What’s Your Beef? Beth’s wonderful home-cured salt beef

Salt beef is quite a rarity these days.  I’m aware our American cousins (to whom it’s corned beef) think of it as an Irish thing and eat it with cabbage at St Patrick’s the way we eat haggis, neeps and tatties on Burns Night.  Despite having Irish heritage, I’ve never eaten salt beef, in this context or any other (honestly, Irish-American folks, that’s one tradition you’ve made up all for yourselves!).  But I was very excited to experiment with the idea when I saw a lovely rolled brisket of beef at our local farm butcher’s shop.

Cold sliced home-cured salt beef

A bit of asking around family brought me the information that my sister-in-law, Beth, and her family, were keen salt beef curers and consumers.  She kindly shared her recipe & process with me, which I’ve adapted slightly to suit my purposes.

Raw rolled beef brisket

You will require the following to salt your beef –

  • Piece of rolled beef brisket, mine was about 1kg, which was about right for a meal for two plus cold cuts, or would have served four for dinner.  You may need to find a real butcher’s shop, since brisket, despite being great value, is rather unfashionable and rarely available in the supermarket.
  • Curing salt (I used supracure, which is the pre-mixed salt-and-saltpetre mix I use for making bacon).  Alternately you can use plain salt with (or without) added saltpetre.  You won’t get quite the same flavour without the saltpetre, and the beef will be grey rather than the characteristic dark pink colour of salt beef.
  • Dark sugar, whatever sort you prefer
  • Whole peppercorns, juniper berries, cloves, bay leaves (dry or fresh), and a few sprigs of fresh thyme.  Or experiment with any other herbs / spices you think might work well!
  • A non-metallic bowl big enough to completely submerge your beef in
  • Large saucepan, kitchen scales & measuring jug

Herbs & spices for the brineOnce you’ve gathered all your tools and ingredients together, you need to make your brine.  First, work out how much brine you need.  Put your beef in the bowl and cover it completely with water.  Then take the beef out, and measure the water. That’s your target volume.

Now, for each litre of brine you require, weigh out the following into the saucepan –

  • 300g of supracure
  • 100g of dark sugar
  • Approximately 10 peppercorns, 6 juniper berries
  • A bay leaf, a clove, and a sprig of thyme (or whatever herbs and spices you fancy!)

Add the required volume of water (the more observant among you will notice that you’re going to end up with slightly more brine than you actually wanted, due to adding the dry ingredients – this is fine, don’t worry!) and heat to dissolve all the dry ingredients.  Boil the brine briskly for a few minutes, and then allow to cool (refrigerate once it’s at room temperature to get it down to about 5 degrees centigrade).

Beef in the brineOnce the brine is cold, add your beef.  Weigh it down with a small plate or saucer if required to keep it fully submerged.  This is quite a ‘hard’ (concentrated) brine and the beef will tend to want to float up in it.  Now put the bowl of brine & beef in the fridge, and apart from turning the beef over in the cure once a day, if you remember to, leave it alone. My 1kg piece of beef was in the brine for 5 days.  You’ll want a longer curing time for larger pieces of beef, perhaps up to 10 days or so.

After your curing time has elapsed, take your beef out of the brine.  It will have become considerably denser and firmer in texture (surprisingly so, in fact), as well as darker in colour.

After curing, soaking in fresh water

The alchemy that is salt-curing has happened now, so you’re going to want to soak the salt beef for 24 hours to reduce the saltiness of the finished product a bit.  Wash off the beef and submerge it in clean tap water (it will sink, so you don’t need to weigh it down this time) and return it to the fridge.  Change the water at least once during the 24 hours.

Salt beef after 24 hours soaking in fresh waterNow, either cook it straight away, or remove from the soaking water, and return, covered, to the fridge for a day or two until you plan to prepare it.

Salt beef with stock vegetablesI prepared my salt beef in the simplest way, by poaching it gently.  Add a quartered onion, a handful of roughly chopped carrots, a bay leaf and some peppercorns to the saucepan, and cover the beef with water.  You could also add some celery, but I don’t particularly like it.

