Basic Butchery – how to spatchcock a chicken (or any other poultry!)

This is a really useful kitchen skill to master – and really straightforward! If you can portion a chicken, you can definitely do this – actually, spatchcocking is quicker and simpler. Why spatchcock a bird? Well, it’s a fantastic way to prepare a whole bird for the BBQ or oven, it opens up the carcasse, making it more even in thickness, and allowing the air to circulate evenly around both sides. And if you’re adding flavour in the form of a marinade, it’s easy to coat the bird generously on both sides.

Whole chickenIf you want to prepare a whole bird for the BBQ or grill (and why wouldn’t you – it’s so much more exciting and impressive-looking than chicken portions!) then this is the very best way to go.

Start by un-trussing your chicken, removing any string or elastic from it.

Cut from parson's nose towards neck endTurn the bird breast side down, and identify the ‘parson’s nose’. Now, with a stout pair of kitchen scissors, start to cut from one side of the parson’s nose, straight along the length of the bird towards the neck end. You’re cutting just to the side of the backbone, and through ribs and other quite solid grissly bits (this will be much less obvious on a poussin, quail, pheasant or other small bird) so don’t worry if it seems a bit tough!

Repeat the process the other side of the parson’s nose and backbone, and remove it altogether. See, simple as that!

Remove backbone  With backbone removed  Flatten breast area

Turn the bird over so that the breast side is up,and press down firmly over the breast area so that the wishbone snaps and the bird lies flat. Trim off the knuckle parts of the legs, and any loose skin from the neck area to tidy things up.

Finally insert skewers to hold shape

Finally, take two long skewers (ideally you would use metal skewers but mine are too short – bamboo bbq skewers like these are fine though) and starting at the thickest part of the breast, thread them through diagonally, ending up passing right through the thigh on the other side of the bird.

You’re done. How easy was that? Marinade them however you like (how about a whole jerk chicken using my fabulous dry jerk rub?) and get that BBQ going! What better treat this Bank Holiday weekend!

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Braised Beef with Horseradish, from The Slow Cooker Cookbook – Cooking the Books, week 16

I asked Hubby to select the cookbook for this week’s recipe and review, and of course he set me a challenge! The Slow Cooker Cookbook came into my possession by accident, mistakenly delivered as part of an order from Lakeland a few years ago; when I let them know, they said they didn’t want it back. So this rather smart-looking large format hardback made its home on my ‘tall cookbooks’ shelf and has been there, more or less ignored, ever since.

Slow Cooker Cookbook - coverThe main reason for this, you may have guessed, is that I don’t in fact own a slow cooker. I’ve had my eyes on one for a number of years, but I simply don’t have the storage space to put one away when not in use, or the counter space to leave it out all the time.

I’m currently coveting a Wonderbag, which if it works as well as they say it does, has most of the properties of a slow cooker without any power use – magic or what? But we’re on quite a tight budget just now, so purchases of new shiny things – even lovely energy saving ones! – are going to have to wait a while.

I knew we had a pack of lovely braising steaks in the freezer, so the recipe more or less chose itself. The rest of the ingredients are store cupboard and pantry standards – though there are rather a lot of them – which makes this a great economical recipe. I have made a few small modifications to suit the ingredients and quantities I had available. It would happily serve four – for the two of us it made two meals, and tasted just as good reheated on the second day.

To make this lovely braised beef dish, you will need about six hours, a large stock-pot, a frying pan, and –

  • Braised beef ingredientsFour small or two large pieces of braising steak – about 700g / 1.5lb in all
  • Plain flour
  • Oil for shallow-frying (I used rapeseed oil)
  • Four medium onions. I used two large spindle-shaped shallots, one yellow and one red onion, because that’s what I had. The recipe calls for twelve small round shallots – but I really can’t see what difference it makes.
  • Two garlic cloves
  • 1/4 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp curry powder
  • 3 tsp dark muscovado sugar
  • 1 1/2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 3 tbsp creamed horseradish
  • 700ml of beef stock (I used a mixture of beef stock cubes, and vegetable bouillon powder)
  • Red wine, if available. Substitute this up to half of stock.
  • Two large carrots. The recipe calls for baby carrots. I don’t like baby vegetables much (unless they’re thinnings from the veggie garden!) and even if I did, they tend not to be available in our local village co-op.
  • 2 bay leaves.
  • Dried thyme (my addition)
  • Salt and pepper.

On a plate, season a couple of tablespoons of plain flour with salt and pepper. Cut the braising steak into large pieces (probably about 3 x 3 inches or thereabouts) and dredge in the seasoned flour. In the frying pan, heat a little oil, and then fry the pieces of floured beef quickly, just for a minute or two until they start to brown. Only do a few pieces at once, so you don’t crowd the pan, and once they’re done, transfer them to the bottom of your stock pot.

Now slice your onions into quarters though the root, so as to keep the layers together, and peel off the skin. Fry these in a little oil until they’re just starting to go golden, then add the garlic (minced, crushed or chopped very finely), the ground ginger and curry powder, and fry on for a minute or two so the flavours combine and the garlic just softens. Once you’re happy with it, add the onion mixture to the stock pot on top of the beef.

Make up your stock mixture with boiling water, or if you’re using real beef stock, which obviously would be better, heat it to nearly boiling on the stove. Add the liquid to the stock pot, followed by the sugar, Worcestershire sauce, horseradish, bay leaves, and a big pinch of dried thyme. Peel the carrots and slice them into ‘baby carrot’ pieces – I halved each carrot and then sliced these pieces into quarters lengthways – and add these, along with a big pinch of black pepper. I wouldn’t add any salt at this stage, especially if you’ve used stock cubes or powders – you can always adjust the seasoning at the end of cooking if you find it lacking.

