Monday, August 19, 2013
Not counting vegetarians, I haven’t met many people who don’t love a good steak. Because of this love affair, many steak-sized not too tender meats in the supermarket meat section are labeled “steaks,” such as beef chuck steak, chuck tender steak, round steak and chuck eye steak. Even some pork chops are deliberately mislabeled as “steak.”
I love a good steak like any meat lover yet I gave up on cooking it. Why? I cannot match the flavor and tenderness of the meat served in a good steak-house. My steaks are not fork-tender and just mediocre in flavor.
For a good steak the grade of the meat is of prime importance. The USDA started grading beef in 1927 and ever since every piece of beef is graded according to their system.
The highest grade steak, Prime, is well marbled throughout. The next grade is Choice with less marbling and that’s the highest grade you find in most supermarkets. Select grade has even less marbling and the lowest, Standard is a meat red all the way through without the marbling fat. Only the edges contain fat, not enough to lubricate the meat. A tough piece of meat. Note that some supermarkets use their own grading system though Prime and Choice are standard for all.
So for a good home-grilled steak, go for Prime. But you won’t find this grade in just any meat counter. Prime grade is expensive and often reserved by high-end butchers, exclusive clubs and restaurants for customers and clients who have generous expense accounts or far-reaching credit cards.
Yet we all had affordable steaks in steak-houses. How do they do it? By meticulous tenderizing lower-grade Choice meat. They do this by either chemical tenderizers (and these are all blends of natural products such as papaya, fig and pineapple) or by passing the meat through mechanical tenderizers which are like medieval torture instruments with many sharp needles that break up the tough meat fibers.
But grade is not the only thing you need to consider. A good steak needs to be aged too. Raw, unaged beef has a metallic taste and is rather tough, chewy; aging improves both flavor and tenderness. It chemically alters flavor and softens tough connective tissues. During the aging process the meat shrinks and loses some 12 to 15 percent moisture. The process adds to the price as the meat must rest in a temperature-humidity controlled room for about 15 days, for real high quality meat up to six weeks. Plus you pay for the shrinkage too.
Most shoppers are very conscious of the price of the meat package, and meat processors need to consider how much extra they can charge for the aging before they lose buyers.
When I want a good steak, I choose a steak house.
Saturday, July 27, 2013
Dedicated barbeque cooks mostly believe in hot charcoal, not gas-heated grills. They claim the flavor of the grilled food is better. Unless you have both and taste test grilled foods prepared on both, it’s impossible to know for certain.
I grill my foods on charcoal and have done it so
Since I live in a forested area, I use two pine cones or dry twigs to start the fire, both readily available. After removing the grill rack that holds the charcoal (I use two double-hooked wire made from two coat hangers), I light the cone or twig fire and when burning fiercely, I reposition the grill rack using my wire hooks, piling the briquettes over the fire. Having alively fire under them, they catch quickly and in no time they glow red.
Grilling outdoors is fun and eating the grilled food comes as a second enjoyment. Plus cleanup work is minimal (I never bother cleaning my grill unless charred food accumulation gets too thick—with the intense heat it remains perfectly safe).
Whether I grill meat, poultry or fish, I often add a few other foods to grill: thick rounds of eggplants, thick slabs of summer squash, thick slices of partially cooked unpeeled potatoes to name a few, all generously oiled to promote browning and prevent sticking. On a hot fire sausage, one-serving pieces of marinated meat or boneless poultry takes no more than three or four minutes per side. Fish less, two to two-and-half minutes. Vegetables take about the same, three to five minutes each side.
I haven’t found that using two-stage fire (one side hotter than the other) has any benefit—it’s just another unnecessary step.
Friday, July 19, 2013
The international movement promoting “slow food” is a backlash against the fast and unstoppable tumor-like worldwide growth of fast foods.
Is fast food bad? If so, why do millions grab it daily throughout the globe, rejecting their traditional food heritage? No one will argue that fast food is not particularly good food yet fast food is exactly what its creators intended it to be—fast, cheap and quick. Some of the foods served at these fast food establishments are not even bad—give a choice to almost any youngster and the answer is invariably yes, mostly thanks to high oil and salt contents, both having addictive propensities.
