Sunday, October 28, 2012

Angus in Ohio

In 1984, a little, old lady in a Wendy's commercial asked America, "Where's the beef?" Little did she know that Certified Angus Beef had been offering an answer to that question since 1978. That was when the nonprofit organization was founded, in an effort to raise both the exposure and the bar on Angus beef production and education.

Anyone who has leafed through a Michael Pollan book or caught 15 minutes of Food Inc. knows that mistreatment of cattle and improper handling of beef exist in this and many countries. No one can deny that. However, our nation's response to sensationalism, even that which bears truth, is often predictably and equally extreme. Case in point, I know people who refuse to eat beef as a result of images or ideas that they witnessed in films, books, etc. because they accept that reality as exclusive. While anyone who has seen me take down a ribeye knows I am certainly not one of those people, I will admit that I harbored questions and even misgivings about the trip from cow to steak, and would have benefitted from some answers.

Lucky me to get my answers on a trip to Wooster, Ohio, invited by Certified Angus Beef among a slew of other chefs and media to participate in some meat fabrication and a trending/brainstorming panel. I will be honest, I wasn't seeing Wooster, Ohio as the most glamorous of locations (why couldn't the CAB headquarters be in Bora Bora?), but a free trip outta dodge and a stay in a nice hotel is... a free trip outta dodge and a stay in a nice hotel. Plus a chance to hone my butchery skills and learn from some killer chefs? I was in.

My plane landed in Cleveland and I met up with some more of the attendees: there was a Los Angeles-based journalist named Dominique, who had just turned 21 and had never been outside of California. This was her first assignment for a food website at which she had recently begun working, and I think she shared 11 words with the group all weekend. Rory, a boisterous chef slash TV personality with an enormous smile, currently owned a steakhouse outside of Amarillo, Texas; Rik, quintessential Texan jokester, owned 67 Sawgrass Steakhouse locations throughout the Southwest; and Craig was the Exec Chef at Cypress restaurant in Charleston (definitely worth checking out if you have a second).

A car took us to our first destination: Hodge's, run by Chef Chris Hodgson of TV Food Truck fame. There we enjoyed cocktails and an 8-foot wooden slab laden with tasty, little meat treats. This was the first of many reminders that we were here courtesy of Certified Angus Beef, and by God, we were going to eat a lot of it. There was a sweet and spicy, Asian-style, boneless marinated short rib that almost melted in your mouth. I immediately and ravenously devoured three before noticing the stacks of little plates and cocktail napkins to my left. Whoops. Grabbing a plate, I plucked a beef-wrapped chanterelle with mustard sauce off the wood block and popped it in my mouth like movie popcorn. Hellooooo, Umami! Next I spotted some skewered, grilled hunks of Angus off to my right and grabbed one of those, along with a tuna tartar on crispy rice cake (a canape presentation that I have noticed is gaining popularity). The skewered beef proved a bit challenging, as it was too big for one bite but also a little on tough side and hard to attack knifeless. Rory and I compared strategies: she sawed with her front teeth to cut it, while I threw caution and good manners to the wind, turned away to hide my next move, and crammed the whole thing in my mouth. Now out of view from the rest of the group, I gnarled the meat into submission like a wolverine. Despite its toughness, I must admit the grill flavor and seasoning still brought enjoyment to my palate... if not my jaw.

I reminded myself we were headed to dinner after this so I pulled back a bit and stuck to my Syrah. Shortly thereafter we were heading out the door for the short walk to The Greenhouse Tavern, where we would be dining. We were lead in the door and downstairs to a fantastic space: the basement level was the kitchen, with a section sparsely but attractively transformed into a 'chef's table' experience with two long wooden tables and a seating bar right up against the hot line. It was more than just an open kitchen; you were actually in the kitchen, but enough out of the way to simply enjoy the show. They started us off with a Shoulder Clod Carne Salada accompanied by a radicchio agro dolce. The sour and the bitter in the radicchio salad were a great offset to the velvety raw beef seasoned nicely with maldon salt.