Poaching liquid, after cookingBring to the boil and then simmer, covered, very gently for two and a half hours (longer for larger pieces), until it yields easily to a fork. Then remove it from the poaching water and rest for half an hour, covered with foil. The water you’ve poached the beef in will now look like a rich beef broth.

Sliced poached salt beefAfter resting, slice your beef thickly (it’ll fall apart if you try to slice it too thinly) and serve with your choice of side dishes.  Potatoes and cabbage appeared to be traditional (at least in some circles!) so I opted for boiled new potatoes and wilted spring greens, served with a white sauce made from a roux, some of the poaching liquor, a glug of cream and a big spoon of hot horseradish.

Salt beef with potatoes and spring greens

It was beautiful, though I say so myself.  The beef, served hot, is incredibly tender and succulent.  Cooled and sliced, the rest of the salt beef is also beautiful and will make cracking sandwiches.  It’s firm and dense, slices nicely, and has a lovely gentle aromatic flavour.  Home-cured salt beef is sure to become a regular culinary feature in our household.  If any of you have favourite ways of preparing or serving salt beef, I’d love to hear them.  Finally, thank you so much to Beth for her recipe and guidance, and I hope you all consider giving salt beef a try some time!

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Inspirations – Isabella Beeton’s ‘Book of Household Management’

I like to think that, had she been alive today, Mrs Beeton would have been a blogger.  Before her death in 1865 aged 28, which followed the birth of her fourth child, she wrote prolifically.  Her husband, Samuel Beeton, was a publisher, and much of the material in the book was first printed in the form of articles in ladies’ magazines between 1859 and 1861 before then emerging in one volume as the book we would recognise as ‘Household Management’.

It’s fair to say that much of the material in ‘Household Management’ was collected (plagiarised, according to some less charitable commentators) and edited together, rather than being original to Isabella Beeton, but she probably invented the modern mode of laying out recipes – with an ingredient list at the top, followed by directions and cooking instructions – something we take for granted today.  While it is to a great degree a recipe book, it also contains wonderful snippets of advice on all aspects of victorian life – on medicine, the law, clothing, manners, the rearing of livestock, and of course famously the selection management of one’s servants.

Most of the recipes stand the test of time quite well – do avoid however the recommendation to boil carrots for about three hours – there are some wonderful snippets which are utterly of their period and richly reward the reader’s attention, though perhaps not their imitation!

Mrs Beeton on Whooping Cough:  “This is a purely spasmodic disease, and is only infectious through the faculty of imitation, a habit that all children are remarkably apt to fall into, and even where adults have contracted whooping-cough, it has been from the same cause, and is as readily accounted for, on the principle of imitation, as that the gaping of one person will excite or predispose a whole party to follow the same spasmodic example.” Her recommendations for treatment are… equally surprising!

On paying visits of courtesy (to be done after luncheon!): “They are uniformly required after dining at a friend’s house, or after a ball, picnic, or any other party.  These visits should be short, a stay from fifteen to twenty minutes being quite sufficient.  A lady paying a visit may remove her boa or neckerchief, but neither her shawl nor bonnet.”  So there you go, boa off, bonnet on – are we clear?

There are some marvellous-looking (not yet tested here!) recipes for home-brewed – and sometimes fortified – wines, as well as curing and preserving – after all it’s a book from the years before refrigeration – and for this reason alone deserves to be on everyone’s bookshelf and dipped into regularly.  Obviously we’d all like an old hardback copy complete with colour plates, but as it is widely available in paperback reprint (my well thumbed copy is a recent Wordsworth Edition) and is free to download in a variety of e-reader formats, albeit often without it’s illustrations, you really have no excuse!

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Hamming It Up – home-cured ham, boiled and glazed

A great ham sandwich is one of life’s special pleasures, isn’t it?  A few weeks ago I spotted a big chunk of pork leg on special offer at our local co-op.  It was too much to resist – after all the experimenting with bacon, it was time to add another pork product to the collection.  Time to make a home-cured ham!

I decided to base my cure on a Wiltshire cure, which is a traditional British cure with treacle, juniper and coriander.  The process is a bit more involved and time-consuming than dry cured bacon, but your end result is well worth it!

