Archive for January, 2012

Our MOPS 4th Wednesday activity today was make ahead meals.  We make one for that evening’s meal and one to put in the freezer (or fridge) and use another day.  There’s more recipes of meals we’ve made in the past for this in the recipes tab.

The meal for tonight’s use is a broccoli, chicken, and cheese braid in crescent roll dough.  Everyone made two braids to take home.  One braid will just barely feed 4 with a side of salad. Note:  I don’t know if this dish will freeze well.  I’m trying it with an extra braid and will report back if it worked or didn’t work later!

ETA:  We pulled it out of the freezer and baked it up.  It worked fine and tasted about the same to me.

The freezer meal is Tatertot casserole.

Recipes are below.

A few details.  For group logistics:  We have no childcare on 4th wednesdays.  We break into 2 groups, half do meals while the other half watches kids and we switch part way through.  We figure the same time frame and day of the week as we usually meet for MOPS, since everyone should be free then.

We cook the meat ahead of time, since that takes a long time to do.  We have a sign up list so we know how much to purchase for ingredients, and we ask for money to reimburse the cost of ingredients.  We’ve done $10 for the two meals and that mostly covers it.

I printed off the recipes for everyone to follow and take home.

An explanation on the braids:  There’s (at least) two ways to do this.  Pics of the two methods are here, since this can be the confusing part from just written directions.  NEITHER way will completely cover the filling.  It will ooze a bit in baking.

Method 1:  Lay the crescent roll dough as pictured.  After the filling is in, pull the corners of the crescent rolls up over the filling.  Overlap so they stick to each other.


Method 2:  Lay the crescent rolls on your baking sheet as shown.  Use your fingers and the palm of your hand to flatten and blend the edges of the crescent rolls together.  I spread mine to fit my baking sheet (Note this is a smaller baking sheet, not a huge one!  The rolls are straight from the tube in the first photo, so there’s not a huge distance for them to stretch.)  Put your filling in the center as above, then cut slits in the edge  of the dough.  The paper has lines drawn in the same way that I cut slits in the dough.  It’s the same way I do my Stromboli.  Then fold them across the filling.  Overlap so they stick to each other.


Substitutions: you can use bread dough instead of crescent rolls, corn instead of green beans, cream of celery soup instead of cream of mushroom, or mashed potatoes in place of tater tots.  Make it flex to your tastes and ingredients.

Here’s the recipes- copy and paste to make your own printouts.

Chicken, broccoli, and cheese braid

1 8 oz tube crescent rolls-

4 oz velveeta/processed cheese, cubed

1 c cooked cubed chicken

2 c cooked broccoli

You are going to make 2 of these.  Each braid gets the above ingredients.

Put a piece of foil on the cookie sheet.

Spread one tube of crescent rolls out on the foil.  Flatten, stretch, and “fix” the seams.  Place on the center line of the dough the cooked chicken, broccoli, and cubed cheese.  Cut strips in the crescent roll base from both sides.  Pull strips of crescent roll over the top of the filling- it will NOT fully enclose it.

Pull the braid off the sheet with the foil, repeat with a second braid.

Baking:  375 for 15-20 minutes- ’til golden brown crust and heated through.

Tatertot Casserole

Layer in a 9×13 pan:

1 lb cooked ground beef (approx. 3 cups)

1 can of green beans, drained

1 can cream of mushroom soup, undiluted.  spread this over the top of the other ingredients, and use a bit of water to rinse the can, if desired.

onions/onion flakes if desired

6 pieces of sliced cheese, or sprinkle with shredded cheddar, your choice.

Top with 1 1/2 lb of tater tots (3/4 of a 2 lb bag)

Baking:  350 until heated through.

This dish is freezer friendly and can go directly from the freezer to the oven!

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We’ve raised pigs in our pig tractor this year.  Once they’re full grown, what have we done with them?  The very first pig we butchered made his way to a pig roast.  For that pig, we (meaning my dad and husband) scalded and scraped it to be roasted whole.  The second pig we processed ourselves in the fall, and the third pig we just processed earlier this month (January).  Here’s a bit more on how we as relative beginners have been processing our pork at home.

We’re fortunate to have helpful and fairly knowledgable family, some past experience with deer (my husband) and general farm animal processing (my family), and the internet to fill in the gaps!

I’m breaking this up into several posts so the information isn’t as overwhelming, especially if you’re just looking for one part.  Here’s the “index” for what I’m adding right now, and I’ll throw in links for the pig tractor/pastured pigs, too.

A few thoughts on Sodium Nitrate

Homemade Pork Sausage/ Ground Pork

Homemade Bacon– sans sodium nitrate

Homemade Ham– sans sodium nitrate

Our current slicer– A cheap-o from Harbor freight- a review and a few tips

Packaging for the freezer- what we’re doing for now here

Pig tractor post 1– basic construction and little pigs in it- spring use

Pig tractor post 2– how it faired being used over the course of about 7  months- late spring, summer, and fall.

