Butchering trends bring fresh, meaty opportunities

JIM ROMANOFF
The Associated Press
Modified: January 23, 2013 at 4:29 pm •  Published: January 23, 2013
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photo - In this image taken on January 7, 2013, Mexican beef brisket and winter squash chili is shown served in a bowl in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)
In this image taken on January 7, 2013, Mexican beef brisket and winter squash chili is shown served in a bowl in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

Super Bowl Sunday surely is one of the meatiest eating days of the year. But it's still somewhat surprising the lengths some people will go to push their game day feed over the top. Last year, for example, some enthusiastic carnivores went as far as to build football arena replicas out of deli meats, cheese and bread.

Constructing stadiums out of cold cuts may be a great conversation starter, but it's not likely to win you many accolades from the foodies in your life. Luckily, some recent trends on the butchering side of things are offering whole new ways to up your meat game, so to speak.

Up until recently, shopping for meat at the grocer generally meant you were limited to just a few mainstream cuts, says meat guru Bruce Aidells, author of last year's "The Great Meat Cookbook." Part of the problem was the standardization of the meat industry. Butchering skills waned because so much was handled at the industrial level.

But as consumers demanded better, more unusual meats — including locally raised — chefs needed to improvise. Many had to learn butchering skills in order purchase and use the sorts of meats their customers were looking for, says Tia Harrison, chef and co-owner of Sociale, a Northern Italian-inspired restaurant in San Francisco.

And in order not to waste a single bit, those chefs also began to develop and rediscover recipes for lesser known cuts of meat, including how to produce charcuterie.

Pretty soon restaurants were having wildly popular snout-to-tail supper nights where dishes made from every bit of the animal are served. The burgeoning market for local meat ultimately led to the art of butchering becoming quite hip. And that has influenced the meats available even at mainstream grocers, with most offering grass-fed and organic meats, even some heritage breed meats.

Aidells welcomes the change as an easy opportunity for home cooks to try new, and better quality, cuts. And a meat-centric celebration like a Super Bowl party is a fine time to give it a go.

Perhaps start with something easy, such as grass-fed beef. Because the animal was raised entirely on grass, expect the meat to be a bit pricey and leaner than grain-fed. Similar to wine, flavors can vary widely depending on where the animal was raised and the quality of grass it ate, says Aidells. "If you're a meat lover, you owe it to yourself to sample and compare grass-fed beef from various areas," he says.

To get further into the sports theme, ask your butcher for a "baseball steak," which gets its name from the fact that when grilled it plumps up into a ball shape. They are cut from the tip of the top sirloin and are about 2 to 3 inches thick. There are only two of these delicious steaks from each animal, and Aidells recommends marinating and grilling them as you would a top round steak.

As for less common cuts, Aidells suggests beef or bison cheeks. They have a unique, firm yet still tender texture when cooked low and slow, making them perfect for braising and roasting. They usually have to be special ordered, but in a pinch you can substitute beef shank meat to get similar results.

Pork cheeks also are high on Aidells' list. While they can be difficult to find, he says they're worth the effort, especially when stewed, which yields rich and succulent results. Also try them shredded in a Bolognese-style pasta sauce. Another favorite is lamb neck. It's cheap and has lots of bones to deal with. But it's worth it because they cook up very tender and have enough collagen to give wonderful body to stew sauces.

Whatever you choose to try, this trend in meat has led to plenty of resources for both butchers and buyers. To help professionals, Harrison co-founded The Butcher's Guild, a national group with a mission to create a new generation of craftsmen and women by supporting artisanal butchers (they must be working with whole animals to join) in sharing and enhancing their skills.