Like a moth to a flame, it is time for us to return once again to How to Eat, the series trying to establish informal rules of good gastronomic conduct for the nation’s favourite dishes. This month, we are tucking into a big fat plateful (well, wide shallow bowlful, actually) of sausage ‘n’ mash (note, no unnecessarily formal “and” please).
It is a perennial family favourite – the first recipe in Jamie’s Dinners, no less – and, as winter draws in, possibly the only thing standing between you and a serious case of SAD. So, kick off your shoes and loosen your belt: this one could take some digesting.
Essential to the dish. I can say that without controversy. But what sausage? How many? And how to cook them? The latter two questions we can dispense with quickly. Three is the optimum number, as odd numbers of components always look more aesthetically pleasing on a plate. (Have you not been listening to Monica Galleti on MasterChef: The Professionals?) One sausage – even on a child’s plate – is, when dealing with what is supposed to be a real trencherman’s rib-sticker, the saddest sight in the world. It could bring a tear to a glass eye. Cooking? Fried on a low heat of course, in a heavy pan, without pricking.
Recipes for sausage ‘n’ mash invariably recommend the best “butcher’s sausage” you can afford. “Butcher’s sausage” is a euphemism meaning don’t buy any of those eerie pink plasticised £1.99-for-20 supermarket bangers full of what Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall memorably described as “mechanically recovered pork slurry”. Yum.
In general terms, the higher the meat content of a sausage (so long as that meat contains a good ratio of juicy fat to lean), the nicer the sausage. The meat should be coarse ground and natural casings are preferable, there being nothing worse than a sausage in a stretchy skin that you can’t cut. But, that said, specifically in the sphere of sausage ‘n’ mash, I would much rather have a mid-range pork sausage, a decent supermarket version, than many of the exotic, new wave gourmet bangers: lamb and mint; Italian fennel-spiked salsicce; venison sausages; the duck and plums, pork and limes, piri piri, beef and stilton.
Such sausages may be interesting in their own right, but, in a classic sausage and mash context, they are a recipe for confused, clashing flavours. Beef sausages particularly are often so robust you could fend off a burglar with one. Instead, you want a tasty but relatively straight pork sausage, on an arc from the spicy cumberland to the satisfying sage-spiked flavours of the Lincolnshire. Smoked garlic, cider or even a pinch of chilli may add a little depth or a pleasant kick if it is a high-quality sausage, but, as a general rule of thumb: go pork and keep it traditional.
I add milk simmered with garlic cloves and butter, but not to the point where the mash gets overtly, nauseatingly buttery. I fork it through (potato mashers: are they the most useless kitchen implement?) and then beat with a wooden spoon, but Michelin-level smoothness is not the aim. There is a difference between rugged mash and lumpy (the difference being undercooked potatoes), and sausage ‘n’ mash demands a dense, unfussy mash, rather than something with a light fondant consistency.
You’ll have your own method, but surely there are some basic rules we can agree on, here? Season, season and season again. Bland mash is bad mash. And don’t use an ice-cream scoop to dish it up: this is not the 1970s. Personally, I’m wary of augmentation. Wholegrain mustard can give mash a warm, mellow tang, but it doesn’t need spring onions, chives, parsley or, in a sausage ‘n’ mash setting, cheese.
From lily-gilding mustard sauce to Madeira and thyme gravy, other fluids are available, but, for me, the only thing you should splash on sausage ‘n’ mash is onion gravy (caramelised if you have time). Not least because it grows in stature if you chuck in almost anything you have to hand: red wine or wine vinegar; soy sauce; Worcestershire; balsamic; Mann’s ale; vegetable water; a stray bay leaf, frying pan fats.
Excepting Hendo’s (far be it from a Lancastrian to lecture Sheffield on its native condiment) I say no, they’re not needed. If you are going to splash a big dollop of ketchup or horseradish on there, it is pointless buying real sausages or slaving over that onion gravy.
There are militants who would insist this is no place for vegetables. To me they are inessential but if chosen correctly can add pleasing contrast. Fundamentally this is lazy comfort food. You don’t want any vegetables on that plate that you feel you have to tackle rather than eat. You want to be able to shovel, not cut.
Save your great fronds of purple sprouting broccoli, they’ll just get in the way. Instead, include the flavours that augment sausage ‘n’ mash, but in an easily eaten format: iron-rich brassicas (shredded savoy cabbage, spinach); earthiness (mashed celeriac) and sweetness (shavings of carrot, chopped leeks). Like any meaty, hearty meal (meat and potato pie, Lancashire hotpot), a fragrant, sensitively spiced pile of braised red cabbage on the side, jazzed-up with apple and beetroot, and toggling smoothly between sweet, fruity and sour flavours, is always welcome.
Weirdly, peas should work here, but don’t. Likewise sprouts. As for cauliflower cheese, the intermingling of cheese sauce and gravy on a plate ruins both.
Not in a giant yorkshire pudding. Not like a cottage pie. Not as a pasty. And not on a flat dinner plate, either. This is a meal where you want to dig in and trough, and you can only do that in a bowl. A wide shallow bowl, so you’re not struggling to cut down over a steep lip. The mash, of course, should be served as a central hillock, sausages laid or stacked on top, the gravy poured over and around to form a moat. Which then allows you to dip and mix to your heart’s content. Note: warm your plates a little, or your gravy will cool too quickly.
Bread and butter to wipe the plate clean of jammy, crusty sausage shards, remnants of gravy and mash. It is the ultimate savoury course
No, no, no to crispy fried sage leaves, bitter stringy fried onions, artfully arranged chives and, worst of all, sprigs of flat leaf parsley. Is that why this is costing me £10.95 and not £8.95?
Only joking, of course. There is no vegetarian version of sausage ‘n’ mash despite what people (particularly the manufacturers of Quorn) may tell you. In 2009, the Observer asked a two Michelin star chef, Eric Chavot, to taste-test vegetarian “sausages”. Weirder still, he did it. Why? It’s PC gone mad. There is a much underrated global culture of superlative vegetarian and vegan cooking to explore, but veggie food is never worse than when it is trying to mimic meat dishes.
Beer, something crisp but not overly florid: a superior lager (say Jever or Budvar), a light but characterful pale ale (Brakspear’s Oxford Gold for example) or a dry, bitter, smoky stout such as Meantime’s. All, in different ways, complementary and palate-cleansing. Save your favourite big, hoppy IPA for dessert. Red wine can work here, too, if that’s your bag.
So then, sausage ‘n’ mash: how do you eat yours?
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010