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Chouriço: Connecting the New and Old World through Smoked Sausage

Chourico PortugueseThe night before I drove down to New Jersey to unite with my mother, aunt, cousin and niece to make “chourico” (Portuguese smoked sausage), “O Lenço da Carolina” by Fado singer Cristina Branco came on via Portuguese satellite TV. Though it’s a song about a person in love, all I could think about (as tears unexpectedly streamed down my face) was the immigrant’s journey. In the song, the person in love is giving Carolina a rosemary-scented kerchief. This very same person has tucked a map with an X over their “ninho” (nest), so that Carolina doesn’t forget it or ever get lost. It made me think of the small things that immigrants pack in their suitcases before adventuring on to unknown lands. The small things that keep us connected to our origins, the small things that we revisit when the “saudade” kicks in. It’s the last, small thing a mother places on top of a suitcase before her son zippers it up and takes off. These small things aren’t always tangibles. For many of us, it’s a feeling, a memory, a song, a scent …

I wiped the tears off my face, and realized that the reason I was so eager to make chourico with these four women (the oldest in her 60s and the youngest, 7) wasn’t simply to eat what I could easily buy at a Portuguese supermarket; it was to open up the suitcase of my mind, where I packed all my intangible “kerchiefs.” What I tap to be transported back to that place and with those people during a certain point and time in my life. It was to revive with these women a special custom that reminds us of those that are no longer with us. In our case, this moment evoked my maternal grandmother, Isaura, who smoked sausages every winter (the time of year this meat ritual takes place) in rural Portugal. This was especially sweet because we were sharing this special moment with my American-born niece, Julia. Like every child of Portuguese descent here, she is a Luso-American, and is learning about Portuguese traditions through unique moments like an afternoon of making chourico.

Chourico CasingFood is undeniably one of the strongest ways for immigrants to stay connected to their places of origin. It’s also an excellent way to help new generations understand their family roots. These moments allow immigrants to recreate in their new homes what they left behind, what they couldn’t pack in that suitcase, if you will. With my family in America, it’s always been that way. This time it was chourico-making, a first for me in America. Growing up, my mother and her family in Portugal made chourico and many other types of smoked sausages that fall under the category of “enchidos” (a topic I’ll elaborate on in a future post) each year after the slaughter of the pig, the annual “matanca do porco.” I recall being present at this annual ritual at a very young age, probably 7 like Julia. It’s definitely been a very long time since my mother has been to a traditional Portuguese pig slaughter—so she (and everyone involved in our chourico-making session) is out of practice, all of us essentially novices at this point. But my mother got the itch to make chourico this February—her saudade was kicking in. And somehow, she managed to convince a few more bodies to join her.

A week prior to my arrival from Connecticut, she, her older sister Lucinda and my cousin Sandra (who also live in NJ), seasoned pounds and pounds of cubed pork meat – sans slaughter, which a few days later was ready to stuff into the cow intestine my mother washed, cut and divided up to use as sausage casings. The result: 90 chouricos! Were we satisfied with the results? Mostly yes, but there were lessons learned that we’ll keep in mind next time around (see: How to make it, below). Yes, we’re crazy enough to do this again. Believe it or not, the sausages are all gone! Word to the wise: Don’t post on Facebook that you have 90 sausages. Everybody and their mother will want one. So, until we make mounds of this smoked, meaty deliciousness again, we’ll be paying visits to two of our favorite sausage purveyors in New Jersey: Lopes Sausage Co. and Simoes & Almeida. If you decide to make a trip there, too, here’s what you’ll want to know before you go.

WHERE TO FIND IT?

The Portuguese supermarket chain, Seabra’s is probably the easiest place to find chourico, since there are several locations in a few different states throughout the U.S. However, two of my family’s favorite places to buy chourico (and other Portuguese smoked sausages) is at Lopes in Ironbound-Newark and Simoes & Almeida in Kearny:

Lopes Sausage Co.
304 Walnut St., Newark, NJ 07105
(973) 344-3063

Simoes & Almeida
193 Windsor St.
Kearny, NJ 07032
(201) 997-8989

Stuffing ChouricoWHAT IS IT?

Since Portuguese “chourico” is often confused with its Spanish cousin “chorizo,” I decided to give Lopes’s shop a call to inquire about the differences between the two sausages. The woman who answered the phone explained that the biggest difference is in the amount of paprika used. The Spanish chorizo has a much greater percentage of paprika than the Portuguese chourico, she said. On the other hand, the Portuguese chourico is smokier than Spanish chorizo. She also highlighted Portuguese chourico’s versatility. It can be eaten cold (charcuterie-style), fried, grilled and boiled, which makes it a popular ingredient in Portugal’s hearty soups. The most famous: Kale soup or “Caldo Verde.”

While I was at it, I asked about the differences between “chourico” and “linguica,” another smoked sausage term often used by Portuguese immigrants in New England, especially Massachussetts. “Can linguiça be used interchangeably with chourico,” I asked. She said that there’s hardly any difference between the two smoked sausages, except that the linguica is thinner and lends itself best to frying and grilling. By the way, you can usually also buy Spanish chorizo at these Portuguese shops.