Everything in the potMix well to combine everything, and put the stock-pot on the hob to bring it to a simmer. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 180C. Once the pot is boiling, fit the lid and put the stock pot in the oven. After the first hour, turn the oven down to 120 C and allow it to cook on for another four hours. It’s not a bad idea to take it out every hour or so and give it a gentle stir, as it will tend to form a skin on the surface as this layer dries out a little.

I served this lovely rich braised beef dish with roast potatoes and parsnips – I’m lucky to have two ovens, but if you only have the one then you can take the pot out of the oven and keep it just ticking over on the hob while you use the oven for your roast vegetables. In fact, you could do the whole thing on the hob, but it will require a fair bit more attention since it’s far more likely to catch and burn on the base of the pan.

I have to admit to having had my doubts about this recipe – the ground ginger and curry powder particularly I would never have thought to add to a dish of this sort. Through the long cooking process, they meld down into a deep complex earthy spicy character and lose their distinctive individual flavours. There’s a good but gentle heat to the finished dish, mostly from the horseradish. The braised beef is fork tender – the pieces break down further during cooking, yielding nice bite-sized pieces – and the carrots somehow avoid becoming mushy, developing instead a profound sweetness.

Braised beef - serve

I love this recipe, and will definitely be making it again. It’s a fabulous winter warmer, but would dress up (and scale up) very nicely for entertaining. It re-heats extremely well, so you could make it the day before, but given the long cooking process all the work for dinner is done just after lunchtime anyway, leaving plenty of time to sort out all the trimmings! For lunch today, we enjoyed the leftovers it with some lovely toasted buttered home-made bread, which was also great.

**
The Slow Cooker Cookbook, by Catherine Atkinson
Lorenz Books, 2008 (2nd edition)
ISBN 978-0-7548-1486-3
Hardcover, 256 pages, full colour. RRP £16.99.

[Full disclosure: This is my book (though it did come to me free of charge in slightly unusual circumstances!). I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

Slow Cooker - page viewI must admit to having been a bit dismissive of this book – due to the lack of a slow cooker, yes, but also because these sorts of themed-collection cookbooks have a tendency to be a bit disappointing, and often feel cobbled-together to fill a gap in someone’s publication list, or as promotional items for some kitchen gadget or other.

Well, if the rest of the recipes in this book are anything like as good as this one, I’ve been neglecting a bit of a gem! Flicking through, I think it’s quite possible that they might be, though as the frontispiece credits 18 people in addition to the author for recipes, I can’t exclude a degree of variability! The book features a huge variety of different dishes – 220 in all, from the very traditional to the really quite unusual, and from a wide range of cuisines, though French influences seem predominant. There are the obvious braised and casserole dishes, like this one, but also far more unexpected things – I had no idea, for instance, that you might be able to make cakes and brownies in a slow cooker, or that they could be used as a ‘bain marie’ for cooking patés and terrines. Students with limited cooking facilities – take note!

I think there are recipes here which could help break regular slow cooker devotees out of a culinary rut, and plenty of ideas which are generally adaptable to slow one-pot cooking, with or without a slow cooker.

As for me, in due course – will I be buying a slow cooker, on the strength of this, or sticking with my instincts and trying that Wonderbag instead? I’m still not sure… watch this space!

‘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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Roast Lamb, from ‘The River Cottage Meat Book’ by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall – Cooking the Books, week 7

Who doesn’t love a proper traditional Sunday roast? We have some beautiful lamb in the freezer at the moment, sourced from an organic farmer who we know, and this small leg of lamb deserved nothing but the very best treatment.

Meat book - cover viewI have to admit, it’s been a very long time since it occurred to me to consult a cookbook for a recipe for a roast joint of meat – I’ll look up timings occasionally, but essentially, when it comes to roast dinner, whether it’s beef or lamb, pork or poultry, I know what I like and I like what I know. So, for lamb – leg or shoulder – my roasts have been done much the same way for years now – studded with little slivers of garlic, tufted with fresh rosemary, drizzled with oil, salt and pepper, and simply roasted until just pink in the middle.

You could say, then, that this recipe for roast lamb from The River Cottage Meat Book didn’t take me far out of my comfort zone! Then again, sometimes it’s the little variations on a theme, those small additions and tweaks, that take a good meal and turn it into something simply sensational.

My small leg of lamb was about 1.5kg in weight and served four with no leftovers. In addition to the lamb, you will require –

  • Roast lamb ingredientsA tin of anchovies
  • Two decent sprigs of fresh rosemary
  • Two or three nice juicy cloves of garlic
  • A couple of glasses of dry white wine
  • A spoonful of crab apple and chilli jelly (or other fruit jelly – redcurrant would be a great alternative)
  • Your choice of accompaniments – I served this with roast potatoes, mixed roast vegetables (sweet potato, parsnip and carrot – other great options include swede, pumpkin or squash, and beetroot, if you have them), and steamed winter greens
  • Salt and pepper

Garlic rosemary and anchoviesUsing a sharp paring knife, open up a pocket around the bone, as deeply as you can. In a pestle and mortar mash up a couple of the anchovies with a clove of garlic and some of your rosemary, chopped roughly, and stuff this into the pocket you have made, to help infuse flavour from the inside of the joint.

Lamb prepared for ovenTake four or five anchovies and cut them into quarters. Slice the garlic cloves into quite thick slices, and break up the rosemary into individual ‘tufts’ of leaves. Using the sharp paring knife, make stab incisions into the lamb and stuff a piece of anchovy, a slice of garlic and a tuft of rosemary into each one. Drizzle over some of the oil from the anchovy can and sprinkle over a little salt and pepper.

That’s the lamb all prepared. Slide it into a very hot oven (about 230C) for an initial half hour.

While the lamb is starting to sizzle, prepare your roast potatoes & roast vegetables.  These can go in when you turn the oven down to 160C after half an hour – or wait a while before putting them in, if it’s a big joint. When you turn the oven down, pour a glass of white wine over your lamb. Your timings will depend on the size of your joint and how pink you like your lamb – my small joint needed about another hour. I’m a big fan of my meat thermometer, just remember the centre of the joint will keep heating up while you rest your joint, which you should do, and allow at least 20 minutes resting before you even think about carving it.

