About this blog...

Food has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. Food and the festivities surrounding its arrival to the table has always been a focal point in our family. For many years I have been amassing the cookbooks, recipe cards, cooking journals, diaries, manuscripts and clipping files of our once extensive family.

Personally, I’ve been professionally involved with food for over 40 years in numerous and varied culinary capacities across the country so I also have the collected stories, as well as current and on-going food-related experiences from my own life I’d like to share.

My idea has long been that someday I would bring all of this marvelous raw material together into a culinary journey through our family’s heritage. This journal is the beginnings of that journey.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Life and Death on the Ranch

The arrival life and passing of death are little more than conceptual appurtenances in the daily lives of most people.  They are things to be philosophized about in hushed tones and deep, abstract conversations, if discussed at all.  To actively observe (let alone participate) in either is a rare and notable event; "Life and Death situations" are few and far between for most of us.  I think we are collectively a little less as a people for being so removed from things so important.
Farm life, where "Life and Death situations" are regular occurrences, brings one much closer to this constant and natural ebb and flow then many people normally get. Here on The Ranch, there are new lives being created and entering our world all the time.  We are a very small operation and it is not unusual for us to have 125-150 babies here every year.  That's nearly one every third day on average (although they never come spread out over a whole year like that).  

We just kicked-off our 2011 kidding season 11 days ago and have already had 40 kids born (my excuse for not posting recently), but the magic of seeing new life born never gets old.
Some of this week's "kid-crop"
Death is also something we deal with on a more than passing basis.  While we very rarely lose animals to sickness or injury we have had to "put to sleep" a few of our 4-legged partners and friends due to age or infirmity over the years. We also raise almost all of our own food here which includes the slaughtering and butchering of dozens of chickens, a couple of pigs, at least one steer a year and sometimes a goat or two.
Goats are the hardest, for me at least.  Our goats are not only the foundation of our core business but they are the reason we are in business.  We tell people that we got into making cheese and that we started the dairy to "Support out Goat Habit", which is the honest truth.  We both love these intelligent, goofy, and productive creatures who act more like pets than livestock. Never the less, we do still eat goat from time to time.
A week ago we had an incident where glorious new life and tragic death happened almost simultaneously.  One of our excellent milking does from last year "Blackie" had developed mobility problems late in her pregnancy and had actually been "down" for the last 5 weeks.  My wife, Kathryn (also our herd manager) tended to her on an almost hourly basis, bringing her food, water, turning her regularly to keep her comfortable etc.  We had a cold & wet stretch of weather a couple of weeks ago and we actually brought her into our bedroom to live for a few days. 
Blackie in our bedroom
Our hope had been that upon kidding she would recover and, again, be a productive part of our herd but as her due-date approached she started to deteriorate rapidly.  It was clear that Blackie was not going to recover but Kathryn used all her skills and resources to keep Blackie and her unborn babies alive, one day at a time, until we could reasonably expect the kids to live upon birth.
When her kidding day came Blackie was already having a hard time keeping her body going.  The first two kids came out pretty easily but the third one just wouldn't come out.  Blackie was just too tired to do the necessary pushing so Kathryn "went in" and tried to help.  The kid was in  a bad position and it was a long and difficult time for all of us.  In the end, the kid was born dead and Blackie was exhausted and hurting.  As hard as it was, the only decent thing to do was to euthanize her as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Kathryn took the two surviving kids away and it fell to me to kill her.  The best way in this situation is a shot to the head.  I've had to do this a few times before and it is never easy but as I placed the muzzle of the revolver to her head and prepared to pull the trigger, I couldn't help but remember one of my very first experiences with a goat...
Got My Goat
Tucson AZ,1981
I  was working the kitchen of the restaurant of a hotel just off the freeway.  I’d hit it off with a guy named Vance, one of the waiters.  Over a short time we’d become friends.  Not buddies or pals or male-bonded-type of friends, just friends.  We had found that we shared some common interests and while our lifestyles were worlds apart we enjoyed each others company from time to time and liked doing some things together.
Vance lived in a small community of rented-out mobile homes and trailers in a semi-rural area north of town.  The area was in the county, just outside the city limits and while it wasn’t ever going to be Park Place, most of the homes were parked on good-sized lots.  Zoning was rather lenient.  Many of his neighbors kept small livestock and Vance had acquired quite a menagerie of his own including some chickens, several rabbits, a ton of cats and a couple of goats.
I would visit Vance occasionally, going over to his place every week or so for a poker game with him and his ever-changing assortment of animal and human “roommates”.  Sometimes we’d drink a lot of beer and play cards very late into the night.  Following one such session I found myself suddenly a business partner with Vance after he lost a hand to me that included ½ interest in all his animals.  A few days later, when things were much clearer to both of us, we discussed the arrangement and decided that he would retain full possession of the beasts and be responsible for feeding and taking care of them.  I would simply get some rabbit meat, chicken, eggs etc from him until I was paid back a cash equivalent of my stake in the critters.
Let me tell you a bit about Vance.  He was quite a character.  Younger than me by a few years, he was tall and awkwardly lanky, very soft spoken but quick to laugh.  He had a heart of gold and was a sucker for strays, be they any kind of animal or, more commonly, the two-legged kind who he was always taking in.  He was unabashedly homosexual and while not a flashy or flamboyant man, he never tried to hide who he was.  He was also a practicing psychic.  Not the kind on TV or the ones at the other end of a $12.00 per-minute-phone-call.  He was an apostle in a certified psychic church (and was later ordained as a minister there).  All of these things made him something of an oddity in his neighborhood of mostly low-income, poorly educated dead-enders for whom “odd” meant different and different meant he didn’t belong.
Vance regularly fielded anonymous threats stuffed into his mail box, or had to pick up bags of trash which had been thrown onto his front yard, or endure regular  rude comments and verbal assaults from those living near him, all of which he took in stride, minding his own business.
One day I took a call at home from Vance.  He was in tears and sobbing.  Eventually I was able to piece together that something had happened to one of “our” goats, and he wanted me to come over.  15 minutes later I drove up to his trailer and found him, crying, standing over the prone body of what I assumed to be the afflicted beast.  I had never really taken much notice of the goats.  I have no clue what breed they might have been or even if they were mostly males, females or some of each.
In looking at the one lying on the ground at Vance’s feet I could tell it was in bad shape; rapid shallow breaths, grinding teeth, wild, bulging eyes, the occasional kick of a leg.  Vance bent down and was apparently saying something to it when he saw me.  He stood and approached me spilling out a story in rapid gasps.  According to him, the goat had been poisoned by one of the neighbors.  He said it was in a lot of pain and he didn’t think there was anything that could be done for it.  The reason he’d called me was to put it out of its misery.  He just couldn’t face doing it.