I have to say, however, that the little slices of raw porcini didn't really add anything; they seemed to be used as if they were truffles, and though porcinis are great, they are certainly not truffles. As we ate, the chef explained that the dish was inspired by an Italian recipe dating back to the 1440's, traditionally done with whichever meat was available, from beef to venison and any critter in between. It was elegant in its simplicity but markedly rustic and Italian.
Our next course was a pair of dumplings made from pureed beet, mascarpone, and breadcrumbs.
The texture of the dumplings, which were cooked in rendered Angus fat (nice), was so incredibly smooth and rich, like perfect matzoh balls had made love to sexy gnocchi. They were accompanied by a tangle of bitter greens and a poignant drizzle of house-made vinegar, both apt foils to the warm, rich bites of chewy, yummy cozy. When asked about the vinegar, Chef Jonathon Sawyer elaborated on their full in-house vinegar operation, where they play with wines, beers, and whatever they else they can get to sour in a bottle.
The main course was about as main as it gets: Pastrami Cured Brisket with Handmade Squash & Potato Knishes. The food was so packed with love you could taste it. Fatty, velvety hunks of brisket glistened and jiggled atop a pile, begging you to feast; the knish dough was light and airy and tasted of the old country (I owe this valuable palate to my grandmother), and it was complemented by its sweet, smooth autumnal filling.

Notice the beet & horseradish, a staple on every single holiday table of my childhood and a killer condiment to slather on your brisket, sharp and sweet. A few ramekins of Cleveland's own 'stadium mustard' (a solid brown mustard near and dear to the city's heart) were slid in front of us, and crusty brown rolls, still hot from the oven, were passed around for making sandwiches. HEAVEN. The color on the crust was so golden you wanted to frame it and hang it on your wall:

All in all, a truly superb meal. Cleveland has a strong ethnic identity in its cuisine, particularly that of Eastern Europe, as I'm told; Greenhouse Tavern prepared a meal tapping directly into that vein, and did so thinking seasonally and working creatively. What else can you ask for?
We finished the evening with drinks at the roof bar before boarding a bus (stocked with beer and wine of course) to carry us to Wooster. Our hotel was nice, and by a sweet-ass stroke of luck, I landed a suite.
The next morning we learned a bit more about the Certified Angus Beef brand. Selectivity and high standards were a big part of what CAB was putting out there, doing their best to highlight the people behind their operations: the ranchers and, quite often, the families who raise the Angus and run the ranches.
Then came time to get out hands dirty. We donned butcher coats and knives and went to work breaking down quarters of beef, first getting them into manageable pieces with hacksaws, then, with the guidance of C.A.B. meat scientist Dr. Phil Bass, worked our way down the cow, separating meat from muscle on all sides of the carcass.

We detached a few subprimals and were asked to work toward one cut in particular: the subscapularis, commonly called the Vegas Steak. This is an unmarketed cut of meat being explored by CAB to assess its value, if any, and potential marketability. Thus, we were then able to play around with some of our cuts in the kitchen, exploring various flavors and cooking methods in order to see what best complemented each cut. With the Vegas Steak, in particular, we found it needed to be cooked with fat, as it was extremely lean on its own. Oil and butter basting were not enough and still left the meat somewhat tough; even a particularly creative move, wrapping the steak in caul fat, left something to be desired. Then, of course, came the always handy cryo-vac marinade & sous vide: aaaand, of course, bullseye.
They served us a pretty dope lunch: eight hour-braised Angus shin over a creamy celery root mash, as well as grilled spinalis steak skewers, bathed in their garden's herb oil. Some ginger cake with fruit chutney for dessert plus a nice cup of coffee and I felt holiday good all over; I needed a stroll to walk off the meal.
Said stroll came in the most pleasant form of a tour through the Ohio countryside, at a local Angus Ranch. We met the owner and some of the club members (aka cattle), scoping out the feed operation and the pastures. I was truly impressed by the amount of time, thought, and energy that goes into keeping the cattle healthy and happy in every way. From the safety procedures (for the cattle's benefit, not the humans') to the gentle hand I saw, nursing a runt calf to health, it was every bit the responsible, honest farm I feel I can get behind when I buy my beef, be it at supermarket or bistro.
And I have to say, starved for East Coast autumn, I basked in the glow of the foliage, breathing in deeply of clover and birch as the cloud and sun streaked sky overhead incubated the world with pleasant warmth.

