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Grilling: Cevapi (Southeastern European Meat and Onion Sausages)

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[Photographs: Joshua Bousel]

After tackling merguez—a Moroccan lamb sausage that required a lot of spices, a hefty time commitment, and some frustration working with finicky sheep casings—I wanted my next sausage endevour to be quick and easy. I found that in cevapi, a Balkan uncased sausage that, in my experience, tastes mainly of just meat, garlic, salt, and pepper.

Of course, it couldn't be quite so simple.

As I looked into origins and recipes, I found no clear path to follow in making cevapi. The diverse states in the Balkan region—Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Macedonia, to name a few—each lay claim to their own nuanced versions on this finger-sized sausage, utilizing different combinations of meats and spices. So I decided to find my own favorite version of cevapi by building it from the ground up, creating variations until I found my favorite one.

Building Blocks

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I began my cevapi journey with exclusively the core ingredients I equate with the sausage. I mixed ground beef chuck with a generous amount of minced garlic, a hit of kosher salt, and freshly ground pepper.

For the next batch, I did a 50/50 mix of beef chuck and lamb to give the meat a richer flavor. I stuck with the same amounts of garlic, salt, and pepper, but added a few tablespoons of finely minced onion and a bit of paprika to add a little color and a very slight red pepper flavor.

Finally, I did a three way split of beef, pork, and lamb with the same seasonings previously used, along with a pinch of cayenne to see if a little heat enhanced the cevapi.

Baking Soda, The Secret Ingredient?

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Although few recipes for cevapi were the same, I did notice a semi-common thread among them having baking soda as an ingredient. While I've heard of baking soda being used in meatballs before—claiming to be a "secret ingredient" to make them more tender and/or moist—I've never actually tried it, thinking my meatballs have always been fine just the way they were. Since I was already experimenting, I decided this was as good of a time as any to see if there was any truth to the claim. So I split each of my three meat mixtures in half, adding baking soda to one portion of all the sausages.

After all the meats were mixed I formed the sausage into the required shape: approximately a finger's length and 3/4-inch in diameter.

Grill 'em All

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The one constant in this great cevapi experiment was grilling. All off the uncased "links" were cooked over hot coals until browned on all sides and just cooked through. This took a total of about eight minutes over a medium-high fire, two minutes per side. Once cooked, we began tasting the seemingly unending waves of meat.

First off was the all-beef, which was generally praised for its uncomplicated flavor and intense garlicky character. All were satisfied until we went on to the beef and lamb version, which blew 'em out of the water.

The addition of lamb gave the cevapi much more robust flavor, but one that wasn't overpowering. The garlic was still very present, but in the shadow of the heartier meat blend, it wasn't quite as dominating. Meanwhile, the onion added a nice undertone that we immediately felt was missing from the initial link, and, though it's questionable whether the paprika did much, it certainly didn't hurt.

We thought things would only keep getting better with a three-meat combo, but the beef, lamb, and pork cevapi tasted muddled compared to the more simple two-meat version. The pork didn't seem to add much in flavor and only diluted the beef and lamb. The garlic, paprika, and cayenne did play a little stronger here, but that wasn't necessarily a great thing, since the meats seemed to be the most important ingredient as we worked our way through the different variations.

When putting together each sausage, I had an inkling of what would fare best, but I couldn't have predicted the difference the baking soda would ultimately make. The sausages without baking soda had a coarser, more burger-like texture, while those with the baking soda were more cohesive, with a springiness to the meat that I instantly recognized from the cevapi I've sampled in restaurants. I wouldn't say that the baking soda made them more tender or moist; rather, it changed the nature of the meat to be a little more sausage-like and, in this application, more successful.

Cevapi for All

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In the end, there was a clear winner in this mini-cevapi war. It may not represent any one nation or town's distinct version, but it was certainly the tastiest in the minds of the eaters assembled in my backyard that day, and I'm confident that the final recipe will go over just as well with all you serious eaters, as well. I served mine with the traditional accompaniments of Serbian lepinje bread, minced onion, and the roasted red pepper and eggplant sauce avjar (lookout for more on that in Friday's Sauced).

About the author: Joshua Bousel brings you new, tasty condiment every other Wednesday and a recipe for weekend grilling every other Friday. He also writes about grilling and barbecue on his blog The Meatwave whenever he can be pulled away from his grill.

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