Unprocessed Lent – a food challenge

I’ve been thinking for some time about giving up processed foods – at least as an experiment. The time has never seemed right, but with Spring on the way, and Lent around the corner, it seemed a very Lenten sort of exercise in food discipline.

Hang on, what do you mean by processed food?

When I’ve discussed this idea with friends in the past, one question arises, sooner or later. ‘What do you consider to be processed? I mean, all cooked food is processed. Even flour is processed!’ And this is a very fair question. Everything apart from raw fruit, vegetables, meat and fish has been processed to some extent – arguably, even those have, unless you start with a live chicken or dig the potato from the ground yourself.

unprocessed-lent_7What I’ve tried to do is construct a logical ‘traffic light’ system that categorises foods purely by their degree of processing. I’m not making any moral judgement here, or asserting that one category of foods is healthier, better, or more environmentally sound than any other. This isn’t by any means a ‘clean eating’ thing (I think that’s a rather pernicious fad, and well past it’s sell-by date). It’s purely a list of categories sorted by – if you’ll forgive the expression – increasing ‘buggered-aboutness’.

There are definitely other criteria that we might want to be considering, as thoughtful, ethical consumers, and I refer to some of these in the annotations to the categories. They will colour the degree to which I’m inclined to be militant about the degree of processing. For instance, freezing, drying, and canning foods – all undoubtedly forms of processing – significantly increase the shelf life and preserve the nutritional value of foods, reduce food waste, and allow us access to fresh produce all year around without needing it to be flown half way around the globe. I would rather eat frozen peas or tinned tomatoes in February than fresh ones flown in from Kenya or produced in an artificially lit and heated glasshouse somewhere.

I’m not making an argument here that additives / preservatives / flavourings and so on are necessarily and axiomatically bad (though many undoubtedly are) – just that they are more likely to disappear invisibly into certain sorts of food than others, along with trans fats, invert sugar syrups, and artificial sweeteners, and I like to know what’s on my plate. For me, the most worrying thing about the 21st century food chain is that it introduces black boxes, and unknowns, into what we’re eating. When food is a commodity, we lose touch with our food and our farmers. As a planet, we have never been more divorced and isolated from the origins of our food. Making a point of starting from simple ingredients, and shopping, cooking, and eating thoughtfully, is a great place to start in reconnecting ourselves to the food on our plates.

Embarking on this challenge at this time of year means that I can’t cheat by drawing heavily on my veggie garden – we’re fully in the ‘hungry gap’ and there’s pretty much nothing growing just now. Where I will be benefiting from our usual lifestyle is that I have a good stock of home-made preserves – pickles, jams, chutneys and so on – which, assuming they were made from simple ingredients, I consider absolutely fair game.

unprocessed-lent_6

Why are you doing this?

As thoughtful consumers, there are plenty of important questions we might want to ask about the food we eat –

  • Where was it grown, and how was it stored and transported?
  • What resources – water, soil etc – and other inputs such as fuel, insecticides and herbicides were used in its production?
  • What are the consequences of that for the local and global environment?
  • Who produced it, and were those farmers able to work safely and be paid fairly?
  • Is it good for us, or will eating it have negative consequences for us as consumers?
  • Is it good value for money?

Different people will have different priorities. But whatever is important to you when it come to food, we are deluding ourselves if we think we can start to answer any of these important questions without first being able to answer a much more basic one. And that question is –

 “WHAT AM I EATING?”

When we eat processed and highly manufactured foods, we cannot possibly answer this question. And without that answer, any attempt to answer any of the others is meaningless. Stripping out processed foods from our diets is the first, essential step towards being able to make good decisions about food. If we don’t know what’s in the food on our plates, we can’t possibly make good choices about it – whatever ‘good’ means for us, at any given time in our lives.

It’s not Lent until the 1st of March, so why the preview? 

Well, I’m asking you to argue with me, I guess. Point out important food groups that I’ve missed, or places where you think my categories are not working or where I’ve introduced false-equivalences. I think it’s very unlikely that I’ve got this right first off. So, folks, what have I forgotten or got wrong?


Unprocessed Lent – food categories


Green
 – Fresh foods
unprocessed-lent_4Permitted – first choice if home-grown or locally produced and in season, otherwise substitution with yellow or amber items may be preferred.

  • Fresh whole fruit & vegetables
  • Fresh whole identifiable pieces of meat or fish
  • Fresh egg
  • Honey

Yellow – Single-ingredient foods simply processed for preservation purposes
Permitted – in my view these are no ‘worse’ and in some respects more desirable than fresh – they make foods available out of season without causing dramatic food miles, without significant deterioration in food value, and reduce food waste.

