Goose neck sausage. Goal: complete.

Just before Christmas, my buddy who sourced our last goose sent me a note.

"Greg shot a pair of geese today. Much bigger than the last. Would you like one? This one has the head still!" 

It has the head still? Well, of COURSE I'm going to take it. 

Unlike the first one, I hung the goose from the rafters of the barn for 5 days. With game birds, the flavor can be a bit strong, and hanging them for a bit (3-7 days, per the experts) mellows the flavor. 

I took it down and brought it in the kitchen to pluck. I knew I'd have a bit of mess to clean up, but it was 20 degrees outside, and that was a bit too cold for me. Fortunately, the Boy had some friends over, and I ended up with a few helpers. 

This goose was really beautiful. I followed the same process as before - it was a bit quicker, and I was a bit more comfortable with the whole thing this time around. There's a point where the bird turns from "goose" to "meat" when you do this, and your brain switches into the same comfort level that you'd have in cleaning a turkey you brought home from the store. 

I was, however, especially careful with the real prize of this bird: the neck. 

Years ago, I had watched an episode of River Cottage, and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall dress out a goose and set the neck aside for a special treat. A stuffed goose neck sausage. 

I have since found several recipes for this, from River Cottage and Darina Allen. Variations on the theme and method, but they all start by peeling the fatty skin back off the neck, taking care to keep it intact as one long 'tube'.  

We've bought several geese from the butcher over the years (goose is always on the Christmas dinner menu), but none of them ever come whole, or with the neck. They're prettily dressed and wrapped, just like the Butterball turkey you pick up at your local grocery. So this was a real treat. 

The goose roasted gorgeously, shedding tons of crystal clear fat, and browning deliciously. It wasn't quite as pretty as a farm raised goose, but I have to say I'm pretty proud of the way it turned out. 

I turned my attention to the neck - I stuffed it with a pork sausage (ground fresh from our pigs), mixed with diced bacon (again: our pigs), sage, thyme, salt, white pepper and a little brandy. Little bits of goose trim - heart, liver, etc. - cooked and chopped are also acceptable. 

Tie the little end of the neck up with some kitchen twine, and I set it into some goose fat to crisp the skin a bit. 10 minutes or so on a side. Then put into the oven at 300F for 30 minutes. 

The next step took me out into the snow for a bit. 

I cranked my smoker up to 275F, and put the neck sausage in for 45 minutes, with some peach wood. You can see that I didn't seal up the 'fat' end of the neck (where the neck joined the shoulders of the bird). But that's ok. I just took care to fold the loose flaps over the sausage. 

Oh this thing is beautiful. 

Every time I opened the door to check (I had to force myself not to check every 3 minutes), my nostrils were filled with the delicious smell of the meat and woodsmoke. I was practically dancing in anticipation. 

When I pulled it out of the smoker, I slipped it back into the fat and the oven to crisp a bit longer (maybe 10 minutes) while I carved the rest of the goose. (I've gotten pretty good at this by now, actually - taking out the whole breasts  before slicing, and taking out the thighs and other meat pretty neatly.). 

When I sliced the neck open, it looked like a perfect sausage.  The skin was nicely crisp, and the meat inside savory and a little fragrant with the smoke and herbs. 

I slices up the meat and sausage and we took the feast (along with creamed spinach and a sweet-potato & apple soufflé) over to my Bride's parents for dinner. The goose was a little tougher and I should have taken the time to make a gravy, but the meat was rich and flavorful, and the Boy went back for seconds and then thirds of the sausage. And then he asked if he could pack the res for his first lunch back at school tomorrow. 

I'm guessing he'll be the only kid there with goose neck sausage. 

It was a small goal, but totally worth holding out for. If you ever get the chance to order/make/try, believe me when I say: don't hesitate. It was delicious. 

Victuals & sour corn

It's not often that I find a cookbook that grabs my attention and makes me want to read it cover to cover, word for word.  Although, frankly, 'cookbook' is hardly the right word to describe Victuals, by Ronni Lundy which is probably why it's subtitled 'an Appalachian Journey... with Recipes.'  It's as much about the story of the food featured as it is the recipes, and it is masterfully and beautifully written. 

I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, but like the author, my mom took me 'back home' to Blue Ridge, Georgia every chance we got. Weekends that were more than two days, or long, hot stretches in the summer that lingered to the soundtrack of grasshopper crescendos behind the cornfield. I knew exactly what the author was describing when she recalled sitting on the back porch with aunts and her grandmother, threading beans to hang and dry in long, lovely strings, and visiting the canning factory every summer to put up the harvest. Apples were destined for apple butter in the fall, and the aforementioned cornfield nestled at the foot of the hill was where my grandfather would head to hoe and weed when he came home from a shift at the copper mine just a few miles over the border in Tennessee. 

Some recipes I found in the book were new to me, and got me excited to try. Appalachia has a much richer and more multi-threaded history than most folks from outside the region suspect.  There's a strong streak of Scots-Irish tradition in the hearty staples, and adaptation of the native staples like corn in food and drink. But there's also a streak of German, Hungarian, African and several other waves or pockets of immigration that worked the mines, the fields or found the hills to be an otherwise likely place to settle in. 

