Friday, 1 March 2013

The Dawning of a New Error

I am a man defeated. I cannot make Blogger do what it should do. I cannot complain; it does what it does. I am moving here! I know many will drift by the wayside. But... It's going to get worse... Much worse... In the meantime, I know you are sitting looking at frost, so I am fucking off to San Sebastian for a few weeks, to drink Basque cider, eat pig, and reflect. I may come back a better person. But I doubt it!

Friday, 22 February 2013

Equipment: Wusthof Classic Knives

If you're experienced in the artistry of the charcutiere, then - to be honest, and as is already obvious - you'll learn next to nothing here, apart from the fact that I'm a bloody idiot. However, if you - like me - are stood gazing into the abyss that is charcuterie, then it's nice to know that the curing I have done thus far hasn't required any special equipment. It has all been done using items that were already in the kitchen, my household fridge and the cheapest coarse sea I could find. The only thing I had to go out and source was Prague Powder #1, and I found a bloke in the UK on fleabay selling it. Since then, I've also discovered that Sausage Making sells it as Cure #1. I've ordered some bits from them, so I'll report back on the service!

These initial experiments have allowed me the time to start sourcing the equipment I need to move on to bigger and better things. Therefore, I shall be keeping up a running commentary on equipment, suppliers and costings for the whole sorry shambles that I am heading in to.

One thing that I will stress at the start is that I was fortunate to have a good set of knives! I bought my Wusthof Classics a few years back, and everything I've done so far has been simplified by the fact that I own them.

As someone who cooks a lot of Asian food, I appreciate the trend for Japanese knives. These items are great, very light and very sharp. They're pricey, but so are the Wusthofs. However, you try to go through a bone with a Japanese knife, and before you can say, 'Oh shit, I've put a knick in the blade of my significant investment', you will have put a knick in the blade of your significant investment. Go through a bone with a Wusthof, and it laughs in your face, screaming, 'C'mon, you tart, is that the best you can do?'

Japanese knives are sharp. You'll know it, because you'll spend ages sharpening them. In my experience they lose an edge too quickly. Wusthofs take longer to sharpen, because the blade is thicker, but they'll stay sharp for an age, even if you abuse them.

The Classic has a one-piece carbon steel construction, with a fully tanged triple-riveted handle. The steel is alloyed to keep them clean. The balance is fantastic (well, for me it is), and when the marketing bumph bangs on about how sharp they stay, it's bloody true!

The boning knife is the one that gets most use, along with the Santoku. A slicer would be good too. I'd recommend those as a minimum. To give you an idea of how good Wusthofs are, I don't have a slicer and use the fish filleting knife - usually one of the flimsiest knives in any set of knives - to cut really thin slices of bacon, and it does so with minimum flex.

One last point; I have paid for all my Wusthof Classics with my own money, and have no association whatsoever with Wusthof, aside from owning a number of their knives. These views are my own, based upon using the kit, and I have had no inducements to write this. That said, if anyone from Wusthof reads this dribble, I've got a real yearning for a 10 inch narrow slicer, ja!

Thursday, 21 February 2013

If pork could talk - Brawn

I have a recipe for a rather nice Vietnamese salad, which uses pig's ears. This has given rise to a little joke I have with the man who runs the meat counter at the Chinese supermarket. Every time I see him I shout out, 'Oi, mate, have you got pig's ears?' He laughs, I laugh, then I get on with my shopping and he makes a 'wanker' sign behind my back. I think he enjoys the joke more than I do, which is evidenced by the way he always mouths the word 'twat' whenever I walk through the doors!

The other day I was in the local butcher's shop. Jimmy the Meat wasn't out front, but his fat-headed assistant was. We've had words in the past, so as soon as he saw me he muttered, 'I'll get him' and headed out the back. I couldn't help myself, so I shouted out, 'Oi mate, have you got a pig's head?'

'Yes', he shouted back; 'I'll get Jimmy to bring it out to you.'

In the days before the Father was sectioned under the Mental Health Act, he used to make brawn. It was good, porky fare, heavily spiced and set in a rich gelatine. Now I had a pig's head, it seemed rude not to have a go!

Part one of the job revolved around making a brine. The head took 12 liters to cover it, along with six trotters and a tail that Jimmy the Meat threw in for good measure. Into the water I chucked 700g of coarse salt, 400g of brown muscavado sugar, a handful of juniper berries, a fistful of bay leaves off the bay tree in the garden, and a dozen sprigs of rosemary from the herb bed. Some folks in the know suggest using Prague Powder #1, some don't. For safety's sake, I added 150g.

The brine, head, trotters and tail were then placed in a food-grade plastic bucket and dumped in a cold shed for 24 hours. After that the meat bits were removed, rinsed and chucked into a large stock pot with shallots, garlic, black pepper, cloves, mace, thyme, a litre of rough cider and a splash of cider vinegar. The pot was topped up with water until everything was submerged, and it went on to simmer for around four hours.