  • Frozen meat, fish and vegetables (otherwise as above)
  • Pasteurised whole milk
  • Whole grains (brown rice, pearl barley etc)
  • Un-roasted seeds and nuts
  • Dried pulses (peas, beans, lentils etc)
  • Cold-pressed (extra virgin) vegetable oils

Amber – these are still primarily single-ingredient foods, but have been processed more heavily.
Permitted – these foods may be starting to lose some food value compared to their fresh or unprocessed equivalents, or have had small additions of other ingredients. In exchange, they often store better than fresh, reducing food miles and food waste. I can’t see how we can do without them and there’s nothing here that would have bothered my grandmother.

  • unprocessed-lent_9Tinned vegetables in their own juice (eg tomatoes)
  • Dried fruit & vegetables
  • Roasted nuts and seeds
  • Lightly processed whole grains – white rice, rolled oats etc
  • Wholemeal flours
  • Fruit juices (fresh or pasteurised, but preservative free)
  • Skimmed & semi-skimmed milk (pasteurised)
  • Cream
  • Unsalted butter
  • Animal fats (lard, suet)
  • Natural unsweetened yoghurt
  • Maple syrup
  • Coffee beans roasted (& ground)
  • Loose-leaf tea
  • Unsweetened cocoa powder
  • Dried herbs and spices
  • Sea salt

unprocessed-lent_5Amber+ – similar to amber but more processed
Substitute – where possible

  • White flour
  • Refined sugars
  • Minced meats

Orange – foods created by traditional preservation techniques such as fermentation, curing and smoking. These are foods with amazing, complex flavours; the very stuff human food culture is made of.
With Care – source is everything here, so buy carefully, from small – ideally local – makers using traditional techniques (actual smoke, rather than liquid, for example), look for PDO products, consider alternatives & home-made. The industrially manufactured versions of these foods fall into the ‘black’ group.

  • unprocessed-lent_8Cheese
  • Cured and/or naturally smoked meats & fish (anchovies, bacon, smoked haddock)
  • Real ale & cider
  • Wine
  • Natural wine and cider vinegars
  • Lacto-fermented foods (kimchi, sauerkraut)

Red – multi-ingredient manufactured foods. These are foods that our grandparents would have recognised, and may have bought from outside the home (at least some of the time). They can often be a source of hidden ingredients (salts, sugars, fats & additives)
Avoid – unless home-made

  • Bread & bakery products
  • Fresh & dried pasta and noodles
  • Prepared ‘deli-style’ meats ready to eat
  • Sausages, burgers
  • Jams, pickles, chutneys
  • Tinned fruit and vegetables in brine or syrup
  • Tinned fish
  • Squashes, cordials, and flavoured syrups
  • Manufactured condiments (mustard, ketchup, sweet chilli sauce, mayonnaise etc)
  • Tea bags

Black – convenience, industrially manufactured foods. Our grandparents would have been mystified by many of these, or, while recognising them, would never have thought to buy them ‘off the shelf’. These sorts of foods are where all the hidden sugars, salts, and oils (not to mention invert sugar syrups, trans fats, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, flavour enhancers, and so on) sneak into our diets. Obviously, all of these foods made at home from lower category ingredients are fine!
Off-limits

  • unprocessed-lent_3Any ‘orange’ food produced industrially
  • Ready meals (including prepared sandwiches)
  • Convenience fruit & veg (bag salad, peeled / chopped fruit & veg)
  • Prepared pizza
  • ‘Chorleywood process’ bread
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Prepared sauces (pasta, curry etc) and raw foods coated in them
  • Tinned prepared foods (baked beans, pasta in sauce etc)
  • UHT or homogenised milks
  • Solvent-extracted vegetable oils
  • Margarine and similar non-dairy spreads
  • Non-dairy creamer
  • Sugar-free sweetners
  • unprocessed-lent_1Fruit juices containing preservatives
  • Prepared soups (fresh & tinned)
  • Instant noodles & soups
  • Sweet & savoury pies, scotch eggs
  • Crisps, biscuits, prepared snack foods
  • Sweets, chocolates, etc
  • Carbonated drinks
  • Spirits
  • Instant coffee
  • ‘Coffee pod’ coffee (Nespresso, Tassimo)
  • Stock cubes & gravy granules
  • Packet sauces & seasoning mixes
  • Take-aways

 

‘Tricky’ foods – additives and additions traditionally used in kitchens, and manufactured condiments in small quantities.

Additives / additions – our grandparents would have been familiar with all of these, even though, as kitchen ingredients, some have fallen out of common use. I plan to continue to use them when appropriate. Yes, some of them even have E-numbers.

  • Bicarbonate of soda
  • Baking powder
  • Dried yeast
  • Citric acid [E330]
  • Sodium nitrite [E250](saltpetre, used in tiny quantities in curing salt)
  • Sodium metabisulfite [E223] (Campden, used as a preservative and sterilising agent in brewing)

Condiments – while noting these are ‘red’ foods, they may be used occasionally, while looking for home-made alternatives.

  • Soy sauce
  • Mustard
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Ketchup, brown sauce, sweet chilli sauce

It’s just under a week until we start. Looking forward to your comments!

