, and cook for 2 more minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the aromatics to cool to room temperature.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Butter two 9-inch square pans liberally. Add the cooled aromatics and broth to the bowl with the seasoned bread. Season with salt and pepper. Combine completely and divide between the 2 prepared pans. Cover each pan with tin foil and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake until the top of the stuffing is browned and crispy, about 10 minutes more. Serve warm.