Thursday, July 26, 2012

It's growing, growing, growing!

Our garden is in a bit of a holding pattern at the moment. The peas are done, except those we are keeping for seeds, but nothing else is producing. Boo!

Next year's plants are in there...
We decided to leave quite a few peas on the vine – more than we are planning to save seeds from. The wisdom of that immediately became clear, since Zoey picks a handful of peas every time she goes outside. I'm not going to complain about her eating too many veggies! Some of the peas are clearly getting beyond their prime, which is good; our research said to leave them on the vine until they were all shrivelled up. More waiting!

While the peas haven't shrivelled up, some of our bean leaves have. I'm not sure what's up with that. It goes beyond mere wilting – they're dark green and dehydrated-looking, almost like they had a mid-life change-of-career and became shrinky-dinks. I keep tearing off those leaves and throwing them away, but I don't know if it matters. Aside from the occasional shrunken leaf, the beans look healthy and are flowering like mad. Still no actual beans, though. Waiting sucks.
Not sure what causes this.  Alien ray guns?

Pumpkin in the making
I'm also waiting on something to grow on...well, pretty much all of the other plants. The pumpkin stopped just producing leaves and made a flower! That means that we will get at least one mini-pumpkin off that giant plant. There are maybe a dozen more buds that look like they might produce...but they might be more leaves in disguise. Grrr. Our other squash plants are just leaves, leaves, and more leaves at this point. 

Lots of leaves...hopefully it will lead to lots of squash!

It's a flower, I promise
Our poor little cucumber, for all its lack of impressive size, has three flowers on it. Take that, pumpkin! I don't know if it will ever grow to any sort of normal cucumber plant size or not. It might be a bit of a sad year for everything but peas and beans.

The cucumber does, however, have an easier road than our poor broccoli and cauliflower plants. Last week, Zoey helped me weed by carrying the pulled weeds to the bucket. The next day, she took it upon herself to weed some more. With not much to choose from, she designate all of the broccoli and cauliflower plants as weeds and executed them. We replanted them, but odds are still out on whether or not they'll make it. If they do, they earned it!

Come on, lil guy!  You can make it!

Likewise, our strawberries – which we didn't expect to live – have made a remarkable comeback. Not only did they flourish enough to produce two whole berries, they managed to survive the cat using them as a bed. Now, they're putting out runner after runner, and in the past week or so, the total number of rooted plants has more than doubled. I'm liking this trend for next year!
Go forth and multiply!

That's a year's worth
Also promising for next year is our compost. We compost everything except meat and dairy (because those supposedly attract rats). This is partly to have nice compost to spread in our gardens, to compliment the main filler of composted horse manure (thanks for the poop, Mom!) and partly to save space and stink in the trash. Since we rent, we didn't want to build anything large for our compost, and we wanted it contained, so we used a couple of large Rubbermaid bins, and drilled holes in them to allow for some air flow.

Up close - looks good except for the moisture!
Unfortunately, we forgot to drill holes in the bottom of the bins, so the compost is very wet. We are also not as diligent about turning it as we should be. We took the lids off so the compost can dry out a bit while the weather is nice, and when it's a bit dryer (and therefore lighter) we will flip the bins over and drill holes in the bottom so this doesn't stay a problem. The compost is looking decently decomposed, and there are quite a few worms living in it, so I'm going to say it's healthy. We'll work that into the gardens when we pull out the current crop of stuff and before we plant any sort of winter stock. If, that is, we get around to trying any fall or winter planting. Time will tell!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Beer Me!

Bottles ready for beeeeeeeeeeeeeer!
Here it is – the post you've all really been waiting for. The post about beer. After all, it's summer – the season of beer!

Making your own beer is actually very simple. The problem is you have to wait nearly a month between starting the process and drinking the beer. If you already have some on hand, that's not a problem. For the person who wants a beer and doesn't have one, it can be irritating.