A few end notes on how the tractor faired into the winter is in my post here.

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We felt much more successful after completing our bacon from this pig.  This bacon was good flavored and didn’t end up too salty.

A few factors:

Our first try at bacon I used this recipe.  I rubbed 3 times, and believe we let it sit for 3 days after the last rub- 6 days total.  Then we soaked it to remove excess salt for 2 days?  It was okay, but not very good.  I still have to decide what to do with it all.

The belly itself seemed to be better flavor.  The first belly had a distinct “pig” odor to me, and mostly noticeable only to me.  Maybe it was the pig, maybe it was warmer vs. colder weather, maybe it was the male (although castrated) vs. female pig and the pee just contributes a “flavor” to the meat?  I don’t know.  I’m just glad it tasted a lot better to me this time!

The “cure” time was shorter on the dry rubbed version, and we tried a few more recipes to get better flavor(s).

The slicing process was easier; the cooking and chilling made a HUGE difference in how easily these sliced compared to my first try at bacon.  The details are below.

Note:  in both our first and second pig we processed at home, we did NOT have skin on our pork belly, since we skin rather than scalding and scraping our pigs.  I don’t think the process is  really affected by not having the skin on.

My first recipe was based on a post here at Craftzine, and another here at iamafoodblog.  The final directions I followed the first time (I would NOT repeat this!  see below for better options!):  1-5lb pork belly, 3/4 c salt, 3/8 c brown sugar, and 1 t pepper.  Dry rub once and put on racks over a sheet to drain of moisture as it’s drawn out. Flip and repeat the rub 1-2 times and make up more rub in the listed proportion as needed, cure 3-5 days more.  This was WAY too salty.  We soaked, re-dried, and sliced for the freezer.  We tried the same recipe as from our first bacon again, but with some changes, and it was better.  I only rubbed once and it didn’t sit as long, only 3-4 days total?  We still soaked off extra salt, but only for a few hours and it was tolerable before the soaking.

We tried some ziploc recipes this time as well.  I really liked the ziploc cured bacon better- less mess, easier to store in the fridge in less space, fewer pans to clean up or deal with the salt and metal corrosion, etc.  The only thing you need to be careful of is getting sugar and salt in the channels of the zippers.  It’s about impossible to get it out and have the zippers work again!  The dry rub also had a much higher proportion of salt that was impacting flavor.  I had no problems with anything spoiling with less salt.  These cured for 4 days and we checked them, they seemed to be “cured” at this point, but they sat for a few more days since they weren’t too salty, would gain additional flavor as they continued to “marinate” and I had other things to take care of first.

Recipe links and modifications:  I used canning and pickling salt for all recipes below, and each recipe I used on a 3-5 pound chunk of pork belly.  None of these had sodium nitrate, see my notes about that here.

Brown sugar and pepper–  I used 1/4 c brown instead of turbindo sugar, 1/4 c salt, and I only added 1/2 T, not 1/4 CUP(?!) of black pepper.

Molasses, white sugar, and pepper– I used 1/2 c sugar, 1 T molasses, 2 T salt, 1/2 t pepper.

Maple/faux maple , and a Honey version-  1/4 c salt, generous 1/2 c maple syrup or honey.  I tried one of each.  I didn’t have “real” maple syrup, so I used the fake stuff and added a teaspoon of maple flavoring as well.

The honey and maple mixes didn’t “rub”- I just couldn’t get it to stick to the meat, maybe it was too wet? I did combine them before applying to the meat- maybe if I had rubbed with salt first and then put on the liquid it would have worked better.  I ended up just putting it into the bag and I squished it around to help get all surfaces somewhat “covered”.  I put all the bags in a tub in the fridge.  They got flipped over once a day and “cured” for 4 days to a week.  I was pleased with all 4 versions.  I think I’ll definitely stick with this route next time rather than the dry rub.  It was easier all around.

This time I put these in the oven to “smoke”- see notes on smoking in the oven at the end of my ham posting.  The smoke didn’t happen, but I think this step helps to “set” the meat and the fat to make it easier to slice.  You just put it in the oven at about 200 until the internal temp of the bacon reaches 150.  Then cool and slice.  Another thing that helped a lot for slicing this time was to put the belly pieces in the freezer for about an hour to firm up.  They were easier to handle when manipulating them in my slicer and more of it was fully cut, so less was dragged back onto the working side.  Also, rather than crumpling and blocking up the food exit, more came out in perfect slices.  Some is still smaller or falls apart, but there was a higher quantity of the typical bacon slices you’d get at the store.  Then just package, label, and put in the freezer to enjoy later.


Check my “index” post for more on how we’ve been raising and home processing our pigs.

