The best of the wurst


New York--A good sausage gets ingredients that ordinarily don't like each other to join forces and somehow pulls the flavor off.

A good sausage is assertive. Sausage makers don't want the flavor of their labors getting overwhelmed by a stray piece of parsley. Sausage makers aren't afraid to make their sausage shout.

And a good sausage often serves as home to salt, fat and red meat -- elements that some folks regard as dangerous if not downright criminal.

That is why I like a good sausage. It reminds me of the best aspects of a big city. Spicy, diverse and daring. Sausage is food for folks willing to venture beyond the safe, bland borders of mainstream eats. And that is why, when I got an invitation to go up to New York and eat the nine sausage recipes vying for "Best of the Wurst," the title bestowed on the best sausage dish in the nation, I jumped at it.

Shortly after I hopped aboard the train taking me to New York it rumbled through East Baltimore, a great sausage neighborhood. thought of Egon "Everything But the Squeak of the Pig" Binkert, a German sausage maker on Old Philadelphia Road. I thought of the Polish sausage makers, Ostrowski's on Washington Street, Ostrowski of Bank Street, Pat's and Milanicz in the Broadway Market. And I thought of the hot and sweet Italian sausages at Mastellone Deli on Harford Road, and in downtown Baltimore, the Italian sausages at Trinacria on Paca Street.

It struck me that these Baltimore sausage makers seem to dtheir best work in brick houses. I'm not sure why. But as the train rolled northward and I eyed the brick row houses of Wilmington, Philadelphia, Trenton and Newark, I felt like a fisherman looking at potential fishing spots. Every time I spotted streets lined with brick row houses, I could almost smell the sausages.

When I got to the site of the contest, a private dining room on East 30th Street off Park Avenue called Annemarie's, everybody was sipping drinks with pieces of lime floating in them. I immediately asked for a beer. I did this for three reasons.

First it was after noon, and that made it OK to drink. Secondly, I had just hiked seven blocks from the train station and was thirsty. And finally, beer goes with sausage. Like Martin with Lewis, Madonna with Sean, Donald with Ivana. And like these famous pairings, I quickly learned, I was out of date. No one, it seems, drinks beer at lunch these days in New York. So I ate the sausage without suds.

This was a recipe contest for professional cooks. In the weeks leading up to this lunch, cooks from restaurants, schools and catering businesses had sent in about 200 recipes using beef, lamb, pork and veal sausages to the National Live Stock and Meat Board in Chicago. The entries were pared down to nine finalists. Then the judges, magazine writers and other members of the New York eating press and few outlanders like me, rated the dishes.

There were 26 of us judges. We came, we sat, we sausaged.

We ate bratwurst covered with sweet peppers, pork sausage draped with cheese and tucked into tortillas, an andouille (Cajun sausage) soup, a kielbasa salad, salami with creamy horseradish dressing, a salad with goat cheese and Italian sausage, knackwurst served on apple-flavored sauerkraut, pork sausage with rice and rosewater, and white beans with kielbasa and Italian sausage.

I carefully considered each dish. That means I ate almost all of it. Then I awarded points for taste, appearance, ease of preparation and overall appeal of each dish.

As I ate, I came to the conclusion that the longer it took to prepare a dish, the better it tasted. This may be heresy in these times that tout the 10-minute cook. But flavorful food is my friend.

I voted my prejudices. When the winners were announced I felt as I had after several recent presidential elections: Defeated. Most of my candidates lost. But, just as I did in the presidential elections, after the winners were announced, I found things about the victors to like.

The winning appetizer, sausages in tortillas from Bonnie Aeschliman, a teacher in Wichita, Kan., was my favorite dish of all the winners. It had the strongest sausage flavor. And the winning salad recipe, an antipasto bowl submitted by Ginger Howell, a cooking school owner in Pittsford, N.Y., was daring. I had never seen chickpeas and artichoke hearts served with kielbasa before.

The second-place salad, goat cheese and sweet Italian sausage with fresh tomatoes and basil, entered by Edmond Foltzenlogel, executive chef at Le Caprice restaurant in Washington, was so good that I called to make sure it was actually served at the Wisconsin Avenue restaurant and therefore I could get more of it. A version of the dish is on the menu now, I was told. The exact salad, with home-grown tomatoes, usually moves onto the menu in July.

The winning main dish, a pilaf of pork sausage, rice, saffron, slivered almonds, curry powder and rosewater, entered by Camille Stagg, a Chicago food writer, was, I thought, a bit shy of sausage. But the recipe had a great phrase, "rosewater optional" which would make a terrific title for a food novel.

First-place winners got $3,000, second place got $1,000.

I returned to Baltimore with a full stomach and handful of sausage recipes. One candidate to appear on my family table is the sausage quesadillas (recipe below). I might fix that if I want some fancy sausage.

But a more likely possibility is that sometime this weekend I will get some sweet Italian sausages, throw them on the barbecue grill and have a sausage sandwich for lunch. At my backyard sausage fest, there will be beer.

Sausage quesadilla

Serves four.

This recipe is from Bonnie Aeschliman of Wichita, Kan.

1 pound hot bulk pork sausage

1 1/2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese

1 1/2 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese

1 jalapeno pepper seeded, thinly sliced (optional)

8 flour tortillas

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

guacamole, sour cream or salsa as optional garnish

Cook sausage in skillet over medium heat for about 10 minutes until browned. Drain, set aside.

Arrange 4 tortillas on cookie sheet. Divide sausages and cheeses evenly over 4 tortillas. Sprinkle on jalapeno peppers, if using. Place remaining tortillas over sausage mixture, pressing down firmly. Brush tops with oil. Bake at 400 degrees for 7 to 10 minutes, or until lightly browned. To serve, place each quesadilla on a plate and cut into 6 wedges. Garnish with sour cream, guacamole or salsa.

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