You will require –

  • Pork legA nice big piece of pork (ideally leg), untied from any net or string it might be wearing when you buy it.  My piece was about 1.5kg in weight.
  • A non-metallic container big enough to hold your piece of pork with some space to spare.  I used a big tupperware box I had hanging around.
  • Kitchen scales, measuring jug, pestle and mortar, and a dinner plate.
  • Curing salt – pre-mixed type such as supracure (see the Suppliers List for more details)
  • Black treacle
  • Juniper berries
  • Black peppercorns
  • Coriander leaf (preferably fresh, or dried if not)

Large tupperware box

The weight of the pork isn’t terribly important, as the amount of brine you need is as much dictated by the size of your container, and the curing time is more to do with thickness than total size.  Estimate the amount of curing brine you will require by putting the pork in the box, bucket or bowl and just covering it with water, then take the pork out and measure the water.  I needed just over 3 litres.  This is also washes any liquid or debris from the surface of the pork.

My brine was made in the following proportions – given per litre of cure for simplicity:

  • Curing salts130g of supracure
  • 90g of black treacle
  • 5g of juniper berries
  • 2g of black peppercorns
  • a big spoonful of dried coriander (be generous, and if you have fresh available so much the better)

Black treacleRemember you’re aiming for these ingredients to be included *in* a litre of brine, not added to a litre of water, so add the dry ingredients to a measuring jug and then add the water so that you can keep track of the total volumes.  You’ll need to add boiling water to the cure ingredients to help dissolve them, once they’re dissolved top up to your total volume with cold water.

Crushing juniper berries and peppercornsGently crush the juniper and peppercorns in a pestle and mortar, just enough to crack them open and release the aromas.   Add these and the coriander to the brine and refrigerate until cold.

Once the brine has cooled, add the pork, and weigh it down with the dinner plate so that it doesn’t bob up out of the brine solution.  Loosely cover the box with cling film, and place in the fridge.

Ham in brine

Plate placed over curing hamNow, once a day, turn the meat over in the brine.  This will help the cure penetrate equally.  Very soon you’ll start to notice the meat and rind darkening as they absorb the treacle, and taking on a firmer texture.

Ham in brine after 5 daysAdvice on the subject of curing time appears hugely variable and for my piece of pork I found advice ranging from 5 to 15 days – I’ll come back to this later, but as I wanted the ham for a specific date I took a punt and went for the shortest advised curing time of five days – based on a rule of thumb of 1 day of curing per inch thickness of meat.

Cured ham, resting on plateAfter your curing time is up, remove the ham from the brine, rinse it carefully under the tap, dry with kitchen towel and place on an open plate in the fridge.  I rested my ham for just one day, because I was in a hurry to eat it – but I suggest it would be better to rest it for 2 – 3 days before cooking.

It will have completely changed appearance from the pork leg that went into the cure – the meat is a dark mahogany colour and the rind a warm brown.

You can now cook your ham however you like – I prefer to boil mine first, until it reaches an internal temperature of 70 celsius.   I changed the water after the first 20 minutes, this helps reduce the saltiness in the final cooked ham.

Putting the ham on to boil    The ham after boiling, rind side showing    WIth rind removed, and fat scored

Then, I remove the rind, score the fat, glaze with treacle and finish in a hot oven for 20 minutes.  Once the ham has cooled (if you can wait that long!), slice and sample.

Treacle-glazed Wiltshire cured ham, fresh from the oven

The fist thing you’ll notice is that it’s undeniably ham – it has that characteristic pink colour, and gently salty-sweet ham flavour – but what flavour, nothing but the very best traditional ham, this, no added water, none of the strange gristly bits we’re all so used to in commercial re-formed ham.  The treacle flavour is very much to the fore, a bitter-sweet deep note, and the aromatic flavours from the juniper are just about detectable.

First slice!What would I do differently next time?  I would have used more juniper, but I didn’t have enough in the cupboard.  I would definitely use fresh coriander if I had some, as this flavour was pretty much lost using the dry herb.  I would also cure for a few more days – maybe seven or eight for this size of pork leg.  Right in the centre of the ham, I found a small patch of meat that hadn’t cured through, and was the grey colour of cooked pork rather than the pink of cooked ham.  A longer curing period would hopefully have avoided this.

