Chewing the Fat
Meet Joe Sausage
The ”Abe Froman” of Albuquerque talks about sausage, the spinach scare and the absolute best way to eat fresh ravioli
Joe doesn't just talk, he speaks in stories and recipes. Every few sentences are punctuated by at least one ingredient, usually three or four, and animated snippets of past conversations, all the while pulling his words along like meat from a grinder. Joe S. Sausage is a real person (the last name is a professional gesture) from a town directly bordering Lake Michigan in Wisconsin—deep in the heart of sausage country. His accent is a thick Midwestern brogue, but with a few dead-on Italian embellishments when the right word comes up. As in, “I foand oat aboat mortadella.”
Joe and I met more than a year ago at the the Los Ranchos growers' market, where he operates a small booth selling fresh, uncooked sausage and ravioli. I was just easing myself into my position as Food Editor here at the Alibi, and with it, full-time carnivorism. At the time, sausage was weird, forbidden and endlessly fascinating. (And, in a way, it still is—I just eat a lot more of it now.) There was Joe, sunburned and smiling wide with some redolent pork shoulder sausages sizzling away on his hibachi. We hit it off right away.
Joe has since opened an actual storefont for his sausage and ravioli operation on the Southeast corner of Rio Grande and Griegos. I called the one-room North Valley specialty shop the other day to check on business and see how my friend, the new sausage king of Albuquerque, is holding up.
Hey Joe, what are you working on today?
Just ravioli. Ricotta, parsley, olive oil and garlic—very classic, traditional cheese filling. And earlier today I was making a sausage ravioli with kind of a mixture of my Spanish chorizo and spicy Italian sausage. It's quite nice!
Ohh, I love chorizo.
My chorizo's a Spanish style. Typical Spanish chorizo, they call it a soft-cured sausage. Mine is a fresh sausage, but it's modeled after a very old recipe. Very simple, not too many ingredients--but then again, I kind of put it through my little creative process.
What's the difference between a fresh sausage and a ... what was the other one you said?
A cured sausage. So a cured sausage is hung out and dried to a degree. Like prosciutto or salami—or salumi, as they say, is the correct pronunciation. And fresh sausage is just the raw meat, ground up with spices, and put into the intestinal casing.
Now, the casings that you use, are they real intestinal casings?
They're real. They're not faux.
What's the difference that you've found between the two?
I never used the other ones. The others, the imitation, they do have a purpose, but they don't cook properly. They actually seem to maintain an indigestible, I don't know, like a plastic container? I had purchased some salmon sausage at a place a while back out of curiosity, and I took a bite and said, “What the heck?!” I believe it was cellulose-based. It was very horrible. And then the actual sausage kind of stuck to it. It was really bad. However, I am looking for as much of a lifelike intestinal product as I can find that's vegetable-based because I have a recipe for a vegetarian sausage that I want to do. But I just don't have the time for that kind of R and D (research and devclopment) right now.
What are some of the other sausages you've developed in that same spirit of experimentation?
The most recent development that's kind of still in the prototype form I call “Crazyhott Italian.”
Yeah, it's crazy hot. But it's still in the developmental stages. I did a prototype this past week. The most recent one that I've finished, more or less, is an Irish banger. Right now, on paper, I've got a frankfurter and another concept that I'm going to name after me.
Ah! The Joe sausage. Or Joe's sausage.
Right, or something to that effect. But I'm trying to keep the level of crassness down, you know what I'm saying?
(laughs) Yeah, I got you. Do you know what your namesake is going to involve yet?
Yeah! I think it's going to be like a combination of basil, peppercorns—it's going to be stuff that I really like. Like I'm really big on basil, garlic. I love fennel. It's still in the concept stage. I'm still debating with myself.
Let's talk about those ingredients. You got your start selling at various farmers markets, so do you try to get a lot of your product through those places?
What's something on your menu that relies heavily on the growers' market?
Recently, especially because it was a seasonal kind of thing, I made a ravioli filling that was roasted corn on the cob, green chile, a little garlic and olive oil, but it was folded into goat cheese. All of those ingredients, except for the olive oil, I bought at the market.
The inspiration had everything to do with the market. My stand is right across from the goat cheese ladies. They were roasting green chile, and right when I was getting a waft of it, a dude from the corn field was walking by and said “hi,” and it just clicked. I always try to use stuff from the growers, especially because it's seasonally fresh and it all kind of fits. Or basil, parsley, sage—which I use in a number of my recipes—I grow here in my shop in a little herb garden. One of the peppers I use in the “Crazyhott Italian” I grow right out here. It's freshness, you can't beat it, but it's also great from an inspirational standpoint.
How long has it been since you got the physical storefront?
Three months, since June 16.
Are you still out at the farmers' markets in addition to the new shop hours?
Just Los Ranchos (on Saturday mornings). I used to do three or four other markets, but not anymore. Los Ranchos was kind of a pivotal discovery in the development of where my business is now.
You're originally from Wisconsin, though?
And you were a scientist out there?
Yeah, I was a chemist and a biologist. I worked in chemistry for a few years, and I worked in water testing as a microscopist. It kind of goes in line with what I'm doing now.
Cooking and the preparation of food is very much like the microbiology, and the ways the flavors and the various components interact is chemistry. I never worked in a restaurant in my life.
Every time I talk to you, you have tons of new ideas. Not having any formal or on-the-job training in a restaurant, where do you think that comes from?
