I grew up in North Carolina, where sausage meant spicy sage breakfast meat and was mostly sold as bulk meat, then made into patties. Delicious, but more of a side meat than a meal.
When I moved to Chicago, I was introduced to the wonderful world of German, Polish and Italian sausages. I quickly fell in love with sausages of all kinds, and though they are popular all year long, they are my favorite way to celebrate fall.
This recipe for hard cider-soaked apple-sage sausages is perfect for a tailgate, Halloween party, football Sunday or Oktoberfest. Everyone loves sausage, so it's good for fans of all ages. And, if you've happened to go apple picking and wonder what you are going to do with all the apples, here's the dish!
Once I got the hang of the basic "brat fry," I started experimenting with the less traditional "gourmet" sausages that are widely available today. My favorite of the new-fangled flavors is the chicken-apple sausage. This dish uses those for an uptown version of a Wisconsin brat fry.
And for those of you — like me — who aren't from Sheboygan, Wis., the brat fry is not about deep-fried sausages, but grilled (or pan fried) and simmered sausages. The "brat" in wurst comes from the German verb "braten," meaning to pan fry or roast. Thus the "brat fry."
The great thing about grilling the sausages first, then simmering them, is that you can grill the sausages the day before you plan to serve them. The simmering will add flavor and re-heat the sausages at the same time. It's also a great way to keep them warm and juicy if you are having a meal or a party where people are helping themselves and eating at different times.
You grill (or pan fry) the sausages first to cook them and seal in the flavors. This may be opposite from the way you have done it, or seen it done, in the past, but it is the best way to maximize the flavor, especially with lean chicken sausages. If you simmer first and grill second, you will lose most of the flavor, as the fat in the sausage melts into the soaking liquid as the sausage boils. And if you think about it, few of us like boiled meat!
You will concentrate the flavors in the sausage if you grill or pan fry them from the start. Once the sausages are cooked, they will absorb the hard cider or other simmering liquid, enhancing the sausage, not taking away from it. Make sure to place the sausages in cold liquid and slowly bring them up to temperature as the liquid gets hot.
You can serve the sausages on a hard roll with caramelized onions and mustard. Or if you are a little more ambitious (and have loads of apples from that afternoon picking), make my apple-fennel sauerkraut. It looks just like kraut but has a tangy, slightly sweet apple-onion flavor that is the perfect complement to the chicken-apple sausages.
HARD CIDER-SOAKED APPLE-SAGE SAUSAGES
If you can't find the pre-packaged "gourmet" sausages, use a sweet Italian sausage and add chunks of apples (about 2 apples) and 4 to 5 fresh sage leaves to the simmering liquid. Serve with frosty mugs of hard apple cider and homemade hash browns.
Start to finish: 45 minutes
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 to 4 large sweet onions, sliced
8 uncooked apple-sage chicken sausages
Two to three 12-ounce bottles hard apple cider (regular apple cider also can be used)
8 hard or French rolls, warmed
Spicy honey mustard or German mustard
Apple-fennel sauerkraut (see recipe below)
In a large stockpot over medium-high, heat the oil. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium then continue to cook until fully caramelized, about 20 minutes. If the onions dry out too much, add several teaspoons of water.
Meanwhile, heat a gas grill to medium or prepare a charcoal fire.
Place the sausages directly on the cooking grate and grill over indirect heat for 15 to 20 minutes, turning occasionally to brown all over. Alternatively, you can pan fry the sausages.
If you are serving the sausages the next day, let them cool to room temperature and cover before refrigerating overnight. Otherwise, pour the cider into a large stockpot. Add the sausages, making sure they are covered.
Bring the cider up to a gentle boil, then reduce the heat. Simmer over a medium-low heat for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the sausages have been flavored by the hot cider.
Place the sausages in the warm rolls, spread with mustard and top with caramelized onions and sauerkraut.
Start to finish: 1 hour
1 large fennel bulb
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large Vidalia onion, chopped
5 Granny Smith apples, grated
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 to 1 cup hard (or regular) apple cider
2 tablespoons caraway seeds
Ground black pepper
Trim off the frilly top of the fennel bulb, then finely chop it and set aside. Slice the fennel bulb itself into long strips (julienne).
In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium, heat the oil. Add the onion and several pinches of salt. Cook until the onion begins to brown. Add the fennel strips, stir and cook, covered, for about 5 minutes, or until the fennel begins to wilt. Reduce the heat to medium-low.
Meanwhile, in a bowl mix the grated apple with the lemon juice, then add it to the pan. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Add the butter, mixing well. Add the cider, reserved fennel tops and caraway seeds. Cook for an additional 10 minutes, uncovered, or until the mixture is soft and cooked down. If it needs more liquid, add more cider. It will look like sauerkraut. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to allow the flavors to blend. The sauerkraut can be made up to 2 days in advance and kept covered in the refrigerator until ready to use. Warm just before serving.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a grilling and Southern foods expert and executive chef at Hill Country Barbecue Market restaurants in New York and Washington, as well as Hill Country Chicken in New York. She is the author of three cookbooks, including "Soaked, Slathered and Seasoned."