I might also have rested the ham for longer, and increasing the resting time might have delt with the evenness-of-cure issue by allowing more time for the cure to balance through the meat without increased curing time, but I wanted to use it to make a ham sandwiches to feed some very good friends the next weekend.  Plain, or with mustard, or pickle, the giant pile of sandwiches went down extremely well!

Sliced finished cured and glazed ham

On a slightly different note – the Country Skills Blog is six months, and 50 posts old today!  Thanks to all of you for reading and commenting so kindly, and I hope you continue to enjoy the blog for many more months, years, and posts to come!

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Back To Basics – home cured back bacon from start to delicious end

Home cured streaky bacon has been a constant fixture in my house since I first made it back in October – in fact I’ve not bought any ‘commercial’ bacon since.  Back bacon used to be our house favourite though, before I started curing.  A couple of weeks ago I saw a tied pork loin ‘roasting’ joint for sale half-price in the local co-op, and it seemed to good to refuse.

Home-cured back bacon

For home-cured back bacon, you will require –

  • Ingredients for home-cured back baconA piece of pork loin.  The roasting joint was a bit big so I cut it in half to give me a piece about 650g in weight.
  • Curing salt such as Supracure (see the Suppliers List for details), 8% of the total weight of the meat, and
  • Sugar (soft brown sugar is ideal) 2% of the total weight of the meat, to make a total cure weight of 10%
  • A non-metallic dish big enough to contain the meat, and some cling film to cover.
That’s it – I wanted to keep the first effort as simple as possible!

First day - dry-cure rubbed in

Weigh out the cure ingredients and mix them together well.  Now rub about a quarter of the cure mix all over the pork, including on the skin.  You can see it start to draw out moisture from the meat straight away.  Cover the dish loosely with some cling film, and put it in the fridge until tomorrow.

Second day - with 'pickle' in dishThe next day, there will be some liquid in the bottom of the dish.  This is the ‘pickle’ and is made up of some of the curing mix dissolved in the liquid that’s been drawn out of the meat.  It’s completely normal, so don’t worry.  Pour it away, or your dry-cure will pretty quickly turn into a brine cure.  Now take about a quarter of the remaining cure and rub it all over the meat again.  Put it back in the dish the other way up to last time (so skin side up, if you started skin-side down).

Third day - the bacon should be changing texture by this timeRepeat this process for another three days (so that you’ve rubbed cure into the bacon five days running).  By day 3 you should notice a distinct difference in the texture of the meat, it will be firmer in consistency and a bit darker pink in colour.

Finished back bacon, ready to sliceOn the sixth day (so one day longer than the streaky bacon process – this is because the meat is thicker than belly pork), remove the bacon from the dish, rinse it under the tap, dry it carefully with kitchen towel, wrap it loosely with greaseproof paper and put it back in the fridge.  Ideally, wait a couple of days before you start eating it, do let it rest at least overnight.

Home-cured bacon, fryingThen slice your amazing bacon with a sharp knife, and cook however you prefer.  I like to pan-fry my back bacon.  This one is gorgeous and I can only heartily recommend you make some for yourself!

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A little egg-centricity – all about the chicken and the egg

Nothing beats a really fresh free range egg.  For breakfast, fried or poached, boiled or scrambled, or for lunch in an omelette, a really fresh egg – preferably laid this morning – is head and shoulders above any other egg you’ve ever tasted.  You can see the difference straight away, even before you crack it – the shell may well be a bit grubby, and a slightly funny shape, an unexpected or uneven colour.  When you crack it open, the egg white is firm and ‘sits up’ in the pan, and the yolk is a deep orange, and bigger than you expected – if beaten, the raw egg is a rich dark yellow, rather than off-white.  In your mouth the yolk is velvety and rich, creamy and almost sweet with a luxuriant almost-custard quality and the white is firm but never rubbery – a million miles away from the flaccid anaemic and tasteless output of battery cages and the supermarket supply chain.

Fresh egg

It’s a sad fact that in the supermarket dominated, urban West, most people have probably never tasted a really good, fresh egg.  We think of eggs as being uniform, sized and graded, cheap and frankly, dull.  But they’re a natural product, and they vary – in size, colour and shape – and from the very firmest, freshest example, to the end of their storage life when the egg white is watery and the best of the flavour is gone.

