Holidays Are Coming… and it’s very nearly Advent!

There’s no escaping the fact that winter has well and truly arrived, and that Advent, and Christmas, are just around the corner!  Christmas is probably my favourite time of year, which is a bit odd, I suppose, as I really really don’t get on with winter.  The cold, and especially the long dark months, seem to sap my energy.  I’m sure I evolved from a creature that hibernated, because honestly I could curl up under a rock in the middle of November and not come out until March.  But Christmas – Christmas is a bright, beautiful jewel in an otherwise dark and barren winter landscape.  The lights and sparkles, the food, the drink, and above all, the laughter and joy of loved ones, friends and family.

Every year that goes by, I seem to spend less money on a ‘commercial’ Christmas, and more time and effort on home-made, food and drink, gifts and decorations.  So the next few weeks are going to be really busy!  Never mind the inevitable – welcome, but time consuming – increase in social commitments, works parties, people visiting. Of course, what everyone needs with all this going on is an extra time-sink.

The thought occurred to me a couple of weeks ago that it would be really fun (fun?!?) to try to blog daily, from December 1st to Christmas Eve – about my Christmas preparations, food and drink, making and doing, building up to the big day…

So, please come along with me while I try to Blog Advent – the Country Skills Way – and forgive me if I don’t quite manage it!

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Brilliant Bangers – in praise of the full English breakfast

Those of you who come here regularly will know this isn’t the sort of food blog (if it’s even a food blog, really?) where I regularly post photos of my meals.  This time, though, I’m making an exception.

This was my Sunday breakfast –

Full English breakfast

What’s so special about that, you might wonder?  Well, everything on that plate was made here, by us.  I’m not going to claim to have grown the mushrooms or the tomato, or churned the butter, but the bacon was home-cured and smoked, the bread was my own sourdough, the eggs were laid in the garden by our hens, and, most excitingly for me, the sausages were made here, in my very own kitchen.  Even the ketchup is homemade.

This blog started with bacon, over a year ago, and curing and smoking have been among the recurring themes as the months have gone by.  The trouble with sausages is that they’re so often so disappointing, so much less than they ought to be, a disposal route for otherwise less than tempting ingredients and fillers.  Of course, the more lovely the rest of your breakfast – the fresher and richer your eggs, the tastier your home-cured bacon – the more obvious the deficiencies of your bangers become.

The Porkert PP88I’ve wanted to make sausages for a very long time – so long, in fact, that we received a sausage press (the rather wonderful chromed cast-iron, sparsely named Czech ‘Porkert PP88’) as a wedding gift over six years ago.  I regret that, until last weekend, it hadn’t yet managed to have an outing!  I finally decided that enough was enough, and ordered some sausage skins from Weschenfelder, which arrived very promptly last week.  A trip to our friendly local farm shop butcher provided us with 1kg of minced pork shoulder, and we were ready to rock!

Sausage mixTo the kilo of minced pork, we added a bit short of the recommended 200g of breadcrumbs (I didn’t have enough – they were a mix anyway of shop-bought breadcrumbs I had in the cupboard, and a couple of slices of dried and crushed homemade sourdough), 200ml of water (this, along with the breadcrumb, is essential for getting the mix to a consistency where it will pass through the sausage press), a teaspoon of salt and a half a teaspoon of crushed black pepper.

Soaking sausage casingsThe sausage skins were already soaking in warm water – we had bought the ready spooled sheep’s casing as Hubby’s preference runs to smaller bangers.  Sausage skins are not pleasant smelling things!  So, don’t sniff them, would be my advice.  A lot of the odour disappears once they’ve been soaked, so I’d recommend trying not to think about it too much in the meantime!

Ours probably hadn’t been soaked for as long as they ought to, since when I loaded the first length, they were very tricky to feed onto the nozzle of the sausage stuffer – I put it down to inexperience, but the second length, which had had about half an hour longer to soak, went on much more easily.  As they can soak for 12 hours or so without harm, get started with the soaking early!

