Backyard Gourmet: Can't Beat The Meat!
by E D Detetcheverrie
Rated "PG" by the Author.
edited: Monday, February 05, 2007
Posted: Monday, February 05, 2007
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There are no good or bad cuts, just good or bad chefs!
Ahh, spring! Sort of. February in central Florida and the robins have fled the frozen north to take up residence down here where it's warmer and food is more plentiful. When I lived up north, the sight of the first robin brought cheer to me. Down here, I'm mortified. You see, I moved here from a land of cornfields, soybeans, and chicken farms. Now I'm surrounded by citrus groves, tomato fields, and gigantic strawberry patches. And, where is this leading, Eddie?
Well, the strawberry growers down here do everything possible to get the maximum profit from their crops--like hiring very low-paid migrant workers to do all the cultivating and picking. I'm sick of people saying that illegal immigrants flee to this country to take all the jobs the rest of us don't want to do...when anyone would jump at the employment opportunities if they paid well and were fair enough. It's far easier to rip off illegals by threatening to turn them in if they complain than it is to offer fair wages to a native who has every right to complain without fear of deportation. And the robins? Well, as I mentioned, they flock down here in search of food while the ground is frozen up north and one of their favorite sources of healthy vitamins and minerals are strawberries! Well, rather than lose a few dozen flats of berries to starving songbirds, the landowners equip a handful of their workers with shotguns which, on TV news, they claim they just use for the noise in an effort to try and scare the little birdies away. Now go find some of these workers and ask them yourself if all they do is stand at the edge of a field and waste buckshot by shooting into the air, or.... Target practice!
See what you support by purchasing fresh winter strawberries? And the worst bit? After the initial rush for fresh early berries, they rot in the produce sections of grocery stores and roadstands where they're trying so desperately to get rid of surplus fruit that they'll often give quarts and half-flats away free with minimum store purchases. Yet another reason why I cringe whenever some well-meaning idiot tells me they're a vegan because they don't believe in hurting animals.
And now the main course!
Yes, I am a total cad.
I happened upon an intriguing article in Gourmet Magazine about the preponderance of flourishing steakhouses across our glorious land. They mention all these big-name famous chefs who own their own restaurants and all the ways they strive to fix the perfect steak. There's a guy who actually poaches his steaks in butter and herbs over circulating hot water for hours, and another who mixes roasting meats with grilling them, or pan-fries before finishing up on the grill. I was startled by the complaint by one guy that grilling steaks dries them out.... He's never eaten anything from my backyard grill. Then there are the chefs who offer Kobe or grass-fed or corn-fed, and the ones who offer steaks dry-aged for different amounts of time. One guy even bought his own prize Angus bull so he could breed his own meat.
And if you're anything like me, you could never afford to even nibble an appetizer from any of these award-winning bistros.
The most I've paid for a steak? Thirty-three dollars for a monstrous Porterhouse grilled to my preference and served atop garlic mashed potatoes with onion straws, the steak balanced with a heavy-handled steak knife in a weird tepee-formation over the vegs. I had it with horseradish sauce, of course and it was divine, but far more notable for the weird way it was presented than the flavor or quality of the meat.
I'm weary of cookbooks and magazines that try and steer (no pun intended) you away from some "cheaper" cuts of meat in favor of specialty cuts or thirteen-dollars-a-pound slabs of cow riddled with fat. Bon Appetit ran an article in January called "Butcher's Secret Cuts" featuring less popular, but no less delicious shoulder, oxtail, pork shanks and chicken thighs, thus justifying my personal belief that there are no bad cuts of meat so long as you know what you're doing in the kitchen. I've dined on oxtail that rivaled an excellent Beef Wellington, so I do indeed know from whence I speak.
