Creativity need not start with a seismic shift. An idea is born sometimes with a simple slight deviation from something standard. One of my favorite and most successful food projects has been nduja. While nduja is not exactly standard, it is a thing, it is something. What isn’t something? Spreadable merguez. It is now. It is something and it is something.
It is. As the amazing post from Ideas in Food, “The Idea Box“, emerged, I had been paging through my mental rolodex on how I could adapt the process that I had used successfully to make nduja to make something similar, but different. After tasting the spreadable finocchiona from Craig Deihl and Bob Cook at Cypress, I was inspired. I was also constantly reminded by my partner and wife, that the spreadable finocchiona was the best thing that she had eaten all year. That is a lot to live up to.
My first thought was looking around for iconic dried or fresh sausages to adapt. Hailing from Wisconsin, the first thought was bratwurst (as it often is). There are certainly distinct flavors to bratwurst, but not a single one standard in bratwurst did I think would be able to carry something long cured and fermented as the fennel did for the finocchiona. I left Northern Europe for Spain. Chorizo was a natural choice, but sobrasada already fit that niche, for the most part.
Northern Africa is not far from Spain though and spreadable merguez would not be a huge departure from nduja. It would be a few steps this way and few steps that way. Different meat and spice blend, but a nice amalgam of nduja, an amazing spreadable sausage, and finocchiona, a classic sausage.
The innovation section of the Idea Box resonated with me because it was so similar to my thought process on getting to a spreadable merguez. I had a baseline technique that I want to expand. I had a recipe that I could adapt. The standout aspect of the box is how IiF put pen to paper. The editing is genius because there is no way that I could clearly explain the process so succinctly and clearly. The five points IiF makes:
- Introducing a new idea: flavor, texture, color, techniques, presentation
- Intuitive process, what makes sense in this dish?
- Why does it work?
- Scientific process: what ingredients are similar.
- Revisiting classics
The spreadable merguez fits almost each of the five topics. The process was nearly identical to making nduja, but much of the pieces were different. The raw product was lamb. I used lamb belly and a special section of fat gifted by a Lebanese butcher on Kedzie, here in Chicago. What I found was that lamb fat is far different from pork fat. It solidifies differently, it carries far more game flavor, and is far less chic that its porky counterpart. There is no question about the lambiness as the game flavor is strong and delicious. Even the process of serving this is different. With lamb, you need to be patient before serving this as it takes a little longer to temper the lamb fat, but rest assured, once the sausage is at room temp, it spreads, literally, like butter.
Next, instead of a blast of heat that nduja carries, it resembles the spreadable finocchiona in that there are distinct flavors. I used a recipe for harissa powder from Mourad Lahlou, chef at Aziza in San Francisco, supplemented by Calabrian chili powder, fennel seed, citric acid, garlic, and black pepper. The harissa powder is an absolute kitchen essential in my opinion and makes Lahlou’s book, which is great overall, an essential. Accompanied by a 72 hour cold smoke over hickory, the flavors boosted by these powders are so very different from nduja.
There is still heat, but the sweet fennel flavors and the subtle sourness added from the citric acid (and fermentation) gave the sausage more complexity than what I was used to from nduja.
But it is not always about the idea. It can be an idea, but it has to be delicious and as described above, it is. Think of an adult “slim-jim” but instead of being a two dimensional flavor that fall flat, the flavors go on for a long time like wine and, like some wines, are complex and nuanced. The flavors are a result of the execution of the sausage, but more importantly, the idea and the inspiration. For that, I can only thank the crews from Ideas in Food and Cypress in Charleston.
- 250 grams lamb
- 750 grams lamb fat
- 0.5 grams bactoferm
- 15 grams water
- 200 grams harissa powder
- 25 grams calabrese chili powder
- 10 grams fennel seed ground
- 5 grams black pepper
- 5 grams powdered garlic
- 5 grams citric acid
- 28 grams kosher salt
- 3 grams curing salt #2