Loosening up the mix
The easiest way is to start with an extract kit. You can buy these at most home brew stores. You probably have a home brew store near you and didn't even know it. Centralia has one. So does Chehalis. And Olympia. The kit is a can of hop malt extract; it's a liquid with the consistency of molasses. Depending on the kit, it will make five or six gallons of beer. The only additional ingredient you will need is corn sugar.

You need very little in the way of equipment. A large stock pot, a fermenter (food-grade five-gallon bucket), an air lock, hydrometer, and a bottle capper. None of these are terribly expensive. Oh, and bottles. You need about 60 empty beer bottles (pop-top, not twist-off). Start working on those now!  We like the Kirkland brand bottles because they are smooth, so if we're giving beer as gifts, we can put on our own labels easily.  We also enjoy emptying the bottles.

You want to make sure all of your equipment is sterilized; they sell sterilizer (iodine) for cheap and it lasts for a long time. You don't want to have anything funking up your beer.

Mmm.  Malt.
To begin, put the extract can in a sink of hot water to loosen up the liquid. Boil the amount of water designated on the can – some call for as little as one gallon, others call for all the water to be boiled. Pour the extract and the boiling water into the fermenter and stir until everything is evenly combined.

All mixed together
Next, you want to activate your yeast. The kit will come with a packet of yeast designed for the type of beer you're brewing. There are a surprising number of yeasts out there! Put the yeast in a bowl with around a cup of warm water (110 F or so) and a tablespoon of corn sugar.

While the yeast wakes up, add cold water until you reach the total volume (five or six gallons, depending). With the kit we just made – Munton's Connoisseurs Wheat Beer – we boiled one gallon of water and added five gallons of cold tap water.

Once the temperature of the mixture is 100F or cooler, you can add the yeast. If you add it while the mixture is too hot, you will kill the yeast. At this point, you also want to add the corn sugar. This will come out to a little over two pounds. Again, stir it all up quite well, so everything is interacting with each other nicely.

Use a hydrometer to measure the gravity of the beer. There's a lot of science involved that I'm not super solid on; if you are really interested, here's the wiki!. Basically, it's a good way to track if your beer is mixed correctly or not, and when it's done. The kit will tell you an original gravity (OG) number and a final gravity number (FG). Any kit – canned extract or not – should tell you these numbers. The bigger the difference between the OG and the FG, the higher the alcohol content.

Cap it off with an air lock, and set the fermenter somewhere warm with a relatively stable temperature – big temperature swings can impact the process. We use our kitchen counter, but the garage would work as well. Then you let it sit. And stare at the air lock, waiting for it to bubble. The bubbles mean the yeast is doing its thing and the beer is fermenting. When it's at it's peak, it will bubble every three seconds or so.

Transferring to secondary fermenter.
Leave the beer in the fermenter for a week or so, until the bubbling stops and the hydrometer tells you you have reached the FG. Once your brew measures at the FG, you should leave it in the fermenter for another 24 hours and re-measure the FG to make sure there's no more action happening. We are usually too impatient to wait, and it hasn't been a problem for us.

See the funk?  That's why.

At this point, you need to transfer your beer to a secondary fermenter. If you only have one, you can transfer it to any large, sterilized container(s). You don't want to skip this step, because it leaves all of the residues and funkiness behind in the original fermenter. If you only have one fermenter, clean it out, sterilize it, then return the beer to it.

Put your bottles through the rinse cycle of your dishwasher to sterilize them, and put your bottle caps in a pot of water on the stove and bring to a boil, then turn off. Again, you want everything sterile to avoid funking up your beer! Doing this step here also allows the beer to settle and any remaining residue to sink to the bottom.

When your bottles are sterilized, add sugar to each bottle – around ½ teaspoon per bottle. Then pour beer into the bottle. Fill the bottle until about the base of the neck. You'll know you've gone too far if beer spurts out of the top.