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Baked Eggs with Smoked Haddock and Grain Mustard, from ‘Eggs’ by Michel Roux – Cooking the Books, week 6

Our hens have got laying early and enthusiastically this year, despite the quite horrible weather, and we have more eggs than we know what to do with. I bought this little book fairly soon after we got our girls, anticipating the inevitable hen-keeper’s egg glut, but despite that it’s seen very little use.

This is a lovely little recipe for baked eggs (‘en cocotte’ as I’m sure M. Roux would actually have it), which makes a gorgeous starter or, serving two per person, a really decent supper dish. Now, I have to admit I have made this recipe, and variations on it, a couple of times already, so my version does vary a little bit from the original.

To make four (serves four for a starter, or two for a main course) –

  • Baked eggs - ingredientsSmall fillet of un-dyed smoked haddock (or other cold-smoked fish), about 120g
  • Half a pint of milk (approximately)
  • 6 tbsp of double cream
  • 1 tbsp grain mustard
  • 4 eggs
  • Butter, to grease the ramekins
  • A little sprinkle of parmesan cheese
  • Salt & pepper

Start preparing this dish about an hour before you intend to eat it, as there’s a certain amount of standing time involved. But this is a dish that you can prepare plenty of time in advance, and then just put in the oven when needed, which makes it a great choice for entertaining!

If you store your eggs in the fridge, get them out and let them come to room temperature.

Poach fish in milkPlace the fish in a small saucepan and just cover the fillet with milk (you might need a little more or a little less than half a pint, depending on the size of the pan and the thickness of the fillet). It’s fine to cut the fillet up into two or three pieces if this makes life easier. Bring the milk gently to the boil, and then take the pan off the heat and set to one side, and allow to cool. After 20 minutes to half an hour, it will have cooled to nearly room temperature, and the fish will have cooked through in the residual heat of the poaching liquid.

Flake your fishDrain the fish, discarding the milk. If your fish has skin on, this should now peel away really easily. Now break the cooked smoked fish up into flakes. Those observant souls amongst you may have noticed that there’s something unusual about my ‘haddock’. This is actually a home-smoked whole fillet of arctic char, made following the same technique as my home-smoked trout. I’ve made this dish with smoked trout in the past, and that’s quite lovely. To be honest, I think any cold-smoked fish would work here, so why not experiment?

Combine cream with fish and mustardIf you’re cooking your eggs straight away, pre-heat the oven to 170C. Give your pan a quick wash and dry, and heat the cream to nearly-boiling. Take it off the heat and incorporate the flaked fish, mustard, and salt and pepper to taste (I never feel the need to add extra salt, there’s plenty from the fish!). Allow to cool to room temperature – you can speed this process up by immersing the pan in cold water.

Ready to go in the ovenButter your ramekins. Now spoon the fish, cream and mustard mixture evenly between them. As you do, make a dip in the centre, this will encourage the egg yolks to settle in the centre, which makes it easier to cook them to a lovely soft texture later! Crack an egg into each ramekin. Finally sprinkle over a little bit of freshly ground pepper and a little bit of parmesan cheese.

If you’re not cooking these straight away, pop them in the fridge, but remember to get them out long enough before cooking that they come back up to room temperature before going in the oven.

Finished eggsPlace your ramekins in a flat-bottomed roasting dish, boil the kettle, and then carefully pour boiling water into the roasting dish to come about half way up the pots. Slide into your pre-heated oven. I find these take about 12 minutes to cook – you can judge how they’re getting along by the amount of ‘wobble’ on the contents of the pots when you move them gently. I try to cook mine so the yolks are still runny and silky-textured, but the white is fully set – your preferences may vary! – but it’s much easier to achieve this if you can get your yolks bedded neatly in the centre of the mixture.

When they’re ready, serve immediately and simply with the very best buttered bread – this is my sourdough – and enjoy!

Serve and enjoy!

**
Eggs - cover shot‘Eggs’ by Michel Roux
Quadrille Publishing Ltd, 2005. Paperback edition 2007. ISBN 978-1-84400-311-2.
304 pages, paperback, full colour. RRP £9.99.

[Full disclosure: This is my book, which I bought. I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

This book is a little treasure trove of (unsurprisingly, given the author) predominantly French-influenced dishes, all featuring eggs, though not necessarily in a starring role.

All the stalwarts are here, of course – eggs scrambled and poached, fried, baked, and constructed into soufflés, omelettes, and so on. There are some less obvious choices too – some great traditional French deserts and sweet treats, ice creams, and even fresh pasta.

Inside page viewIf I had a criticism, it would be that this is actually a rather unhelpful book to pick up if, like me, you’re often in the position of having a lot of eggs that need eating and are in need of inspiration for what to do with them. These are, for the most part, quite sophisticated recipes and as a result tend to include ingredients which aren’t routinely in my fridge and store cupboards. That said, there a lot of wonderful-looking food here and I definitely need to make an effort to experiment further!