After the four hours had flown by (I used the time to rattle up a batch of oatmeal stout - more about that another time if anyone cares), the head came out along with the trotters, and the liquid was strained, before being put back on the heat, which was whacked up. This further reduced as I picked over my pork.

I will make an admission here. I don't remember brawn as being greasy, but the meat certainly was. As such, I concentrated on the big chunks of pig meat and shunned much of the tendons and fatty bits. I probably could have got twice as much meat, but I figured it was better to have something good than something greasy.

The meat went into a polymer loaf tin, the reduced liquid was poured on, and it sat to cool. Once done, I topped it off with clingfilm and stuck it in the fridge for 48 hours.

The brawn was, quite frankly superb. It wasn't in the slightest bit greasy or fatty, and it certainly could have benefited from some more of the fatty bits of meat. Next time I will include them. I'm typically a bit heavy handed with seasoning, but it could have stood a bit more. I might also include apple and a splash of calvados, as the cider background worked well.

There was a fair amount of gelatine left, so I bagged it up and froze it. I don't know why; it's got to be useful for something! If anyone has any ideas...

So why the reference in the title to pork talking? Easy. I showed someone the picture at the top of this post, and they muttered, 'Why spend the time preparing artisan food, if you're not going to present it properly. If that pork could talk, it would cry out for a delicate touch and to be rid of the pickled onions.'

My reply was simple. 'If that pork could talk, it would tell you that it's a chuffing pig's head that has been boiled up with its feet and tail, and quite frankly it loves nestling up to a pile of pickled onions. If anything, it might question the sanity of the Idiot who put cottage cheese on the plate!'

Brawn; lovely stuff!

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

If you've got it, cure it - Venison Jerky

I love the cow. Admittedly, I love the pig more, but I love the cow too, and why not? The cow, she tastes good! I've always loved the cow, and for a while, when I was younger, the cow usurped the pig, but that's no longer the case.

Aside from one short spell in my life where I shunned meat on the occasional day - the sad story is retold here - I've always had the cow at least three times a week, at one of the three designated eating periods, or in between them.

In the past, I've had frequent visits to the concept of beef jerky, and they've been mixed. Sometimes I've wondered why someone would bother ruining a good slice of beef by turning it into a hard and dry tasteless shoe sole, but on other occasions, I've marvelled at the slowly yielding texture, with each chew releasing yet another wave of seasoned beefiness into my greedy gob-hole.

When I saw a bunch of beef jerky recipes on the interweb, I decided to go for it. However, a rummage through the meat collection revealed no suitable beef. There was, however, a venison fillet. The beef jerky recipe I was interested in following used chilli and spices. I thought for a moment, and soon realised that whilst such seasoning would be great with beef, it might not work with venison so well. There was nothing for it; it was invention time!

I sliced the venison fillet very thinly; it weighed in at around 400g. I popped it in the freezer for 20 minutes and used my Wusthof fish filleting knife to get the slices as delicate as possible. Then I finely diced a couple of shallots. These went into a plastic bag, along with the venison, 10g of coarse salt, 10g of cracked black pepper, 10g of ground juniper berries, one teaspoon of redcurrant jelly and a glug of port. The bag then went into the fridge for 48 hours, being massaged and messed around with every time I opened the fridge.

After the allotted time had passed, I removed the venison, shook off the bits of shallot, and placed them over the rack from a large roasting pan. It was time to dry them. Everything I read said dry it slowly. My cooker has three ovens. One is conventional, one is fan-assisted, and third is what is called a warming oven. In the many years I've owned the cooker, I've never even turned on the warming oven. I'm not a warming oven kind of person.

You have no control of the warming oven. It's either on or off. The spec for the cooker doesn't say how hot it gets, but it does say it will keep hot plates warm. I figured if they're hot when they go in, keeping them warm is no big deal. Even so, I decided to check.

In my previous post, I said I broke my thermometer. This is how I did it! Was it a cooking thermometer? Of course not. It was one for a normal room. I used it for checking the temperature in the room I use for brewing beer. I figured the warming oven wouldn't be too hot, so I switched it on and put the thermometer in there. I checked it 20 minutes later, and it read 35 degrees C/95 degrees F. Perfect! I wanted to be doubly sure, so I popped it back in while I had my dinner. Another 20 minutes later, and I checked the second time. The mercury had gone off the scale, and the little bulb thing (thermometer experts will know what it's called, but I don't) had exploded. Ballsacks!

The end result was that after cleaning the warming oven out, the jerky went in with the door opened. This was at around 9.30pm. I checked it again at around 6am, and it was dried! After cooling, it went into a plastic bowl, and into the fridge.