Take the lamb out to restAbout 10 minutes before the joint is ready, pour a glass of water into the roasting tin. This will start to loosen the baked on meat juices from the bottom of the tray. When the meat comes out to rest, check how your roast potatoes and vegetables are coming along and adjust the oven temperature accordingly.

Carved lamb returned to gravyMake the gravy directly in the roasting tin on the hob (assuming your roasting tray will survive this treatment!). Pour off any excess fat, then mix in a little bit of flour if you like your gravy thickened, releasing all the lovely tasty ‘bits’ from the bottom of the pan as you go. Pour in a splash more wine, and stir in a spoonful of fruit jelly – I used the crab apple and chilli jelly I had in the fridge – and season with salt and pepper to taste. Carve the lamb thickly and return it to the roasting tray, mixing with all the lovely juices before serving with all the trimmings. I just adore a dollop of vinegary sweet apple and mint jelly with roast lamb.

Perfect roast lamb?

This is a great *great* roast lamb recipe. It’s the addition of the anchovies, and the lovely rich winey gravy, which set it head and shoulders above my previous efforts. As it happens, I’ve just rediscovered anchovies, and a couple of tins have taken up residence in my store cupboard for the first time in years. Used here, they add a luscious salty-savouriness to the lamb without any noticeable fishiness, so don’t be afraid of them! The gravy is simply fabulous, with the addition of the fruit jelly really balancing and melding the flavours.

I can only recommend that next time you’re roasting a leg or shoulder of lamb, you do it this way. I know I will!

**
Meat book - inner page viewThe River Cottage Meat Book, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Hodder and Stoughton, 2004.
ISBN 978-0-340-826355.
Hardcover, 544 pages. RRP £25.

[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.]

I bought this book in hardback, when it first came out almost a decade ago, and it has not disappointed, becoming one of the old-faithfuls of my cookbook collection. Not simply a recipe collection, this book contains lots of information about different meats and livestock, cuts, and preparation techniques, and deserves a place on the shelf of every committed carnivore!

Fearnley-Whittingstall is a particular champion of cheaper and less fashionable cuts of meat, and a great advocate for ethical meat-eating. The Meat book, then, is a great source of information on animal welfare and farming – and in these respects, inevitably, doesn’t always make easy reading – but also a very useful resource if you’re trying to eat well on a budget without compromising on flavour or on your principles. Unless you’re a committed vegetarian, I recommend you add this book to your wish-list if you don’t own it already!

‘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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Venison Pie, from Darina Allen’s ‘Forgotten Skills of Cooking’ – Cooking the Books, week 1

“Hi, my name is Kate, and I have a cookbook problem…”

Some of my library

I just can’t resist them. A nice cookbook is such a marvellous object, it’s a thing of beauty, solidly bound and gloriously illustrated, as well as containing the promise – such promise! – of tasty food to come. So, I buy cookbooks (and people buy them for me, too, of course), and continue to buy them until they overflow our bookshelves and end up living in piles under coffee tables and stacked against the walls of our little cottage. As I said, it’s a problem. Last year sometime, I had a quick count up – and stopped counting when I got close to 100.

All those books – all those different recipes – and yet it’s relatively rare that I cook something completely new. For all the usual reasons – busy lives, habit, and having a really good set of family-staple recipes we come back to time after time. But it’s good to push out of your culinary comfort zone – for how else do we learn? – and with such a wonderful resource at my fingertips (and, sometimes, underfoot!) I really have no excuses!

So to welcome in 2014 – and in lieu of a New Year’s resolution – I’ve decided to set myself the challenge, once a week if I possibly can, to cook a brand new recipe form one of my cookbooks, and write it up for the blog, adding a little review of the book itself. Obviously such a silly endeavour needs a name, so I think we’ll call it ‘Cooking The Books’.

Inside-page viewToday’s recipe is Venison Pie, and was chosen because Hubby found some lovely wild venison at the Farmers’ Market. The recipe is from Darina Allen’s beautiful big hardback cookbook ‘Forgotten Skills of Cooking’, which came to me as a gift from my Dad last year.

I’ve scaled down the quantities because there are only two of us (the original recipe serves 8), and made a couple of minor modifications to account for ingredient availability. In general I’m trying to stay as close to the original recipes as I can – or what’s the point, really? This will, inevitably, affect my choice of recipes  – I really don’t want this challenge to end up filling my kitchen cupboards and fridge with half-used packs of ingredients that just go to waste! Actually, thinking about it, this is a big factor in why I don’t often cook from cookbooks. But enough housekeeping – let’s get on with the cooking!

Start by preparing your venison. Darina’s recipe calls for venison shoulder, cut into pieces, but I had a ~1lb pack of already-cut stewing venison. It’s worth taking a little time to trim out any particularly obvious gristly bits from your meat at this stage. Also try to pull out any deer hairs you discover in your meat (which isn’t a particularly unusual thing to find with wild venison, because of the way it’s shot, handled and butchered).

Now mix the meat into a marinade consisting of –

  • IngredientsA small glass of red wine (use something you’ll want to drink – not only is this always excellent advice for cooking with wine, but there’ll be another 5 glasses left in the bottle!)
  • A small onion (I used a red one, but a yellow one, or even a couple of shallots would be fine) halved and sliced.
  • A bouquet garni consisting of a bay leaf, sprig of thyme and some parsley stalks
  • A tablespoon each of brandy and olive oil
  • Salt and cracked black pepper to season (I used two big pinches of pepper and one of salt)

In the marinadeIdeally you might allow this to marinade overnight, but even a few hours will make a big difference. Cover the bowl and place it in the fridge. If, like me, you’re going to use frozen prepared puff pastry to finish the pie, now would be a good time to take it out of the freezer, and either place in the fridge to defrost overnight, or out on the side in the kitchen if it needs to defrost faster than that. Pastry is always better worked reasonably cold,so once it’s defrosted, put it in the fridge so it’s nice and firm.