So when I saw a recipe for 'sour corn' that was essentially an adaptation of traditional German sauerkraut which replaces cabbage with fermented corn, I had to try it. I love the tangy bite of sauerkraut, and we are just seeing the last fresh ears of corn for the season at the market. Perfect timing. 

I scalded 15 ears of corn in boiling water for 2 minutes and set them aside on the counter to let them cool a bit before cutting the kernels off the cob. (The chickens get a double treat this afternoon of both the husks and the leftover cobs, which they go wild for).

The corn goes into a 2 gallon ceramic crock (in fact the same one I've made sauerkraut in). I mixed 8 cups of water with just a hair more than a cup of kosher salt until the salt was completely dissolved, and poured it in over the corn. 

Slide a plate gently into the crock, and weight it down so that the corn stays submerged, and cover with cheesecloth. The crock is now resting in a cool, out of the way corner of the pantry for the next two weeks or so. 

When the corn is ready, I'll ladle it into mason jars, and make sure it stays covered with the brine. Properly canned (and I'll draw on my Bride's expertise to make sure I get it right), it'll last through the winter season. This will probably make enough for 6 or 7 pints.

The author recommends cooking up batches of sour corn with a little bacon grease and serving along side, well, anything. But she promises it's just as good fresh out of the crock. Which is good, because I'm not sure I'm going to be patient enough to let it get to the skillet. 

My bacon has a first name. Actually, two.

I love this time of year. This is the time of year that things like this start showing up in my mailbox. 

We got our pigs a little early this year - they were born in early February, and we picked them up right around the first of March. So these little bacon seeds got to experience snow (it being Maine, which is about 3 miles from the North Pole, and snow being a thing that we can experience up through and sometimes into May.) 

Oh how quickly they grow up.  This year's pair of pigs were a Tamworth-Yorkshire cross. They were a nice, long 'bacon' pig.  

I'm not making that up. There's math behind that truth. Long pigs == long belly. And pork belly is where they keep the bacon.  This differs from our previous pigs, both sets of which were Gloucester Old Spots, which had a richer, thicker layer of fat, and were 'ham' pigs. 

I mean, these also have hams. Just a little smaller by comparison. 

In the end, I didn't really like these pigs. Not like the Gloucesters, which I'd gladly get again. 

Beth (named by my 14 year old daughter who named her after the girl that dies in 'Little Women'), and Apples were constant rooters, and a fairly destructive. They tore the sill out of the back of the barn, pushed random boards in the walls until they cracked and broke, and pushed I'm not sure how many holes through their fencing. The never actually tried to escape, which makes them simultaneously a) idiots and b) far less work than our last set. But I kept having to patch the fence and generally grumble a lot more than I did in the past. 

When I looked over at them a couple of weeks ago and sized up their hams by eye, I figured it was time enough for them to head to slaughter. It was not a tearful parting.  

We had fed these on the same mix of peanuts and pig feed as we raised the previous sets. the peanuts are my American stand in for the acorns that the deliciously famous black Iberian pigs find in the oak scrub of northern Spain.  

Another nice surprise about moving to Maine is that the peanuts in the shell are about a third cheaper than they are in the feed store in Massachusetts. I have no idea why that might be - I am left to assume that the Massachusetts state legislature has placed a stiff import tax on underground legumes and anything that goes by the common name of 'Goober'. Which is probably also why the Andy Griffith show never took off with the Boston crowd. 

I called my buddy down the road and asked if he'd help me schelp the pigs to the slaughterhouse again this year. Actually, I was really hoping his wife would help. Joanna grew up on a local farm, and with their kids, she's a fixture at the local fairs, prepping and herding the animals for show. When she came, she pointed at Joe and myself and showed us where we could stand so we'd be more or less out of the way while she picked up each pig and threw them into the trailer with a gently frightening, backhanded toss of one wrist. 

Or something like that. I've watched her in action twice now, and I still have no idea how that tiny little blonde woman gets them in there but they were loaded and ready to go in about 15 minutes. 

I tried a new slaughterhouse this year - a local one just down the road in Windham, Maine. It was a self-service drop off on a Sunday morning: back the trailer up, pick a pen and settle them in. There's no staff around, you just fill out a form and fill out the instructions with a contact phone number. (Joanna showed me where the forms were. Of course). 

The pigs were pretty much a perfect weight when we took them in - 241 and 242 pounds respectively. That's at the top end of where you want them, more or less. Though there were a pair of pigs in the pen next to these that must have been approaching 500 lbs. Not that I'm fat shaming. But anything north of 250, and you're pretty much just raising lard. 

 I was a little nervous about trying a new slaughter house. Most slaughterhouses will also butcher and package the meat - many (including this one) even offer smoking and curing. But the ones up here have a fairly limited selection of cutting skills. 