I had never done anything like that in my life and hadn’t the first idea how it should be done, let alone the question of IF I could handle doing it.  Vance said he had it all figured out.  His neighbor to the east, who had seen the downed animal, had told him that he had a handgun in his trailer and that Vance could borrow it to use in dispatching the goat, if he wanted to.  This was something of a surprise to me because this neighbor had always been one of Vance’s biggest antagonists there.
I mentioned the neighbor’s apparent character inconsistency and Vance agreed it was odd.  He said that he seriously suspected that this same neighbor had been the one who poisoned the goat to start with but couldn’t prove it.  He thought that the guy really wanted to help now.  “Maybe he has a guilty conscience or something”, Vance offered.
Vance was an incredibly trusting and often naive sole sometimes but what could I say?  The whole situation was making me very nervous and uncomfortable but he was my friend and his obvious distress (and that of the goat as well) prompted me to do whatever I could to help.
I had never fired a handgun before and knew nothing at all about them but I went over to the neighbor’s trailer to ask to borrow his firearm.  He invited me in, somewhat suspiciously I thought, and brought me to his kitchen table.  I saw the gun on the table and a box of rounds for it on the window sill behind it.  The man took up the gun gave me a quick demo on its use when I told him I didn’t know how to use it.  He described it as a .22 caliber revolver “incredibly easy, even fool-proof to shoot”.  He showed me just what to do, even offering the best place to shoot the poor, dying goat; “right between the eyes” he said.
Finding myself armed (and probably pretty dangerous in all my ignorance) I headed back to Vance’s.  We decided that there was no sense in putting off the inevitable any longer.  The goat, still on its side, now moaned, spasms shaking its body.  Vance bent down once again and whispered something in the goat’s ear, stood, nodded to me and headed off to the other side of the yard.
As I brought the barrel of that old six-shooter toward the goat’s forehead he (she?) became very still, perhaps understanding that we were just trying to end its pain.  I touched the tip of the gun to a spot on its fur between and just above the eyes and squeezed the trigger. 
Simultaneously two things happened.  First there was a very small sound from the gun, the merest “pop”.  An amazingly small noise.  At the same time, even as I was registering that sound, the goat kicked with all four legs and shrieked, its tongue protruding out of the open mouth.  I jumped back as it gave out another horrific cry, staring wild-eyed at me and writhing.  All I could think was “This isn’t right.  It’s not acting dead.  It’s supposed to be dead”.
It definitely was not dead.  I saw Vance re-approaching with horror and pain on his face.  I can only imagine what mine was showing.  I told Vance that I though that maybe the gun had mis-fired and asked him if I should try again.  He was practically beside himself, pacing back and forth, brow furrowed, tears running down his face, but he nodded and quickly retreated from the scene again.
The goat was calming a little and I really wanted to get this over with.  I quickly bent over again and went to align the gun barrel again when I noticed a definite blood spot marking the place where I’d shot before.  I couldn’t believe it.  I’d really shot this animal in the head and it had just scratched it?  What the heck was going on?  Not wanting to take any more time to think about what I was doing, I again pressed the gun to the goat’s skull, in the same place, and fired.
The gun made the same anemic “popping” noise but, fortunately, the goat was silent this time.  Vance was looking over from across the lawn and I was about to wave him over when I thought I saw breathing from the goat.  I help up my hand to Vance for him to wait up a minute while I watched the slow rhythmic rise and fall of the goat’s middle.  This couldn’t really be happening could it?  It was just too much to believe.
I motioned Vance to back away again and before I a chance to think at all, I once again put the gun to the goat’s head, (this time more to the side and nearer the eye) and fired.  And I didn’t just fire once.  I emptied the remaining 4 rounds into that goat’s head as fast as I could pull the trigger.
This time it worked.  The goat was finally dead.  I felt really terrible about botching the job on the first couple of tries and apologized to Vance.  Mostly I hoped that the goat hadn’t suffered too much.
The episode had really drained me and I begged-off helping him bury the animal.  I returned the gun to the neighbor then returned to Vance’s yard to say a quick good-bye before leaving.  Through his sorrow he thanked me for my efforts in helping out and walked me to my truck.
As we got to the street we were surprised as two Sheriff’s Patrol cars approached, with lights flashing, and pulled over in right front of us, effectively boxing in my truck.  The officers emerged from their vehicles, tense but polite and told us that they were responding to a report of gun shots at this address, and did we know anything about it?  Could this day get any worse?
We explained the whole sad tale to the officers, only omitting my incompetence at killing.  They took copious notes and asked lots of questions.  Apparently we had broken quite a few laws regarding discharging a firearm in a populated area etc. and it looked like we (actually me, since I was the only one doing the shooting) were going to get in some pretty serious trouble.  When they asked where the gun was now, I told them that I had returned it to its owner.  They then asked who the owner was but when Vance gave them the name they stopped for a second, looking at each other strangely.  They repeated the name back to us and Vance said that it was correct.
One of the officers then read off an address and asked if that was where the man who had lent us the gun lived.  How odd.  We hadn’t given them the address, but it was correct.  Vance told them that, yes that was his address and pointed toward the house next door.  As he pointed we all looked that way and saw him sitting on his porch watching us watch him.  He had a beer in his hand and was showing the biggest grin with the fewest teeth I can ever remember seeing all at once.  He looked very pleased with himself and suddenly things became much, much clearer.
It was he who had called the cops on us after loaning us the gun to use in the first place, and it was surely he who had poisoned the goat in the first place.  What a game he’d been playing at our expense!  I think it was clear to the deputies as well what was going on because they quickly became more civil with us and even dismissive of the situation.  After a couple more questions they let us (me) off with a warning not to do it again and sauntered over to the neighbors porch.  I didn’t hang around long but later Vance told me that they had stayed and talked with the neighbor for quite a while.  He was not smiling when they left.
That was my first ever experience with goats.  I later learned that the forehead is the worst possible place to shoot a goat for any effect and a .22 is really too small a caliber to be effective for the task at all.  Goat skulls are, quite logically, incredibly thick and tremendously hard (just think of all that head-butting they do for fun!).  I guess that was just another cruel joke on us by the neighbor.
Back to the present
I knelt down behind Blackie and stroked her neck and gave her a small handful of animal crackers to nibble on as I pressed the .357 magnum to the BACK of her head, aiming it to exit out the nose or chin area and fired. She died instantly, cleanly and, completely unaware of what was going on.  Exactly as it should be.  Blackie is buried on our property with her kid that died in childbirth.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Some Thoughts on Meat and Spoilage