Feed your skins onto the nozzleOK, so there’s no polite way of saying this – there’s something unavoidably prepucial about sausage skins!  Feed your skins onto the nozzle of the sausage stuffer (ours were quite a snug fit on the 20mm nozzle), leaving a couple of inches, untied, dangling free from the tip.  And try not to contemplate the resemblance to condoms too closely!

Don’t overfill your sausage stuffing press, especially if it’s manually powered like ours!  Add a couple of hand-fulls to the barrel and start to push down steadily.  We discovered around this time that we didn’t have the mechanical advantage at counter height to operate the lever usefully, and moved the whole sausage pressing rig down onto the kitchen floor. Really, we should have had mounting bolts to allow us to seat the press firmly in position, but we had to make do without.  Something to add to my ‘fantasy kitchen’ wish-list, I guess!

Filling sausagesPut a nice shallow tray (a baking sheet is ideal) under the sausage press to catch the sausages as they’re filled.  Once you get the sausage meat flowing, you want to kind of let it fill the casing and pull it off the nozzle itself as it goes.  This is definitely a two man job with any kind of manual press, I’m afraid!  Don’t pull the skin away from the nozzle unless it seems to be getting stuck, but equally don’t let the skin be over-filled, as you’re going to need a bit of ‘freedom’ when you come to twist and link the sausages.

The skins will split in places – you might have weakened them when you were incompetently loading them! – but don’t worry, it’s not a disaster. Carry on until you run out of sausage meat, or skins!

Linked sausagesNow it’s time to link your sausages.  I looked at various diagrams and instructions in books and on the web, but in the end I just fiddled with them until they did what I wanted – one of these days I’ll try to take photos but it never made much sense to me at the time!  Still, by the end of the process I had two strings of traditionally linked sausages.  The first  – on the left – are noticeably ‘scrappier’ than the second, but I’m really thrilled with all of them.

It’s advised to hang them to dry for a while – the cabinet doors were useful here – and then let them rest overnight before eating them.  We refrigerated one breakfast’s worth and put the rest in the freezer.

They’re great sausages.  They cooked well under the grill, but I’ll admit the first mouthful was almost underwhelming, I worried they were bland but then realised that they were, by any commercial standard, just seriously ‘under-seasonned’ compared to what my taste-buds were expecting.  I have to say I’m now rather worried about how much salt must be in shop-bought bangers!  But on the second bite, the lovely sweet pork flavour came through beautifully.  I’m looking forward to experimenting with some herbs, spices, and other flavours in future batches – we intentionally kept this batch quite plain as a ‘baseline’!

Finished sausages

So, homemade sausages – the last part of the Holy Trinity of the great Full English breakfast of sausage, bacon and eggs.  Go on, try it!  And no doubt, there will be more sausage making posts in the future!

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When Life Gives You Lemons – Part 4: lemon pickle [Guest Blogger]

Today’s Guest Blogger is Ross, from Christchurch, NZ.

Lemon pickle

This one is a bit friskier, with the smoking hot oil making the kitchen smell strongly of mustard for a while – you have been warned!

This made about 1kg of pickle for me (including some excess oil).

  • 8 lemons,
  • 150g salt,
  • 25g fenugreek; 25g mustard powder; 50g chilli powder; 8g turmeric. (I used mild chilli powder from my local Indian supermarket, and the end product still had a bit of a kick; if you prefer it incendiary, then use the hot stuff.)
  • 300ml mustard oil; 1/2 tsp asafoetida (hing); 12g mustard seeds (crushed).

Salted lemonsStart by sterilising a large glass jar – a kilner-type jar like the one pictured is ideal.

Wash the lemons, dry, cut into eighths; you don’t have to remove the pips, but I did.

Put the lemons in the jar. Add the salt and shake it all up well to spread it all over them.

Lemons, after saltingCover; leave in a warm place for 1-2 weeks. (I put it on the windowsill which catches the sun nicely.) The juice leeches out of the lemons; where they’re exposed to the air, the lemon pieces soften and go a dull brown colour.

Mix the fenugreek, mustard powder, chilli powder and turmeric. Add this to the jar and shake it around gently. Re-cover and put it back into the warm for 2-3 days.