Uncrimped cap.
Using the capper to seal it up
Cap the bottles and then let them sit for a couple of weeks in a warm-ish place. When you think they are ready, put a few in the fridge to cool off, then pour a glass. If it tastes good and is carbonated, they're ready! If it either tastes bad or is not carbonated, let it sit longer. Never give up on beer – if it doesn't taste good, just let it sit a while longer. Some batches take longer than others to finish. We have had beers that tasted like swill after the recommended bottling time that tasted phenomenal a month or so later. Likewise, some beers taste great at the two-week mark!

This is the most basic level of home brew – you can buy kits that include dried malt extract and hops and grains you add in and customize. We generally stick to the cans because they're easy and cheap. They cost $20-$30 and yield around 60 beers. Also, our experience has been that the more complicated kits take longer to mature. I'm not patient at the best of times, and waiting months for beer to mature is maddening!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Eat Your Greens!

Great googly moogly, our garden has exploded!

We picked peas last weekend, and a crapton more appeared. Yes, crapton is the technical term. You weren't aware of that? Against our initial judgement, we let Zoey know about picking peas. Because, really, what's the worst that happens? She eats vegetables?

She was a big fan of every part of the process: picking them off the plant, putting them in the basket, and eating them. Well, eating part of them. She took a big bite out of the middle of each pea, then put it in the basket and picked another one.

Really, the only downside came when we finished and took the basket away. She was Not Happy with us.

Since then, she's been picking a few peas every time she goes outside, which is fine. There are plenty left (and even some new flowers!) and it keeps her happy.

Zoey was too busy eating peas to pose for me.  Luckily Parker helped out.
As far as the rest of the garden, it's loving our weather.
After they finish building their wall, they'll put in an irrigation system.

The beans have grown past the top of their fencing and decided to create their own latticework of tangled vines. They're just starting to flower; I have high hopes for a big crop, since green beans are just below peas on my list of favorite fresh veggies.

Bean blossoms
The mini-pumpkins are trying to take over the world. I'm looking forward to painting some with Zoey for Halloween, and trying a bunch of recipe ideas with the rest. A pumpkin shell with soup inside? Miniature cheesecakes in a pumpkin shell? Stuffed with wild rice? There are zillions of recipes – both sweet and savory – for these little gems, which is good, because I have a feeling we'll have a lot!

Pumpkins with Zoey for scale purposes
Bonus Zoey picture because I couldn't decide which I liked best
Even the plants that initially struggled are thriving now. Our sole surviving cucumber (out of the several we planted) is finally getting some height to it.
Still not that impressive

The leaves look neat - hope the squash does, too
A couple of different squash plants have started to really put out lots of leaves. It's probably too late for them to catch up to the pumpkin, but I have a feeling they're going to try! I hope we get enough that we struggle to find ways to eat them all. Somehow, I doubt we will, since only two plants are any size at all, and I have no idea how many squash we'll get off one plant. I also don't know what kind they are, since the seeds were in an envelope helpfully labeled 'squash'. I know think they're some sort of summer squash, but beyond that? No clue.

Despite our best efforts to kill them via late transplanting, the broccoli and cauliflower plants we got from my mom are even starting to look like they'll produce something. We even planted them too close and re-transplanted them in an effort to test their hardiness. Those plants are survivors! No idea which is which any more. It's going to be like Christmas when we find out what all of our plants are. Good thing we like surprises, especially when they're almost guaranteed to be pleasant.
Brocciflower?  Caulolli?  Delicious!

This one lived!
The one disappointment so far is our garlic. We got several kinds from my sister, and they initially looked like they were going to thrive. However, the cat decided the garlic bed was just the right size for him to sleep in (1'x7') and killed most of the plants. We only have a few sad survivors left. Next year will be different; we put several large rocks on top of the bed to reduce the comfort factor.