I said nothing beats a very fresh egg, but of course that depends what you’re doing with it. If you want to beat the egg and use it to help with raising – in baking, or a soufflé – or you want hard boiled eggs peeled for a Salade Niçoise, then the very freshest eggs aren’t for you.  The egg white – the albumen – is actually in two parts.  The outer albumen is quite watery, you can see it spread out in the pan in the photo above.  The inner albumen is much more firm in a very fresh egg (but in an egg which has been stored for some time you probably won’t be able to see a distinction between the two).  In a very fresh egg this inner albumen has too much structure and tends to want to hold together, which doesn’t allow the batter to rise properly.  Furthermore, if you hard boil a really fresh egg and then remove the shell, the outer albumen will come away with the shell, which is a waste and makes for a scruffy-looking boiled egg.  Eggs about a week old are best for baking and hard boiling – realistically you won’t get eggs much fresher than this from the supermarket, though.

Egg storage

These are my eggs, and three things are obvious – first the range of shapes and sizes, secondly that they’re in some sort of wire device (it’s called an Egg Skelter, and I wouldn’t be without it) and not in the fridge, and thirdly that, frankly, they’re a bit grubby!

The size variability is something that you have to make adjustments for with ungraded eggs.  My approach is to weigh them and then adjust according to standard size references.  The Lion Egg Scheme people have a size guide here.

Fresh eggs will keep safely at room temperature for 3 weeks (it’s no coincidence that this is the length of time they have to stay ‘fresh’ under a warm hen if being hatched!), but if you do put them in the fridge, then you need to leave them there.  If eggs are removed from refrigeration, moisture condenses on the outside of the shell and can then be drawn through into the inside of the egg by osmosis, potentially pulling pathogens from outside the shell into the egg itself and increasing the risk of food poisoning.  My eggs don’t sit around for anything like three weeks (if I have a glut I know plenty of people who are happy to help me deal with it!) so storage at room temperature is ideal.  Better still, the egg skelter enforces first-in-first-out use, which is trickier with other storage systems.

So you’d think washing the dirt from the outside of the egg would be a good idea, right?  In fact dissolving these contaminants in water, and disrupting the outside surface of the shell, also increase the risk of pathogen entry.  Much better to leave grubby eggs as they are, and rub off any loose dirt and mud from the surface just before use.  Egg washing is not permitted in the production chain for commercial shell eggs in the UK, on a risk assessment basis, though it is common practice in other countries including the US (they tend to wash in a chlorine solution – because bleach is what you want in your eggs!).  This goes some way to explaining the obsession with clean eggs in intensive production systems – and the resulting battery cages (improved, but not yet gone), as ‘dirty’ eggs are downgraded.

I’ve kept hens for two and a half years now.  I wasn’t expecting get as attached to them as I have, they’re fascinating animals.  Funny feathery little dinosaur-descendants they certainly are, they’re inquisitive, social (and not always sociable!) little creatures.  Only when you’ve watched hens scratch around for bugs, enjoy a bit of a flap and a wing stretch, and then settle down into a well-earned and apparently thoroughly indulgent dust bath, can you really start to understand how inhumane intensive cost-led egg production systems are.  This is Gertie, by the way, my ‘top hen’, being a bit confused by her first sight of snow, and wondering what I’m doing with that camera.

Outdoor hen

You may not be able to keep your own poultry, but if only for the sake of your palate (never mind the quality of life of the poor intensive egg-producing bird) it’s worth seeking out the best and freshest outdoor reared eggs you can find – farmers markets and farm shops are a great place to start – or ask around, you may be surprised to find a colleague keeps backyard hens, and if you’re really super nice to them, they may be prepared to share! Then, enjoy your wonderful, freshest eggs, with the best home cured bacon for the most amazing breakfast fry-up you’ve ever tasted.