A couple of days ago I was down getting something out of one of our big chest freezers and caught a whiff of something "off".  A few minutes of sniffing around the room found the source: a 2 lb package of ground lamb that had somehow fallen down beside the freezer, onto of a case of paper towels.  It was right in front of the fan vent for the freezer (where all the hot air is expelled) and the package was limp and warm to the touch.  Oof-dah!
I know exactly when the meat got lost... February 5th, 10 full days previous to my finding it. We'd ground it on the 2nd, got it packaged and sent to the freezer on the 5th.  I'm sure that's when it must have fallen out of the bus tub in which we were toting it and slid down beside the freezer.
Being a frugal guy (to a fault sometimes, I suppose), I didn't want to just throw the meat away and took it to the kitchen to cook up for the dogs.  To my surprise, upon opening it,  the meat looked fine.  It was bright red and juicy-looking without any discoloring or slime.  Girding myself, I took a whiff.  It smelled good!  The "off" smell I'd caught in the store room was that sour smell of the blood that had leaked out of the package.  Once the soggy butcher wrap was removed, the meat itself actually smelled fine.
As I cooked the lamb in a sauté pan, my mouth actually watering from the aroma.  Visions of moussaka danced in my head and I was tempted to season it up and make lunch.  "Tempted", yes  but while I may be crazy, I'm but not that stupid.  I finished cooking it well-done and tossed it out for the dogs who devoured it in seconds.
But it got me thinking.  How many times, in the years before we began growing and processing almost all our own food, had we purchased meat from a grocery store, dutifully kept it refrigerated at the recommended 38*F, only to fine it slimy, green and putrid in a few days?
According to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service guidelines for storing meat in the refrigerator...
  • Raw ground meats, all poultry, seafood, and variety meats: Refrigerate 1 to 2 days.
  • Raw roasts, steaks, and chops (beef, veal, lamb, and pork):  Refrigerate 3 to 5 days.
  • Cooked meat, poultry, and seafood: Store in the refrigerator 3 to 4 days.