They're putting out runners like champs!
Our strawberries also received the 'cat compactor' treatment, but have come back nicely. I'm hoping they will put out lots of runners and produce more than two berries next year!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

In Which I Fail Miserably

Failing. I don't like it. Sadly, it happens to the best of us sometimes. It happens to me frequently.

This week, I was going to write a post about taquitos. Except my tortillas cracked and deformed and the taquitos were hideous, so I didn't want to take pictures of them or write about them.

Then I was going to write about the gluten-free goldfish crackers I made. Except they didn't turn out very crackery.

I very successfully made a birthday cake from scratch for my best friend's birthday get-together...but I failed to take pictures of it, so it won't work as a blog post either.

That leaves me with only one option – write about my failures.

Failure #1: Taquitos
This is a great way to use extra cooked turkey, and they freeze well, provide nice snacks for football season, etc. I like knowing extra uses for turkey because they're cheap, but it doesn't take much to get tired of eating turkey every night.

This time, we ended up with extra turkey because we made turkey bratwursts, but only used the breasts and thighs because the rest is too much of a pain to de-bone. The legs and wings, we cooked up so we could use the turkey in taquitos.
First problem: over filling.  Always.

This was a good plan, and still will happen...but I have to figure out some logistics first. See, I thought I'd be brilliant and use freshly made corn tortillas, even though I never had. I followed all the same steps as for store-bought torts, including briefly frying them in oil before rolling. However, the tortillas cracked like except for one or two. I almost took pictures of the successful pair I managed to make, but thought that was cheap. 

So it's back to the drawing board for that one. I have to figure out if it's better to roll them in the raw tort or if fresh torts don't need to be softened in oil or if it's some other problem (did I make them too thick? Too dense (dry) of dough? I'll try some more and hopefully have answers soon.

I gave up in disgust and made the taquitos into deep-fried tacos. Which actually didn't taste too bad.
One step above Jack In the Box tacos.  That step is real meat.

Failure #2: Gluten-free Goldfish Crackers
This was in response to a request for crunchy gluten-free, egg-free crackers. Most of the recipes I found for gluten-free crackers called for either eggs or almond meal. WinCo's bulk section doesn't have almond meal (although it does have xantham gum, so score!), so I had to write those off, since I'm too cheap broke to buy baking ingredients in any other form. The only recipe I found that I had the ingredients for was the goldfish.
The dough looked good at this stage.  Tricksy dough.

They wanted me to use a goldfish cookie cutter...because we all have one of those lying around! I opted for the smallest cutter I own – a train. Except the crackers kept breaking before I got them onto the pan, so I just put the dough on the pan and cut them into square-ish shapes.
The fist batch just glommed together when they baked.

They tasted good to me, although Zoey took one nibble and declared it trash. Seriously, she said “Uck, trash!” and repeated it until I threw the cracker away for her. That does wonders for the ego, let me tell you! However, even at the smallest size, they were slightly chewy in the middle. And I don't think goldfish crackers were what the original request had in mind, anyway. So back to the drawing board there, too. In this case, I'll probably just try to find a better recipe. One that doesn't involve cheese (or uses a cheese like Parmesan, which is less melty/chewy than cheddar).
They came out either over-cooked or chewy.  No in-between stage.

Failure #3: No pictures of my sole success
My best friend came over on Saturday for a birthday barbecue...and everyone knows you can't have a birthday gathering with no cake! I made a Hoosier Cake out of my Fannie Farmer cookbook. I chose it because a) I had all the ingredients on hand and b) it included a cup of coffee.
Instead of a cake, here's Parker.  He's big.

I even made it despite the fact that the recommended frosting was called Gravy Frosting. Seriously? Gravy Frosting? Can you have a less appealing name without resorting to toilet humor? (No really, I challenge you!)