Once your meat has marinaded to your satisfaction (I gave it three hours), drain the meat in a colander over a bowl, retaining the marinading liquid.  While it’s draining, get together the ingredients and equipment you’ll need for the next stage –

  • Home-cured bacon lardons80-100g of dry cured streaky bacon or pancetta, chopped into lardons or cubes. I used my home-cured ‘Christmas’ bacon (with bay, juniper, allspice and molasses in the cure, lightly smoked), which I happen to have around at the moment. It’s really worth seeking out good dry cured bacon if you’re not going to make your own!
  • A small onion, chopped reasonably finely
  • Half a carrot, diced reasonably small
  • A small clove of garlic
  • 200ml of beef stock (I used a stock cube – I know, I know…)

Venison coated in flourPat the pieces of meat dry with kitchen paper and coat them in seasoned flour (I needed about 2 tablespoons). I picked the meat out of the sliced onions, but this probably isn’t necessary. This bit of the process is pretty faffy, to be honest, and is something I tend not to bother with when making stews. Let me just say, though, it produces the most wonderful, silky, rich gravy, so I may be using this trick a lot more in the future!

Meanwhile, in a frying pan, fry off the bacon until it starts to brown and donates some of that lovely bacon fat. Once it’s done, transfer the bacon to a big saucepan.  Now brown the floured venison in the bacon fat. You may need to add a little extra olive oil. Transfer this to the pan once there’s some nice colour, and fry off the onions, carrot and garlic for a few minutes before adding them to the pan as well.

Ready to simmerI couldn’t see why I’d waste the nice sliced onion from the marinade (and the recipe doesn’t appear to specify what should be done with it), so into the frying that went until it softened nicely, and joined the rest of the ingredients in the saucepan.

Now we’re called to deglaze the pan with the wine marinade, and transfer this to the saucepan with all the meat and vegetables before topping up the pan with the beef stock (pre-heated, if it’s proper stock) until the meat and vegetables are just covered. I added a bit of extra water and a slosh more wine to make up the volume. Finally add back the bouquet garni from the marinade, cover the pan and simmer very gently on a low heat for about an hour and a half (or a bit longer if required), until the venison is beautifully tender. Keep a reasonably close eye on it, stirring occasionally, and make sure it doesn’t catch on the bottom of the pan.

Once you’re happy the venison is perfectly cooked, you can take it off the heat. Time to add the last few bits, which are –

  • Saute sliced mushroomsA good handful of mushrooms. Darina wants wild ones if possible. I managed to get some oyster mushrooms and something a little bit cep-looking calling itself a ‘king oyster’ at our local supermarket, I added a couple of chestnut button mushrooms.
  • A handful of cooked chestnuts – these were the vaccuum-packed sort, left over from Christmas. The recipe says these should be omitted if you’re making a pie rather than a stew, but I couldn’t miss the opportunity to use them up!
  • A few teaspoons of homemade apricot jam. The recipe wanted redcurrant jelly, but I didn’t have any. I have a feeling crab apple jelly would work very well here, too.
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper if required to season.
  • And not forgetting your block of defrosted puff pastry!

Wash out your frying pan and heat up a couple of spoonfuls of olive oil. Saute the mushrooms until colouring slightly, and once they’re done, add them to the pan with the chestnuts, cut in halves. Now taste to check your seasoning. The recipe suggests you might slike to add some redcurrant jelly, or a pinch of sugar, or possibly even some lemon juice at this stage depending on how things are coming together.

Filling in the dishI did find there was a slightly lacking sweet / acid note so substituted about three teaspoons of my homemade French apricot jam (avoiding the whole bits of fruit), one at a time and tasting carefully in between. It’s slightly miraculous, actually – makes such a huge difference to the final flavour. Add a bit more salt and pepper at this stage if required.

Edged with pastryYou could serve it now and call it a venison stew, and it would be wonderful with mashed potatoes on a cold winter’s night. But we’re going the whole hog and turning it into a pie, so transfer the filling into your chosen pie tin – I’ve used my gorgeous, very traditional, white and blue enamelware dish. Get your block of puff pastry out of the fridge and roll it out.

Finished pastry lidThe book suggests a way of attaching the pie crust in a two-stage process, fist attaching a strip of pastry all around the edge brushing with  water beneath and on top, before adding the pastry lid, trimming the excess, scalloping the edge with the handle of a spoon, and egg-wash the surface, adding some decoration if you wish.

Pierce the centre of the crust and put into a piping hot oven for 10-15 minutes before turning the heat down to about 190C until the crust is golden and the contents bubbling hot. If your oven has a hot-spot (most do) don’t forget to turn the pie around at some point to keep the colour even.

Hot from the oven

That’s it – isn’t it beautiful? Time to serve with your choice of accompaniments. Hubby requested roast potatoes, so we had those and steamed broccoli to go with it.

'Serving suggestion'What can I say? It looks pretty spanking, and tastes glorious. I love the way the late addition of the sauteed mushrooms means they retain their separate flavour, texture and identity in the dish. The venison is perfectly tender, the gravy is rich and thick and full of  beautifully balanced flavour. These quantities will feed four, I would say.

I heartily recommend you make this pie!

This is undoubtedly a time-consuming and relatively labour intensive recipe, with four separate preparation stages. Consequently it generates quite a bit of washing up, too – I counted a saucepan & lid, a frying pan, a pie dish, two mixing bowls, a colander, chopping board and knives, garlic crusher, pastry board (or your kitchen worktop), rolling pin, an assortment of spoons of different sizes, a spatula, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few bits. But nothing unusual and no gadgets or gizmos required. I started marinading the venison just after lunch, and we eventually ate around 7.