Two days? At 38*F? How then did my ground lamb survive a week and a half at 80-90*F?  Here are some random thoughts on this, in no particular order...
1.  It didn't actually "survive".  Just because it smelled and looked great, doesn't mean that it  didn't have some significant harmful bacterial growth.  Maybe I should have eaten just a bit to test this theory?  Too late to know now.
2.  The meat we buy in the store isn't as young as it seems.  Even if it was just ground that very day, the animal almost certainly wasn't just slaughtered.  Even assuming that the carcass wasn't "aged" (virtually no consumer-quality meat is any more), it still took several days, maybe as long as a week, for it to get butchered, packaged, shipped to the distributor, re-shipped to the grocery store, and processed by the meat department.  So the USDA's 1-2 day storage guideline is just the tail end of a much longer production timeline.
On the other hand, my ground lamb wasn't just slaughtered either.  We killed the sheep last summer and hung the carcasses for 5 days at 40*F before butchering them.  The butchering had taken a couple of days to do and to get the meat packaged and to the freezer.  I'd pulled the meat for grinding out of the freezer about 5 days before actually doing the grinding and allowed it to thaw slowly in a 38*F fridge (it was still "hard-chilled" when I ground it), and then, of course there were a few days of grinding/packaging here too.
So time alone doesn't seem to be the factor.
3.  Sanitation.  As clean and as careful as we are with our slaughtering and  butchering projects, I'd like to believe that when it's done industrially, they can do it better.
I slaughter outdoors and usually hang the carcasses in an open shed while I skin and gut the animal, moving it to the kitchen on a lined pallet with our forklift. 