The cake came out nicely – it was chocolaty with just a hint of coffee flavor. The frosting was much tastier than the name implies. I'm guessing it got the name from the fact that about half of it was a thick flour/milk roux...fairly gravy-esque. I still would suggest renaming it. It was not too sweet, as many frostings are, even though I put too much on the cake. I'm pretty sure there's not supposed to be an almost 1:1 cake-to-frosting ratio. Whoops.
Zoey's eating an apple.  Imagine she's eating cake.  Or not.
This, at least, has a very simple solution. Take pictures of everything. I mean EVERYTHING. Oatmeal for breakfast? Pictures. Make a salad? Pictures. Clean the fridge? Pictures (of Randy cleaning, of course. I hate cleaning the fridge). Change a diaper? Yeah, probably not pictures of that one. 

In the meantime, I'll take a cue from Zoey and not have a care in the world.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Welcome To the Jungle, We've Got Peas and Beans

What? A mid-week post? You know it!

I actually intended to post this last week, but got distracted by the sunshine and bratwurst making. However, it's been a couple of months since I posted about our gardening adventures, and thought an update was in order.

Beans last week
Beans this week - they're taking over!
However, the pictures I took last week are no longer good, so I had to go play in the sun with my camera again. Shucks darn.

We simplified many of our garden plans from our original plan based on the seeds my parents donated and our lack of adventuresome spirit around my due date. For example, I really didn't want to lug my belly down to the FFA sale, so we have no tomatoes. Sadly. I'm going to try to convince my neighbor to give me one really good tomato to harvest seeds from for next year. We'll see how that works out.

What we ended up with was primarily peas and beans, which I'm OK with, since they're my favorites! They are also pretty low-maintenance, which is what we need this year! We also planted some squashes, cucumbers, and mini pumpkins. Later, my mom donated some broccoli and cauliflower starts. We got potatoes from my sister, but lost them somewhere in the garage until it was too late to plant them. Whoops!

I can't really blame Zoey for eating these!
Aside from vegetables, we planted a few strawberries (also from my mom. Have I mentioned what a kind, wonderful woman she is?) and our blueberries. We didn't get a lot from the berries – only two strawberries achieved any size at all, and we got maybe a dozen blueberries. By which I mean Zoey got a dozen blueberries. Someone, who may or may not be me, showed her the berries on the bush and she took it upon herself to harvest them all. This was the first year we've gotten any blueberries, though, so we were excited.

So how has it turned out? Results are mixed at this point. We planted all of the seeds at the beginning of May, when it was still on the cool side. This was a mistake for most things. We got a couple of pumpkins and squashes to sprout, but only one cucumber came up out of the several we planted...and it was sick and sad until recently.

The peas and beans did fantastically, although the beans got off to a slower start than the peas. The peas are starting to develop, and hopefully we'll be able to pick them in a couple of weeks. The beans haven't flowered yet, but given their growth recently, I anticipate a healthy crop of beans as well.
Peas were starting to form last week...
And this week, I'm tempted to pick them!

The broccoli and cauliflower were victims of neglect for a while, but are now planted and recovering nicely. And so we wait...and make more plans.
He thought he was safe...
But the pumpkin came for him in the night.

When Randy's parents came to visit, they brought us a wonderful greenhouse. This should help us make our own starts next year, and have a more productive start to our garden. Also, Randy plans to try growing peppers, which require a bit more heat. We'll see how it works out. So far, it's just a greenhouse with no shelves, although we do have a folding table we might donate to the cause.
Oh yes, we have plans for this...

Also, we want to try to save our own seeds. In theory, this will mean a better crop next year, as we'll save the seeds from the plants that do the best. If we manage to do this for several years straight, we'll end up with seeds perfectly adapted to our soil/climate/growing season. Since we don't know if it will work or not, though, we're going to hedge our bets and plant half the garden with our saved seeds and half with store seeds for a side-by-side test. If ours work, then there's another cost saver for future years! And if not...well, we'll have learned a lesson.

