Super Bowl Sunday surely is one of the meatiest eating days of the year. And some recent trends on the butchering side of things are offering whole new ways to raise your meat game, so to speak.
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 to 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, serving dishes made from every bit of the animal. 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, and 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. As with 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," so named because when grilled it plumps up into a ball shape. They are cut from the tip of the top sirloin and are about two to three 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 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 cofounded 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.
For the consumer, new books such as Aidells' are focusing on sorting out all the choices at the market, as well as providing the skills and recipes for cooking unusual cuts, and using old cuts in new ways. Harrison is even trying to bring the art of butchering to the home kitchen with her new book, Butchering and Sausage-Making for Dummies, due out in March.
For this year's Super Bowl, consider trying this recipe from Aidells for Mexican beef brisket and winter squash chili. It takes a cut usually known for pot-roasting or barbecue and transforms it into a meaty, chunky chili.
Mexican Beef Brisket and Winter Squash Chili
Makes 12 servings
6 dried ancho chiles
2 cups boiling water
6 ounces bacon, diced
4 cups chopped yellow onions
5 pounds first-cut beef brisket, cut into 3-inch chunks
Salt and ground black pepper
2 jalapeño chiles, stemmed, seeded, and chopped (optional)
6 garlic cloves
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 teaspoon dried
1 teaspoon ground coriander
2 tablespoons chili powder
14 1/2-ounce can diced fire-roasted tomatoes with green chiles
12-ounce bottle Mexican beer, plus more if needed
1 bunch cilantro, stems and leaves separated
7-ounce can diced fire-roasted green chiles
3 cups 2-inch chunks peeled and seeded butternut squash
To garnish: finely chopped red onions; peeled, seeded, sliced avocado, and shredded Monterey Jack cheese
Warm corn or flour tortillas
1. Tear apart the dried ancho chiles, then discard the seeds and stems. Place the torn chiles in a small bowl. Pour the boiling water over them and soak until soft, at least 30 minutes, or up to several hours. 2. When ready to proceed, heat the oven to 325 degrees.
3. In a large Dutch oven over medium heat, saute the bacon until it begins to brown. Add the onions and cook, covered, for 5 minutes.
4. Season the beef with salt and pepper. Remove the pot with the onions and bacon from the heat and stir in the beef.
5. Place the soaked chiles and about 1/2 cup of the soaking liquid in a blender (save the remaining liquid to add to the pot later, if needed). Add the jalapeños (if using), garlic, cumin seeds, oregano, coriander, chili powder, and 2 teaspoons of salt. Blend to form a puree, then add to the pot along with the diced tomatoes, beer, cilantro stems, and green chiles.
6. Stir well, cover, place in the oven, and bake for 2 hours. If the chili becomes too dry during cooking, add some of the reserved chile-soaking liquid or more beer. The meat is done when it is fork-tender. If the meat is not yet fork-tender, return the covered pot to the oven and check it every 20 to 30 minutes. Once the meat is tender, stir in the squash and bake for 20 minutes more, or until the squash is tender.
7. Remove the pot from the oven. Use a spoon to skim off any fat on the surface of the chili. Season with salt and pepper. Divide among serving bowls with the cilantro leaves, red onions, avocado, cheese, and tortillas on the side.
Per serving: 490 calories, 19 grams fat, 95 milligrams cholesterol, 31 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams dietary fiber, 4 grams sugar, 49 grams protein, 1,010 milligrams sodium.
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012)