In 1869, American poet John Godfrey Saxe wrote, “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” Since then the phrase “how the sausage is made” has become a shorthand warning to not look too closely at the unpleasant process behind the things we respect, enjoy or rely upon.
Though it may not have been Saxe’s intention, there has been and still is an even darker and more literal connection between why legislation is crafted and the food we consume.
Remember the Past(a)…
The recipe below calls for what is broadly known in the United States as Italian sausage. Of course, in Italy there is no such thing as Italian sausage. Rather, there are dozens of regional varieties, many of which bear little resemblance to the sausage readily available in just about any grocery store in the U.S.
There is, however, one that Americans would find familiar known as Sosizza cu ‘u Cimulu. What we commonly know as Italian sausage is a derivative of this fresh Sicilian pork sausage flavored primarily with fennel seed.
So how did the very exotic sounding Sosizza cu’u Cimulu become the one most Americans reach for when they are looking to make something like a ragú? The answer, of course, is immigration and the regional specialty that Sicilians brought with them.
There were two main waves of Italian migration to the United States: first from the 1880s to 1906 and then again in the period following WWII. A smaller wave occurred after the rise of Mussolini’s fascist regime; smaller due to the U.S. Immigration Act of 1924.
The Act limited the number of Italians allowed entry to fewer than 4,000 annually. Nevertheless, it was also during this time when many Sicilians were desperate enough to leave Italy and take their chances in a country that did not welcome them.
Anyone with a modicum of knowledge of the main powers during WWII know at least a little bit about Benito Mussolini – Italy’s Fascist dictator from 1922 to 1943. They may know about his enactment of mass arrests, the public executions, and the legalized persecution based on ethnic identity, ideology and religion.
What they may not know is the smaller but no less devastating ways in which he chiseled away at any sense of normalcy or decency in Italian life. One such positively batshit example was his war on pasta.
…Or You’re Condemned to Repeat It
It’s difficult to imagine an Italy without pasta, but that is precisely what Mussolini proposed both in terms of ideology and economics. Ideologically, Mussolini believed pasta made people weak and, economically, Italy’s pasta consumption required a vast importation of wheat.
As David McKenzie writes, “This reliance on foreign produce was a sharp thorn in Mussolini’s side. He wanted Italy to be strong, independent and self-sustaining, free of foreign interference. Not to mention that his increasingly abrasive foreign policy left Italy with fewer and fewer friendly trade partners.”
And so in 1925, Mussolini launched what he called the Battle for Grain. It failed spectacularly on both cultural and economic levels. Already struggling with poverty, southern Italians, including Sicilians, were hit particularly hard. Pasta was a staple on which they relied.
Now, not only was it prohibitively expensive, but because resources were diverted from other crops to bolster domestic wheat production, every other agricultural product became unaffordable as well. Given the overall brutality of Mussolini’s regime, it is not surprising he cared little that his policies were burdening an already burdened people.
But those were just the bad old days, right? We know better now than to do something malicious like politicizing and weaponizing a basic human need. Right?
In thinking again about Saxe’s famous quote, it’s a call to disengage; to look away from unpleasantness. However, given how legislation has been used repeatedly to attack vulnerable people by controlling how much and what they eat, I think it is essential for each one of us to pay attention to how (and why) the sausage gets made.
I don’t have a clever segue into this week’s recipe other than to say I’m grateful for the Sicilian (and any other) immigrants who had the moxie to come to a place where they weren’t wanted and nevertheless still shared their insanely delicious traditions. This recipe, like so many others we enjoy and often take for granted, is only possible because of that kind of bravery and generosity.
This is not a quick recipe, but it is straightforward – minimal ingredients and lots of hands-off moments. Its simmering time requires patience, but the pay off is two-fold: a sauce with intense depth of flavor and something that can be made well in advance. In fact, the flavors only improve the next day. When made beforehand, the ragú can be stored in the fridge for three days or up to a month if you choose to freeze it.
Furthermore, this recipe as written feeds a small army as an appetizer or side portion and eight seriously hungry adults as a main. You can easily scale this recipe up or down as needed. (Note: if you scale down the recipe, also adjust your cooking times accordingly.)
The mise en place is pretty low key. All that is required is mincing the onions, carrots and mushrooms. Using a food processor to achieve a very fine mince is optional but may be worth your while as you ultimately want the vegetables to melt into the sauce.
Other than that, the only prep that remains is crushing the tomatoes. You may be wondering why not buy canned crushed tomatoes in the first place? I can think of three reasons. One, canned crushed tomatoes are generally made from those that couldn’t make the cut being sold as whole. Two, you have better control over the final texture when you do the crushing yourself. Three, because it takes all of two seconds to crush a tomato by hand so you get quality without sacrificing convenience.
After your vegetables are ready to go, set a wide, heavy skillet over medium heat and let it get good and hot. While that’s happening, slit open the sausage casings using the tip of a small, sharp knife. Remove and discard the casing.