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Heston Blumenthal – how not to roast a chicken

I saw Heston Blumenthal the other night on TV with his roast chicken recipe, and I wish I hadn’t.  His suggestions really worry me.  Leaving aside his recommendation to brine the bird before roasting (because what we all need in our western diets, ladies and gentlemen, is more salt!), he advocates roasting the bird at 90 degrees centigrade (70, even, in a fan oven!) for several hours to a target internal temperature of 60C in the thickest part of the breast.  While I have no doubt that this treatment results in a marvellously moist tender bird (it’s barely cooked after all!) the food safety implications of the process are pretty horrifying.

All raw meat is contaminated with bacteria. This is just a fact of life – after all, meat is dead animal, and animals have bacteria in and on them in life which are impossible to remove in the course of processing.

Poultry meat in particular is high risk.  A UK study published in 2000 identified Campylobacter jejuni in 83.3% of supermarket chicken that they sampled.  I would go as far as to say, I almost guarantee that any raw chicken you purchase will be contaminated with Campylobacter, Salmonella or E. coli, and the risks are probably higher with free range birds which aren’t raised in a sealed environment.

The reason we don’t all have food poisoning all the time is that cooking – the application of heat – is extremely effective in killing these pathogens.  Here’s the problem – Salmonella requires a temperature of 60C for 10 minutes to be effectively killed. Campylobacter also needs to get to 60C, though it’s a bit  more fragile so a minute or two should do trick.  E. coli is more robust – but less common in poultry meat – and needs to be heated to 72C.  The universal advice for safe cooking of poultry meat takes all of this into account and advises the thickest (and hence least heated) part of the meat should reach a minimum temperature of 75C for at least 10 minutes.

On these numbers you can see how Heston’s recipe might *just about* not be gastrointestinal suicide, but you would want to be very confident of your temperatures.  The trouble is, any error in measurement – if your probe isn’t really in the absolutely coldest part of the bird – is going to read higher than the true lowest temperature, making it very easy to overestimate the minimum temperature and have parts of your bird below 60C.

To be quite honest, I don’t care how tender and succulent this roast bird might end up – it amounts to food hygiene russian roulette!  I’ll be staying away from the Fat Duck, I think.

Please, if you want a wonderful succulent roast chicken, buy a good free-range bird with some good fat under the skin, add some lovely flavours in the cavity (I like a quartered lemon with some whole cloves of garlic and a handful of thyme), a little bit of salt and pepper on the skin with a couple of rashers of bacon if you fancy it, and then roast at about 180C to a safe internal temperature.  Rest for 20 – 30 minutes before carving, and enjoy a tasty, succulent, and above all safe roast dinner!

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Basic Butchery – how to portion a chicken

A whole roast chicken is a wonderful treat – more on that later – but it’s not the sort of meal most people want to wait for on a week night after work.

We eat a huge amount of chicken in the UK, and a lot of that is bought pre-portionned and packed from the supermarket, it’s certainly convenient and the portion sizes are more practical.  We’re in love with breast meat in this country, to the extent that the UK is a net importer of white chicken meat – mostly from Thailand and other East-Asian countries – and an exporter of leg meat.  When you think about it, that’s pretty bizzare, not great for the environment (think of the fuel involved in sending the ‘wrong’ chicken backwards and forwards half way around the world!), and leaves us eating lower health and welfare-standard poultry meat than would have been produced in the UK.

Fully portioned chicken

It’s really easy to portion up a whole chicken, and learning this basic butchery skill will save you money.  Even if you just buy a ‘bog-standard’ roasting bird from the supermarket, you get more for your money buying a whole bird and cutting it up yourself, and the savings are even better if you’re buying free range or organic chicken.  And with a bit of kitchen creativity, one whole chicken can provide three or four meals for two people, as well as a lovely batch of chicken stock – bargain!

First, un-wrap your whole chicken and remove any trussing string / elastic holding the legs together.  Pat it dry with kitchen towel as this will help with handling it while you’re cutting it up.  You will need a very sharp knife with a long but reasonably slender blade.  Feel down the centre of the bird, and you should feel a bone running the full length – this is the ‘keel bone’.  Starting on this line, cut downwards parallel to the bone along the full length until your knife stops.

You can now pull the top of the breast away from the keel bone to get a better look at what’s going on.  The bone beneath the knife is the ribcage, so continue carefully cutting the breast meat away from this.  If you work carefully you’ll leave surprisingly little meat behind on the carcass.  After you’ve done this a few times, you’ll get a lot quicker, but speed is not of the essence the first few times.

