Just read the New York Times article, “The Lost Art of Buying From a Butcher“. Most of the stuff they say in there is dead on correct. As someone who works behind a meat counter, I see a couple of issues with it.

Yes, customers are entitled to get what they want, and for the most part, get it when they want. The addition of premium/luxury cuts (read: former trash cuts that Brooklyn meat shops have appropriated for high prices and new customers) can’t necessarily be seen as a bad thing. We’ve been doing this at our store for a while, with the addition of the Chuck eye steaks, “Chicago” steak (basically a cut off the chuck arm), and the Flat iron (Inner part of the chuck arm) from the beef, and a host of cuts from the pork leg for stewing, (pork stew meat, pork sirloin tip), as well as pork cutlets and scallopine, for quick and easy cooking for schnitzel or saltimbocca, to use a couple of ideas. When it comes down to it, on a larger scale, nose to tail butchering takes a lot of courage and investment from a butcher’s point of view, and a LOT of compromise from that of the consumer.

From a previous post, A Lamb’s Tale, you know that we bring in whole lamb carcasses and break them down in house. This is to present the customer with quick and fresh choices for dinner. There’s only two racks of chops per animal, and those typically go first, followed by the easy to cook lamb leg, the eminently grillable loin chops, and slower but still consistenly delicious shoulder chops and roasts. From a butcher’s standpoint, the shoulder chops are generally my favorite cut, as they can be prepared any way from grilling to braising, standing up in place of either the long-gone rack of lamb, (much easier to mess up and far less forgiving), or a lamb shank. Most people don’t realize that when they come in to buy stuff, and despite the fact that it is in the mutual best interest of the seller and buyer to provide the latter with the most palatable meal possible, they just don’t take us at our word without a little prying.

There’s only so much that we can do. The ribs and bone in lamb breast are trimmed down and often put in the case, but tend to linger as the other cuts sell down. This is in spite of our constant support from behind the counter of these cuts, which to the credit of the NYT article, they highlight very well. (See: Lamb Necks Braised in Wine With Peppers, NYT, Nov 2, 2011) It’s bothersome, however, to know that aside from an article featuring small time butchers in the NYT or a Rachael Ray cooking segment (shudder), that people will never acknowledge the inexpensive luxury of a lamb neck. The sorry thing is that we have them. We most definitely have lamb necks, and every week, they end up sitting around until we throw them in the smokehouse to cook with rosemary for 4 hours until they’re fork tender, and attempt to sample them out to that one special customer who we think might start a trend. How do they taste? They’re fantastic. Unfortunately, we cannot always rely on our favorite Greek woman to come in to order the lamb neck. She goes to her guy in Greektown, because of course she does, and guys like us, despite our best efforts and wide variety of fresh cuts, can’t usually compete unless it’s for Easter, where we were the last place in town with fresh cuts of lamb.

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If you haven’t figured it out by now, I know how to cook. I know the basic recipes for almost every cut of meat, how to season it, how long on either side a steak will take on the grill, and how to rest a roast or bird after cooking to ensure the most moist of dinners. So do most of the people I work with, and if they don’t, they listen. They listen to those who do, listen to the customers and what they’re making, ask questions, and then pass that information along to the next person who has a desire to buy a chicken, pork roast, or steak. The dialogue of a meal is far more important than the cooking and execution; Without the pre-meal conversation, you don’t know how much you need to buy, what seasonings you need on-hand, what side dishes go best with it, or how much time you need to spend actively prepping in the kitchen.

We’ll ask you questions like, “How many people are you feeding? Do they have good appetites? To what degree of doneness do you like your meat prepared? Are you buying grassfed because you like the taste?”

The last two are important ones to consider, as they go hand in hand. We like to think that we’re educated consumers, knowing where our meat comes from, how it’s raised, what it eats, but in the mechanics of meat, a lot of people can’t look at a steak and tell me how it’s going to turn out. After selling thousands of ribeyes, ranging from the leanest of the lean grassfed to a bone-in prime beauty, we have some idea.

When people are licking their chops at a tenderloin, I always ask them how they’re going to prepare it. At close to 30 bucks a pound, I want them to have a clear idea of the direction their meal is taking. If they’re going to cook it well done, I shift them to the top sirloin. The more done your steak is, the less you’ll be able to tell the difference between a high end cut and a similar cut of ‘lesser quality’. I’m not saying it will be like a tough piece of shoe leather, because occasionally, you’ll get a really nice mistake. If you try to duplicate your recipe for that hiccup of a fairly decent piece of tenderloin that you accidentally cooked medium well but it turns out well done and dry the next time, I’m either going to hear about it, or you’re never going to order that steak from me again. I’d much rather set you up in a good ol’ reliable Honda Civic than the status symbol of a sports car that is the tenderloin.

On to the Ribeye. Here are two pictures of ribeyes- the first is a Select grade, the second is a prime. See if you can spot the difference.

Pretty easy to tell. A lot of people want a lean ribeye, in which case I’ll steer them toward the strip steak. Still juicy, still tender, but I try to find them one that I’d eat. You’re really looking for the marbling, because as the fat melts, it’ll become more fork tender. If customers are less receptive, of course, I’ll give them what they want, but I have this need to make sure that they get a good meal out of what they’re getting. The easiest way to impress this is to tell them to look their steak in the eye. The Ribeye. It’s that square of fat running right down the middle. If you’re baking a potato, the butter is what gives it the flavor, melting into the food. The same effect is caused when you sear a steak on the grill. The eye melts down, flavoring your food and keeping it moist. With a grass-fed steak, although it’s healthier with its lower levels of saturated fats and higher levels of Omega 3 fatty acids, your dinner will typically offer you two things if you cook it the same way you do with your regular grain finished steak: A tougher final product, as there is less marbling, and a deeper flavor, as there is usually a smaller eye to mellow out the grassiness of the meat. It’s fine if you tenderize it using either a dry rub method or an overnight marinade, but if you’re getting a steak and you want it to taste like a steak, less is more. A simple, quick dry rub will do the trick, left on for 30 minutes before cooking on a steak left to raise up to room temperature.  Salt, pepper, a little oil, maybe some paprika or other flavor. Not a whole lot more. 

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It’s okay to be picky with your meat. Having a dialogue with your butcher is encouraged. It lets us inform you and give you the best quality meat available, give you tips on how to cook it, and gives the customer a sense of value in being heard and having the best possible end result. Just as it’s our job to give the best meat and service, take our advice and listen closely, and perhaps on your next trip to the store, you’ll be impressed with the new cut of meat that you get to try out. We know who the kitchen adventurers are. We like them. We just want to see more of them coming through our lines, excited for the options that our meat case holds for them.

A final word, as put out by the NYT article that sums up my stance succinctly and accurately: “A butcher will comply but also advise if you are in doubt. Take in your recipe and go over it with the butcher — just not at 5 p.m. on a Friday when there’s a line out the door.”

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