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We’re still not fully satisfied with our ham, but we’re closer.

Here’s what we’ve done:  Our first attempt at ham was mostly a flop, with the side benefit that it turned out to be a really good brined roast, which we repeated for part of the second pig since we knew we liked it.  Definitely not ham, though.  For 21 pounds of meat, I combined  1  1/2 gallons of water , 1  3/4 c canning/pickling salt, and 1  1/2 c brown sugar.  So for about 10 lbs of meat, I used 3 quarts of water, 7/8 c of salt, and 3/4 c of brown sugar.  These stayed in the fridge and brined for 4-5 days before being packaged for the freezer.  The first time, they were in the fridge for well over a week while I waited for them to start to taste like ham.  I was loosely basing my first trials on info I found here.  It’s difficult to find information on brining smaller pieces of ham in the fridge without sodium nitrate.

Our second attempt at ham I had searched for some more input.  Someone else on the “Keeping a Family Cow” board had kindly shared a recipe with me.  It’s American-Style Brown-Sugar-Glazed Holiday Ham from Charcuterie, by Ruhlman and Polcyn.  The ingredients for a 12-15 lb at least partially de-boned ham are 1 gallon of water, 1.5 c salt (pref. kosher), and 2 c brown sugar (pref. dark).  They also call for pink salt, but I didn’t use it, and neither did the individual I got the recipe from.  See more on pink salt here.

6-8 days brined in the fridge (submerge the meat with a weighted plate if necessary- I didn’t.  I also only left mine in the brine for 3-4 days; mine were in smaller chunks of about 5 pounds).  The general rule from this recipe- and I’ve run across most places- is 1/2 day per pound.  They rinse, let dry uncovered on a rack for 12-24 hours, and hot smoke at 200 for 2 hours.  I poured off the brine, brushed on liquid smoke, and baked at 200 ish in the oven until the internal temp was about 150 (based on the info in bacon recipes, see the bacon post for more).  It still will have to be cooked to an internal temp of 160, as for regular pork products, when I heat it later.

The first one we tried was just baked, no smoke.  The flavor was closer to ham, but we’re convinced now that smoking will truly make the flavor difference.  We tried a bit of this first ham (second pig) with some hickory smoke salt I had and tasted the difference that dash of smoke made.  We “smoked” the ham in our oven with some fresh applewood chips. (More on “smoking” in the oven below.)

When I “smoked” the remaining hams in the oven, I brushed on some liquid smoke.  The flavor is mostly appropriate to ham now.  There’s still a small taste difference, a bit of a texture difference, and a distinct difference in color, but we’re getting closer!

Here’s a close-up of a small slice of our ham fried in the pan:

Smoking in the oven:  this process didn’t really smoke anything for us, but we may play with it a bit more.  Maybe my wood was too wet, but I think the temp isn’t high enough at the wood to make it actually smoke and flavor the meat.  It seems to be more of a little steam, if anything.  I found a few posts on smoking in the oven- a typical one is here.  Basic idea is a pan with wood chips in the bottom and a rack over it to raise the meat above the chips and be “smoked” in the oven.


I was worried in trying this that it would smoke up the house and create carbon monoxide, so I went the cautious route and put a cover on to enclose the expected smoke and was ready and waiting with the exhaust fan.  Not much happened- I really don’t think it was close to hot enough to do any smoking.  Maybe if I started the wood chips on the grill and then put them in the bottom of the pan in the oven once they started smoking?  Another idea for another day.

 Check my “index” post for more on how we’ve been raising and home processing our pigs.

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We don’t have a vacuum sealer.  We’ve (so far) used ziplocks and dipped them (with meat inside) in a pan of cold water to smoosh out most of the air, zipping the last bit of the bag once the air is forced out.  It’s working okay for now.  I’ll have to see how they hold up over time in the freezer.

I’ve used a straw to suck the air out of the ziplock for twice baked potatoes (basic recipe here).  But I’m not doing that with raw meat.

We did purchase some 1 lb. ground meat bags that we’ve sealed with twist ties.  Unless they show excellent performance or I can find them more cheaply and/or locally, I’m not sure the expense is justified.  Not to mention my package was sent to MN originally (instead of NY- not sure how that’s possible) and I had track stuff down and have them re-sent to me…

I’ve put my ziplocks into shopping bags- actually 2 of them- to help protect a bit more in the freezer.

Labeling often is easier before you put stuff in the bags, but the trick is to know how many bags you need!

Check my “index” post for more on how we’ve been raising and home processing our pigs.

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Sodium Nitrate is also comes under the names of Saltpeter, Cure 1, and Pink Salt.  There’s a lot of controversy out there about this product.  I’m including a bit about it since I’m sharing some of my beginning home processing notes.  There’s posts around with definite opinions one way or another.  I haven’t checked any facts or accuracy of any of these, I’m just putting links so you can get a basic picture of the different positions.

