BBQ Tikka Chicken, from Feasting on Flames by Annette Yates – Cooking the Books, week 18

BBQ season is here! The evenings seem noticeably longer, almost every day, and it’s warm enough to hang around outside until sunset. And as if that wasn’t enough, it’s a bank holiday weekend here in the UK. So really, I had to go to the cookbook collection to find some BBQ cooking inspiration.

Finally insert skewers to hold shapeI have modified this recipe slightly – the original calls for six bone-in breast pieces, but I much prefer to do a whole bird. You could portion it up and cook the pieces separately, but I think doing it whole, as a spatchcock, is much more fun!

To make this, you will require –

  • One whole chicken, prepared as a spatchcock or divided into portions
  • 6 tbsp natural yoghurt
  • 1 small onion
  • Tikka BBQ ingredients2 large garlic cloves (I used smoked cloves, as I had them)
  • 2 tbsp garam masala
  • Zest and juice of one lemon
  • A thumb-size piece of fresh root ginger
  • 1 tsp malt vinegar
  • 1 tsp paprika (I used quite a mild, smoked paprika – you could use a hot paprika for a spicier result)
  • 1 tsp salt

Ingredients before mixingFinely chop your onion, mince or crush the garlic cloves, remove the zest from the lemon with a grater or zester (or use a vegetable peeler and slice the peel finely), and grate the root ginger finely. For a smoother result, you could put the onion, garlic, lemon zest and ginger through a food processor to get a thick paste.

Combine all the ingredients in a large wide bowl, and mix.

Make incisions into chickenTake your chicken, and make several deep slices into the breast and thigh meat, to help the marinade permeate. Before you start rubbing the marinade into the chicken, it can be useful to set a small bowlful aside for basting onto the chicken during cooking – it’s important to set it aside now, if you’re going to do this, as the rest of the marinade is going to end up mixed with raw chicken juices, and probably shouldn’t be put back on later in the cooking process!

Rub in marinade and set asideRub the marinade all over your chicken, top and bottom, and into all the slices, cover, and set aside in the fridge for at least a couple of hours (longer is fine!).

You can either cook this chicken entirely on the BBQ, or do most of the cooking in the oven, and then finish it off over the coals.

Cook over charcoalThe latter is a great idea if you’re not confident in cooking large items on the BBQ – I would roast it on a rack for about 1hr at 180C before finishing it over the coals. You can check that it’s essentially cooked with a meat thermometer before transferring to the BBQ grill. For a crispy skin, BBQ the ‘inside’ first, and then finish it skin-side down. Dividing the cooking like this is also really handy if you’re cooking for lots of people, as it leaves the BBQ grill free for cooking other items in the meantime!

Beautiful crispy skinFor full BBQ cooking, I like to start skin side down, turn over after about 20 minutes, and then turn back skin-side down to finish. Keep the chicken covered during cooking, with a tent of heavy tin foil or a BBQ lid (if you have one). We have a big old aluminium wok lid which is great for covering things while they cook on the BBQ. Keeping the chicken covered means it cooks much more quickly and evenly.

Divide up into portionsIf you’re going to cook this way, do use a meat thermometer to make sure your chicken is properly cooked through – you’re looking for a minimum internal temperature of 75C at the centre of the thickest part of the breast. If you’re at all unsure of your ability to find the thickest part, then shoot for a slightly higher temperature to give you a margin of safety.

Once your chicken is cooked, divide up into portions using a sharp knife – for me, half a breast portion and a thigh or drumstick per person is a nice serving size. Serve with rice and a green salad dressed with a nice mustardy vinaigrette.

Serve your tikka chicken

This is a really subtly flavoured, aromatic tikka and will suit those with spice-sensitive tastebuds. If you like yours a bit hotter, use a hot paprika and add a whole finely chopped fresh or dried chilli (or the appropriate amount of dried chilli flakes).

**
Feasting on Flames - coverFeasting on Flames, by Annette Yates
The Apple Press (Quintet Publishing Ltd), 1998
ISBN 978-1-85076-954-0
Soft cover, 128 pages, full colour. RRP £8.99.

[Full disclosure: This is our book, which we 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 paperback cookbook pretty much does what it says on the tin, with a good variety of fish, poultry, meat and vegetable dishes, and even some deserts, for cooking on the BBQ. These are accompanied by a collection of side dishes, and some menu suggestions, making this a pretty decent one-stop shop for anyone who wants to extend their BBQ cooking beyond the classic sausage, burger and drumstick fare we’re all so familiar with!