Once inside, our sanitation standards are as high as anyone's (we are a licensed dairy, inspected by half a dozen local, state and federal agencies) but meat processing is only an off-season sideline for us.  One would think that full-time, high volume slaughter facilities would be better equipped with tighter controls on all aspects of their processing.  Perhaps this is not the case or, possibly the animals themselves are the problem.
4.  The Animals/ The System.  The few animals we slaughter and butcher here are quite different than those Confined Animal Feed Operations (CAFO) produce.
CAFO meat (nearly all the meat we see in stores) comes from animals who have been dry-lotted (penned in close confinement) for as much as the last couple of years of their lives.  They are fed a medicated, predominantly grain diet in questionable sanitary environments, transported long distances under difficult conditions, and killed and processed at an incredible rate.  As an example, there is a hog slaughter facility in North Carolina that employs about 5000 workers and which is capable of processing 32,000 (thirty-two thousand!) animals PER DAY.   This high-speed, assembly-line approach is to thank for helping keep food prices in the USA some of the lowest in the world, and allows us to efficiently feed more people with fewer farmers and ranchers and processors than anywhere else.  Unfortunately it is not the best system for the animals nor for a healthy, safe and sustainable food supply. 
The industry, in addressing health and safety concerns, has opted to attack the symptoms of the problem rather than the root causes.  Our commercial meat supply animals are prophylactically treated with broad-spectrum antibiotics to help prevent diseases caused by their unnatural environments and diets.  The meat is bathed in UV lighting, and treated with ammonia in an attempt to kill dangerous pathogens  on the meat (which should not be there in the first place) before they make people sick.  We are no longer allowed to buy many of the delightful "variety meats", like blood, brains and certain internal organs from most of the animals slaughtered because they have been determined  to be possible sources of disease (like "mad cow disease" - a disease primarily propagated by feeding infected animal byproducts back to normally herbaceous animals) - at the very least, this is a criminal waste.  We are told to always cook our meat well-done as if we should accept and expect our food to be contaminated when we buy it.
Our Meat
We like to say that the animals who supply our meat have "just one bad day in their whole lives". They are pasture-raised until the day they die, usually free-range on our 280 acres of high desert rangeland (though sometimes from a neighbor's irrigated fields).  
We have never given a single one any antibiotics.  They are offered a little bit of grain (a few pounds per day) during the last few weeks of their lives to help lay down a bit of extra fat and even that is withheld for the last 48 hours (this helps flush their systems of many of the bad microorganisms responsible for tainted meat commercially).   The ones we don't slaughter here are transported, by us in our little stock trailer, about 10 miles to a family-run USDA-inspected facility in town that processes about 20 animals a WEEK.
This system, while inherently inefficient, by comparison to industrial standards, certainly has the advantage from an animal welfare perspective and, I would think, from most other perspectives as well except for cost and speed.  As a bonus, I have no compunction about eating bloody rare steaks and burgers, medium rare liver or pink-on-the-bone pork or chicken from our own animals.  AND, I get to use all the odd bits an pieces that come from a carcass as I wish.
In Closing
I sort-of got off the main point there for a bit.  Or did I?  I suspect that my ground lamb didn't rot while sitting for 10 days at a very warm room temperature because of a combination of all these variables.  The meat was just plain healthier when it got misplaced, having come from healthier animals, and healthier environments and as such, was a poorer medium for growing the organisms that cause decay.  That's my  story and I'm sticking to it.  Other thoughts are welcome.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Dauphinoise Potatoes

Yesterday I made a big pan of Dauphinoise Potatoes (also known as d'Auphinoise).  These are like a very rich, very garlicky  potato gratin.  They go great with lamb, which is what I made for Valentine's Day dinner last night.
I started by separating the cream from 10 gallons of our own goat's milk.  Click here for a detailed post on this process.  I got about 5 quarts today and will be using about half of it in the Dauphinoise (did I mention they were rich?).  The other half I churned into goat's milk butter.  Take this link to a post all about how to do that.
So, for the potatoes, I peeled and chopped one large head (yes "head", not clove) of garlic, and washed and sliced 10 lbs of red potatoes about 1/4" thick.
I put these in a heavy-bottomed pot (important so it doesn't scorch during the initial stove-top cooking) and added just enough of the heavy cream to cover it all then brought the mix to a very low boil.
I continued cooking this on the range, keeping the flame as low as possible, and stirring regularly, for about 45 minutes, until the potatoes were just starting to soften.  I then poured the whole pot-full into a lightly greased (actually I used cooking spray) 4" half hotel pan.
I covered The pan with plastic wrap followed by heavy foil and baked it at 325F for about an hour.  While it baked I grated  2 lbs of  our house-made Monterey Jack cheese in the food processor.
I took the potatoes out of the oven and turned the heat up to 375F.  I uncovered the potatoes and spread the cheese evenly over the surface and popped them back in just long enough to melt and slightly brown the cheese.
After cooling, the potatoes set up pretty firmly and can be cut for re-heating or freezing.
Our Valentine's Dinner:  Home-butchered Lamb chops, Dauphinoise Potatoes and Sliced Tomatoes Kathryn just picked from our greenhouse that morning, and a nice bottle of champagne!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Machaca Enchiladas

