Editor's Note: Over 100 years after Upton Sinclair muckraked Chicago's stockyards and frightened the world, and in spite of the general wisdom that "laws are like sausages; you never want to see one made," Chicago is a city proud of its sausages. Sausage City is a weekly chronicle of the best encased meats in the Windy City.
All meat, no filler. If there's such a thing as common sausage wisdom, that phrase must be somewhere high on the list. Herbs and spices excepted, the thought of eating a sausage with anything besides meat seems counterintuitive. Worse, it sounds like a sausage maker pulling one over on you, packing the product with filler to make it cheaper.
Which is why the classic British sausage, known the world round as the "banger," is so curious. Having probably earned its name because of the tendency to burst while cooking, the banger shares its contents with bread and added liquid. The bread is an obscure ingredient known as "rusk", which is essentially dried-out breadcrumbs made from a dense British biscuit.
Why bread in a sausage makes any sense at all was the question I posed to Art Jackson, who, along with his wife Chelsea, owns Pleasant House Bakery in Bridgeport. Their little corner of the world has earned many accolades from Chicago press for the seriousness which with they take blue collar British food. Their specialties are their pies and pasties filled with deliciousness (steak and ale, chicken balti, mushroom and kale).
But they also go beyond the pastry pie and, on Wednesdays, serve bangers and mash to the public. (Other specials, like fish and chips, are available other days of the week).
So what's with the bread? Art comes from a French cooking background, and he explained that bread, along with milk or cream, is the basis of a classic culinary technique called panade used in other charcuterie-like pates. "It helps to enhance the texture and bind the sausage. We don't think of it as filler at all, but a way to give the banger the best texture and flavor." And it's true: a good British banger is one of the juiciest sausages around. Pleasant House makes their rusk in-house, and rather than water which could dilute the flavor, they use a rich concentrated pork stock.
Art's sausages are marvelous, seasoned with mace, nutmeg, and white pepper. They're stuffed into soft natural casings, poached, and then finished in a skillet or in the deep fryer to crisp up the skin. Russet mashed potatoes and a rich red onion compote flavored with thyme and malt vinegar round out the plate.
As Art describes the banger—and I'm in total agreement—it's a very "pleasurable" sausage to eat. Uncommonly juicy, yet not at all greasy, the flavor is mild and subtle. They have a soft snap and just a touch of heat from the white pepper. "I think having a sausage on the plate, and not in a bun, elevates it," Art explained. And it's true—on a bun is the usual Chicago way. But it's quite nice to sit down with a fork and knife and take the time to appreciate a good sausage.
If you've never had proper bangers and mash, one of the great British culinary contributions to the world, head on over to Pleasant House and treat yourself to a plate. And if you're feeling even more adventurous, stop by and ask for your own kit to make them at home. Starting next week, Pleasant House will sell you a mix of their house made rusk and spice mix. Mix with ground pork, stuff into some sausage casings (they're available at Paulina Meat Market and online), and you're on your way.
Pleasant House serves Bangers and Mash on Wednesdays. Call ahead for availability.