Feasting on Flames - page viewI like the fact that these recipes (like the tikka recipe above) are based on fresh ingredients, rather than taking the short-cuts of using prepared sauces and pastes, but it does mean the ingredient lists end up being quite long. They’re not unusual ingredients, though, on the whole, and should be in most people’s store cupboards. These are pretty quick, simple recipes, which cover a wide range of tastes and cuisines.

Is it a must-have book? No, probably not. It does what you’d expect, pretty competently, without any real ‘standout’ moments. There are, I imagine, many like it. If you get the chance to pick it up cheaply, by all means do, but I probably wouldn’t specifically seek it out. If it’s already on your shelf, and has been a bit neglected, maybe dig it out again and give it another look?

‘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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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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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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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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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!

Read more DIY Cold Smoker & Home-Curing posts >>

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Opinion – thinking about animals as food, and food as animals

Look at this little lamb – isn’t he just gorgeous? All floppy ears, crinkly coat and frantic tail.

Growing lamb

Now think about eating him – a wonderful slow-roasted shoulder, perhaps, sweet and tender, running with glorious juice and served with a dollop of lovely mint sauce, or a couple of little chops, grilled to your liking with boiled potatoes & greens.

How does that juxtaposition make you feel?  Be honest now…

Hungry? If so, congratulations. You’ve passed!  But perhaps, if you’re honest, it makes you a bit uncomfortable? Unsettled? Maybe even faintly disgusted?  If you’re a vegetarian, you get to leave now, if you like, but if you’re a meat eater then you really should stay and read on.

So many of us today are so divorced from our food, and how it’s produced.  Its appearance on the supermarket shelf, all sanitised and shrink wrapped, so we’re not even used to the touch or smell of it, has allowed this huge chasm – this disconnect – to open up in our minds between our food and where it comes from.  We wince when we’re reminded, very often – how would you feel if you saw a whole roast suckling pig, a chicken dressed for cooking with head and feet still attached (probably on TV in some ‘less civillised’ country), or if you watched a whole side of beef being carried into a traditional butcher’s shop?

Back to our lamb – I’d like to argue that there’s nothing wrong with thinking about him as food – that’s his *purpose*, plain and simple.  If he wasn’t going to be eaten, he wouldn’t have been born.  In a few months, he WILL be on someone’s dinner plate.  Mine, I hope, since he looks to be growing rather nicely and will have enjoyed a cracking life out on that lovely pasture with his ewe and all his little lamby friends!  It’s imperative that we can think of livestock as meat, and step over that chasm, because we also need to make a habit of thinking of the meat on those supermarket chiller shelves as animals.

When you’re grabbing that matching pair of rather sterile-looking chicken breast fillets, sealed airtight in their protective atmosphere, from the chiller shelf, do you have a picture in your mind of the chicken who died to provide them?  It seems to me that to be ethical consumers of meat, we *must* carry just such images with us.  Allowing that disconnect to exist in our thought processes allows us all, thoughtlessly, to make bad choices.  We might say the right things about preferring free range, organic, or higher welfare meat and eggs,  but when push comes to shove, how often and how easily do we pick up that chicken salad sandwich, pork pie, or pack of BBQ burgers without the origin of the meat even crossing our minds?

Unless we’re prepared to think about our food – *really* think about it  – taking time in particular to think about the animals that have provided our meat, how they lived, and how they died, then we cannot possibly claim to be ethical meat eaters.  And if you can’t, or won’t, if ignorance is bliss, if you’d rather close your mind to the idea, and think prettier, less uncomfortable thoughts, if you prefer to pick up the packet of anonymous animal protein, and ignore its source and its story, do you really think you deserve to enjoy the fruits of these animals’ sacrifice?

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Jerk Pork Ribs – a bargain BBQ treat

Regular readers of the blog will know that I love to advocate using great quality bargain cuts of meat, even if that means a little bit of extra preparation.  Using the less fashionable cuts means getting to enjoy great, outdoor reared, higher welfare meat without having to shell out the premium price tag – and these cuts also reward the creative cook by being, very often, some of the most interesting to eat!

Jerk ribs on the BBQ

I often have a couple of bags of pork ribs in the freezer, as offcuts from the pork belly I make my streaky bacon from.  From that point of view, these ribs are basically free.  Last time we had some friends over and I wanted a few extra, my butcher sold me a 6 -7 inch chunk for 50p.  If you’re buying them as ‘ribs’ in packs from the supermarket, rather than as offcuts, you’ll pay more, of course.  Yet another reason to cultivate your friendly local butcher, and develop a few basic butchery skills yourself.