Once the breast meat is mostly free from the bone, cut the skin between the breast and the thigh and finish removing the breast from the bird.

Portioning chicken - step 4Now we need to detach the legs.  Grasp the thigh and extend the leg away from the body.  You should be able to feel the hip joint (indicated with the knife point in this photo).  Insert the knife firmly into the joint to separate the leg from the body, then cut the leg meat away from the torso leaving as little as possible behind.

Portioning chicken - step 5

Grasping the wing in the same way, identify the joint and push the knife firmly through it, separating the wing from the body of the bird.

Portioning chicken - step 6Congratulations, you’re half way there!  Repeat the process on the other side of the bird.

You will now have two breasts, two legs, two wings, and the remains of the body.  Put the body in a saucepan ready to make stock.  You may be happy with the portions you have now, but more commonly we’d divide the legs into thigh and drumstick portions

Portioning chicken - step 7Grasp the leg, and feel where the joint moves between the thigh and the drumstick.  Simply cut down firmly along this line.   If you’re accurate your knife will pass through the joint space, but the bone here is actually quite soft so if you’re not quite on target, you should be able to cut through anyway, it will just take a little bit more force.   Cut off the ‘knuckle’ part at the bottom of the drumstick in the same way, and discard these (the only bit of waste in the process, as it happens!).

Portioning chicken - step 8You’re there – one whole chicken transformed into two breast portions, two thighs, two drumsticks and two wings, to do with as you please.  With practice it’s less than a five minute job.  Better still, think of the costings.  With standard supermarket chicken (I costed this in my local co-op the other day), starting with a £4 bird, and bearing in mind two breast fillets retail for £3 (smaller fillets than you’ll get from a roasting bird, with the skin off and frequently robbed of their ‘mini fillets’, too!), you’ve just got two thighs, two drumsticks, two wings, and a pint of excellent fresh chicken stock for £1.  Use what you want today, and bag and freeze the rest.  How’s that for thrifty!

I said I’d come back to roasting chicken.  That’s for the next post!

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Frugal Food – stuffed breast of lamb, roast dinner on a budget

Breast of lamb is a rather unfashionable cut these days.  In my household it’s usually known as ‘lamb belly’ by analogy with the matching cut of pork.  It’s made up of the abdominal body wall, starting with some ribs just in front of the diaphragm and extending backwards. Folded in three and wrapped in cling-film, it’s a rather uninspiring looking cut. You won’t get it at the supermarket, and it won’t be on display at the butchers, but if you ask it’s likely you’ll get a whole one for not much more than £1.  With a very little bit of effort, you have one of the most cost effective (and tasty!) roast dinners you can buy.

We first discovered breast of lamb when we started buying half-lambs from local smallholders.  I wish I’d discovered it when I was a student, I could have had some fantastic roast Sunday dinners on a budget!

This is a great meal made almost entirely from the store cupboard.  You will need:

  • One breast of lamb
  • Some breadcrumbs
  • An onion (red or white)
  • Garlic, several cloves
  • Rosemary, thyme, sage (fresh or dried)
  • One egg
  • Kitchen / butchers string
  • Potatoes / parsnips / sweet potatoes / swede
  • Some green veg (I had some frozen peas, but anything will do)
Deboned breast of lamb

Deboned breast of lamb

First of all you have a little bit of butchery to do.  It’s unlikely the ribs will have been trimmed out, so you’ll have to do this yourself.  Be careful, and patiently cut around and along each rib with a paring knife and lift it out from the ‘inside’ of the breast.  With practice this is no more than a five minute job, though it might take a bit longer to start with.  It’s likely your breast has been in the fridge, so the meat will be cold.  Stop if you notice your fingertips getting numb, and rinse them under warm water to warm them up again – you’ll have less sensory feedback from cold fingertips and you’re much more likely to make a mistake and cut yourself – which is not the aim of the exercise!

Stuffing ingredients

Try to preserve as much meat as you can attached to the breast – but if you accidentally cut a piece off (and there are some annoying bits of diaphragm which are quite tricky to keep attached) just put it back as you’ll be rolling and tying the ‘joint’ later.