It is, in reality, a revelation. The initial bite is tasteless and hard. Then, with each chew, it softens slightly, giving up wave after wave of sweet and spicy flavour, the venison still shining through. It has a depth that grows on a daily basis, although I won't be able to find its true depth, because I can't ignore it. Soon I will have eaten the bloody lot!

At first I did question whether I'd wasted a perfectly good - albeit small - venison fillet. Now I know it has transformed into something special, something delicious, something that adds a five minute burst of pleasure into an otherwise ordinary day.

Right; I'm off to the fridge!

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

First Fail - Duck Prosciutto

The second attempt at making anything closely resembling real-world charcuterie came in the form of duck prosciutto. I aimed for the duck for two reasons. Firstly, it seemed simple and needed little more than a square of muslin and a piece of string, with regards to equipment. Oh, and a bowl, which I also had knocking around in the kitchen. Secondly, I had some duck. A few months ago a leading supermarket that has ideas above its station, with a name that begins with W and ends with aitrose, was doing a special on Greshingham duck crowns. I bought a bunch of them, but didn't eat them as I tend to prefer Mallard. I knew there would be one in the freezer, so I dug it out and whipped off the breasts (ooh, err, Matron - yes, I am still about ten years old in my head).

The recipe was a direct lift from the aforementioned 'Charcuterie book', so I covered the breasts in salt and waited the prescribed 48 hours. I can't be sure whether the breasts were big (oh, stop it), whether the process was slower than described, or whether I just panicked a bit, but they didn't seem to have firmed up. The breasts felt a bit wobbly to me (right, stop sniggering) so I popped them back in the salt for another 24 hours.

Once cured, I rinsed them off, dried them and dusted with ground white pepper. In truth, I find white pepper a bit too floral for my palate. Give me the rougher assault of black pepper any day. On the subject of black pepper, the king has to be Kampot Pepper. Whenever I'm in Cambodia I always pick some up; I've yet to find anyone in the UK that sells it. Some pretend to, but that first taste gives away their lies!

Anyway, once dusted, I wrapped the breasts in Muslin and set about finding somewhere to hang them. The recommended temperature is between 8 and 15 degrees C, with high humidity. There are a lot of theories about this; some threaten pestilence and poisoning if the temperatures are out by even a tiny amount, whilst others say it doesn't really matter so long as you don't hang the duck in the heart of the sun. I figured that old Italian peasants (other peasants are available) had neither regulated temperatures nor humidity, so I first hung them in the outhouse. This can be cool at times, but with the boiler running it reached around 25 degrees C, so I moved them to the shed. Overnight, the temperature fell to 1 degree C, so in the end I moved them under the stairs. I don't know what the temperature was, as I broke the thermometer (details in the next post), but I thought, 'what the hell' and left them there.

Seven days later came the unveiling. They looked okay, which was promising. However, there were a few issues. Firstly, the skin was very tough, a bit like perished rubber in places. Secondly, there was a slightly salty undertone; not pleasantly salty, but almost over-salted. This is probably due to the additional day. Finally, and most importantly, the white pepper totally overpowered them. Admittedly, the recipe did call for 1.5g of pepper, and I probably used 15g. You see the white pepper crust in the photograph!

Still, a lesson learned, as they say. The process worked well, but the end result could have (should have) been better. My next attempt will use five spice rather than pepper.

Monday, 18 February 2013

A simple start - Cured Salmon

If I was to be brutally honest, I'd have to say that salmon is one of the few fish that don't really get me excited. Don't get me wrong, I eat it, and on occasions I enjoy it, but all too often, it's just dull. I don't dislike salmon, but the tediousness which it delivers often leaves me searching elsewhere on a menu. There are exceptions; the Blue Elephant's Salmon Laab - a spicy fresh Thai salad - is highly recommended, as is a good salmon tartare with capers.

It therefore stands to reason that when I made my very first step into charcuterie, is was not with salmon. Well, actually it was! Here's why. Many of the other dishes (do you call charcuterie items dishes, or do they have some other designation?) took timescales of six or seven days minimum (or required equipment I didn't, at the time, have), but the salmon only took three days and needed a glass dish (well, two dishes). Also, Mrs IG - like most ladies - likes the salmon, and when Mrs IG is happy, my world is a quieter place with less resistance to my moments of insanity.

For anyone reading this who hasn't read my other tome of idiocy, the Idiot Gardener, the reason that my other half is referred to as Mrs IG (rather than Mrs IC) is because of frequent references to her in that blog. I don't want people thinking I've adopted polygamy!