We're also looking into fall/winter planting. Given the requirement of going out in the rain and gloom to care for them, however, that might dwindle. It's a lot easier to stay motivated at this time of year, when the sun is shining every day!

The gnomes will watch over all (and hopefully weed for us, too!)

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Bring On the Bratwursts!

I've said before how much I love my Kitchenaid mixer. Not only does it serve in its primary function as a mixer, it has oodles of attachments to play with. By far, the one I use the most is the meat grinder. Often, there are cuts of beef on sale for cheaper than ground beef (and without the potential presence of the dreaded “pink slime”). Even better, it has a sausage stuffer on it, enabling us to make our own bratwursts.

Making bratwursts is remarkably simple: grind the meat, add seasonings, and stuff into casings. The hardest part is finding the casings...and that's as simple as going to your closest meat market. If you're squeamish about using natural casings, you can also order collagen casings online.

Enough hog casings for 100 lbs of bratwursts
How the casings come packaged will vary based on the store selling them. At one of the markets near me, they just cut off a length from what they have soaked and prepared for their use that day...if they have enough out, they'll cut some off and put it in a baggie. The other only sells it by the hank – which is enough for about 100 pounds of sausages. Luckily, it can be sealed up with a Food Saver – making 100 lbs of sausage in one shot would be difficult! Regardless of which store I go to, I've never paid the same price twice for casings. I think the person working just guesstimates a price based on...something. The hank is more standardized in price – $25-30, and is much more economical in terms of per-pound cost; the shorter length tends to run about $1/pound. This time, the hank cost us $30.

We've been slowly buying meat to turn into bratwursts for the past few months; every time we go shopping, we buy a pork shoulder or a turkey. This month, we had trouble closing our freezer after we got back from shopping, so knew it was time to get to work making brats (and time to get a bigger freezer!)

Before we started, though, we had to strategize – this much sausage would take a while to make, and with a toddler and an infant, we just weren't going to have the time to get it done in one shot, unless we stayed up all night, sacrificing precious, precious sleep. Since that wasn't going to happen, we decided to spread the process out over three days (if we were making a smaller batch, we would have made it in one day).

DAY ONE: Cutting and Grinding

Gotta sharpen the blade!
We decided to focus on pork for the simple reason that one of our pork shoulders was thawed and we couldn't fit that and all three turkeys in the fridge. I think they were the same cut of meat, but they were labeled differently – one was called a “pork picnic roast” and the other was a “pork shoulder roast”. The only difference I saw was the pork picnic roast had more bones. In the end, $45 of pork shoulders yielded 29.25 lbs of ground meat.
One of three hunks o' pork

All cut up
Randy cut the meat into strips small enough to feed through the grinder (the instructions call for 1” chunks, but I've found that strips work just fine, as long as the diameter is not too large) and ground it all up. He then packaged it in gallon Ziploc bags – five pounds per bag. This process took two hours and three beers.

Get your grind on!
When all the grinding was done, we threw the bones in the crock pot and let it simmer overnight both to make stock, and to get some more meat off of the bones. This sounds a little penny-pinching, I know, but we ended up getting nearly two pounds of additional meat, which we drenched in barbecue sauce for sandwiches. We also got three quarts of stock.

DAY TWO: Seasoning
While Randy cut, ground, and packaged the meat on day one, I had child duty and looked up recipes in our sausage book this wonderful book. Luckily for my decision-making abilities, I was limited in my choices by the ingredients we have on hand. Plain bratwursts were a guarantee, as was a spicy version – we made double batches of both of those. However, with nearly 30 lbs of meat, we wanted to try some new variations as well. I settled on Garlic Sausage and Southwest Sausage.

Just a touch more heat, please!
That meant on the second day, we were ready to season the meat. We were not precise in our measurements according to the recipes, since most of them called for four pounds of meat and we had five pounds for each recipe. Also, we wanted to make the spicy sausages much spicier than the recipe (we had made it before).