Stuffing on the breast of lamb

Now make the stuffing.  Mix the finely chopped onion, crushed / minced garlic, breadcrumbs, herbs and egg together.  Season with a bit of salt and pepper.  Then spread this across the inside of the breast and roll it up, starting at the narrow end (where the ribs weren’t).

Tied rolled breast of lamb

Tie the rolled joint up with string using a butchers knot.  This involves making a series of linked  loops and tying off at both ends, and is a useful knack to learn.  It’s also not dissimilar to the knotting technique used for casting a cow!  Put the rolled join in a roasting dish, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with pepper and dried rosemary, and put into a low oven (about 160C) for two and a half hours.

Roasted breast of lambPrepare whatever roast veggies you prefer (I did spuds and sweet potato) and start these at the appropriate time.  You could even have yorkshire puddings (we did!).

Carved roasted stuffed breast of lambThen in due course get the joint out to rest, prepare your green veg and gravy, and dish up.  Add some nice fruit jelly, if you have some.  Crab apple and chilli jelly was a perfect accompaniment.

This is a fabulous roast dinner, and will serve three or four for nearly nothing – we’re greedy so it fed two hungry adults!  Serve with a nice beer or a glass of red wine, and enjoy!

Roast breast of lamb with all the trimmings, served and ready to enjoy

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Last Minute Christmas – perfect giblet stock

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!

These bits are the giblets – the offal – usually the neck (in one or two pieces), the heart, the liver, and the gizzard.  The gizzard is 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.

In 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.
  • A bouquet garni.  This is just a posh culinary term for some herbs. I use some bay leaves, rosemary, thyme and sage, along with some whole pepercorns and a few juniper berries.  Dried is fine.
  • Water.  Glug of white wine (optional).
  • A splash of olive oil.

Prepare your gizzard by cutting away and discarding the hard plates (use a small sharp knife inserted below and parallel to the plates) and chopping the rest of the meat roughly

Put the splash of olive oil into 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.  Strain, discard 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 later. You won’t regret it!

Heat and Light – how to clean the glass on a wood-burning stove

Everyone loves a real fire!  In common with lots of people in rural homes without access to the mains gas network, we use a multi-fuel stove for some of our heating.  Wood burning stoves are becoming more popular in urban areas, too.

Wood-burning stove

If you have an old stove, it’s likely that before too long you’ll find yourself having to work out how to get the soot off the glass.

Sooty glass on wood burning stoveI’ve tried oven cleaner.  I’ve tried multisurface cleaner.  I’ve tried a pan scourer, soap and hot water.  Giving it a damn good scrub works a bit, but is very hard work.  I’ve even tried expensive, specifically designed cleaner for the glass on multi-fuel stoves.  Nothing worked convincingly or easily, and the stuff in the aerosol stank, too.  Meanwhile the glass was getting blacker and blacker, and we were deprived of the gorgeous sight of flickering flames, to the point that we were wondering how easy it would be to replace the glass.

Necessary equipmentThe answer is as easy as could be.  No solvents or volatile chemicals, very little effort, and you have all the things you need already.  Strange as it may seem, you need some newspaper, some ash, some tap water, and a very little elbow grease.  And a wood-burning or multi-fuel stove, of course, but if you haven’t got one, you probably haven’t bothered to read this far.

Time: 30 minutes – Difficulty: simple – Cost: free

Glass half cleanedScrunch up about half a sheet of newspaper.  Dip it in the water and squeeze out the excess.  Then dip it into the ash.  Now use this, gently, to rub the glass.  You should notice it working straight away, which is very gratifying.  The water and ash forms a really fine abrasive slurry, which lifts the soot from the glass with very little effort.  When the paper starts to get really black and stops working again, get a new piece, and repeat the process as often as required.  Getting both doors of my fire cleaned took about half an hour.  They’re *sparkling*.

Job done!A small word of warning – if your glass has some sort of clever protective coating, this approach may not do it any good…  Then again, if your glass has some sort of clever protective coating, and is still sooted up, you might reasonably take the view that it’s not working anyway!

Go on, try it!  I know it sounds mad but I promise you won’t be disappointed!

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