I took all that great shank meat I'd  braised (click here to go to that post) and made machaca beef out of it.  About half of it went into enchiladas and the rest I froze in Qt zipper bags for future use.
I started with about 5 lbs of braised beef shank meat that had been well-cleaned of fat, sinew and bone pieces, and cut it into rough 1/2 - 3/4" chunks and cooked it with some fresh chopped garlic, a couple of chopped onions and a few chopped tomatoes.  When the onions were soft, I added in the retained and de-fatted braising liquid from the shanks (which had set up into a firm jelly in the fridge), covered the pot and cooked it for about an hour until the meat was moist and starting to fall apart, the liquid had reduced a little and the flavors well melded.
While the machaca was cooking I made a quick red chile sauce.  I'd run out of the dry mild red chiles I like to use for this so I sautéed some onions and garlic, covered them with water, added some dry Ancho Chile powder and cooked it all together for about 30 minutes.  I then pureed the sauce in the food processor, put it back on the stove and thickened it slightly with flour.
I also pulled out  3 dozen 6" corn tortillas (we have a great little tortilla shop right in town where I get these), and grated about 2 lbs of the Monterey Jack.
When the machaca was done it was time to assemble the enchiladas.
Traditionally the tortillas would be briefly dipped in very hot fat to soften them and make them easier to roll and better to hold up to the high-moisture filling.  I just didn't feel like I needed all that extra fat today so I spritzed one side of each tortilla with cooking spray and heated them in a dry sauté pan, turning and stacking them as I went until I had them all heated.  I knew they would be a little harder to work with and that some would inevitably break but I was going to pack the enchiladas tightly into a 2" full hotel pan and bake them right away anyway so a few "uglies" weren't going to ruin my day.
Working quickly, right in the lightly greased hotel pan, I took each tortilla in turn, popped a serving spoon full of filling in each one, rolled it up, pushed it to the end of the pan and started the next one.  The tortillas actually behaved themselves quite well overall and 2 rows of 18 enchiladas filled the pan fully.
Next I poured the prepared red chile sauce over the enchiladas and spread it around evenly.  The I toped the whole pan with the Jack cheese, covered the pan with plastic wrap then foil and baked it for about 45 minutes at 325F (convection oven setting).
I pulled off the covers for the last 15 minutes to brown the cheese. 

 After cooling and chilling overnight I packaged the enchiladas into serving-sized portions and froze them for easy meals for the coming (VERY soon!) busy kidding season here at the Ranch.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Boston Baked Beans

I made a pan of Boston Baked Beans today.
As a New England boy, I grew up with these beans and, having just finished making about a year's supply of hotdogs (click here to jump to that post), Franks & Beans (maybe even with a side of Brown Bread - a dense steamed quick bread made with molasses and raisins) came to mind as a meal we needed to have soon.
I've made these so many times that I don't use a recipe but I can give you a rough description of the ingredients and process...
Yesterday I started soaking one pound of small white beans.  This morning I drained them, gave them a quick rinse and put them in a large pot filled with water to a couple of inches over the beans, brought them to a boil then simmered them, covered, for several hours until they were soft but not falling apart. There was still a good amount of water covering the beans at the end.
When the beans were ready I turned the heat up to high chopped about pound of home-smoked bacon (click here for more details) ends and scraps and added them to the pot along with a large chopped onion.
Once it was bubbling well I added (and these will all be very rough measures) about a cup of molasses, a cup of ketchup, a dollop of Dijon mustard, a cup of brown sugar, 1/2 cup real maple syrup and a little salt.
After bringing it back to a boil, I poured the bean mix into a lightly greased 4" half hotel pan, covered it with plastic wrap followed by heavy aluminum foil (the plastic keeps the foil from getting corroded by the acidity of the bean sauce during the long cooking time), then popped the pan in the oven at 350F for a couple of hours.
After two hours I turned down the heat to 275F and continued baking the beans for another 3 hours.  You don't want the beans to get too dry or burn so checking part way through and adding more water if necessary.
The beans came out great.  Thick, rich and sweet with a nice smokiness from the bacon.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Meat Grinding and Sausage Making 2011 - part 4