The book itself is a pretty medium-format paperback, the food photography (credited to Martin Brigdale) is mouthwatering, but bucks the recent trend to illustrate every dish, with some – like this little baked egg dish – not illustrated at all.

Each section of the book starts with a well illustrated guide to the essential techniques, and this is very helpful, particularly as some aspects of egg cookery – poaching, making custards, or emulsions like mayonnaise or hollandaise sauce – can sometimes seem a bit like dark culinary magic, even to the more experienced cook. This is a little book, then, which not only provides some great recipe inspiration, but could help sharpen up a few kitchen skills into the bargain!

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

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Fillets Of Fish – how to gut, clean, and fillet a trout – Blog Advent (16)

After the ‘fishmonger’ at Morrisons managed to completely ruin some beautiful fish with a bodged filleting job, there was no way I was letting them have another crack at the task!  The replacement trout we chose were completely unprepared – a bit of a job for us, but at least we could make sure it was done properly this time!

There’s a tradition of fish-eating at Christmas in many countries, with carp featuring on many European Christmas tables.  We’ll often have fish on Christmas Eve, and whole fish make a great celebration dish – salmon can be a fabulous alternative Christmas dinner for those not so keen on poultry or red meat.

Lovely fresh fish

A lot of people are frightened by fish preparation, and there’s really no need to be. There are knacks, sure, and you won’t be very fast to start with, but preparing a whole fish from scratch is actually really quite straightforward (and, really, not at all disgusting!).

You’ll need two knives, a small pointy paring-type knife for gutting, and a long, thin knife for filleting.  Both need to be very sharp.

Whole rainbow troutFirst, you’ll need to gut your fish.  In most cases, this will have been done for you, unless you’ve caught the fish yourself.  Fresh fish doesn’t smell, but can be very ‘slimy’! This mucus coating helps protect the fish’s skin and scales, in life, and helps it move smoothly through the water.  It’s worth taking a bit of time to remove this, if you can.  I find it easiest to wash the fish in cold water and wipe the mucus away with kitchen towel.  Going to a bit of trouble to do this will make the fish easier to keep hold of, and, especially if you’re trying knife skills you’re not familiar with, will probably improve your success and safety!

Gutting fishWIth a small sharp pointy knife, make small stab incision just behind the head, between the pectoral fins.  Without stabbing too deeply inside the abdomen, extend this incision lengthways until you get to the vent, just in front of the anal fin.  Reach into the abdomen and gently pull out the contents.

Remove abdominal contentsThe end of the gut should come away from the vent at the back, with some gentle traction. The attachment behind the head is stronger, pull this out as well as you can, and then cut it away with the knife.  There will probably be a bit of blood spilled at this point – just wash the cavity out with cold running water.

Your fish is now ready to cook, if you’re planning to prepare it whole.  If not, then it’s time to fillet it.  Put your small pointy knife away now, as you want a long, thin, sharp knife for this bit.

Position of first filleting cutPosition your fish on the board with the dorsal fin towards you (belly facing away).  Make a cut behind the gills and pectoral fins, into the flesh, perpendicular to the backbone.  Stop when you can feel the backbone, don’t cut through.

Starting to cut the filletNow turn the blade 90 degrees with the blade pointing towards the tail, and, grasping the head firmly, start to cut the flesh parallel with, and as close to the backbone as you can. Go slowly – it’s not a race!

Continuing to cut the filletAfter you’ve cut a little way, you’ll be able to hold onto the fillet instead of the head, which will make the whole process a lot easier to control.

Your first filletCarry on now, all the way to the tail.  Congratulations, you’ve got a fillet!  Don’t worry if there are ribs attached at this stage – we’ll get to that later.

Second filletPut your fillet to one side, turn the fish over, and do the same the other side.  The head of the fish will be facing the opposite direction, ad you may find the whole process a bit ‘backhanded’ this way around.  Just go slowly and take the time you need.  Personally I don’t find it helpful to work with the fish’s belly pointing towards me for the second side, but you may find it easier, so give it a go that way if you’re finding it particularly awkward.

You can see from this photo, it’s a tidy job and almost no waste!

Trim the ribsNow you want to tidy up your fillet.  Gently scrape, and wash away any bloody material on the fillet under running water.  Now, using your long thin knife, insert it under any ribs that are left attached, and trim these away, trying not to take any flesh with you.

Finished filletPin bones are the little bones that you’ll feel running from the front of your fillet towards the middle, along the lateral line of the fish.  If you’re planning to cook your fillet, I probably wouldn’t bother with them – they’re easy enough to pick out once the fish is cooked, and pretty small and soft in a fish of this size.  I’m curing and smoking this fish, so I tried to remove them all.  You can cut them out in a narrow ‘wedge’ of muscle, or pull them out individually with tweezers.  Both are quite fiddly and time consuming and leave a bit of a tear in the muscle, so try both and see which works best for you!

All Done!