I spoke to the owner when I called to schedule the slaughter and asked if he'd be able to cut prosciutto, and back bacon, and a few other traditional cuts. "Sure. We've done that a couple of times." 

I mean, cutting a prosciutto isn't hard. It's actually easier than cutting, boning and trimming out your typical ham. Cut the leg off the body. That's pretty much it.  So I figured I'd give it a try. 

So I crossed out everything on the standard form (which pretty much consisted of "how thick do you like your pork chops" (no pork chops) and "would you like us to go ahead use Pappy's special cure on your sausage? (No). ) and wrote a paragraph or two of instructions on the back of the page. Which pretty much read like this: 

"Hi. I make prosciuttos. DON'T CUT THE FEET OFF. Please cut the hip fairly high, because I will cure the whole leg. DON'T CUT THE FEET OFF. These will be things of beauty, which I will tenderly rub with salt and say nice things to. DON'T CUT THE FEET OFF. They will be hung in my basement and brought out to serve the most beloved of guests, to a kind of wordless, heavenly aria sung by small children garbed in white hired specially for the occasion. DON'T CUT THE FEET OFF. It will take two years, but that's ok. Because I believe in long term relationships. And also cuddles. DID I MENTION THE FEET? NOT OFF."

Guess what? They cut the feet off. 

The rest of the meat was cut pretty well. The butcher was good, it's just that not a lot of people want to cure a whole ham. So they just instinctively reached for the feet chopper. And once they're off, there's no putting them back on. 

I ended up with a lot of trim, and the butts were cut down a bit smaller than I would have liked (can't get coppa out of this). But the loins were handled perfectly - kept whole, with a bit of belly attached. Perfect for making English bacon. And the freezers are now crammed full in a sort of three dimensional meat jigsaw puzzle. And the meat overall looked lovely. Farm to table takes on a whole new meaning of delicious when the farm in question is your backyard. 

A couple of days later, we had some guests over (for the Color Wars party), and I smoked up a shoulder to serve. Which was mouth watering. 

"Hey kids! This pig was alive in our backyard a couple of days ago! Would you like a bit more Beth on your sandwich?" 

I have learned a couple of things about early pigs. Mostly: early pigs get slaughtered early.

It turns out - there's a reason why pig slaughtering season is in the fall, when the air is cool. Because heat does bad things to pork, even with 40 pounds of salt spread over it. 

The (footless) prosciuttos (above) went into my prosciutto salting boxes on a nice bed of kosher salt, and were liberally rubbed, coated and massaged with several dozen pounds of salt. And also: salt. 

There are three things you can lose a prosciutto to, more or less. Bacteria, pests/insects, or fungus. Any or all is bad. I'd been working on my turning what used to be a dairy room in the basement into a curing room. The stone walls are still whitewashed, and I'd gotten the humidity pretty stable, hovering between 40-55%.  I have been charting it out via a SmartThings monitor that would text my phone when it went outside of the range.  Basically, I am turning my house into SkyNet in the quest for a good piece of prosciutto. 

I visited my prosciutto often. I covered the boxes with a couple of layers of cheesecloth to ensure nothing would disturb them. I watched the humidity closely, and went to sleep each night feeling better that my basement was full of lovely pork. 

Until my basement began to smell.

The cut feet not only made the potential-prosciutto harder to hang (you can cut a slit right behind the ankle tendon that makes a perfect place to thread a rope), and less lovely to present, but it doesn't actually affect the meat. So I went ahead with the cure. There's a formula about how long to salt the ham before hanging, based on weight and thickness, and how many letters from Leondardo da Vinci's name also appear in your name. But it is measured in weeks. The next step is to bag it (to keep the flies off for a while longer) and hang it to air dry until your 4th grader is ready for 6th grade. 

Unfortunately, because our pigs were ready for slaughter so early in the year, I was starting the cure during the hottest week of the summer. It was in the 90's pretty much every day. And while the basement of this old farmhouse tends to stay a little cooler than that, it is not hermetically sealed. Or air conditioned. And that extra cut at the top of the leg with the bone sticking out provided for a difficult to seal entrance for more bacteria. It was kind of like a marquis board flashing: "HEY E.COLI! I GOT THE THING THAT YOU LIKE RIGHT HERE!"  There's a reason that Pa Ingalls waited until the nights were cold and the leaves were falling to slaughter his pigs. 

After ten days or so, my meat started to spontaneously juice. 

Juiced meat is not a good sign. There's a book I read and keep handy on the shelf called "Ham: An obsession with the hindquarter". (I raise pigs in my backyard so that I can put their hindlegs in a box in my basement. Of course I own this book).  In it, the author answers the question, "how do I know if my ham has gone bad" by explaining:

Trust me. You'll know. 

He was right. 

Sigh... ah well.  The bacon's still good, and I have a two prosciuttos from past pigs that will soon be ready. Therefore, I hereby declare this the year of salami. I've got plenty of trim, and nothing but time to get it right. 

Meanwhile, here's a picture of Apples, taking a leisurely soak. 

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