I think you just get in tune with what you're doing. I don't know. You start doing something because you're just going with the flow of life and change, and all of the sudden you start to discover you have a knack for something. It's weird ... very peculiar and uncanny.
Growing up, did your family like to cook as well?
Oh yeah! They're all good cooks. I think some of my initial recipes relied upon my memories as a child. For instance, I make a ravioli filling that I call the “Parma.” It's a combination of prosciutto, Bosc pear and a little bit of red onion. Now, it's prosciutto and melon that's a very classical presentation of that, but in our family, bosc pears were always used. A little more texture.
You've got the Italian-American influence, but you're talking about making bangers and bratwurst ... a multicultural approach.
Yeah, Polish sausage and Spanish chorizo. ... There's one I make called “Sausage Pico de Gallo.” I was eating pico de gallo one day and there were no tomatoes in it. So I'm chomping on it and I got rid of the chips so I could notice the flavor and I noticed the combination of white onion and the jalapeño. I'm cramming this stuff in my mouth like a cow, ruminating on the combinations and interactions of the flavors. So I'm driving home and going “mmmmhh” and thinking about it. I thought about it for months! How can I round that out and make it more ... Mexican? So I thought, OK—mango. Peppers. Jalapeño. OK, add a spice to it—roasted cumin. That's the recipe. And it's awesome. That's my submission to the Scovie Awards this year, and it's a huge seller. In other words, it's a synergistic kind of approach. In my mind, there's a shape, a three-dimensionality of taste. I try to form a gustatory image ... OK, now I'm getting into some scary stuff. (laughs)
(laughs) And the Mediterranean sausage?
I started by thinking about how everyone makes red chile around here. I though, OK, make it the way some old Italian lady might make tomato sauce. So I made my own red chile from the pods, and I thought, “What's growing around here everywhere?” Rosemary bushes. And rosemary is very Mediterranean, and also, the peppers—from my research—originally came from Turkey. And so I round the red chile out with rosemary, olive oil, garlic and the peppers.
OK, let's talk a little bit about the ravioli. How did you get into that part?
I went somewhere for some coffee or something and I got, just out of curiosity, a biscotti. And I ate and said, “This is ridiculous.” I said, “I'm going to go home and make my own, just for the heck of it.” So I'm looking into the biscotti dough, and I start coming across various pasta recipes. I started messing around with them--with the bowties (farfalle). Eventually, I was talking to someone and they said, “Hey, can you make raviolis?” I said I was looking into it, and they were like, “Dude! You should stuff those things with sausage, man!” I think he was just kidding around, but it stopped me. And I started making all these different fillings for the raviolis.
This one filling I make, I call it “Frommagi Basilico”--a purée of olive oil, garlic, fresh tomato, basil, mozzarella and feta cheese. The texture and sharpness of the feta blends very well with the basil and garlic. That's one of my huge sellers, and it's an outstanding combination.
Help me decode some more of your menu. What's “Salsiccia Vesuvius?”
All that is is Italian for “sausage!” I have Italian books on vocabulary, and I'll just pick a word out and put it together with another one. My grammar's way off. “Vesuvius” is the volcano, so “Salsiccia Vesuvius”--it means hot, a spicy sausage. But it's really not that spicy, hence the need for the “Crazyhott Italian.” I'm going to do a blend of habaneros, these rocotillos and cayenne pepper, while retaining that great fennel flavor. But the reaction I'm going for is, “Whoaaah!!” (laughs)
And the “Ricotta Cipolline e Spinaci?” I feel like I should know what that means already.
That's onion! At least, I think it is. (laughs) It's just spinach and onion, but it's hilarious! I'm so darn busy I don't watch the news or whatever. I have a TV but I haven't plugged it in since the last Super Bowl. So then a few weeks ago, all of the sudden, people are telling me, “Hey, did you hear about that bad spinach stuff?” I'm like, “What? Bad spinach? I've been eating this all week.” I said, “Do I look sick?”
So have you scaled your spinach production back since then?
Well, I quit making it just because I got sick of talking about it. Especially towards the end of the week. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, I thought, “I can handle it. Just smile and make a joke. Ha ha.” Friday and Saturday? I started getting a little irritated. (laughs) If I don't get my rest, my patience is not optimum. And also, keep in mind that I studied this stuff. When they talk about the progress of an outbreak, that's called epidemiology. I studied that, and I understand the statistics behind it. So when I hear these reports on news now, I think it's so completely moronic. They're misleading people.
They're blowing it all out of proportion?
Absolutely. When an outbreak occurs, usually only the most vulnerable parts of the population are affected—the very young and the elderly. It kills people whose immune systems are not developed or in very poor shape. There should have been way more cases, nationally, to make it as far-reaching as the news has said.
Well, it's affecting a lot of people in the food business too, sales-wise.
Yes, but I did not realize the quality of the reputation I had before this. People would come and buy the spinach ravioli from me and say, “Joe, we know it's fine because it's from you.” Sometimes these negative things have some good come out of it afterall.
That one is clam juice that I make into a demi-glace, and then I fold that into ricotta. That's it. It's awesome.
One last quick one—how are people supposed to cook fresh ravioli?
Slow simmer for 10 minutes. And then to serve, I suggest, just a few drops of olive oil and balsamic vinegar on top. The cat's getting out of the bag, though. I'm the only one I know of that does that with the balsamic vinegar.
But it's so good like that!
OK, put it in there.