Finally, trim away any fins and tidy up any ragged edges. I’m quite proud of this batch of fillets and I’m sure they’re going to make absolutely lovely smoked trout for Christmas food and gifts!  They’re in the fridge, curing, right now.

So don’t be afraid of that whole fish – it’s quite likely you too can do a better job of preparing and filleting it than whoever the supermarket has working behind their fish counter today!

Advent - day 16

I’m trying to write a post a day during Advent, 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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Very Fishy – in a change from our scheduled programming, a complaint to Morrisons – Blog Advent (14)

I was really excited to find that the fish counter at our local Morrisons had two beautiful arctic char, and some very lovely looking rainbow trout.  I’ve been hoping I’d be able to find some to cure and smoke to add to my family Christmas ‘hampers’ (sorry, this is a spoiler for those of you who’ll be getting them).  Because I was buying two char and three trout, to save a little time I asked the fishmonger to fillet them for me.  This took an age, but I didn’t think much of it – I felt a bit sorry for the bloke, to be honest, since it was a bit of a big job!  Eventually they reappeared, heat-sealed into Morrisons’ white plastic fish-pouches, and I got on with the rest of my shopping.  The char was expensive – just over £10 for the two fish, but since it’s a rare and very special little fish, I figured that’s OK.

Ruined arctic char fillets

I opened the char this evening and nearly wanted to cry.  I’ve never seen such a mess.  I’m not a chef and have no formal training in this sort of thing, but I can – and *have* – filleted fish better than this.  Anyone can see that this is a total, utter, ghastly mess.  I spent 45 minutes trying to tidy up these fillets in the hope of saving them, but in the end I had to give up. They were uneven, still had all their ribs and fins attached, weren’t even split down the midline – one piece had a centimetre of flesh (nearly half an inch) still attached to the *other* side of the dorsal fin!  Great chunks of fish were missing, too.

They look like they’ve been filleted with a blunt bread-knife. The cut surface is completely macerated, with the layers of muscle ripped apart.  And one of the pieces, you can see, has a nasty blood clot within the flesh, which was connected to a cystic structure is the muscle – I don’t know exactly what this is, but I suspect it probably ought to have been grounds for rejecting the fillet or possibly even the whole fish.

As for the trout, well… see for yourselves.  Just more of the same.

Badly filleted rainbow trout  What a sad mess

I’m so angry and disappointed about this, mostly because it’s such a f*cking waste of beautiful fresh fish.  For goodness sake, Morrisons, is it too much to ask for you arrange to have fishmongers on your fish counters who can actually fillet a salmonid without making a complete dog’s dinner of it?  They’re about as simple a fish to fillet as it comes, after all!  I’d politely suggest they start with a sharp knife, and see how they go from there…

I’ll be taking it all back tomorrow.

Right, rant over.  I was going to share my decorated Christmas cake with you all tonight – perhaps tomorrow, eh?

Advent - day 14

I’m trying to write a post a day during Advent, 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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No Smoke Without Fire – Boxing Day ham and Christmas bacon – Blog Advent (2)

This morning, bright and early (probably a little *too* early after last night’s lovely Christmas dinner with some excellent friends!) and in the freezing cold, I got my smoker out and set up.  For the past couple of weeks, my fridge has been half full of partly cured pork products.  Well, the curing finished last week, and today it was time for some smoke!

Smoker, set up ready

What you can see hanging there is my boxing day ham, and a batch of Christmas streaky bacon.  For more information on my DIY cold smoker, you can have a look at the smoking and curing posts, collected here.  For suggested UK supplies of smoking and curing ingredients and paraphernalia, have a look at my suppliers list.

The little sawdust-burning ProQ cold-smoke generator has served me very well in the course of the last year or so, but we had a bit of excitement with it this morning, after the tea light which is used to start the sawdust smouldering decided to overheat and do a striking impression of a miniature chip pan fire!  You’ll be relieved to hear, I’m sure, that no serious harm was done to the bacon, and that I still have my eyebrows!  It was however alarming enough that I’m going to look into alternative ways of starting the smoulder in future.

Boxing-Day Ham

Baked home-cured hamThe amazing colour of the ham comes from the same treacle-based cure I blogged about using earlier this year, though in deference to the larger piece of pork leg, and the fact that this time, it has the bone in, I allowed a curing time of 10 days.  The only other change was the addition of a couple of fresh bay leaves to the curing solution.  The gorgeous 2.5kg piece of pork leg came from our local farm shop butcher, who has wonderful meat.

Between now and Boxing Day, once it’s rested for 48 hours to let the smoke flavours permeate, I’ll wrap it up and put it in the freezer.  I’m expecting that, once boiled and glazed, it will look a lot like this – I can’t wait to see what difference the smoke makes!

Christmas Bacon

Gorgeous pork bellyThe bacon is mostly intended for gifts (except for the biggest piece, which is mine-all-mine!).  It was a great success last year, and seemed popular with its recipients!