Today I smoked the hotdogs and Andouille sausages.
I set up the smoker, soaked the hickory chips for a while then fired it up.
Both the sausages I'm smoking today get hot smoked at similar temperatures but I had so many of them I couldn't do them all at the same time.  I chose to smoke the hotdogs first and moved them from the rack inside where they had been hanging overnight to the smoke box.
The hotdogs needed to be dried a little more so I kept the heat down to about 120F for the first 30 minutes, then wanted to apply a heavy smudge of smoke before setting the temp to about 165 for the rest of the smoking process.  Usually I just crank the heat up to high and smoke is billowing out in a few minutes but not this time.  The box got hot , but no smoke.  The only thing I can think of is that I hadn't drained the chips enough and they were still too wet to start smoldering (which produces the smoke).  Not wanting to cook the dogs too much before there was any smoke I pulled them out until the smoke got going.  It took about 20 minutes before the smoker was ready and I could put the hotdogs back in.
Then had trouble getting the temperature to settle down where I wanted it.  First it was too hot, getting near to 200F.  I made some adjustments to the flame and venting, came back a little while later and it was down to 140F.  It was a little windy today which is always a challenge and Kathryn noticed that the tank of propane I was using was pretty low both of which may have contributed to the problem. I changed out the propane but the temps still went back and forth a  few times before I finally got it to stay around 160-165F.
About 3 hours later, the dogs were at about 155F internal temperature so I pulled them out and with Kathryn's help sprayed them down with cold water.  This stops the cooking process, starts to chill them down and helps prevent the casings from shrinking too much which would lead to wrinkled, puckery sausages.
After examining the dogs after their shower I found that all that temperature fluctuation (probably in conjunction with some of the strings of dogs being longer than they should have been) had caused some problems.  A few of the lowest hanging dogs had gotten overcooked and a couple even dried and burnt a bit on the tips.  They were just too close to the heat source, I guess.  The ranch dogs will enjoy them just fine.  Fortunately, most of the hotdogs came out fine.
Once the dogs were out, I hung the Andouilles in the smoker and adjusted the temperature to 180.  It stayed pretty well around this number for the whole time and about 4 hours later the sausages got to 155F (internal temperature) and were done.
I pulled them out and, again, gave them a good spray of cold water for cooling and to tighten the casings, then popped them into the fridge.
I hope to package and freeze both these types of sausage tomorrow.
In other food news…
For lunch today we opened the second (of three) brie I’d made starting in December.  I’d left this one in the 50F ripening fridge for a couple of week longer than the first and it was much softer all the way through but also quite a bit stronger flavored.  I liked it a lot but there's no denying, it was pretty feisty for a Brie.
I spent a little time in the greenhouse this morning, watering a few things and picking tomatoes.  Red, ripe, sweet and juicy home-grown tomatoes in February.  The bushes, which have all but taken over the entire growing space have been giving us a few tomatoes every week since August and this week was no exception.  Here’s today’s haul (it’s hard to tell from the picture but the one in the upper left corner is over 3 1/2" across)...

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Meat Grinding and Sausage Making 2011 - part 3

What ever should I do today?  Oh!  I know!  Make more sausage!  It's day four of working on my grinding & sausage making projects for this week.
Today the plan is to make the hotdogs (final emulsifying, and stuffing into casings) and prepare both the hotdogs and Andouille sausages for smoking tomorrow. I also want to get all the  other finished sausages and ground meats packaged and in the freezer.
The hotdog meat mix has already been ground twice and all the various seasonings and other ingredients incorporated.  The mix is well-chilled so the next step is emulsification. I'll be doing this in my heavy-duty 14-cup food processor and the procedure is simple: process the meat mix, adding a little ice water as it mixes until it reaches the proper consistency. The ice water keeps the meat mix from heating up too much with all the friction created during the processing, adds moisture to bring the mix to the right thickness and soften the mix so that the food processor can physically do the work. 
So, I put a few large scoops of meat mix in the food bowl fitted with the large steel knife, seal it up and begin to process the meat.  The bowl is only about half full and despite being a powerful machine, and being fairly new it begins to bog within a few seconds.  I add some ice water in a steady stream through the feed tube which helps but the machine is still working hard.  I switch to "Dough" mode which helps.  I keep processing, adding water regularly and stopping to scrape down the bowl a couple of times until the mixture looks smooth and uniform.  You'll notice I didn't say "looks good" or "looks pretty".  Honestly, it's pretty gross looking at this point.  Total processing time: about 3 minutes.

