FORGET arugula. This has become the United States of andouille. And chorizo. And merguez. Sausages are the biggest temptations in the meat aisle lately, and when you mix and match them, you are on your way to a new menu for Memorial Day entertaining.
For a variety of reasons -- better ingredients, smarter marketing, the boom in artisanal foods -- sausages have never looked more appealing. You can buy turkey sausage and seafood sausage and infinite variations on chicken sausage, not to mention much improved Italian sausages, and they are so good there is no incentive to make your own. All these have the same seductiveness as bacon but come with added value: You can make a party of them, right off the grill.
And while sausages are perfectly fine partners for the usual potato salad, coleslaw and baked beans as the kickoff to summer, they match up even better with more imaginative side dishes and desserts. South American accents, in particular, are harmonious with the mixed flavors in a combination grill: papaya in a spinach salad, hearts of palm in a black bean salad, mangoes in an upside-down cake.
A wider reach
Sausages have been around as long as farmers have had extra parts from pigs, but these days they are not an afterthought. Sausage-making has become a competitive business, in farmers markets and supermarkets alike. Big companies such as Aidells and D'Artagnan are producing endless varieties, with the former specializing in flavors (Burmese curry, spinach and feta) and the latter more exotica (rabbit, venison, wild boar). Niman Ranch, among others, makes sausages using pork from heritage breeds. Even health food stores carry sausages now, and not only made from tofu.
What once would have been considered ethnic sausages are being marketed by the most mainstream producers. Merguez, made from ground lamb with hot spices, is becoming as common as beef hot dogs. Duck sausages, those erstwhile "freedom" sausages seen mostly in cassoulet, are now sold alongside Italian sausages.
Among other sausages, the difference is in the seasoning. Andouille has Cajun spices, for instance, while Mexican chorizo is hot with chile powder, and kielbasa contains allspice and marjoram.
Fresh sausages or smoked/cured sausages are best for grilling, and grilling is far superior to pan-frying, which leaves the links stewing in a puddle of fat. Both kinds need low heat and constant turning; fresh sausages will cook in 10 to 15 minutes while the smoked kind need only to be heated through. Sausages that qualify as salumi -- dry, firm, aggressively seasoned -- are meant for slicing thin, not serving whole.
The issue of nitrites and nitrates inevitably rears its unpleasant head with sausages, but not with the fresh kind, which thus have to be cooked within a day or so of being bought. Smoked and cured sausages use the curing salts to ward off botulism, although you can find varieties that do not. (A farmer once explained the difference to me when offering two choices in bacon: Holding up the nitrate-free package, he said: "Healthier." And then he picked up the other and said: "Tastier.")
Bold, bright flavors
More AND more sausages are being flavored to within an inch of their links, with pesto and portobellos and other extraneous additives; about the only combination I think I have not seen is raspberry and chocolate. But the best choices are the most straightforward or traditional. A really great, snapping-fresh sausage tastes like the main ingredient, seasoned only enough to be jumping with flavor.
And those clean flavors complement a surprising array of others, especially any drawn from South American cooking. Even Middle Eastern merguez tastes surprisingly harmonious against tropical fruits.
Sausages as a main course can be served the way they are at Texas barbecue joints, as either knife-and-fork fare or with soft white bread or buns for sandwiching (mustard -- Dijon or Creole -- is optional). A couple of salads will round out the plate, and both can be made ahead. You can make dessert the night before as well -- when it's cool enough for baking.
A spinach and papaya salad tastes both sweet and tangy against any fatty meat, but adding papaya seeds to the dressing produces an almost peppery accent. The seeds can be ground into the dressing in the blender, a trick I picked up at a tropical fruit garden near Miami back in the last century. Roasted, salted cashews bring the flavors together even more, with great texture. (You could substitute toasted sliced almonds for economy's sake, or chopped macadamias if you're feeling indulgent.)
Beans and sausage go together like potatoes and mayonnaise, black beans in particular. Mix the legumes with other elements of Brazilian cuisine -- hearts of palm, roasted red peppers, diced avocado and white onion -- and you get a sprightly blend in a cumin- and cilantro-spiked vinaigrette. This is one of those salads that get better as it sits overnight.