It’s been curing over the last week, using a bacon-in-a-bag technique I’ve been refining over the last year.   Nearly all my home-cured bacon is made this way now, and I’ve settled on an 8% cure for most purposes, made up with between 66-75% curing salt and 25-33% sugar.

This total batch was about 2.5kg in weight.  In addition to the meat, I used –

  • AromaticsSupracure – 133g  (see my other curing posts for more information about this pre-mixed curing salt)
  • Mollasses sugar – 66g
  • Aromatics, consisting of 4 bay leaves, 20 juniper berries, 40 allspice berries, one clove, and about 1/4 of a whole nutmeg
  • Two large strong freezer bags

Prepared bacon cureGrind up all the spices in a spice grinder (except the nutmeg, which you’ll probably be safer grating by hand), and then mix the spices into the salt and sugar.  Prepare the pork belly by trimming it if required and then slicing into the appropriate pieces.

With cure rubbed inNow rub about half of the cure generously over all the surfaces of the pork, and pack it into the freezer bags.  Put these in the fridge and turn them over at least once a day, alternating which one is on top if you have more than one bag.

In two days (three if you’re using pork loin rather than belly), pour off any liquid which has accumulated in the bag – this may be very little if you started with excellent quality meat that hasn’t had water added! – and apply the rest of your cure mixture before returning to the fridge for a further 3 days, turning daily as before.

Bacon in a bagAfter your 5 or 6 days in total have elapsed, take the bacon out of the bag, rinse it carefully under cold tap water, dry with kitchen towel, and place on open racks or uncovered on plates in the fridge for another day (or ideally two) to allow the pellicle to form – this is a sticky glossy surface which will develop on the surface of the bacon.

Then, you can eat your bacon, or, as I did today, smoke it.

I’ve used a mix of beech and apple sawdust for todays smoke run, it gives quite a strong, aromatic smoke which I think will stand up well against the robust flavours in both the ham brine and the bacon cure.

The bacon will be frozen, wrapped as individual pieces in waxed baking paper, until we use ours to make our pigs-in-blankets on Christmas day (it was amazing last year!), or give it as gifts.

Advent - day 2

I’m trying to write a post a day during Advent, 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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Offally Good – liver with bacon and onions, fast fresh frugal food

Offal certainly divides opinions!  One of my favourite ever dishes is liver, bacon and onions – so simple, really just three ingredients –  I’ll order it in a pub whenever it’s on the menu, but sadly it’s often a disappointment.  When it comes to liver, freshness is everything.  It doesn’t reward maturation!  Lamb’s  and calf’s livers are the ones to choose – pig’s liver has a nasty bitter flavour, which some people seem to believe can be mitigated by doing things like soaking the liver in milk before cooking.  Don’t bother!  Get the best, freshest lamb or calf liver you can, it needs very little preparation, and makes a wonderful meal.

Liver, bacon and onion

As much of our meat as we can manage comes from the little farm-shop butcher just up the road from us.  Chris, the butcher and farmer, knows us quite well these days – so when my husband was in there last week, Chris happened to mention he’d just that very day come back from taking a few lambs in to slaughter.  He had the ‘plucks’ (the slaughterhouse term for the heart, lungs and liver).  A lovely fresh lamb’s liver, inevitably, made its way into the shopping bag!

Fresh lamb's liverGood fresh liver is dark burgundy in colour, firm but yielding in texture.  There will probably be some blood in the packaging, wash this off and pat it dry.  Fresh raw liver has almost no smell. It shouldn’t be mushy, crumble, or disintegrate under gentle pressure – if it does, then a process known as ‘autolysis’ has started, and the liver is starting to break down.  Blotchiness and pale areas can also suggest less than ideal freshness, or issues with the health of the liver.  This liver, in thick slices, was beautiful.

Liver slicesThere will be some fibrous tissue in the liver,  you can trim this away as you slice the liver into pieces.  I like my liver in bite sized pieces, cut on the diagonal from the original thick slices.  Try to keep the pieces as even sized as you can, so they will cook evenly.

Prepared trimmed liver piecesDecide what you want to serve with your liver, bacon and onions – mashed potato is traditional, but don’t let that stop you.  Ours was for lunch, so we enjoyed it with a little gravy, and warm buttered toasted muffins.  If you want side dishes, get started with those first – the liver will take less than ten minutes, and you want to serve it as soon as it’s ready.

As well as your lovely fresh lamb’s liver, to serve two you will require –

  • Bacon pieces and sliced onionsOne onion, peeled and sliced thinly from root to tip
  • Four slices – or two thick pieces – of dry cured bacon, cut into chunks
  • Pepper, olive oil, flour or gravy granules (optional)

Slice an onion into thin slices from tip to root, some dry cured bacon into pieces.  Use the very best bacon you can – my home-cured maple bacon is perfect – the last thing you want is that nasty bacon-water from commercially produced bacon leaking out into your pan.