Serving timeIt’s a reasonably complex recipe, but no part of it is particularly technically demanding and no special skills are required – anyone who can follow a slightly complicated set of instructions should be able to cope! While there are a lot of ingredients, they’re quite ‘standard’ ones and pretty much all of them were already in my fridge and kitchen cupboards, which was a big bonus.

Perhaps something a bit quicker and simpler for next week..?

**
Cover shot‘Forgotten Skills of Cooking’ by Darina Allen.
Kyle Cathie Ltd, 2009. ISBN 978-1-85626-788-5.
Hardcover, full colour, 600 pages.

[Full disclosure: This is my book, which was a gift from my Dad. 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 is a fabulous book, full of unexpected surprises – I only realised after I’d written about the copper-cleaning power of salt and lemon juice the other day that this is one of the tips in the back of this wide-ranging tome! As well as a really good range of hearty traditional recipes, both sweet and savoury, with a focus on quality local seasonal ingredients, there are – amongst many other things! – instructions for buttermaking and producing your own clotted cream, curing and smoking techniques for meat and fish, yeasted and sourdough bread baking, and even advice on choosing livestock. It’s also a beautiful book, richly illustrated and nicely printed, which never hurts.

I would say that it deserves a place on any cookbook shelf, particularly so if, like me, you’re more interested in traditional farmhouse, country food and techniques  than in ‘cheffy’, restaurant-style cooking.

‘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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Overheard In The Salon – “You can get bacon from a butchers??”

Hair Salon NeopI had my hair cut last week.  This is only worthy of mention because it’s at best a bi-annual event for me.  Sitting there in your tinfoil bonnet, of course, there’s nothing to do except listen to the other customers and staff, or flick through weeks-old celebrity gossip magazines.  I chose the former.  Here’s the highlight of what I overheard, between two of the hairdressers during their tea break –

“So, they’ve said about processed food, you’re only supposed to eat one rasher of bacon a day”
“What? Bacon’s not processed food?”
“Yeah it is.  The bacon in the pack in your fridge, that’s processed food.  But if you get it from a butcher’s, it’s not.”
“You can get bacon from a butchers??”

Donner KebabIn the news that morning, the reports of a big impressive prospective mortality study involving analysis of participants’ consumption of processed meats.  It’s an odd category, that they’ve chosen – to include all cured and salted products, sausages, donner kebabs, but not all burgers.  Confusing enough that my hairdressers had a fairly poor grasp of the parameters, anyway.   Better perhaps if they’d restricted themselves to cured & smoked products, or gone wider and included all meat products that don’t arrive on the plate as recognisable pieces of whole muscle protein, without intervention beyond cooking.  For me, there are too many variables.

Cured meats contain salt in quite large quantities – of course they do, they’re salt-cured!  So does a bag of salt & vinegar crisps.  They will often contain nitrites – but then so does celery.  Mince-based processed meat products are generally higher in fat – they’re made from fattier cuts, and extra is often added as a bulking agent – but it’s perfectly possible to make a sausage from just minced pork shoulder, a bit of rusk or breadcrumb and some herbs and seasoning.  And it’s also perfectly possible to eat a very fatty, salty, meat-based meal that isn’t ‘processed’ in the slightest.

As with all giant lifestyle studies, the confounding factors are going to be enormous, too.  Do people who eat more processed meat eat less fresh fruit and vegetables, statistically speaking? Probably.  Are they heavier or lighter smokers or drinkers than the comparison population?  Attempts will have been made to correct for all of this, of course, but these are pretty blunt statistical instruments.

Mortality studies are always a problem for me.  I hate to break it to you, but your risk of mortality, my risk of mortality, the lifetime risk of mortality for everyone (and everything) currently alive on this planet, is 100%.  So you start looking at timeframe-mortality risks.  1 year.  5 year.  20 year.  The main risk factor for timeframe mortality?  Age, obviously – if you’re 80 going into a 20 year mortality study, things aren’t looking so good for you coming out the other side.  Then genetics – the intrinsic, inherited factors in your biology over which you have no control.  Then, I suppose, occupation and activities – if you’re a commercial deep diver, an alaskan crab fisherman, or like to race motorbikes or fly small aircraft, then these are going to have some effect.  A very very *very* long way down the list is what you had for breakfast!

Processed meat selectionMy hairdressers are right, though, about supermarket franken-bacon.  Give me proper dry-cured smoke-smoked bacon or ham any day, rather than the nasties that come in supermarket packs, injected as they are with a brine already including a ‘natural’ liquid smoke extract (no, really) among many other exciting additives.  Say no to that nasty leakage of milky phosphate water, and get some decent stuff from your local butcher (surprising an idea as that might seem to some!).  Say no to reconstituted ‘ham’ all gristle and mis-matched re-formed fat and muscle fibres.

If you needed any more reasons to want to avoid processed ‘junk’ foods, after the ongoing horsemeat-adulteration saga, look no further than this absolutely horrifying NYT article on The Extraordinary Science of Junk Food.

Of course we should all be trying to eat a balanced diet, mostly of fresh, local, good quality ingredients.  We should probably all, in the affluent West (and increasingly affluent East) be eating less meat, if we want to feed the world and pass the planet on to future generations in any kind of state at all.  But there are so many better reasons for that than trying to extend our survival.  Do it for the sake of good food, good flavour, and do it for the health of our environment.

Bacon for breakfast

So relax, enjoy your good quality butchers’ or home-cured bacons, hams, salt beef and bangers, and kick the supermarket junk.  Choose fresh, choose seasonal, choose local, and choose foods grown and reared, prepared and cooked with care, instead of being manufactured in anonymous processing plants at the end of a convoluted international commodity supply chain, down to a price selected by supermarket accountants.  I don’t see that you can go very far wrong!

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Horsing Around – the horse meat burger scandal

Well, I’ve had a very restful almost-month off from blogging (hah!) but holidays can’t last forever, and it’s time to get back in the saddle…  An apposite metaphor, as it happens, as the foodie world has been up in arms this week about the horse meat burger scandal, affecting economy ‘beef’ burgers for sale in several British and Irish supermarkets.

