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updated: 5/4/2011 10:42 AM

Chorizo spices up everyday dinners

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  • Chorizo sausages, one of the many ingredients used at Mago restaurant, Arlington Heights.

      Chorizo sausages, one of the many ingredients used at Mago restaurant, Arlington Heights.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

By Deborah Pankey

"You had me at chorizo."

That's how my husband responded the other night when he asked what was for dinner.

I had just walked in the door and didn't have a plan, but I had a pound of chorizo, fresh Mexican sausage, in the fridge. I rattled off something about cooking the chorizo with onions, sweet peppers and corn and serving it with rice.

The meal earned an enthusiastic thumbs-up and requests to make it again.

Chorizo has become a go-to ingredient in my kitchen. I can keep the spice cabinet closed and allow chorizo's bold flavor to infuse chili, soup, quesadillas and casseroles.

Mexican chorizo is a spicy fresh sausage (compared to milder Spanish chorizo that has been dried). Most versions found in grocery stores and ethnic markets have been made with ground pork and a blend of spices that can include dried chiles, cinnamon, paprika and cumin and result in a vibrant red sausage link, though other versions have been spotted, says chef Juan Luis Gonzales of Mago in Arlington Heights.

Artisan butchers and restaurant chefs are grinding beef, chicken and even venison into Mexican chorizo. Gonzales said there's even a green version made with different spices and almonds, raisins and tomatillos that is more common south of the border.

In Mexico you'll find chorizo at breakfast served with eggs, in quesadillas or soup at lunch time, or in paella for dinner, he said.

At Mago, chorizo infuses the menu in classic queso fundido, tacos and special entrees like sea bass with mussels in a chile-spiked broth.

The spice level in chorizo varies, so you might have to try a few brands or Mexican grocers to find the flavor profile that fits your family.

Chorizo also tends to be on the oily side, more so than Polish or Italian sausage, so drain the grease off before crumbling cooked chorizo into a dish.

I like chorizo with a strong flavor, but my children don't, so I've sometimes combined a link of chorizo (6-8 ounces) with an equal amount of ground pork, beef or turkey during cooking to spread the piquant flavors across a wider base.

Because chorizo is oily, I've been hesitant to try it on the grill, but Gonzales tells me to go for it.

"Buy it and don't use it for two or three days," he said, to give the sausage a little time to dry out.

Honey, fire up the grill. I know what we're having for dinner tonight.