You've probably heard me tell you how I won't pay more than two bucks a pound for my meats. That really limits the actual steaks I purchase, doesn't it? We eat steak here quite a bit, actually. The larger the cut in the store, the cheaper the meat is overall. So, I'll look for 2-for-1 sales on roasts and buy the two biggest ones I can find, or shell out twenty-five dollars or more for one huge chunk, then cut the meat to my liking once I get home, freezing what I don't intend to use right away. I find that thickness is better than plate coverage when it comes to a good grilling size. If you like your meat more rare, a thicker cut is easier to prepare. I also prefer leaner cuts to "well-marbeled", though the fat in any cut will only add to the richness of texture and flavor. A good-sized boneless roast will usually leave me several meals' worth of matched steaks, some nice chunks good for stew, fondue, or kebabs, and sometimes even a few handfulls of julienned scraps I like to stir-fry in Chinese or for salad toppings. Any large scraps of fat can be used to grease a hot grill or be boiled for stock use. My main thing is washing the meat I bring home. You never know who last handled that hunk of flesh and if they spit while they talk, or maybe dropped it on the floor, or how long it sat in a puddle of blood and other bits before being packaged. Blood rots meat quickly. Look for packages with the least amount of seepage or pooling at the bottom, and rinse the meat thoroughly as soon as you get home.
Marinating flavors the meat and adds extra moisture. You knew that of course. Good marinades may be oil-based (like salad dressings), juice-based (depending on what you're going for flavor-wise), tomato- and/or vinegar-based (steak sauces, BBQ sauce, etc.), alcohol-based (sherry, appropriate wines or whiskey, etc.), or even tea-based! Salad dressing, juices, tomatoes, vinegar, and tea are all acidic, and the acids help to tenderize the meats. The longer you marinate, the stronger the flavor, and I recommend a minimum of three days if you can swing it. Some people even like to marinate in milk (especially for game), or brine. It is no longer recommended that you reserve marinade for basting unless you can boil it first. I don't baste unless I'm doing barbecue of some sort, and then I always use fresh sauces. A nice finish to grilled meats is a pat of herbed butter on top. If you pan-fry, you can create a nice butter glace using pan drippings.
There's a really basic way to grill great steaks every time. Sear initially on very high heat, then cover and let cook to your desired doneness. We like 'em a bit red in the middle here, so most of my cuts are at least two inches thick and get two minutes of searing per side, followed by four or five minutes of covered grilling per side. You can pound or pierce your meats before marinating, but I personally have no use for these techniques unless a recipe specifically calls for it. For extra flavor, sprinkle on spices or dry herbs only during the last few minutes of cooking. Start out with your meats coated in herbs and spices and you'll end with a nice coating of char by the end.
What's with this make a tent of foil and let your meats sit on a cutting board or plate for five minutes before carving or serving? If this makes a difference, I've never seen nor tasted it. I make sure everything I'm serving is brought out at the same time for each course, so when the steak is done, the side dishes are the ones sitting and being kept warm--never the meat.
If you have leftover steak, reheating will most likely dry it. I serve leftovers cold, but if pressured, I'll warm up a few slices in their own juices, beef broth, or steak sauce, warming it quickly in a skillet. If I had to reheat a whole steak, I'd probably seal it in foil before setting it on the grill, unless the meat is preferred rare, at which point I'd try to bring it at least to room temperature before giving it a flash-searing and basting it with its own juices, broth, or butter.
My grilled meats are never dry. My lower-quality "cheap" cuts are always tender and flavorful. People are always astounded when they found out what I paid for the fabulous steak dinner they are eating, and often baffled when I reveal the name of the cut. This is bottom round roast? But, it's a steak! I never salt a steak at any point in its preparation because the marinade should be flavorful enough without extra salt. I encourage my guests to sample their food before salting it or using condiments, and often enough they find it tantalizing without the use of the shakers we keep on the table mainly for decoration. Besides, a lot of the sauces and marinades you'll use will contain enough salt on their own.
And when you taste my slow deep-roasted potatoes with herbed skins I serve on the side...you may never touch a salt shaker again!