'Cheval de Qualite'Let me start by saying, I don’t share many of my compatriots’ ‘shock-horror’ reactions at the idea of eating horse.  I’ve eaten horse meat in the past, and as it happens, it’s really rather good!  Horse meat is a perfectly normal part of the diet of many of our continental neighbours, and, when raised considerately, transported thoughtfully, slaughtered humanely, and inspected and prepared carefully, really presents no greater ethical problem than eating any other animal.

Yes, I’ve heard the cries of protest, that horses are sensitive, inquisitive, sociable animals.  So, I’m sorry to tell you, are cattle, sheep, and yes, even pigs and chickens.

Still reading? Good.

Why then the upset about the adulteration of economy ‘beefburgers’ with horse meat?  If it’s perfectly sound, healthy meat, why the howls of protest?  Surely we should be encouraging the incorporation of a cheap, healthy protein source into low-cost products?

Well, as always, it’s a bit more complicated than that!

First, there are the cultural considerations, of course.  We don’t ‘traditionally’ eat horse in Britain & Ireland. The ancient Celts may even have worshipped them. Whatever the root of it, for most Britons horses are pets and working animals, not food animals – much closer to the way we perceive dogs than the way we consider cattle, and we have a strong, reflex, cultural taboo against eating them. Of course, that doesn’t make their meat unsound, or unsafe, we just prefer not to eat them, in much the way that some people prefer not to eat shellfish. We need to take a deep breath and realise that this view is pure cultural preference, nothing more.

Tethered HorsesSecondly, it’s fair to concede that there are some reasonable concerns about the welfare of horses in the European food chain.  Often kept tethered or hobbled during life, they can then be transported by road over long distances under less than ideal conditions – overcrowded, and without food and water – before being slaughtered in a process more adapted to cattle, which may fail fully to take into consideration their particular needs as highly-adapted ‘flight’ animals.

There are, of course, equivalently serious concerns with many of our food animals – the over-bred over-producing black and white dairy cow who in many cases can no longer meet or control her own metabolic state and requirements, resulting in chronic stress and ill-health; industrially-reared pigs kept in denuded, overcrowded environments, on mesh floors, with a legacy of aggression, lameness and respiratory diseases; and who could forget the iconic battery hen, whose fate may or may not be  improved these days by the introduction of ‘enriched’ small group cages.  The bottom line is that we treat many of the animals whose lives are lived to feed us less than entirely well.  While the welfare of horses before and during slaughter can sometimes leave a lot to be desired, we need to accept that they are hardly a special case.

Thirdly, and most relevantly here, really, is the question of adulteration.  The horse meat was not declared as an ingredient in the burgers concerned (neither was pork, which was also detected as a contaminant in many of the beef burgers examined in the FSAI findings).  It’s quite plausible that the immediate manufacturers of the burgers (the Irish plant squishing them into burger shapes and packing them into a variety of wrappers) had no idea it was there, since it’s likely that the majority of the ingredients received at their premises would have been less than entirely recognisable.  I gather that the leading theory is that the horse protein entered the production process as ‘filler’ – mechanically recovered meat from carcasses which bears an awfully close resemblance to the ‘pink slime’ of recent North American food-panic.  ‘Economy’ grade burgers are permitted to contain just under 50% recognisable carcasse meat – the sort that can be removed from the bones with knives during processing – ‘fillers’, ‘extenders’, rusk and so on make up the other half.

The filler in these burgers may very well have been imported from a third country (so could the rest of the beef, for that matter, and the burgers will still have been labelled ‘Made in Ireland’, which is its very own joke on the question of provenance!).  If it was, then we can hope that the horse meat came through the official slaughter and inspection processes and had been duly found to be fit for human consumption.  Let’s give the manufacturers of the filler the benefit of the doubt and assume someone accidentally ‘slipped’ and a horse carcass made it onto the ‘beef’ MRM line.  Of course, one might have to wonder how many horse carcasses were ‘slipping’ into the beef filler line to give an estimated 29% total composition of horse meat in a burger required to be very nearly 50% ‘real’ beef.  Mmm.  Incidentally, the ‘real’ beef percentage is permitted to includes fat and sinew ‘naturally associated’ with the lean muscle tissue.  I’m going to bet the people doing the carcass trimming aren’t getting paid to leave any of that behind!

Boucherie ChevalineThe food safety concerns only really start to stack up if we consider that the horse meat may not have come in via a licensed slaughter and inspection process.  We do in fact have a small number of licensed horse slaughterhouses in the UK and Ireland – their meat is exported, for the most part.  [Interesting to note, is that it may not be incorporated into pet food intended for sale in the UK – which is required only to include meat and meat by-products from animals passed fit for human consumption, and which are traditionally consumed in the country of sale.]

For some years now, all horses in the EU have been required to have horse ‘passports’.  These identify the individual horse, usually by a combination of described markings and hair-coat characteristics (though sometimes via microchip), and contain a variety of important details about the horse and its health status, including vaccinations.

There is a page in the passport which contains a declaration that the horse is not intended for human consumption.  Some horse owners immediately endorse this declaration for their animals, presumably on emotional grounds, but some, more pragmatically, wait until the issue becomes relevant.  The relevance is one of veterinary care, and administration of medicines in particular.

A number of the veterinary medicines in common use in horses – especially in the UK – are specifically prohibited from use in animals intended for human consumption, because of their potential to cause significant ill-health in humans should they enter the food chain.  The cannot be administered to horses unless they have been declared to be barred from the food chain.  Some are carcinogens – substances that may cause cancers – some can cause blood dyscrasias – abnormalities of blood cell production which can be irreversible and sometimes fatal.  Potentially nasty stuff.  There is undoubtedly an argument for these medicines being withdrawn from use in horses full-stop, however this needs to be balanced against their genuine value and utility in maintaining the health, welfare, and working lives of scores of horses whose entry into the human food chain was never in question.