Suggestion: Might be fun to create a mixed Iberian smoked sausage charcuterie plate. Note: Due to Portuguese and Spanish colonization, you’ll also find variations of these smoked sausages in countries influenced by both cultures.

HOW TO PRONOUNCE IT? I guess to make it simple most sources tell us to pronounce the second “c” in chourico as a “z,” but that’s not quite right. I completely understand that the Portuguese language is not the easiest to master, but I think it would be more accurate to suggest pronouncing it this way “sho-ree-soo.” Otherwise, the “z” sound hardly helps distinguish the Portuguese pronunciation from the Spanish version.

HOW TO USE IT? There are many ways to use chourico in Portuguese recipes (another future post). However, the most famous is the “Cozido a Portuguesa,” a stew of boiled smoked sausages, legumes and potatoes. There’s also the flambé chourico, a staple at Portuguese-American restaurants where the flambéing is done tableside atop a traditional earthenware dish where Portuguese “aguardente” is poured into and fired up to char the chourico. Shove smoky sausage rounds into crusty, Portuguese rolls; pour yourself a full-bodied Touriga Nacional—and it’s a party my friends!

HOW TO MAKE IT? First and foremost, buy some big basins!
Ingredients:

  • 50 lbs. of pork butt/shoulder (makes about 90 chouricos)
  • 3 liters of white wine (Lopes uses red, but my mother sticks to white. Your choice.)
  • 2 liters of water
  • 1 cup of olive oil
  • 6 bay leaves (make sure they go in whole, since they’ll need to be removed before stuffing the meat into the casings)
  • 1 or 2 ounces of red pepper flakes (depending on how much heat you want)
  • 400 g. of paprika
  • 250 g. of “Massa de Pimentao” (You can buy this red pepper paste at most Portuguese supermarkets, Seabra’s offers it)
  • 15 heads of garlic (minced)
  • 400 g. of coarse salt
  • Cow intestine (or artficial casings): Ask the butcher for the right amount based on the pounds of meat you’re using.  My mother bought her meat and intestine at Lopes.

Equipment:

  • Large, deep basins (for marinating and then to hold the finished sausages)
  • A roll or two of twine
  • Sausage stuffing funnels
  • Needles and colorful thread

Preparation:

Seasoning & Marinating the Meat: Cut the meat into small cubes and drop into the basin(s). In another large basin/bucket add the white wine, the water, olive oil, bay leaves, red pepper flakes, paprika, “Massa de Pimentao,” minced garlic and salt. Mix all the ingredients by stirring, preferably with your hands until the salt has dissolved. Let it sit for 3 days; stir twice a day (morning and night) for the 3 days. It’s important that the meat remain somewhat wet, so if necessary add a bit more wine or water. The sauce should remain reddish. On the third day, take out a few pieces of meat and fry them up in olive oil to check the salt. It should be savory but not too salty. If it’s too salty, add some more water and if necessary add more of the other ingredients to maintain balanced flavors. REMINDER: Don’t forget to remove the bay leaves.

The Sausage Casings: You can opt to use artificial casings, but we used natural casings a.k.a. cow intestine. Wash the intestine on the same day you cut the meat. Wash it several times with coarse salt, white vinegar and lemon. Then store in the refrigerator with some salt and lemon juice. On the second day, try to turn the intestine inside out and repeat washing. On the third day, turn it again and wash once more. Now it’s ready to be used. Cut it up into about 20 inch casings. 

The Stuffing Process: We went totally old-school and used a regular-sized dinner plate to measure the twine. We wrapped the twine around the plate over and over. Then cut and created equal length twine strings that were used to fasten the ends of each sausage casing.  Take one of the strings and fasten TIGHTLY to the end of one of the casings. Insert the other end of the casing with the sausage stuffing funnel, hold it well with one hand while with the other you grab the meat and shove into the funnel opening, until the casing is full. Using a sewing needle, prick the casing to remove any air. WARNING: Make sure you add a large colorful thread to your needle. You want make sure the needle never gets lost in your meat. That’s very dangerous! Leave a little space between the stuffed meat and the end of the unfastened side of the casing, so you have room to tie the twine around it. Then tie the two strings together; that’s how they’re going to hang during the smoking process. Once you’re done stuffing, run all the sausages through cold water and then let them rest in clean basins before smoking.

Smoking & Storing: The biggest challenge is smoking the sausages. My parents smoked theirs at a friend’s house in rural New Jersey. This person has lots of room to do these kinds of projects. My grandparents used to smoke theirs in their stone barn. You have to build a medium fire using sticks and branches that create lots of smoke underneath the area where you’ll be hanging the sausages. You leave the embers burning low underneath them for 4 days. Leave the sausages hanging in the same place for another 3 days, no fire needed at this point. Afterwards, store them in a dry place and in vegetable oil. Or, freeze them. If you have too many, freezing them is probably the best option. If you’re going to consume them right away or decide to make a small batch, you can leave them hanging right where they are. However, you need to rub them with vegetable oil two times a week to avoid any mold from building up on the sausages.

After all that hard work, eat and enjoy. You earned it!

Cheers,

Sonia Andresson-Nolasco