Add liver to pan & fry offFry off your bacon and onion in a large frying pan until starting to caramelise.  Add a very little bit of olive oil if you need to.  Once it’s starting to show a little colour, push it to one side  in the pan.  Now add the liver and fry off until the pieces are just a little bit pink in the middle.  You’re nearly done – just time to make the gravy.  Mix the onion and bacon back among the cooked liver.

Cooked liver piecesNow add a generous splash of boiling water to the pan, and stir it all around to capture all the lovely pan flavours.  If you want your gravy a little thicker, thicken it by your preferred method.  Gastropub recipes often have red wine in the gravy – I’m not sure this is an improvement, simplicity is everything here!  You probably won’t need to add any salt – the bacon has enough – but season with pepper to your taste.

Making gravy

Serve, and enjoy!  This is such great comfort food – it’s food for the soul as well as the body!  And a timely reminder to me that I need to remember to enjoy offal much more often!

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Happy Birthday – and a new home for the blog!

Doesn’t time fly!  I can’t quite believe it was a year ago (well, near enough) that I sat down and wrote ‘Bringing Home the Bacon’, and the Country Skills blog was born.  And it just so happens that while we’re on the subject of milestones, this is also the blog’s 100th post!

Well, everyone likes a birthday celebration, don’t they, and what’s a birthday without presents and candles?

First Birthday Candle

So, there’s the candle, and now for the present – the Country Skills blog has a new home at https://countryskillsblog.com/ although old links via the wordpress.com domain will continue to work through the magic of redirects.

I’d like to thank all my lovely readers – both regular and occasional! – for taking the time to stop by my little blog in the last year, and particularly those who’ve paused to comment or ‘like’, and helped me feel I’m not talking to myself!  Some of you have really helped me out – I don’t think the Sourdough Saga would have come to such a successful conclusion without your advice and feedback – and for that I thank you all from the bottom of my heart.

Here’s to many more years happy blogging!  Please do let me know what you think, I’m always happy to hear suggestions!

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Basic Butchery – how to butcher & portion a pork belly

Pork belly is such a wonderful and versatile cut, and so under-rated here in the UK.  Most of my bacon making is with belly, so we get through quite a lot of it.  As a result I tend to buy it most-of-a-belly at a time!  The process of butchering it to remove the ribs and prepare it for curing or roasting is quite simple, and worth learning, since it means you’ll end up with precisely the piece of meat you want for the task at hand, and a couple of little bonus items, too!

Large piece of pork belly

Your butcher will probably offer to prepare your belly for you, removing the ribs and trimming it to your preference, but you never quite seem to get exactly what you were after, somehow!  Doing the job yourself means you get exactly what you want.  This is my starting point – just under 2kg piece of pork belly .

Peel away the inner layer of fatStart by removing the layer of fat on the inside of the belly piece, if there’s one there.  You shouldn’t need your knife for this, it should just pull away if you work gently beneath it with your fingers, leaving a clean muscle surface beneath.  Once you’ve removed it, set it to one side (I usually keep an ‘offcuts’ plate or bowl handy when I’m portioning or butchering meats).  This is effectively pork suet.

Belly portion with fat removedNow you can get a better look at the anatomy of your piece of meat.  As it’s laid out in the photo here, the ribs are on the left, you can see the flap of diaphragm meat lying above them.  On the right side of the belly is a band of smooth muscle.  The ends of the ribs lie almost exactly where the visible edge of this muscle joins the diaphragm.

Cut beneath ribsTake a long, thin bladed, sharp knife and first cut beneath the ribs, as close as possible to them to reduce wastage.  The piece has been rotated 180 degrees from where it was in the previous photograph so that the ribs are now bottom right.  You should be able to feel roughly where the ribs end, so extend your cut beneath them as close as possible to this level.

Finding the ends of the ribsNow gently slice beneath the strap-like muscle we identified earlier, where it lies over the ends of the ribs, and peel it back,  You’ll find the ends of the ribs and the strips of cartilage which link them together.  Gently slice around these and then back underneath. By lifting the rib section it should now be quite easy to join up with the cut beneath and remove this as a block.

Rack of ribs, as removedEither put the rack of ribs to one side, or cut them up into individual ribs at this stage.  This couldn’t be simpler – just feel for the gap between each pair of ribs and slice down the centre parallel to them, your knife, if it’s nice and sharp, should cut straight through the connecting cartilage.

Ribs, divided up.You can trim away any strips of cartilage that area easy to identify – you can see this top left.  That bit is genuinely wastage, incidentally, so chuck it away if you want!  Bag your butchered ribs up, label them, and freeze them for another day (they’re great done on the BBQ with a jerk marinade!).

Pork belly with ribs removed

Now let’s turn our attention back to the pork belly itself.

You can really see now that mine is anything but rectangular! It’s actually sitting ‘upside down’ in terms of how it was on the pig – the top as we look at that photo is the part closest to the middle of the pig’s body, the rib side is towards the back.  As we get closer to the abdominal midline, the proportion of fat to muscle increases, so I trimmed the piece to rectangular, discarding the part which is most top-left in this photograph.