So, back to the salmon. I went to see Jimmy the Fish, but all of his salmon fillets were scrappy small bits, and I wanted a large fillet. That's the problem with going to see a fishmonger late in the day! All he had in a decent size was a salmon loin. I figured that would do, so purchased a piece of around 1 kilo in weight. It was a bit thicker than I had expected, but I couldn't be bothered to fanny around and slice it in two so worked with it as it came!

I based my process on the fennel-cured salmon in 'Charcuterie' by Micheal Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn. I say based, because I wasn't really prepared, and didn't have the right ingredients! With regard to the book, I'll write my thoughts on it once I've finished reading it and trying out some of the methods. I will say that whilst it has seemingly developed a bit of a fan base - a point I was unaware of when I originally bought it - I have found that it skimps on some vital information. Anyway, that's for another day.

I mixed up 135g of coarse sea salt, 200g of brown sugar, 10g of ground black pepper and 120ml of Pastis. It's a sure sign of getting old when you use Pastis for cooking. As a lad, we favoured Pastis for its ability to get you raging at night, then after a sleep you'd awake sober, until that first cup of coffee, when you'd be pissed out of your head again.

Anyhow, I spread half the mixture in a glass dish, laid on the salmon, and covered it with the remainder of the mixture. Then I put some clingfilm over the top, and added another dish of the same size to press down on the loin. I weighted this with a few 1 litre bottles of vodka, and left it for 24 hours. When I went to turn it over, there was a thick stodge in the bottom of the dish. I stirred this up into a semi-liquid form with my fingers (saves on the washing up), flipped the salmon, and redistributed the goo. Then it went back in for another 24 hours.

After 48 hours it was supposed to come out, but it still felt a bit soft, probably due to its thickness, so I restirred the stodge, turned the salmon once more, and back in it went for 24 hours. Once the time was up I rinsed it off, dried it, and it went on a rack in the fridge for another 24 hours to dry.

Then it was time. Thinly slice with some rocket and tomato, and a few beads of balsamic vinegar, it was - quite frankly - delicious. It had a full-on salmon taste, with a slight background of aniseed from the Pastis, and a little heat from the black pepper. The texture was firm, but not dry or hard, and it had no saltiness above and beyond what you'd expect.

With shop-bought smoked salmon being bloody expensive, bland and often greasy, I think the IG household will no longer be purchasing such products. The ability to add flavours (I'm going for juniper next) makes this simple cured salmon a breeze and more flexible than a Chinese contortionist. More importantly, Mrs IG loved it!

Also, I am now looking at the salmon through very different eyes!

Friday, 15 February 2013

It started with a kiss...

Okay, it didn't start with a kiss. Or did it? Did kissing Lorraine, the butcher's daughter, start me down this strange and twisted path? Maybe not! Did my passion for the pig come from even earlier times?

When I was a child - yes, I was once one of those small innocent things that strangers coo over and families bear upon their shoulders with pride - I was an utter bastard for taking bites out of things in shops. I'd reach out from the pram, snatch something and it would be in my mouth before you could say, 'Oi Missus, you bastarding child has just swiped something and taken a bite out of it!'

So, what were these tasty tidbits I couldn't resist? Was it sugary cakes or sweets? No, 'twas not! Maybe fruit or vegetables? No, wrong again. It was pork products, typically raw ones. Black puddings were my first choice, apparently. I say apparently, because being of an age when I had to be wheeled around by an adult, I have no memory of this. Black puddings, sausages, even the odd pork chop. Back in the days before supermarkets, when real meat was displayed for real people to buy, the Mother had to take care where she parked the pram!

Over the years, I've eaten most meats; all the butchers' meats, along with every type of game, and many exotic meats, especially those prevalent in the Asian region! I've not only eaten a wide variety of meat, but I've probably eaten a wide variety of cuts and internals, and arguably every bit of the pig.

It's fair to say that I like meat.

So, why charcuterie? Why not. Well, in truth, I was buying some cookery books on-line a few years ago, and in order to get free next-day delivery I had to spen a certain amount. My selections fell slightly short of the magical figure, so I made the amount up with a book about charcuterie. I had no intention of doing anything. It was more something to read, and to see if I could nick a few ideas about flavour combinations. That book has sat, untouched, on the shelves of cookery books in my kitchen since then.

The other evening, I saw that unloved and unread book, and I felt a little guiulty that I hadn't even opened it. I plucked it off the shelf and started reading. By midnight, I was on-line, searching for Prague Powder.

I know how to cook, I know how to brew and I know how to eat meat. Charcuterie? Not a bloody clue. But I shall learn. Along the way, I might cock things up. I might even make myself ill. Hopefully, I won't die. But if I do, then that's what it's going to take.

What can go wrong?

This blog is predominantly intended to remind myself of how badly I get things wrong, but it might turn out to a journey to the peak of perfect bacon, sausages, hams, cured and smoked meats, preserved fish and all things tasty and succulent. However, I doubt it...