Aaanyway, I headed back to the hotel for a nap before dinner. The bus picked us up at seven and brought us back to the CAB headquarters, where dinner was being served off the Hodge Podge Truck, food truck of Hodge's where we'd had apps the previous night. The truck served up different cuts of steak in a variety of presentations, but the show stealer was a korean marinated teres major bulgogi, with sticky clumps of rice, and sweet scallions popping, accompanied by a few balsamic cippolinis... which seemed odd at first but the sweetnesses totally go together:
Props to the cooks for sure... especially considering one of their trucks had been stolen and found stripped a few days earlier!
We all ate several helpings of beef (yes, again) and enjoyed the bar, playing cornhole and watching the Giants destroy the Tigers in the NLCS. Needless to say, it was a swell end to a swell day.
Tuesday morning was spent in a live-tweeted discussion amongst the chefs and several of us media, speculating on coming trends, restaurant operations, beef (Angus & otherwise), the value of food, culinary schools, and a bunch of other topics. We enjoyed Angus cheesesteaks and steak salad (had to cram in one last beef binge, right?) as the trip winded down; then, bellies full, we said our goodbyes to the CAB crew and boarded the airport shuttle to promptly pass out.
The trip was most definitely enriching and educational; most importantly, it has helped to shape the way I will view beef, as a chef and as a consumer. And for the record, I absolutely must declare that the sample packages of hickory-smoked Angus jerky from my gift bag are shockingly tender and delicious. Bonus.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Don't be a chicken... think like a rat!

If you've seen Disney's Ratatouille, you may recall the words of Remy's idol, French super-chef Gusteau, repeatedly articulating the overarching theme of the movie: "Anyone can cook, but only the fearless can be great." LOVE IT. Truer words were never spoken in the kitchen.

I have encountered a great many people who assert their incompetence in cooking as if it were an unshakable handicap; they throw up their hands and simply live with it, eating frozen dinners and fast food and putting simpler-than-they-realize meals on an oversized pedestal. What these people don't know is that they are only limited by their own fear, most likely born out of past failures; and odds are, these past failures were born out of blindly following a recipe without bothering to understand why the recipe called for certain steps or ingredients.

Cooking, however, is all about the 'why.' Even with salt, the most basic and ubiquitous of ingredients, it is important to understand why you add it... and there are actually several reasons. First, it will offset other flavors, accentuating them; in a sense, it makes beef taste more like beef, tomato taste more like tomato, etc. Think of it like drawing paper: if you tried to draw a picture on black paper, it would be a lot harder to see, wouldn't it? White paper's contrast to all other colors allows you to add depth and complexity within your color, and that's exactly what you should be going for in your flavor.

Salt also absorbs the water out of foods (the scientific word to describe this function is hygroscopic), allowing you to replace it with flavor. If you've ever brined a turkey at Thanksgiving, you understand this. If not, listen up:


Start with enough water to cover your protein (pork chop, chicken, turkey, etc.), in a bowl or pot big enough to hold the water and the protein together.

Add roughly 3/4 cup of salt for every gallon of water; exactness is not crucial... once the salt has dissolved, your water should taste salty, but not so salty that it stings your tongue and tastebuds or dries out your mouth.

Now add WHATEVER YOU WANT: herbs, fruits, vegetables, aromatics, cinnamon sticks... have fun with it.

Bring it all to a simmer, then COOL IT in the fridge before you add your turkey. Salt doesn't dissolve properly in cold water, so getting your solution hot is important to make a solid brine; but then you also don't want to put your protein in lukewarm water unless you're trying to cultivate E. Coli or some other rid-raf.  

So once your brine is mixed and cooled, drop in your protein, refrigerate for at least 4 hours (or up to 24), then remove the protein and cook as normal, discarding the liquid. Remember that you won't have to season your protein as much as you would otherwise, and you should wait to season until just before cooking. Don't leave things sitting with salt or it will continue to absorb into the protein.