Very few fast food items you could prepare home easily and most would not come up to those served in fast-food joints. Think about pizza, french fries, deep-fried chicken, burrito or donut. Without the high temperature of a pizza oven, your pizza (even having the best ingredients) is not as good as in a good pizza parlor. Deep-frying at home is messy, smelly and quite a chore plus plenty of wasted oil. You cannot maintain the critical high oil temperature without a gallon of oil and the accurate thermostat of a commercial deep-fryer. Try home-made donuts and you will see what I mean. Besides, to prepare raised donuts will take you hours from flour to finished donuts.
What is slow food? It’s a movement born in Italy in 1986 when McDonald attempted yet another outlet smack on Rome’s famed Piazza de Spagna. The group was unsuccessful to fight the Golden Arches but Slow Food movement continued on and gained followers particularly in Europe. North Americans started to organize too, but with modest success.
The Slow Food movement is international with many local chapters called convivia. Their purpose is not to cook food slowly but to counter fast foods favoring small local, traditional restaurants, buying at farmers’ markets, visiting local small food processors, wineries, artisan food producers, even helping pick produce, pruning vines in vineyards and generally promoting age-old culinary traditions that least harm the environment.
Their proposal to revive two- and three-hour lunches was not a joke. This all sounds good. But supporting such a notion, when will you have time to take the car for a tune-up, call the plumber to unplug the drain, drop one of the kids off at soccer game while you pick up the second from ballet, spend hours on weekly shopping, the laundry, the bills, the vet and the scores of other chores on the To Do list. Plus put in a decent week’s work.
It appears that the slow food philosophy is perfect for the gastronomic elitists with plenty of time and money to spare. It’s a movement a tiny slice of modern society is able to afford yet it doesn’t mean the rest of us ought to live on fast food. There is a middle ground somewhere.
SLOW FOOD AT HOME
Now more and more of us realize that while living on fast food we miss out on one of the greatest pleasures in life—good food, good eating in good company. There is only one way to enjoy the social pleasure of a family, a friend or a partner sharing a meal with you at least once a day—the slow food way at home—cooking a meal using quality ingredient while taking time to prepare food you are proud to serve. But two- to three-hour meals? Let the rich snobs and retired have them.
If you enjoy cooking, your task is easier. If you would rather eat than cook, it is more difficult. Whatever your preference, highly organized, efficient kitchen setup, kitchen work and basic cooking knowledge are all important keys.
Efficiency and organization may come naturally to you or you may have to work on them but basic cooking knowledge must be learned. If you don’t have it, spend some time to learn it from books followed with practice in the kitchen. Your best bet is simple cookbooks that are not all recipes but which explain the whys and hows of food and cooking while giving you simple and good recipes with ingredients readily available at most markets. Your goal is to prepare a good, complete “slow food” meal spending not much more than one hour in the kitchen.
Invest in good kitchen equipment: pots and pans, knives, cutting boards, all essential gadgets and small appliances. Keep all in good working order, particularly your knives that should be scalpel sharp at all times. Learn the few commonly used techniques: chopping onion and garlic, cutting up vegetables and meat, browning, sautéing, grilling. Be certain never, ever to run out of supplies.
Have a basic, well-organized repertoire of recipes. Three to five tried out and good recipes from each major food group is a good start. This includes three or four from each type of meat you like to serve, vegetables, starchy side dishes, soups, salads, desserts and breakfast foods. Once you have collected a minimum quota, you have a collection of some 25 to 30 recipes to which you can fall back on any time. From here you can further build your repertoire with new recipes whenever you have leisure time to cook.
Slow food cooking also means avoiding shortcuts, avoiding prepared ingredients. Generally, the faster the cooking, the weaker the result. Take coffee makers. The manufacturers had no choice; coffee makers have to be almost instant with minimal waiting for the hot brew. But speed costs flavor. To extract the most from your coffee beans, the water must be at certain temperature (few degrees below boiling) and must slowly filter through the coffee grounds. Speed up the process and the water leaves some of the flavor ingredients behind in the wet coffee grounds.
