Almost thirty years ago, when I owned a restaurant, I was confronted with a strange offer from a regular client. He worked at a laboratory where rabbits were raised for scientific experiments. The trials always included a control group made up of animals to which nothing was done, yet when these rabbits got old, they were “discarded.” He asked me if I would like some of these control-group subjects. I was grateful to get my hands on older rabbits—they’re perfect for thorough larding and slow braising—so I said yes. I was also eager to save them from a meaningless death.
The following Monday, a large cardboard box arrived. As I lifted the box, I knew from its motion that the rabbits were alive. Given the weight of the box, I expected to encounter about a dozen, so I was shocked to find only two giant rabbits that reminded me of a Monty Python skit. The task was left to me to do them in, which I did with a quick snap of the neck and a slit of the throat. On one hand, the killing wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated. But the whole process upset me, especially the sad resignation the rabbits displayed as they seemed to know they were about to die. Never again have I looked at meat in the same way. The experience drove home the fact that an animal has to give its life in order for us to eat meat. I was left convinced that people who consume meat should have to kill for their supper at least once in their lives.
The average American eats more than eight ounces of meat a day, far more than needed for healthy nutrition. Asians eat small amounts of meat with hefty portions of carbohydrates, such as rice or noodles, and have lower rates of heart disease and stroke than Americans. It may seem perplexing to read in a book about meat that we should eat less of it, but this is, indeed, my position. We should eat less and eat better. In France, a good chicken costs twenty dollars or more. But what a chicken it is. Organic and truly free range, it is slaughtered at an older age than American chickens and as a result has a lot more flavor, if a bit more texture. Grass-fed steers in Italy and France develop a better flavor than some of the grass-fed beef in America, again, in part, because they are butchered at an older age. Beef in Japan is a rare luxury, but genuine Kobe beef is considered among the best in the world.
Americans are also enthusiastic consumers of steaks and chops. In other words, we eat high on the hog—literally. Most, though not all, of the tender meat on an animal is found along the back. Meat from the leg and shoulder, despite being the most flavorful, is often neglected. In Meat, I have included recipes and techniques that allow the reader to explore some of these underexploited cuts, with braising often taking center stage as the best method for cooking them. Offal, known euphemistically in the United States as variety meats, is also overlooked. How many Americans know the joys of properly cooked kidneys or sweetbreads or even a slice of liver? To the uninitiated, these typically inexpensive cuts are often a delicious revelation.
I have divided the chapters in Meat according to the type of animal, with the recipes in each chapter organized by either cooking technique alone or by cut and its appropriate cooking techniques. The emphasis on techniques, all of which are described beginning on page 5, is important because once you learn how to make one recipe, you can apply the same technique to a wide range of possibilities. Many of the recipes are extremely simple, sometimes involving only grilling or sautéing without a sauce or garnish. But what may seem overly simplistic is actually how most of us cook and eat.
You’ll find that each chapter is rich in photographs, most of them devoted to either cutting meat into pieces suitable for cooking or to techniques such as larding. These tasks may seem the work of a butcher rather than a cook, but butchers are disappearing, and many of those who remain are reluctant to carry out some of the more labor-intensive techniques. Plus, by doing the work yourself, you’ll gain both valuable practice with a knife and beneficial insight into how animals are put together. You’ll also save money by buying large cuts and breaking them down into steaks or chops or into pieces suitable for braising. You may even discover that you enjoy cutting up meat, finding it to be surprisingly soothing once you get the knack of it.
Pork, beef, lamb, and veal charts showing where various cuts are located on each animal will further your understanding of how to cut and cook meat. People are anatomically similar to the animals they eat, so it’s a good idea to check your own body to locate the various cuts. Once you know the source of each cut, you will recognize which parts are tougher—the more activity the muscle gets, the tougher the meat—and require longer cooking and which can be tossed onto a grill or into a sauté pan for a relatively short time.
Although techniques are at the heart of this book, putting together flavor combinations that both pair well with the meat at hand and share a geographical and seasonal affinity is also important. To help you achieve these successful pairings, I have included several flavor profiles inspired by traditional cuisines (see page 25). For example, if you are thinking Moroccan, you’ll find a list that includes olives, preserved lemons, almonds, and saffron, to name only a few of the possibilities. Or, if you prefer Indian flavors, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, cashews, and coconut milk are among the options.
The controversy over how animals are raised and slaughtered for meat has been explored by a number of thoughtful writers, which prompts me to keep my advice on the subject brief: follow your conscience. Needless suffering is inherent in how many animals are raised and slaughtered, and we shoppers must use our wallets (nothing else is as convincing) to let sellers know that we want to buy meat from animals that have been treated humanely. Always ask the butcher the source of the meat he or she sells. A butcher who can provide a specific answer usually has greater concern for the well-being of animals. Plus, the easier it is to learn about the origin of the meat, the more likely it is that the animals have been humanely raised and slaughtered. By insisting on being better informed, we can transform an industry that is opaque and secretive into one that is transparent and, as a consequence, humane.
Even though most of us shop at a supermarket—and, admittedly, nowadays supermarkets are far more interesting than in the past—I recommend finding a high-quality butcher to patronize as often as possible. Not only will you learn from a butcher, but he or she will recognize your genuine concern for the quality and provenance of what is sold. The meat at a butcher shop is often more expensive than at supermarket, but it is also usually of higher quality, and because your butcher will teach you about lesser-known—and often less costly—cuts rarely found at supermarkets, you may actually end up saving money.
Simply put, much of what I’m encouraging is the simple act of tasting, of training your palate to recognize meat of better quality. As you learn to appreciate the flavor of fine meat (and to understand the flavor of what’s not so fine), you’ll find yourself satisfied with eating less meat. You’ll also find more joy in the kitchen as your cooking improves. Skirt Steak Rolled with Prosciutto and Sage
Tender, flavorful skirt steak is used to make these small rolls. I have grilled them here, but you can also broil them, using the same timing. Be sure they are close enough to the heat source to brown nicely. Look for prosciutto di Parma or another high-quality imported prosciutto for the best result.
Makes 6 main-course servings
2 skirt steaks, about 1 pound each
6 large, thin slices prosciutto, cut in half crosswise
12 fresh sage leaves
Olive oil or melted butter
If using wooden skewers, soak them in water to cover for 1 hour before loading.
Prepare a hot fire for direct grilling in a grill (see page 21).
Cut each skirt steak crosswise into 6 pieces of equal size. Place a half slice of prosciutto on each steak piece, and top the prosciutto with a sage leaf. Roll up each piece of beef into a snug cylinder, then slide the roll onto 2 metal or wooden skewers, piercing the roll once near each end. Repeat to top and roll the remaining 11 pieces of steak, putting 6 rolls on each pair of skewers (or fewer if you have only small skewers). Season the rolls with salt and pepper and brush with olive oil.
Place the skewers on the grill rack and grill, turning as needed and brushing with additional oil, for about 10 minutes total, or until the rolls are nicely browned and the meat is medium-rare.