Pork rib sectionThis is how I expect your ribs will arrive – as a roughly square or rectangular piece with more or less loose tissue (from the diaphrgagm) attached to the inner (concave) side.  There should not be very much meat on the outer (convex) side, as the belly meat should have been cut away.

If the belly is still there, you can either remove it and prepare it seperately – as bacon, or as a roast pork belly – or you can leave it attached and make really thick juicy ‘streaky ribs’.  Beware, though, as these will be very fatty and consequently encourage your BBQ to flare up when cooked over coals.  Pork belly is so wonderful, there are better ways to prepare it, in my opinion!

Separating ribsYou need to divide up your rib portion into separate ribs, and this couldn’t be simpler.  Looking at this inner side, feel where the ribs are with your finger tips, and identify the gap between them.  Using a nice, sharp, long knife, place the blade midway between the ribs and cut parallel to them.  Butchered ribsThere’s some cartilage attachment up at the ‘knuckle’ end of the ribs, but any plausibly sharp blade should slide straight through this (bonus hint – keep your kitchen knives *really* sharp – a sharp knife is a safe knife!).

Ribs with seasoning appliedCarry on until all your ribs are divided up.  Now find a nice big dish large enough to contain them all reasonably snugly. Squeeze over the juice of half a lime, and a big glug of olive oil. Then sprinkle generously with your home-made dry jerk seasoning mix and rub in all over.  Turn the ribs over and apply some more mix to the other side.

Ribs, restingOnce you’ve finished applying your rub, wash your hands carefully or they’ll end up stained an attractive nicotine-yellow from the turmeric.  Cover the ribs and set aside in the fridge for at least an hour – if you’re able –  before cooking.

Once your BBQ charcoal is smouldering gently, without any flame, put your ribs on the grill and cook until done.  If I’m cooking for a large party, I like to start these ribs in the oven and then just finish them on the BBQ for that lovely open fire flavour without the extended cooking time.  You’ll still get a great result.  Then, sit back, and enjoy your tasty, juicy, spicy, bargain ribs with a nice cold drink!

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Big Bacon Challenge: Rounding Up – volunteers’ feedback

A few weeks ago now, all my lovely volunteers for the Big Bacon Challenge made their first batches of home-cured streaky or back bacon.  Several of them have blogged about their experiments, so I’d like to bring together some of their comments and reports.  I wanted to show as many people as possible that making your own bacon at home is not only incredibly simple and straightforward, but produces some of the best bacon you will ever have eaten – these reviews I hope go some way to supporting that!

Streaky bacon mid-curing, with dry curing mix applied

‘Ghoti’ writes about her bacon over on LiveJournal:  My favourite exerpt from her report – “So, in summary: utterly delicious, and a three year old can make it.”

‘Amlees’ wrote up her bacon day-by-day at Alison Was Here, and her collected bacon challenge posts can be found here:  “So the bacon is cured and rested and ready to eat.  John cuts thick slices and fries them for breakfast, with an egg on the side.  The bacon is delicious and satisfying, if a little salty. (…)  However, the bacon is as good as the bacon we normally buy (the expensive dry-cured kind).”

Finally (for now at least) ‘5greenway’ wrote on the Very Berry Handmade blog about their bacon in two posts – at the start and end of the process – “So, the process was really easy. But it would all count for nothing if the bacon wasn’t up to scratch… Just looking at it before cooking, we suspected it’d be pretty good, but it tasted even better than we expected. Not too salty, a nice flavour from the cure & a kind of melt in the mouth texture.”

I’m informed by several of my volunteers that they have since bought their own supply of curing salt and continue to make home-made bacon (and other goodies!), so I’m declaring the challenge a success!

A great big THANK YOU to all of my volunteers, and if any of you have any further feedback, please do comment or email so that I can include it here!

All the Big Bacon Challenge posts will be collected under the ‘BigBaconChallenge’ category heading – so go there to read them all!

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Big Bacon Challenge: after the challenge – what now?

You’ve come to the end of the bacon challenge, hopefully sampled your efforts and agreed they are *good*, so where do you go from here?

I was very pleased (a teeny bit smug, even?) to hear that one of my volunteers has already dived in and ordered her own supply of Supracure – if you want to do the same, I can heartily recommend both HotSmoked and Weschenfelder (details in my Suppliers List) for curing and smoking supplies.  Both sell Supracure in 2kg packs for about six or seven pounds.