With all the spicesTransfer the lemon pieces and spices to a large saucepan.

Heat the mustard oil in a large frying pan. Fry the mustard seeds and asafoetida.

Keep heating the oil until it starts to smoke, then pour it over the lemons. (This is where it gets a bit frisky.)

Mix well. Allow to cool, transfer to a bowl, cover once more and leave in the warm for another week or so.

Lemon pickle

Now it is ready to put into jars; I tried (without huge success) to decant the excess oil. Then you can give some to your friends as presents, or to your enemies as a chemical weapon…

Ross is an expat thirtysomething Brit who went to the Shakey Isles in search of adventure. Works in technology, enjoys creating, has a love-hate relationship with his kitchen.

Warm thanks go out to Ross for these four great blog posts – hopefully he’ll be back with some more antipodean country skills for the blog in the future!  Have a look at Ross’s other lemon glut-busting recipes for lemonade and lemon liqueur, and lemon sorbet (which you’ll be needing, after sampling this pickle, I think!).

I hope you’ve all enjoyed this contribution from a great guest blogger as much as I have!

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When Life Gives You Lemons – Part 3: lemon sorbet [Guest Blogger]

Lemon TreeToday’s Guest Blogger is Ross, from Christchurch, NZ.

Lemon sorbet

Next up, to cleanse the palate, a simple sorbet. Note that if you have an ice cream maker it’ll make life easier, but it’s not mandatory (I don’t have one).

This recipe uses 8 lemons, and makes about 2.5 cups of sorbet.

  • Make up some simple syrup (see post 1 of this series) with 1 cup of water and 1 cup of sugar.
  • While it’s cooling, zest most of the lemons. You’re looking for about 2 tsp of zest – the finer, the better – I reckoned I had enough after six lemons.
  • Juice the lemons. You’re looking for about a cup of juice.
  • Mix the juice, zest and cooled syrup. Chill well (I left mine in the fridge for a couple of hours).

Now freeze. If you have an ice cream maker, you’re all set – but I don’t. That’s OK, it just means a bit more effort. The end product is a water ice, not a block of solid ice, so all you have to do is fluff it up a bit as it freezes.

Lemon Sorbet

  • I split the mixture into a couple of clean shallow plastic tubs and put them in the freezer.
  • After a few hours it was semi-solid; I mashed it up with a fork, then put it back in the freezer. Ideally I’d have done this again after a few more hours, but it was late in the evening so I left it overnight. This was maybe a bit too long as it was nearly solid so was a lot of work! (You could probably use a blender instead, but I don’t have one.)
  • Then put it back in the freezer. After 12-24 hours it’s frozen enough to serve.

Ross is an expat thirtysomething Brit who went to the Shakey Isles in search of adventure. Works in technology, enjoys creating, has a love-hate relationship with his kitchen.

Have a look at Ross’s other lemon glut-busting recipes for lemonade and lemon liqueur.  Coming up soon, lemon pickle.  Watch this space!

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When Life Gives You Lemons – Part 2: lemon liqueur, or ‘limoncello’ [Guest Blogger]

Today’s Guest Blogger is Ross, from Christchurch, NZ.

Lemon Liqueur

I did the first part of this at the same time as I made up some lemonade. This was a small test batch but will scale up directly.

IngredientsIngredients –

  • A half bottle of vodka (375ml) – not flavoured, you want something as pure and tasteless as you can find.
  •  8 lemons (zest only). Go for lemons with thick peels if you can, to maximise the amount of zest.

Sterilise a large sealable jar. This is the same as for making jam – a careful clean, rinse well, then dry in a slow oven.

Scrub and dry the lemons, make sure you’ve removed any wax. Now zest them; be very careful not to take any pith or you will spoil the result.

While the jar was cooling, I juiced the lemons to make the lemonade.

Lemon liqueur, infusingPut the zest into the jar and add the vodka. Make sure all the zest is covered, then seal it up and stash in a cool dark place for a while. I found a number of different recipes suggesting anything from 2 to 45 days; I left it for two weeks.