I continue processing the meat in batches, transferring the finished emulsification to a bowl to await the next step.  I processed 5 batches (and had two more to go) before deciding to start stuffing the filling into casings and give the food processor a rest.
After taking a little while to sort, soak, and wash the sheep's casings, I filled the hopper of my hand-cranked sausage stuffer, threaded the first casing onto the smallest nozzle and began pumping out hotdogs.  I prefer "foot-long" dogs so I twisted them off at 8 to 9" intervals.  I repeated this until I'd used up all the filling, emulsified the rest and then filled casings with that mix too.

The hotdogs will be smoked tomorrow so I cut and tie-off the links into strings of 4 to 6 pieces and hang them to dry at room temperature overnight. While I was at it, I also hung out the Andouille sausages which are also destined for the smoker in the morning.  The hanging dries the casings slightly letting the smoke "smudge" stick and penetrate more easily.
I'm too impatient to wait for a smoked dog so I cooked off a couple, just pan-frying them from raw, for lunch.  They weren't bad but the smoking will definitely add another dimension.  Can't wait for lunch tomorrow!
We also got all the previously processed ground meats and sausages packed, labeled, and frozen . A good day's work all around.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Meat Grinding and Sausage Making 2011 - part 2

I was able to get back to the kitchen today and continue my meat grinding and sausage making projects. I had gotten the beef ground yesterday, and the first grinding on the lamb & various sausage mixes done the day before that.
Today I started with grinding again, getting the ground lamb finished followed by the second grind on all of the sausage mixes. Then it was time to start stuffing the sausage meat into casings.
Ground Lamb
When I talk about "casings" i mean, of course, intestines.  I buy two sizes of casings; 32-35mm hog casings for Italian, Hungarian, and Andouille sausages, and 23-25mm sheep casings for breakfast sausages and hotdogs.  They come well-cleaned and heavily salted in hanks of any number of random length pieces.  As a general rule you need about 2' of 32-35mm casing per pound of meat and about 3 times that for the smaller sheep casing.
In order to use them they need to be soaked to remove the salt and soften the tissue.  I've heard that putting a little vinegar in the water helps with the softening but I've never had trouble doing it without.  After a soak and rinse, each piece needs to be opened at one end and a little  cold water run into the opening.  The ball of water is then slid down the whole length of the casing by picking up the opened end until it runs out the other end.  This slicks up the inside so it is easier to  slide onto the sausage stuffer and ensures that there are no obstructions, knots or tangles. You want to work organized here so that all the different casing pieces don't get tangled together.  Leave them in the water with a small piece of one end hanging out of the water (so you can find it easily again) until you need them.
Here's my sausage stuffer.  It has a cylinder hopper for the meat mixtures and a hand crank that lowers a piston into the cylinder, that pushes the meat out of a hole near the bottom.  The hole  is fitted with one of several nozzles (different diameters for different sized casings).
Once assembled and the hopper filled, one piece of casing is carefully opened and slid over the nozzle until all of it is accumulated along its length except for the last couple of inches. If the casing pieces are very short you can thread several on at once. A knot is made in the end that was left hanging and then it is snugged up to the end of the nozzle.  There should not be any excessive air pockets or water left in the casing or it will make pockets in the sausage.

To make the sausage links, the crank is slowly turned with one hand.  As the casing fills, the other hand supports the sausage and slowly pays out the casing so as to regulate how much filling goes in.  Too much filing and the sausage will burst, too little and the casing will be flabby.  Depending on the types of sausage, the filling action is suspended periodically so that individual sausages can be twisted off.  The trick to this is to alternate each twist direction so the whole string doesn't unwind itself.  I know this sounds counter intuitive but it works.
Re-fill the hopper as necessary.  Once you get to the end of one casing, a knot is made at the end of the last sausage, the next casing is loaded on the nozzle and the process repeats until you're done.  Today, I got all of the sausages done into links except the hotdogs/wieners/frankfurters which still need to get emulsified tomorrow before stuffing into casing.


The sausages should, of course, get popped back into the fridge right away and eaten within a few days or packaged and frozen as soon as possible.