Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are. So spoke Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, legendary French gastronome. On the surface, it sounds like some sort of cheap parlor game, or maybe a fortune teller’s scam at a traveling circus, but the man had a point. What we eat is an everyday testament to our personal, cultural, and, some would say, political, experience. There’s not much to argue with there. But I’ve been thinking lately, as I’m sometimes known to do, and I wonder if Brillat-Savarin’s snappy quip might lend itself to a modest—and seasonal—update. I’d like to propose a new parlor game, and it goes like this: tell me what you want for Christmas, and I will tell you what you are. We may be a week out from Thanksgiving, but as your local retailer would like to remind you, it’s never too early to draw up a list for Santa, or your mother. And just think of what you’ll learn about yourself—it’s better than psychoanalysis. I’ll demonstrate. This year, my list runs as follows:
Reading between the lines, this much is clear: I’m a woman who plans to bake and transport cakes, but who can’t be bothered to replace the comb she broke three weeks ago or the favorite black eyeliner that was stolen from her suitcase last May; who trusts her mother’s taste in lingerie; who values exercise and a solid supply of fishnets; and who, dear reader, is very, very serious about sausage. And though any of these points is worthy of infinite discussion, really, we both know where I’m headed. In the end, it usually boils down to sausage.
I’ve already written at blush-worthy length of my great love for the humble sausage, that ancient and noble by-product of efficient butchery. Though the exact origins of sausage—a word derived from the Latin salsus, meaning “salted” or “preserved”—are up for debate, it is believed to have been invented thousands of years ago, as early as 3000 B.C. The concept itself is ingenious, really, a sort of delicious pack-rattery practiced on meat whereby leftover scraps and typically unappealing parts—less tender meats, or organs—are ground or chopped, salted, spiced, and packed into casings traditionally made of animal intestines. But really, the details don’t much matter. Fresh or cooked, smoked or not, dried or wondrously juicy, nearly any sausage will get a sigh out of me, from the boiled bratwurst of my childhood, eaten with my father at our kitchen table, to a housemade lamb sausage with tzatziki and cracker bread at San Francisco’s Zuni Café. I’ve seared sausage, roasted it, and grilled it; I’ve stretched out on a picnic blanket in the Place des Vosges and eaten salami and sopressata; and, by god, I’ve nearly bathed myself in a fennel sausage sandwich at Salumi. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, I put two Italian sausages in a baking dish with a few handfuls of red grapes, and I slipped them into the oven.
The grapes sizzled, sputtered, and melted into syrup, basting and braising the sausages in their bubbling juices. In the heat of the oven, they turned winy and complex, shiny-skinned and soft, their sweetness and perky acidity a perfect foil for the fatty, earthy meat. A sausage is a fine thing, but topped with stewy grapes, it’s worth its weight in fishnets—which, anyway, I may never wear again, if there’s sausage under the Christmas tree.
Roasted Sausages with Red Grapes
Inspired by Gourmet and Matthew Amster-Burton
I was astounded by this deceivingly simple dish. Be sure to choose good-quality sausages and flavorful grapes, and then let them work their magic. Serve this lusty stuff alongside boiled or mashed potatoes, or maybe roasted winter squash, and sautéed or braised winter greens.
2 mild chicken or pork Italian sausages, about 5-6 ounces each
½ lb red seedless grapes, preferably organic
2 scant Tbs olive oil
½ – 1 Tbs balsamic vinegar, or to taste
Preheat the oven to 475 degrees Fahrenheit.
Heat a heavy skillet, preferably cast-iron, over moderate heat until hot but not smoking. Lay the sausages in the skillet, and cook them, turning once, until nicely browned, about 8 minutes total.
While the sausages are cooking, remove the grapes from their stems, rinse them under cool water, drain them, and place them in a bowl. Add the olive oil, and toss.
When the sausages are browned, place them in an 8-inch square glass or ceramic baking dish, and dump the grapes on top of and around them. Slide the dish into the oven, and bake for 25 minutes, turning the sausages once after about 15 minutes.
Remove the pan from the oven, and move the sausages to a platter or individual plates. Pour the grapes and their juices into a small saucepan, season with a pinch of salt, and place the saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring, until the grapes bubble and sizzle and their juices are syrupy. Remove the pan from the heat, stir in the vinegar, and pour the grapes over the sausages. Serve.
Yield: 2 servings