… time passes …

Make sure your bottles are clean and dry. You’ll end up with slightly more by volume than just the vodka.

Prepare a simple sugar syrup, and let it cool.

The amount of syrup you need is whatever will dilute your starting liquid to the desired strength (traditional limoncello is 30-32% ABV). In my case (375ml of 37.5% ABV vodka) this calls for 80ml of syrup.

Combine the infused alcohol with the syrup. Stir well. Optionally, say some recipes, let it rest for a few more weeks (I didn’t).

Filtering set-upNow filter carefully; for best results filter more than once. I started out with a sieve, then switched to coffee filters. I filtered it four times, which might be excessive; I set up a little production line (pictured). The filtering was slow, and the setup easy to knock over; I found myself longing for some clamp-stands like I used in chemistry class in high school. Unsurprisingly, the filters clogged quite readily; I got through several of them.

Bottle directly from the last filtration; the liqueur should be clear but coloured. At this point the product is very sweet and sharp. Let it mature in the bottle for at least a week; both the sharpness and the cloying sweetness melt away. Serve cold (direct from the fridge, or even the freezer). It’s dynamite-strong; take care!

Next steps?

This wasn’t real limoncello; apparently the genuine stuff is made with grain alcohol which pulls more flavour out of the lemon. (Grain alcohol as in 95% ABV – yes, almost pure ethanol – 190 proof in old money. It’s difficult to find on the shelves, but here in New Zealand it’s legal to distill spirits for personal use. There might be another blog post in here along those lines, but that’s a project for another day…)

Ross is an expat thirtysomething Brit who went to the Shakey Isles in search of adventure. Works in technology, enjoys creating, has a love-hate relationship with his kitchen.

Coming soon, more lemon glut-busting recipes from Ross – lemon sorbet, and lemon pickle.  Watch this space!

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When Life Gives You Lemons – Part 1: Lemonade! [Guest Blogger]

Today’s Guest Blogger is Ross, from Christchurch, NZ.

Lemon TreeWhat to do when life gives you lemons?

We have a lemon tree. Consequently, we have a lot of lemons. It’s just turning to spring here in New Zealand as I am starting to write this, it’s our first spring in this house, and we have a crop ready to harvest.

As a long time reader of the Country Skills Blog I went fishing for suggestions. There is plenty of marmalade on here, which I must get round to trying out sometime, and everybody has heard of traditional old-style lemonade, but what other interesting things can we do with them…?

Studying some recipes I found recipes for a lemon liqueur not entirely unlike limoncello, which use only the zest of the lemon, whereas lemonade uses only the juice. A perfect combination for the first experiments!

Simple Sugar Syrup

This comes up in a few of these recipes, so I’ll describe it once.

Take roughly equal volumes of sugar and water. Mix and heat in a small pan; boil gently until the sugar has dissolved leaving you with a clear syrup. You usually want to leave it to cool before you do anything else with it; if not, take care – it’s like napalm.

Fresh Homemade Lemonade

Lemonade 1Ingredients:

  • Lemons (juice only),
  • sugar,
  • (optional) fresh mint to garnish.

120ml of lemon juice + 1/2 cup sugar makes about 650ml lemonade.

Juice however many lemons. I got about 120ml from the eight lemons I used for my test batch of limoncello; I could have probably got some more from them if I had tried harder.

Lemon JuiceMake up some simple syrup following directions above. I used the same volumes of water and of sugar as I had lemon juice – near enough 1/2 measuring cup of each.

Let the syrup cool, then transfer to a jug. Add the lemon juice, then more water to dilute: three times as much water as you put into the syrup, so I used 1 1/2 cups. Chill well before serving. If you have any fresh mint to hand (I didn’t), it would make an excellent garnish.

Ross is an expat thirtysomething Brit who went to the Shakey Isles in search of adventure. Works in technology, enjoys creating, has a love-hate relationship with his kitchen.

Coming up soon, more lemon glut-busting recipes from Ross – lemon liqueur, sorbet, and lemon pickle.  Watch this space!

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