Recently, I was making a recipe from one of my newest cookbooks that felt perfect for the slightly springy, slightly chilly day at hand: pasta with 'nduja and spring vegetables. Never mind the fact that I had no idea what 'nduja was or that apparently it was so important to the dish it made it into the title. I was able to find it at my local grocery store without too much trouble and was excited to get cooking! As I prepped my veggies, I read through the recipe when I got to the line: "Add the 'nduja to the skillet, breaking it up with the back of a spoon. Cook until it melts . . ." Cue record scratch.
Excuse me, but "melts" is not normally a phrase I see associated with sausage. Butter or cheese? Sure! But meat? I did not think meat even could melt, let alone that I would want it to.
But of course, the chef knew best and the dish was such a success that I gleefully ate the leftovers for lunch for days. That left me curious to know a little more about the strange ingredient that made it such a winner: 'nduja.
What is 'nduja?
Simply put, it's a spicy pork salumi (salted, cured meat) that gets its distinctive flavor from the fatty, tender parts of the pig and a mix of spices and hot Calabrian chiles. So yes, it's a salumi just like prosciutto, but that doesn't mean you can slice it and slap it in a sandwich like salami.
Unlike more typical salumi, 'nduja (pronounced in-DOOJ-ah or in-DOO-ya) is soaked in water and wine and run through a meat grinder until it achieves a soft, spreadable texture (hence why it's also referred to as a "spreadable salami"). It's then cured and aged for weeks or even months at a time until the meat turns bright red. In the end, you get a spicy, smoky flavor akin to that of chorizo.
Where does it come from?
'Nduja sausage is part of a proud Italian tradition, but specifically it's from the region of Calabria which is at the southern end of the country (think the toe of the "boot"). Artisans there have been making it since the 13th century. Its popularity started spiking across Europe in the late 2000s and now it's made its way across the pond to the US where suddenly it's popping up on menus all over.
What can you do with it?
It's odd, yes, but this funky little meat is incredibly versatile. You can spice up a cheese plate or snack dinner by swapping it in for any other cured meat, or you can slather it atop toast for a more savory bruschetta.
However one of its best uses, or at least my favorite, goes back that little word at the top: melt. The sausage's super smooth texture makes it ideal for sauces because it can almost dissolve into the liquid, ensuring you get a spicy, smoky kick in every bite.
Where can I find it?
At the grocery store, don't head to your butcher counter. Instead, head to the specialty meats section, which if your store is like mine might be closer to the imported cheeses than anything else. However, because it's not as commonplace as salami, you might need to hit up a shop specializing in international food items to find it.
Otherwise, never fear, because it's pretty easily found at most Italian restaurants. Some pizza places are getting in on the act, too, so don't think it has to be a white-tablecloth affair. You're also not strictly limited to Italian joints as you can also find it mixed in with eggs at brunch, atop burgers, or even whisked into a vinaigrette for a more carnivorous take on salad.
Photo by Andrew Nawrocki.