Pork belly, trimmedBecause I’m planning to prepare the belly as streaky bacon, this will give me more manageable, even chunks.  You can see the effect of the trimming in this photograph – the piece has been rotated again so the rib-side is now away from us.  Add your trimmings to the ‘offcuts’ bowl.

Belly pieces, divided upNow simply divide up your belly as you like.  Mine weighed almost exactly 1.6kg at this point, so I divided it evenly into four ~400g pieces.   A large piece like this would be fantastic roasted slowly whole, too, perhaps with chinese spices, for a special meal for a big gathering!  Roast pork belly has the *best* crackling.

Bag your ribs and your offcuts – these will make fantastic quite fatty minced pork for adding to any minced-meat dish that requires extra juiciness and succulence, or for sausages.  Then sit back and admire your work.

Fully-butchered pork belly

My belly portions were for curing, so I prepared a maple syrup cure made up of 100g of supracure and 90g of pure maple syrup, applied about half to all the bellies, and then bagged them together in the fridge. (More discussion of the bacon-in-a-bag ‘dry’ cure method can be found here.)

Belly pieces with maple syrup cureI’ll apply the second half after 48 hours and re-arrange the bellies so they’re skin-side together for the second half of the curing process.  The total curing time would normally be 5 days for belly pork, but these pieces are thicker than usual, so I may decide to let them go a day longer, depending on the texture and appearance at the 5 day mark.  It would be great to get some maple smoke into some of them – but that’ll depend on the weather.  I’ll keep you posted!

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Maple Bacon – and a bonus summer salad

Every so often I ask my lovely husband for ideas – most recently last time I was making streaky bacon.  ‘What cure shall I use?’ I called out from the kitchen.  ‘Maple!’ he replied.  Right oh, maple bacon.  It’s a new one for us.  I ferreted around in the cupboard and dug out a bottle of pure maple syrup.  This was sounding plausible, after all!

[This bacon was made using a variation on the bacon-in-a-bag technique I wrote about the other week, so you should probably go and read that first if you’re not familiar with it.]

For my bacon, I used –

  • 480g piece of pork belly from our local farm butchers’ shop
  • 30g of supracure
  • 26g of pure maple syrup (really, buy the good stuff, not the blended rubbish)
  • A plastic bag big enough to contain the pork, and a sealed container for the cure.

I was aiming for an 8% total cure weight to the meat (lower than the 10% I normally use), with a 1/3rd to 2/3rd ratio of sugar to salt. This was in deference to the rather aggressive salt flavour I got from the outside pieces of my last bacon-in-a-bag effort.  I got the ratio right but slightly overcooked the total quantity, in this event.  You’re thinking now that my arithmetic doesn’t add up, and that 56g is clearly well over 10% of 480g.  You have to consider that maple syrup is about 40% water to 60% sugar (check the nutritional analysis on the back of the bottle for your particular sugar) so my 26g of syrup is in effect 15g of maple sugar, for a total dry-equivalent cure weight of 45g or ~9%.

Bacon-in-a-bag with maple cureThe mix of salt and syrup is not so much a dry cure, more of a ‘gloop’.  Put the pork in the plastic bag and rub all over with half the cure, massaging in well.  Seal the bag, excluding as much air as possible, and place it in the refrigerator.  Store the rest of the cure in an airtight container.  At least once a day (but in practice I tend to do this whenever I’m going to the fridge and remember) give the meat a bit of a massage, and return to the fridge the other way up.

Maple bacon after curingAfter two days, I poured off the pickle, and applied the rest of the cure.  After three more days (a total cure time of 5 days), remove the bacon from the fridge, rinse it under cold running water, dry carefully with kitchen paper and then wrap loosely in baking parchment and return it to the fridge for at least 24 hours (and preferably a few days) to rest.

Maple bacon, slicedYou’ll notice that compared to our previous bacon, this one is a lot paler in colour, and retains a much whiter rind.  Most of the change in the meat before and after curing is in the texture, with a slight pink flush to the meat.  This is because we’ve not added colour by using a dark sugar in this cure.  It slices very nicely!

Bacon pieces fryingAt this time of year, with the warmer weather, perhaps you don’t fancy a bacon roll so much as in winter?  For lunch on a hot day, I love a spinach and bacon salad.  It’s the quickest and simplest of light summer lunches.  First slice your bacon into lardons, and fry it off until slighty crispy.  This bacon cooks beautifully, caramelising very rapidly and rendering off lovely clean clear bacon fat.

Spinach and bacon salad with balsamic dressing

Then, toss your crispy bacon pieces, while still warm, into a big bowl of baby leaf spinach, dressing with balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

The empty bowl

Doesn’t it look appetising??  It didn’t last long here!

We had a few more rashers for breakfast this morning.  We will certainly be making this one over and over again in the future.  In summary – this is great bacon, subtly flavoured, gently salted, with a gorgeous traditional bacon flavour.  Make it!

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