One that gives some cautions as well as a recipe for ham without sodium nitrate is here at Sugar Mountain Farm.

One that gives some insight into the commercial hams cured without “added” nitrates is here at Health Castle.

Information that defends the use of sodium nitrate is here at the American Meat Institute. and here at Meatsafety.org.

I don’t have any particular opinion at this time on using sodium nitrate.  I didn’t use it because:

1) I didn’t have it on hand

2) I wasn’t sure where I could quickly get it locally

3) I didn’t want the extra expense (although minimal) to making the bacon and ham

4) I didn’t want to use it if it wasn’t necessary.  I cured all of these in refrigeration, so temp was not an issue.   All of my meat would be stored in the freezer- no country style hams hanging in our garage.  All would be fully cooked before consumption.  Why use it if it’s not needed?   My (beginners) understanding is that the botulism risk is related to improper temperatures, not being cooked thoroughly, and significant time passing with no ingredients to help counteract possible botulism action (like salt- not that salt will take care of it all, but it combats the formation, in my understanding of the process).   I ran across some information that the “curing” doesn’t happen below a certain temperature, so refrigerated curing wouldn’t work.  I have found (so far) that the meat is flavoring fine in the fridge.

5) My little girls can get in to A-N-Y-T-H-I-N-G.  Sodium Nitrate is poisonous in quantity.  It’s one less “dangerous” thing in my house if I don’t have to use it.

I might possibly try it in ham in the future- that brown-grey colored ham doesn’t have a lot of appeal, but then again, maybe it won’t bother me that much.  I don’t think it will make any significant contribution to bacon- it cooks up brown anyhow.

Do your research and make an informed decision.

Check my “index” post for more on how we’ve been raising and home processing our pigs.

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This is just a cheap-o slicer from Harbor Freight we’ve been using for our processing needs this year.  It’s a “compact electric food slicer” with a 6 1/2 inch stainless steel blade and a plastic body.  Item number is 42787.  110 v, 60 Hz, 95 RPM, slices (supposedly) 1/16″ to 1/2.”

It’s quicker than slicing all that bacon by hand, but it’s got it’s drawbacks.  Someday maybe I’ll get a nicer one, but for now it works.

Some details if you’re thinking of getting one:

It suction cups nicely to the counter and does dis-assemble reasonably for cleaning.

There’s a safety button to press while using it, so it’s a two hand job always- one to hold the safety button and one to move the food on the tray to slice.

The platform is pretty small, so to slice anything deeper than 4 1/2 inches is pretty much impossible with the guard and sliding tray in place.  More than about 6 inches tall wont be cut with the wheel, and the platform is about 8 inches wide, but only about 6 inches is usable with the food pushing guard in place.  So you can only effectively use the safety pieces for the last few inches of most anything you slice.  (But definitely use them then!)

It works pretty good for pepperoni since it’s small, but the food pusher is useless until it’s only a few inches long since pepperoni is so skinny.  The guard and food pusher are pretty useless until the last few inches of food is left.   For bacon, I could fold the last inch or 2 in half and then put on the slicing guard to finish to get the last few slices done without having as many choppy little bits.

The thickness gauge doesn’t have much accuracy.  Trust how it comes out of the slicer, not what the gauge says.

The wheel turns very slow, especially if you’ve ever seen or used a commercial slicer.  You do have to go a bit slower in your slicing process.  The last portion of meat (or whatever food) that goes into the cutting wheel doesn’t always cut off completely and so you sometimes drag what you just sliced back.

The food builds up at the exit quickly, calling for frequent stops to clear it.  A contour in the plastic juts in where the food exits the slicer.  That means a cutting board to “catch” food from the slicer won’t meet where the food actually drops.  Even a thin mat can’t slide in under the food, since the suction cups on the bottom prevent the mat from sliding far enough under the plastic contour.  It just adds more mess to clean up.

The clean up drawbacks:  Although it comes apart fairly well, there’s some portions that don’t come out without a screwdriver to dis-assemble and are hard to clean.  Even if you take out the screws, one screw is a strange head that cant be removed with a standard screwdriver.  The drive gears for the blade (plastic, by the way) are hard to clean, and the coordinating gear on the blade is riveted, not bolted.  A job like bacon can really leave things gross.

A few things that have improved the slicing ability for me:  The bacon sliced much better after being low cooked- se my bacon post for more on that.  It also worked good to firm it up for an hour or so in the freezer.  This kept the shape of the slab so it was easier to handle on the working side, kept it from crumpling when cut and exiting the slicer, and cut down on the amount that was dragged back to the cutting side because it wasn’t cut all the way through in the front bottom corner.

Check my “index” post for more on how we’ve been raising and home processing our pigs.

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