Or take meat. Virtually in any meat dish recipe the first step is browning. Shortcut recipes leave this step out, saving you time and a lot of cleanup work. But myriad of flavor components in meat only develop through the high heat of browning.
Slow food our way is for you and me because that is the only way to get full enjoyment out of food and eating. Share delicious slow food meals daily with someone in your home.
Thursday, July 18, 2013
He was pleasant enough, the client for one of our next catering events—a friendly, cordial young man, dressed in casual clothes that would cost me the profit of a large catered event. He had recently built up a small chain of successful, trendy pizza restaurants that caught on like wildfire in this large California city. His pizzas were very good—even to my own impossible standard. I knew money was gushing in from the half a dozen or so restaurants.
His brother is getting married, he told me, and he wants me to cater a bachelor party with food and service that all would remember, even though the guests are well accustomed to the better things in life. There will be a small gathering of about two dozen young men in one of his downtown pizza restaurants that he will close down for the evening. Since he knows my reputation, he trusts my judgement, he announced with a checkbook in hand, to design and prepare a meal that’s nothing short of extraordinary. Then he proceeded to write a fat deposit check that was twice I would have asked for.
The seven-course meal we had prepared was fit for a king and so was the price I had sent to my client with the proposed menu a few weeks in advance. The three of us worked hard to make this meal truly extraordinary. We combed several wholesalers’ shelves for exotic ingredients and for items that would even make a true food snob sit up.
We partially cooked the hot foods (except vegetables) that we were going to finish minutes before serving so it arrives to the guests at their peak, while the cold items were ready to assemble to remain crisp as a spring morning in the High Sierras.
There were only 21 guests but with such a complex meal, there were three of us in attendance, all in immaculate tuxedos befitting the invoice amount. When we arrived an hour before the meal, the guests were lounging around, already more than lightly inebriated.
We were nearly ready to serve our tiny bite-size phyllo-wrapped hors d’oeuvres, filled with a Greek spanakopita mix, as soon as we baked them to crisp perfection that only took minutes in the oven. The restaurant enjoyed its highest noise level, I was certain, in its two or three-year life.
Bottles of all sorts were everywhere with one thing in common, all contained beverages with alcohol. This party was not for the teetotaler.
The first problem we faced was an unexpected one—the only oven in the restaurant was pizza oven of which we had some half dozen. They had two temperature settings: very hot and off. One of us had to be around the baking phyllo pastries all the time, turning each piece on the baking sheet constantly to prevent burning in the high heat. In the meantime, the rest of us tried our best to clean up the place a little and set up three tables for dinner.
The guests gobbled up our phyllo triangles in record time—this was their cue to open fresh bottles since now they had food in their stomachs.
The second course was a sumptuous chilled Oregon sour cherry soup with lemon slices and sprigs of mint. It was out of this world but the guests preferred chilled beverages of their own choice. Not many ate more than half of their bowls. I was sorry to see so much flavor swirl down the garbage disposal.
The next composed salad course had the look of a food magazine cover—each plate was a little artist’s creation, each slightly different and individual: salad greens of two different colors crisp as freshly-starched tuxedo shirt spread out as beds for raw and blanched vegetable slices colorful as an artist’s palette, lightly sprinkled with a simple lemon-mustard vinaigrette. The guests barely glanced at them but the warm rolls in the baskets we place on each table were a true and unexpected hit. In fact, hit was the key word as the distinguished guests were throwing them at each other across their own tables and over to the other two tables. They yelled for more fresh, warm bread rolls.
By now the noise level was deafening. While we were clearing the salad plates, one young man jumped up in an obvious hurry, turning his chair over, and staggering towards the rest room. He reached it just in time and he never return. No one bothered to check on him.
The first entrée was a Spanish marinated chicken with asparagus en croûte while the second was tiny servings of beef Wellington in a crisp puff pastry coat (the high heat of the pizza was perfect for the pastry) with roasted parsleyed baby potatoes. But the boys demanded dinner rolls and cared little for dinner. We carefully collected whatever rolls we could find on the floor, under the tables and chairs, and put them back in the baskets for the guests for another round of bread roll fight. Fortunately, they didn’t discover the butter patties as projectiles.