Before considering whether to do the same, and make curing a regular part of your culinary routine, it’s worth giving the costings a little thought.  By necessity this is just a snapshot – since food prices are constantly shifting – but it gives an indication.

Retail-packed back baconLet’s look at 1kg of back bacon.  On the basic recipe this will take 1kg of pork loin, 80g of curing salt and 20 g of sugar.  We’ll ignore the sugar for convenience, since it’s a small quantity and you almost certainly have it already.  The curing salt costs – round figures – about 30p.  So really it’s just the meat we need to consider.  You can generally get hold of bog-standard own-brand back bacon on ‘2 packs for £4’ type offers where the pack size is between 230g and 250g. Bearing in mind this bacon is about 13% added water, let’s call that an equivalent per kilo cost of about £9.

Compare with this, Tesco this week list their Rind-on Pork Loin Roasting Joint at 3.99/kg – admittedly a half-price special offer, but even the full cost of £7.99/kg represents a *small* saving.  The key to really making this work is to buy whatever’s cheap this week – be it loin or belly, or even belly slices.  It’s a pretty safe bet most supermarkets will be discounting something suitable at any given time.  Of course it pays to be flexible, but if you only like back bacon, buy loin when it’s cheap and freeze it – or make a big batch all at once and then freeze it once it’s bacon – personally I can see no difference in quality from doing this, though obviously you should do one or the other, not both!

To even start to compare like with like, though, it’s really good dry cured butcher’s bacon you need to consider – a spot of quick googling suggests this is for sale from various producers at about £15/kg.  So it’s clear that with a bit of canniness, not only is the end product fantastic, but there’s an easy 50% saving to be made on the cheap & nasty brine-injected supermarket commercial bacon offering, and a tidy 75% off the nearest equivalent butcher’s bacon.  Streaky bacon is usually a little cheaper than back, but since belly pork is a cheap cut par excellence, the maths for home-cured streaky bacon generally adds up just fine without depending on special offers.

Convinced?  Then you’ll need to decide what to try next.

My usual ‘house’ cure is actually a black pepper cure – essentially the cure we used for the Big Bacon Challenge, but with 3 grams of freshly ground black pepper (I recommend a pestle and mortar for this) added per 50-60g of cure mix (curing 500 – 600g of bacon).  This cure is great with or without smoking the bacon after curing – more of which later.

Juniper and Bay cure, and ingredientsIf your taste runs more to cooking bacon for stews and sauces than to breakfast rashers, perhaps try the bay and juniper cure, which produces a lovely deep rich aromatic flavour.

The limit to what to add to cures really is your imagination – within some basic limits on proportion of salt and sugar (I’ve used between 20% and 33% sugar with great success) – do some reading (perhaps look in the Library for inspiration) and see what you fancy!

I can’t leave the subject of bacon curing without a brief mention of smoking.  Not everyone likes smoked bacon, of course – though since commercial ‘smoked’ bacon has concentrated smoke-flavour added to the brine, and bears about as much resemblance to the real thing as Nescafé does to a real steaming espresso, perhaps it deserves a second chance..?

I’m British, so when I think about smoking bacon we’re talking about cold smoking.

The key to this process is bathing your cured meat in cold smoke over a period of several hours (I usually smoke my bacon for 10 – 12 hours), so you either have to produce your smoke consistently, and with as little heat as possible, within the smoking box, or produce hotter smoke at a distance from the box and then ‘duct’ it in allowing time for it to cool down.  It’s a tinkerer’s paradise, so please do consider it for a bit of a mad project – there are as many designs for DIY smokers as there are people who build them I think!

ProQ cold smoke generator, lit

We designed and built a wooden tower smoker – effectively just a fancy wooden box with some shelves in it – which I fill with smoke using a commercially available cold smoke sawdust burner.  I probably could have constructed a smoke generator very similar for not much money, but I wanted to start with something that would Just Work, the cost wasn’t prohibitive (around £20) and I don’t regret the decision.  It’s a great piece of culinary gear, think how much fun – and flavour! – you could have with smoked trout and salmon, smoked salt, smoked garlic and chillies, as well as your bacon!

Finally, a big thank-you to all my Big Bacon Challenge volunteers – looking forward very much to hearing what you all thought of your efforts  – and to the rest of my readers, thank you for your patience with the bacon-centric tone of the blog the last couple of weeks, normal service will be resumed very soon!

All the Big Bacon Challenge posts will be collected under the ‘BigBaconChallenge’ category heading – so go there to read them all!

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