This awesome sausage is Italian in origin, and I use the word awesome advisedly - it is not only huge in flavour, but also daunting in its sheer physical dimensions. A normal sized cotechino will not only weigh upwards of 1 kg (2 lb), but is also around a whopping 20-30 cm in circumference. This is no ordinary breakfast sausage.
Cotechino grabs its name from the Italian word cotica, which roughly means pork rind, or pork skin. Apart from the size, it is the pork rind that makes this amazing sausage unique. Most sausages are made from lean meat, mixed with a proportion of fat and various spices - the whole lot stuffed into a sausage casing, either pork intestines or synthetic tubing. There are several grades of texture in sausages, depending on how finely the filling has been ground. Some, such as weisswurst are ground extremely finely, so the resultant texture is smooth and almost mousse-like. Many table sausage fillings are a little coarser, as in chorizo, leaving some texture in the finished product. Cotechino filling is very lightly ground, resulting in a highly coarse and textured sausage.
When you taste cotechino, the first thing you notice is its rich and gelatinous texture. The reason for this is the unusual list of ingredients. Along with the usual suspects of pork meat, fat and spices, it includes chopped pigskin and believe it or not - pigs ears. Once the sausage is cooked, these "variety meats" will soften and melt a little, giving the cotechino its trademark gelatinous mouthfeel.
An intriguing variation on cotechino is zampone. This highly specialized sausage has a similar filling to cotechino, but it is encased in a whole pork or veal trotter. Traditionally, trotters from the foreleg are used because they contain a more substantial amount of meat. Zampone is not easy to come by and outside of Italy they are generally only made in private homes. If you know of a good Italian butcher, ask them in advance and they may prepare a zampone for you.
As you would imagine, these sausages are individual enough to require a different cooking method to other types. Cotechino and zampone are always poached, slowly and in a flavoursome liquid - such as a court bouillon. They can then be eaten simply as is, or sliced and grilled, or perhaps simmered in a tomato sauce. Some special dishes require cotechino as a central ingredient, such as the daunting and wonderful bollito misto. The traditional accompaniments for this rich sausage are polenta, cabbage, or in particular, lentils. The recipe in Puy lentil would make a great match. The tangy, hot and sweet mostarda di Cremona, or mustard fruits are a time-honored and delicious accompaniment.
If you have managed to procure one of these wonderful Italian treats, ask the butcher how to prepare it, or better yet - follow these easy instructions for how to poach, then grill a cotechino.
1 cotechino, around 1 kg (2 lb)
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped,
1 cup dry white wine
2 bay leaves
6 parsley stalks
6 thyme stalks
100 gm mustard fruits (mostarda di Cremona)
If your cotechino is tied up with butchers string, cut it away and discard. Choose a large saucepan that will fit the cotechino snugly. Add all the ingredients, except the sausage and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for 15 minutes to get the flavours going.
Prick the cotechino several times with a skewer, add to the poaching liquid and reduce the heat to the barest of simmers. Cook gently for 1 hour, topping up the liquid as necessary. Make sure the sausage is always fully submerged.
Remove the sausage from the liquid and set aside to cool. Use a sharp knife to cut the sausage into 1.5 - 2 cm thick discs. Heat a BBQ or char grill plate to a high heat. You could even use an overhead grill (broiler). Cook the cotechino slices for a few minutes until they are lightly coloured and warmed through.
Serve these slices with one of the following; this lentil recipe, this cabbage recipe, or this polenta recipe. An achingly savoury Italian red wine, such as a good sangiovese would be the most appropriate tipple, but a rich and fully flavoured pinot noir would make a sensational match as well.