It’s often noted that the system of horse passports is a bit ‘soft’, with multiple issuing authorities – in particular, since there’s no central register of identification marks, there is actually relatively little to prevent an owner ‘mislaying’ a horse’s passport and procuring a clean replacement.

'Mangez du Cheval'Should – and I think this is unlikely – the horse meat in the burger have been slaughtered ‘irregularly’ in Ireland and not subjected to the normal pre-slaughter and post-mortem health inspections, and checking of documentation, then this would open the possibility of entry of unsound or pharmaceutically-contaminated meat into the human food chain.

Actually, it’s quite likely that the horse-meat burger scandal presented no risk to health – or, should I say, no additional risk to health compared to these economy ‘beef’ burgers if they’d been manufactured according to their specification.  The more processed your food, the greater the supermarket buyers’ downward pressure on costs, the more links in the chain, the more ingredients in the list, the more hands (quite literally) it has passed through on its way to you, the greater the chances both for accidental contamination, and of intentional adulteration in pursuit of a profit.

'Healthy Living'This is the crux, for me.  Highly processed, cheap meat products like these economy burgers are just plain nasty. They taste nasty. They’re nasty to your health. And they’re undoubtedly nasty for the poor animals that have been reared to a price point eventually to be minced up into them.

I make little apology for my view that we should not be selling and eating food like this.  Yes, I’m aware that there are people out there – elderly or disabled, living on benefits – for whom these highly processed economy meat products are the ‘best’ they can afford.  I’m afraid I don’t believe that we have a right to eat meat every meal, or every day.  In fact, we’d all – even those of us lucky enough to be able to afford it if we want to – be healthier if we chose not to, never mind the benefits to the environment and animal welfare which would result from fewer animals being raised with greater care.  If you can’t afford, or can’t source, a recognisable piece of an animal that has been raised with care and slaughtered with consideration, you should not be eating meat today.  Not all good meat is expensive, there’s a very long tradition, in the UK as everywhere else, in making great food from bargain cuts.  Yes, I appreciate that there’s a huge deficit in cooking skills, particularly among my generation, which means many wouldn’t know where to start if presented with a brisket, a shin of beef, or a breast of lamb – all quite marvellous, cheap, real healthy cuts of meat – but surely *this* is what we need to address, rather than filling the gap by selling people adulterated, industrially produced convenience-papp in brightly coloured cardboard cartons.  We should not be eating this.  No one should be eating this.  It’s just nasty.

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Stocking Fillers – perfect home-made giblet stock – Blog Advent (24)

We made it, WE MADE IT!  First of all, a huge thank-you to those of you who’ve followed me through this little blogging adventure, for your kind comments, ‘likes’, and contributions.  We did it!  24 days of daily blogs for Advent.  Well, it’s Christmas tomorrow, NORAD is tracking Santa towards us as I type (best get to bed before he gets here!), the Boxing Day ham is boiled and glazed, the gifts are wrapped, and the giblet stock is made.

Giblets are so often overlooked.  The grotty little plastic bag that accompanies any ‘special’ roasting bird (sadly now completely absent from generic supermarket chickens) and which, I fear, most people will be throwing away some time tomorrow morning.  Offal is so horribly out of fashion that an awful lot of people – certainly those who aren’t of the older generation – have no idea where to start.

Last year, on Christmas morning, while I was waiting for my guests to wake up, I blogged my ‘how to’ for giblet stock.  I didn’t have any photos at the time, so here it is again, in the hope it’ll be useful to some of you, re-edited and with some new photographs to help you along!

If you’ve bought a bird for roasting today, there’s a good chance it’s come with a little plastic packet of ‘bits’.  Whatever you do, don’t throw them away!

All the gibletsThese bits are the giblets – the offal – from top-left, clockwise –  the neck (in one or two pieces), the gizzard, the liver, and the heart.  The gizzard is a thick, muscular structure with two hard abrasive grinding plates that the bird uses to crush up corn and other food items to make them digestible.  

Giblet stock is quick, simple, and makes the most wonderful Christmas gravy.

I have a goose this year, but the following applies just as well if you have a chicken or turkey.  Personally, I use the goose heart and liver in one of my stuffings, so only the neck and gizzard are available for the stock.  But if you’re not going to use the heart and liver this way, just chop them roughly and add them to the stock-pot with the rest of your giblet meat.

Stock vegetables, herbs and spicesIn addition to the giblets, you need the following:

  • Stock vegetables.  I use one onion (red or white) and a couple of carrots.  I don’t like celery so I don’t use it, even though it’s the often-quoted third member of the stock vegetable trinity.  But if you do like it, you should add a couple of sticks.
  • A bouquet garni.  This is just a posh culinary term for some herbs. I use some bay leaves, rosemary, and sage, along with some whole peppercorns.  Dried herbs are fine, if you don’t have fresh to hand.
  • Water.  Glug of white wine (optional).
  • A splash of olive oil.

Prepared gizzardsPrepare your gizzard by cutting away and discarding the hard plates (use a small sharp knife inserted below and parallel to the plates).  It can be a bit tricky to get your knife through the outer membrane, but once it’s in, as long as it’s sharp enough, you can just run it behind the plate.  Discard the hard plate material, along with any grotty-looking offcuts.  Then, simply chop the rest of the meat roughly into cubes.

Brown giblets and vegetablesAdd a splash of olive oil to a nice big saucepan, and brown the neck and gizzard meat, and then add the roughly chopped onion and carrots and sautee for a couple of minutes.  Now add about a litre of water (and the splash of white wine if you want) and the bouquet garni, bring to the boil and simmer for about an hour.  

Stock, before simmeringOnce you’re happy with your stock, strain it, discarding the solids, and return the stock to the pot and boil again until reduced in volume by half.  That’s it.  Set aside in the refrigerator until you make your gravy (the stock will easily keep overnight – so make it on Christmas Eve if you have time). You won’t regret it!