Randy had the pleasure of mixing the seasonings into the cold meat. I was excited for him to do it; usually it's my job and I know how much it hurts after a least until your fingers go completely numb! By the last couple of batches, he had figured out how to minimize the time required. He spread the meat out in the bowl as thinly as he could and evenly sprinkled the seasonings over it so there were fewer clumps of spices. It still requires several minutes of mixing to get everything evenly distributed.

Randy before he mixed the meat.  That joy left about 20 seconds later
At that point, we put the ground meat back into the bags to sit overnight. This was mainly because it's much easier to stuff the casings when you have two people, so we had to wait until Zoey was asleep. It's too much to hope that both kids will sleep at the same time at this stage, but Parker is at least more or less stationary. The thought of chasing a toddler down with sausage hands is not fun.

A secondary, but also valid, reason was to let the spices meld and develop the flavors in the sausages. Given our general lack of patience, we were going to cook the brats the day we stuffed them; if we had seasoned and stuffed on the same day, the flavor wouldn't be the same.

This doesn't adequately show the loss of feeling in his fingers
The final step for day two was to prep the casings. They come packed in salt, which has to be rinsed off thoroughly. We pulled one long strand of casings out of the hank and rinsed it under cold water, then put it in a bowl of cool water to soak for 30 minutes. Then we put the casings in a Ziploc with fresh water and put it in the fridge to wait for the next day.

This process took one hour and one glass of wine to complete.

DAY THREE: Stuffing and cooking
This started with putting Zoey down for her nap and convincing Parker that he liked his swing. Once both kids were contained, we rushed to action. Sadly, this meant we didn't get any pictures of the process.  While it is tempting to use the longest strand of casings possible – both to maximize the look of the final product (who doesn't want a 30-foot string of sausages?) and to minimize the times I have to tie a knot in slippery casings, I've learned that anything over around six feet makes it difficult to twist the sausages into links.

Stuffing the sausages takes quite a bit of patience and a little trial and error in the technique used. The ground meat feeds through the stuffer quite slowly. To complicate matters, if you push too much meat through at a time, the plunger gets stuck and pulling it out creates an air pocket, which turns the casings into a balloon. Randy has mastered this end of it; he pushes the plunger down 2/3 of the way and then feeds more meat in. This ensures a steady flow of meat into the casings with no air pockets. Yet again, patience is the key – if you rush this, it will end up creating more work and frustration. If you do end up with an air pocket, just pop it with a toothpick and keep going.

The other aspect is holding the sausages as they are stuffed. Because our stuffer is an attachment to the Kitchenaid, it's about a foot over the counter. This means the weight of the stuffed sausages drags down the casings, resulting in thin, sad sausages unless someone supports the sausages as they are stuffed. The trick is moving the casings along so the sausages are full but not overfull; overfilling means the bratwursts will burst when twisted into links. We were reminded the hard way of this, as I overstuffed the garlic brats and had several split open while I was twisting them into links; I had to remove some of the sausage and try to tie off casings that had already been stuffed. Profanity ensued, and I ended up relegating those sausages to immediate cooking.
Casualties of over-stuffing;See the meat exploding out of the end?  Tragic, but still tasty!

It's also important to remember to leave a few inches of empty casing at the end, so you can tie a knot. Thankfully, this is easy to remember, and I didn't have to swear at this stage! It's better to leave a little more room than you need than not leave enough. Twist the stuffed casing into 4-5 inch lengths – you want to give it three or four turns. When you cut the links apart, the ends will stay sealed. I really don't know how it works, but it does – I suspect magic.

Some meat will always be lost – what is left in the tube of the stuffer. Because we had so many different batches, we didn't bother to clean the stuffer after each one; instead, we tried to sequence our stuffing to flavors that would match well, as we knew we'd have some blended sausages. Spicy-Southwest, Southwest-Garlic, etc. This way, we ended up losing the least amount of meat possible – maybe enough for one bratwurst.