Once your skillet is hot, add a tablespoon of olive oil and begin dotting the pan with pieces of sausage. We’re not looking to get serious caramelization at this point. We’re just looking to render some of the fat out and cook the meat until it is no longer pink; about 5 minutes.
Remove the sausage from the pan, leaving the fat behind and set aside. Next add your mushrooms and a three-finger (index, middle and ring finger plus thumb) pinch of kosher salt. You want for the mushrooms to give up their liquid completely and to just begin to caramelize; about 7 minutes.
When that happens, add the onion and carrot. If the pan seems dry at this point, add a tablespoon of olive oil. You’re looking for the onion to soften and turn translucent and this takes about 5 minutes.
Next add the sausage back to pan and turn the heat to medium low. Now, this next step will take about 40 minutes, but only requires minimal attention on your part. The goal here is for the vegetables to essentially melt into the fat and for the sausage to become toasty brown and caramelized. You can walk away and come back occasionally to give it a stir.
Speaking of fat, how’s the pan looking? Are the vegetables and sausage well-coated or are they looking a bit dry? If it’s the latter, add a tablespoon or two of oil to the pan.
When you’ve reached roasty toasty perfection, add the crushed tomatoes and their juice. Bring to a simmer and then add the thyme and rosemary. Let it simmer uncovered until thickened and you can drag a wooden spoon across the bottom of the pan, leaving a dry path in its wake, 20-25 minutes.
With the flavors now concentrated, mix together the tomato paste with the hot water and pour into the pan. Reduce heat to very low, and continue cooking until the ragù is velvety and dark red, and the top glistens with oil, about 15 minutes more. Remove herb sprigs and discard. Finally, sprinkle with a pinch of black pepper, stir and taste.
If you’re making this to serve immediately, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. How much salt to add to your water? The conventional wisdom is you want your pasta water to be as salty as the sea. The folks at Serious Eats have other thoughts. A tablespoon or two of Diamond Crystal style Kosher salt should suffice.
Boil pasta until just tender. Scoop out 2 cups cooking water and set aside. Drain the pasta and return to pot over low heat. Quickly add a ladleful of ragù, a splash of cooking water, stir well and let cook 1 minute. Taste for doneness. Repeat, adding more cooking water or ragú, or both, until pasta is cooked through and seasoned to your liking.
Linguine with Sausage Ragú
Adapted from The Four Seasons of Pasta by Nancy Harmon Jenkins and Sara Jenkins. This is a not a quick meal, but it is worth the wait. The rich, velvety ragu takes on intense depth of flavor as reward for your patience.
- 2 lbs. sweet Italian sausage
- 4 tbsp Extra-virgin olive oil
- 12 oz crimini mushrooms minced
- 2 medium yellow onion minced
- 2 medium carrot minced
- 2 28 ounce cans whole tomatoes with their juice
- 2 large sprig fresh thyme
- 2 large sprig fresh rosemary
- 6 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 cups hot water
- 1 lb linguine
- kosher salt
- fresh black pepper
Before you begin cooking, it would be helpful to make sure your mushrooms, onion, and carrots are ready to go. If you have a food processor, this would be a good use for it as you want the vegetables to be very finely minced.
Set large skillet over medium-low heat. While the pan is heating, slit open the sausage casings with the tip of a sharp knife. When pan is hot, drizzle in a tablespoon of olive oil. Next, crumble the meat into the pan in a single layer and allow it to gentle fry until no longer pink; about 5 minutes. Remove sausage from pan and set aside.
Turn heat to medium-high. If there is not enough rendered fat left behind to coat the bottom of the skillet, add another tablespoon of olive oil. Next add the mushrooms and a three-finger pinch of kosher salt. You want the mushrooms to give up their liquid and begin to caramelize; about 5-7 minutes.
Once the mushrooms start to get toasty, add the onions and carrot and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is softened and translucent; about 7 minutes. When the onion has softened, add the sausage back to the pan.
Drizzle in more oil if the pan seems dry. Cook over very low heat, stirring often, until the vegetables have melted in the fat and are beginning to caramelize, and the meat is toasty brown. This may take as long as 40 minutes, but be patient: It is essential to the final flavors.
Add the tomatoes and their juice and bring to a simmer. Next add thyme and rosemary and let simmer, uncovered, until thickened and pan is almost dry, 40 – 50 minutes.
Mix tomato paste with 2 cups hot water. Add to pan, reduce heat to very low, and continue cooking until the ragù is velvety and dark red, and the top glistens with oil, about 15 minutes more. Remove herb sprigs. Sprinkle black pepper over, stir and taste. Adjust seasoning as needed.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Boil pasta until just al dente. Scoop out 2 cups cooking water, drain pasta and return to pot over low heat. Quickly add a ladleful of ragù, a splash of cooking water, stir well and let cook 1 minute. Taste for doneness. Repeat, adding more cooking water or ragù, or both, until pasta is cooked through and seasoned to your liking.
The sauce can be refrigerated for up to 3 days and frozen up to 1 month.