Well, here we are – the advent candle is all but burned down, and the Blog Advent journey is over.  I’d love to say it’s been an undiluted pleasure – more than one evening I’ve got home from work, sat down after dinner, and muttered something about ‘still having to do the sodding blog!’, but it’s great to know that I can do it, even at this time of year.

Advent - day 24

I plan to have a few days off now – I think Hubby’s feeling like a bit of a blog-widow!  I wish you all a wonderful Christmas (don’t forget that tomorrow is only the start of the 12 Days of Christmas, which go on until Epiphany – it’s not called Twelfth Night for nothing!), and after the dust has settled I’ll have a few updates, and things which are still secrets for now, to share with you.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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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Pressing The Flesh – home-made coarse farmhouse pate – Blog Advent (23)

While I suppose a lot of people have their eyes firmly on Christmas Day at the moment – family and friends, food and drink, gifts and treats – I’m also looking through and out the other side, to Boxing Day.  Probably if I’m honest I put more time and effort – certainly ahead of time – into the food on Boxing Day than I do to the food on Christmas Day itself.  After all, Christmas dinner, in the end, more or less boils down to a roast dinner with pretensions!

Boxing Day dinner so often is Christmas leftovers – but in my house it’s a feast of cold cuts.  The ham, which I smoked earlier this month, is slowly defrosting ready for cooking tomorrow. I have a handful of lovely cheeses, all ready.  The spiced plum chutney I made in the summer is now nicely matured.  The sourdough, of course, I made yesterday.  There may be some leftover goose, depending on our appetites.  There’s a game pie, which we collected today from our local farm shop butcher.  And to complete the feast, of course, we’ll be wanting some pate.  I’ve always bought this in the past, and always been slightly disappointed compared to the rest of the wonderful spread.

This recipe is mostly inspired by Delia Smiths’ recipe for Coarse Country Pate, and by the Farmhouse Pate recipe in Raymond Blanc’s classic ‘Cooking For Friends’ which I picked up in the Oxfam shop last time I was in Launceston.

Pate ingredientsTo make this pate, you will require –

  • 800g of really good quality minced pork.  Mine was a mix of minced shoulder and minced belly pork from the butcher. The unidentified packs of minced pork in the supermarket will work, of course, but I suspect at the expense of flavour and quality.
  • 275g of smoked streaky bacon.  I used my home-cure smoked Christmas bacon – so I suppose you could substitute the most expensive artisanal pancetta money can buy… not that I’m biased!  More seriously, make sure it’s dry cured, you don’t want nasty phosphate water from smoke-flavour brine-injected bacon leaking out into your pate!
  • 225g of liver.  Strictly the recipes call for pigs’ liver, but I couldn’t get any this morning I used lambs.  Actually I prefer lambs’ liver, it’s softer and creamier in flavour, but it will be interesting to see how this affects the flavours.
  • To season, 20 each of juniper berries and mixed peppercorns, a teaspoon of salt (I used smoked salt, but this isn’t compulsory), a pinch of mace, two crushed cloves of garlic, and a heaped teaspoon of chopped fresh thyme leaves (dry would do, but make it a level teaspoon).
  • To lubricate, a small glass of dry white wine, and a single measure of brandy.
  • Finally, to decorate, some bay leaves, a few more juniper berries, and a couple of slices of streaky bacon.
  • A 2lb loaf tin, or terrine, and a roasting tin big enough to contain it.

SeasoningsMince up the bacon in a food processor, leaving a bit of texture to it (how much texture is up to you!).  Then, seperately, mince up the liver, again to leave a bit of texture though this will go smoother faster, so watch carefully!  Combine all of these together in a mixing bowl, do it thoroughly and for goodness’ sake use your hands!  Now crush the juniper berries and peppercorns in a pestle and mortar along with the salt.  Add the herbs and spices to the meats, and again mix as thoroughly as you can.  Finally, add the liquids, and mix again.

LubricantsSomething magical happens when the wine and brandy mix with the meats – what started out a bit like a big bowl of sausage meat suddenly becomes silky and the aromas, oh my! Allow the bowl to rest for an hour or so in a coolish place.

Arrange the bay leaves and juniper berries in the bottom of your loaf tin.  Now take your two rashers of streaky bacon, and place then between two sheets of baking parchment.  Roll them out really thin with a rolling pin. They will easily double in width, and a bit more.  To get them into the loaf tin, I cut away all but the parchment under them, and push this rasher-side-down into the bottom of the loaf tin before carefully peeling away the paper.

Bay leaves & juniper berries   Streaky bacon  Rolled out streaky bacon

Now pack all the pate mix into the tin, levelling it carefully.  Put the loaf tin into the roasting tin and fill this half way up with boiling water, and put the whole lot in an oven at 150 degrees for an hour and three quarters.

Bacon in tin  Before cooking  After cooking

The block of pate will shrink back from the sides of the tin during cooking, and will be surrounded by fat and jelly juices. Let it stand until nearly cool, and then it’s time to press the pate.  It’s pressed for two reasons – firstly, to compact it and reduce the risk of it crumbling when you slice it, but secondly – and just as importantly for me! – to compact the bottom so you can turn it out neatly!  It smells *wonderful*, just as I would have hoped.  To press it, I covered the top with a double layer of tinfoil, put an old tupperware container on top, and then piled it up with all the weight I could muster.  So, four tins of beans, and four litres of fruit juice ought to do the trick!

Pressing the pate

Once it’s had a really good squeeze, and cooled right down to room temperature, put the pate and whatever weight you can conveniently keep on top of it, move it into the fridge, where it will keep quite happily in its juices and rest and improve for three days before serving.

It’s a new recipe to me, so I’ll be back to tell you how it worked out!  But the smell, oh my, I can’t see it being anything other than lovely!  With crusty (maybe toasted, even?) home-made sourdough.  And pickles!

Advent - day 23

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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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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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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