Gumbo is a hallmark of New Orleans cuisine. Think “NOLA” and andouille sausage or rich jambalaya practically appear in your mouth. The New Orleans charcuterie scene is mature and among the best in the country for a reason: Steeped in Cajun and Creole traditions, sausage has long played a part in the culinary history of Louisiana. During the heyday of the state’s settlement, an influx of German, French, and Spanish settlers all brought their own versions of forcemeat along for the ride, and sausage in New Orleans became more than just andouille. Boudin blanc and noir, chorizo, and salamis eventually found their way onto wooden boards in New Orleans’ classic restaurants.
Today you’ll find New Orleans a city recently revitalized. The aftermath of Katrina has not only strengthened chefs ties to their city, it’s also given chefs more creative freedom to explore outside the typical Louisiana cuisine. And when it comes to sausage, chefs are not only creating excellent artisanal throwbacks to Creole favorites, they’re looking toward fresh flavors, techniques, and textures to create whole new gastronomic pleasures.
Sausage is no longer merely the vessel for scraps as it once was (when royalty hoarded the choice cuts, creative cooks forced the leftovers into casings for their own meaty pleasures). Today’s chefs use heritage breed pork, alligator meat, even fried chicken skin, to make juicy, flavorful links, boudin, and charcuterie. As Kris Doll, who is so dedicated to the craft he calls himself a “salumiere,” explains: “It’s all ingredients and technique. There’s a noticeable difference if you are using lesser quality ingredients.”
Doll—who most recently crafted Italian-style salumi at Pizza Ancora, but is currently working on his own concept—sources his pork from Black Hill Ranch, a heritage breeder in Katy, Texas, and gets his specialty ingredients from New York-based Italian purveyor Sausage Debauchery. For his salame calabrese, Doll combines pork meat with hot chili paste to create a musky, rich charcuterie plate staple. It may be traditional Italian, but for a New Orleans palate primed for the flavors of andouille, it’s a wildcard.
And how does that fried chicken skin make a better sausage? 2012 New Orleans Rising Star Chef Nathaniel Zimet at Boucherie uses the crispy stuff to add moisture and addictive flavor to a sausage—that in the hands of a lesser chef—would be a boring chicken dog. Zimet, who offers a charcuterie plate of the month at Boucherie, smokes everything for the intimate restaurant in either his cold or hot smokers, converted from an ice machine and industrial fridge.
The team at nearby Cochon Butcher take a more traditional approach when it comes to charcuterie, not surprising as they garner inspiration from “old-world meat markets.” They’ve worked on (and re-worked) their prized boudin recipe for years. After the recipe finally reached its perfected state, Chef de Cuisine Drew Lockett says they keep the specifics under lock and key. Either way, the results of their labor are fantastic; like a casserole in a sausage casing, the soft and creamy liver mousse and rice combination offers plenty of earthy flavor, along with heat from a dose of chilies. And while the sausage sings when served simply, e.g., alongside Abita mustard and bread-and-butter pickles, its greatest asset is its versatility. “The links can be poached, grilled, pan fried, eaten cold or uncased, or [they can be] rolled into balls, breaded and deep fried,” says Lockett. “There are really no rules with boudin; it can be cooked in many different ways and it can be eaten at any time of day.”
2012 New Orleans’ Rising Star Chef Bart Bell is such a fan of the ground up meat, he devotes his entire shop, Crescent Pie & Sausage Company, to sausage making. His chaurice sausage is a play on a historic Creole chorizo: a salty, full-flavored sausage smoked in pecan wood for added depth. Served with creamy macaroni and cheese and braised kale, the dish is equal parts luxuriously rich and home-cooked goodness.
And at the laid-back, funky Dat Dog on Freret Street, Chef Skip Murray sticks with hometown flavors in his alligator sausage, and lets customers top the dog with the works—a mosaic display of relish, cheese, ketchup, mustard, onions, tomato, and jalapeños. Although he encourages adding to the final product, Murray insists on getting it right to begin with. “When you are making sausage the key is making sure you always have enough fat to allow it to grow,” he explains. “When you cut into sausage [there] should be a blast of flavor coming out of it.”Whether it’s Old World boudin or New World alligator and cheese, New Orleans offers that blast of flavor in a sausage for everyone.