By now we knew that our carefully organized and orchestrated efforts have failed—there was absolutely no reason to serve the fabulous dessert, an unusual almond torte called Count Deák Torte, I had planned as the glorious finale to end the meal and we didn’t even bother to brew coffee. The distinguished gentlemen were passing out one after the other, chucking up here and there for good measure.
We cleaned up a little, packed our leftover food and equipment, and presented our invoice to the host. He was in no condition to write out a check but promised to send it first thing tomorrow. I suspected that the first thing tomorrow for him will be aspirin for a prize-winning headache and a cold towel on his head.
I was sure that this will be a very memorable bachelor’s party—but I knew that memory will have little to do with my food and service.
I received the pay in a few days and it was a handsome check with a generous added gratuity but for me it was little compensation for the fabulous meal that the guests barely tasted or appreciated. I could have serves cat food or horse manure on the plates, and no one would have noticed or commented. But I was true to my promise of a memorable event and I am sure it will remain memorable for some time to come. If for nothing else, for the bread rolls that fit so well in a hand.
Tuesday, July 16, 2013
If you are a hunter, read the first half only; if a cook, read the second half. Only those hunters who cook their game need to read from top to bottom.
Few people enjoy game meat, complaining that the flavor is too gamey and the meat is too tough. Blame both the hunter and the cook. Game meat can be as free of gamey flavor as good ranch-raised beef and nearly as tender. Let’s start with the hunter.
The Hunter’s Job
A frightened animal releases adrenaline that tightens its muscles; tight muscles mean tougher meat. Good hunters have stealth, patience, and skill to take their game unaware and not frightened. After a successful shot, drain the blood right away, remove testicles and scrotum from males before they can release hormones that taint the flavor of the meat. Gut the carcass quickly and don’t delay transporting meat any longer than necessary.
Hunters who want to save money and process their own game meat are fools. Meat processing is an art and science that butchers spend years learning. The cost of the butcher’s work pays for itself in the long run.
All meat benefit from aging and game is no exception — aging improves flavor, relaxes muscles and tenderizes fibers. Unaged wild meat is still good, but aged meat turns more tender and more flavorful after about five days under controlled temperature and humidity. Very few have the proper place to age meat, again, leave it to the butcher.
Aging means moisture loss, so expect 10 to 12 percent less meat after proper aging, yet the flavor will be more concentrated.
Packaging the meat for long-term storage is as important as processing and aging. Poorly-packaged meat turns rancid when exposed to oxygen in the air that finds its way into the package. It also develops “freezer burns.” The cause of freezer burn is simply dehydration, loss of moisture and oxidation. In a properly wrapped package freezer burn doesn’t exist.
How you freeze meat and how fast you freeze it are both critical to retaining high quality and full moisture content, and only quick freezing in the butcher’s very cold deep freezer with fans running can achieve that. Leave both packaging and freezing to your butcher.
The Cook’s Job
When you want a frozen game meat ready for a meal, plan ahead. Defrost it slowly in the refrigerator for the least moisture loss, never on your counter (bad), under running water (worse) or in a microwave (worst). Thick steaks defrost in a day or two, roasts in three to four days, a little longer if the inside of your refrigerator looks like a commuter bus in rush-hour.
Wild game is not like corn-fed beef. Most wild game develop little fat reserves (except bear in the fall). Expect lean meat — in fact, so lean that it can be much too dry if you don’t cook it right. If the hunter bagged on old animal, it is likely to be tough, too.
First, let’s get rid of the strong gamey flavor that comes mainly from the fat covering, whatever little there is. Trim off all visible fat as much as possible and you get rid of most of that objectionable flavor. But you end up with even leaner meat.
Any cooking method that uses oil adds lubricant to the meat and makes it more tender. Long, slow cooking at bare simmer is the best, such as stewing, braising or pot roasting. If you chose dry-heat cooking, such as broiling or grilling on coal, use either tenderizer or an acidic marinade for at least four hours before cooking. A splash of dry red wine is very nice with wild meat, either in the marinade or in the liquids of slow-cooking methods.