What happens in the brine (on a molecular level, actually) is that the salt absorbs the natural water present in the protein; but because the protein is submerged in water that you infused with other flavors, this flavor-infused water replaces the water taken out by the salt, so that you are literally filling the molecules of the protein with flavor. The same thing occurs any time you add salt to food. It assists in the blending of different flavors by breaking down the flavors of each individual food. Think of it like this: you have two large blocks of legos, one red and one blue. In order to create a block that has a unified balance of both red and blue, you need to disassemble each block first before you can combine them, right? This is what salt does; it disassembles foods and flavors in order to combine them.

Even on the most superficial of levels, you can understand the 'why' of salt if you pay attention: slice a lime in half and give it a lick; pucker up, buttercup? Now, sprinkle some salt on there and try again. You'll notice the acidity of the lime is a lot easier to handle with a pinch of salt. That simple, clear balance is one of the cornerstones of cooking.

So if something as seemingly mundane as salt can hold so much complexity, imagine what you can find out about a good piece of beef, or a summer tomato! Knowledge is power, and the kitchen is no exception. If you understand why you're doing something, you will be much better at it! So with salt, don't just blindly add it because a recipe calls for it. If it calls for two tablespoons, add one, then taste the food! If you feel like it's enough, then hold off; you can always add more later. Tasting your food often is the single most important thing you can do to make yourself a better cook. It will truly help you get a better sense of the 'why' behind each ingredient and step in a recipe, and it will give you the utmost control over whatever you cook.

Knowledge is power, yes; but what is power without the courage to use it? As Gusteau reminds us, "only the fearless can be great." You can read every book on food science, flavor, and technique, but if you aren't willing to press on, even in the face of failure, you won't succeed. I am reminded of a contest in culinary school, wherein one of the final challenges was to break down a whole fish into filets. It had been almost a year since butchery class, and I had been admittedly lax in staying sharp with the butchery of fish. When I finally brought my filets up to be judged, the chef stared long and hard at the result of my frustration. He paused, then said very slowly and deliberately, "I truly admire... the courage it took... to wrestle this fish away from the the bear that was eating it." Needless to say, I did not win the contest.

In spite of this failure, or perhaps because of it, I have made it a mission to never be intimidated by butchery. At the end of the day, it's less about following a step-by-step process, and more about feeling your way in the dark. The key to butchery is understanding how the animal is put together, where the meat will slide off the bone easily, and where it needs a bit more assistance. Recently, I wanted to prove this (as much to myself as to anyone else), so I decided to forego the consultation of my butchery notes from culinary school and just try to wing it. I bought a whole chicken, brined it, dried it, and slapped that baby on the cutting board. It had been four years since I had deboned a chicken from head to toe, but fearlessness was all I needed.

I worked carefully but confidently, using my fingers as much as my knife. At first I made only small incisions and pulled gently on bones, paying close attention to how the meat and skin behaved as I manipulated them. But by the time I was halfway done, I was moving quickly and making broad knife strokes, yanking sharply where I knew I could, and massaging gently where I knew I had to. I am completely aware at how dirty a lot of this sounds, but we all know food is sex anyway, so get your mind out of the gutter.

Before I knew it, I had a big, floppy, whole chicken, completely free of bones. I stuffed it with sauteed eggplant and sweet potato, then set out in the next challenge: trussing it. 'Trussing' is just a fancy word for 'tying' when it comes to roasts and other meats. There is, of course, a very specific process to "properly" tie a roast that we learned in culinary school; I did not remember it. I just sort of muddled my way through it, doing my best to be patient. Upon completion, it wasn't as pretty as it could have been, but it got the job done:

At this point, it was ready to roast. The entire process had been accomplished by the seat of my pants, not by following a set of instructions or a demonstration. In fact, I'm pretty sure I deboned the bird in the exact opposite order of that which was taught to us in school. Regardless of the 'how,' I was able to get it done by paying attention to the 'why' as I explored the meat. (I know: That's what she said.)

Into the oven at 350 for about 45 minutes and it was ready to eat:

Not too shabby, right?

So if you're still reading this, I implore you: go out, buy a chicken, and TRY THIS AT HOME. Even if you completely fail, chicken's not that expensive: buy two or three if you need to! You can google it first if you'd like, or check out a book, but try relying on your own sense of touch and exploration as much as you can. It's essentially the age old "Teach a man to fish..." situation. But believe it or not, you can actually teach yourself... if you are fearless.

Gusteau wouldn't lie.