Totally worth all of the effort!
The stuffing process took the two of us (in varying degrees of cooperation due to necessary child wrangling) three hours and three beers.

We ended up with 111 bratwursts. Even with overestimating the cost of the seasonings at five dollars, that comes out to a price of $0.54/brat, or $2.00/lb. The WinCo brand bratwursts sell for $3.99/lb and have who knows what quality of ingredients. I couldn't find an ingredient list for the WinCo brand, but Johnsonville (which costs a little more) has the following ingredient list:
         Pork, water, corn syrup and less than 2% of the following: salt, dextrose, monosodium            
         glutamate, flavorings, BHA, propyl gallate, citric acid.
I like the vagueness of “flavorings”; it lets me use my imagination!

Zoey and her grandpa waiting for bratwursts
Aside from knowing exactly what “flavorings” are in my sausages, I discovered – completely by accident – another health benefit. My dad has breathing problems, and some additive in the store bratwursts messes up his breathing. These don't. Needless to say, he likes the freshly made version a lot better. We are making him about 15 pounds of them – enough to keep him in stock for a while!
Some of these recipes call for differently ground meat – some call for a double grind (coarse, then fine), some call for one grind on fine, some for one on coarse. We did one coarse grind for all of it – the batch was big enough to make switching out the blades a pain in the butt - and didn't double grind any of it. I didn't notice a difference between these and the previous batches where we did the double grind.

My favorite of the four variations was the spicy, followed by the garlic because of their stronger flavors. The other two were also tasty, but it's hard to beat a good spicy bratwurst, and I believe garlic should be one of the main food groups, so that's an automatic win. Actually, with both the spicy and garlic recipes, we doubled the quantity of the main seasoning to enhance the flavor a bit more.

We also altered the directions that call for the meat to sit in the freezer for a short stint between steps. Since we refrigerated the meat overnight between steps, we didn't need to freeze it. All this does is chill the meat so it travels through the grinder better. A long stay in the fridge has the same effect. When making a smaller batch, I include the freezer step.

Process for all variations:
Prepare the casings if needed, by rinsing off any salt, then placing in a bowl of cool water for 30 minutes. Run cool water through the casings before stuffing.*

Cut the meat into 1-inch cubes. Freeze for 30 minutes to firm up before grinding.

Grind meat through the coarse plate of a meat grinder

In a large bowl, add seasonings and mix well, using your hands.

Stuff mixture into prepared casings, prick air pockets, and twist into 4-to-5-inch lengths. Cut the links apart with a sharp knife or scissors.

Refrigerate for up to three days or freeze.

6 feet hog casing
5 lbs ground pork shoulder or butt (make sure there is some fat!)
1 t white pepper**
1 t kosher or coarse salt
½ t crushed caraway seed
½ t dried marjoram
¼ t allspice

Garlic Sausage
6 feet hog casing
5 lbs ground pork shoulder or butt (make sure there is some fat!)
½ c white wine
3 T minced garlic**
1T plus 1t kosher or coarse salt
2t sugar
1t black pepper
½ t ground ginger
¼ t allspice
¼ t cinnamon
¼ t nutmeg
¼ t ground thyme

Sicilian-Style Hot Sausage
6 feet hog casing
5 lbs ground pork shoulder or butt (make sure there is some fat!)
2T kosher or coarse salt**
1T black pepper
2T habanero chili powder
¼ cup crushed red pepper

Southwest Pork Sausage
6 feet hog casing
5 lbs ground pork shoulder or butt (make sure there is some fat!)
1T plus 1t kosher or coarse salt**
1 T black pepper
2t crushed red pepper
1t coriander
1t cumin
½ t chili powder
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

*If desired, you can soak the casings again, this time adding 1T white vinegar for each cup of water. This softens the casings and makes them more transparent so the end product looks nicer.

**all measurements are for rounded spoons, as the base recipe was for four pounds of meat rather than five