Jul 27, 2012
Eating meat is so important to my diet that, when I’m traveling on business, I pack an emergency can of Spam. There are times when, rushing to get to a meeting in my rental car, I crack open a can, shape a makeshift spoon/fork/knife out of the lid, and shovel the pink, salty, unctuous processed pork into my mouth with one hand while gripping the steering wheel with the other.
By the time half the can’s contents are down my gullet, I can feel the meat’s healing powers as it nourishes my body, sharpens my brain and calms my soul. For me, a day that starts with meat is going to be a good day.
I don’t know why meat and I get along so well. I know there’s a popular theory that says people have different dietary needs based on their blood type. Some are natural omnivores, others are wired to thrive on pure animal protein, and some, the poor sods, are genetically predisposed to eat nothing but vegetables. I’m not sure of my blood type, but I know that meat is good for me, and I’m glad, because I love it so.
I’m not alone. Most humans love meat. Our cravings for fleisch are inexorably tied to memories of past meals: the sound of a steak hitting a hot skillet; the aroma of a plump, glistening turkey as an oven door is pulled open; the dark, shiny, bubbling surface of a pot full of braised lamb shanks; the multi-sensory explosion of a smoky, fat, juicy pork shoulder, fresh from the smoker at the magic moment that it’s first pulled apart. Each new meat-eating experience conjures up and connects us with a rich stew of Proustian remembrances of meats past, each bite building on the last and adding to the richness of the current meat moment.
As someone who has seared, fried, boiled, baked and barbecued and eaten enough meat to feed several armies, I’ve developed some strong preferences for certain types of meat and cooking techniques , but it’s impossible to narrow them down to one favourite.
How can one choose between a bite of tender, succulent pork rib with its salty crust and sweet, tangy coating of sauce, and the first glistening slice of chicken breast that’s been carved from the bird, its golden skin hiding under a pool of velvety gravy?
How can anyone claim that a bright pink, bone-thick slab of pepper-crusted prime rib roast, with its quivering eye of silken fat, is better than a pan-seared duck breast, its bacon-crisp skin competing for attention with the silky smooth rare meat that accompanies every forkful?
And is it really fair to compare the dark richness of fork-tender beef short ribs that have been braised for hours in red wine and veal stock with a rack of lamb coated with sea salt and herbs and grilled for a few minutes over a charcoal fire?
No. There are so many meats, and so many ways to make them taste great, one just can’t pick a winner.
But perfect meat that’s perfectly done has some shared traits. It must be juicy, of course. There’s nothing worse than white, overcooked pork, or dry, mealy chicken breast, or grey, crumbly beef brisket. Texture is so important. Whether it’s braised for hours and served shredded, or cooked so little that it scares away the squeamish, great meat has a smooth texture that caresses the taster’s tongue. Ideally, that smoothness is contrasted with a charred, crunchy, salty crust. And then there’s the fat. Whether it’s contained in the cracklings or marbled into the meat itself, fat must be present, for without it, the meat cannot fully satisfy.
I’ve eaten so much meat that I’m kind-of jaded, and I’m always on the lookout for new trends and exotic meat-eating experiences. One of the best things that’s happened over the last few years is a resurgence of fatty meat. In the 1980s the cholesterol fascists took over the food chain, and most of the fat and flavour were bred out of our beef and pork. Today, well-marbled meat is gaining in popularity and breeds like Berkshire pork and Wagyu beef are available to home cooks. One of the best meat experiences I’ve ever had was a special cut of Wagyu beef called spinalis, or rib-eye cap. It must have had about a 50 per cent fat content; when it came off the grill, it jiggled like Jell-O. Man, oh man, was it good.
Beyond the super-exotic cuts of standard meats, there’s a growing interest among North American restaurateurs and meat aficionados in game, ranging from delicious farmed venison and bison grown here in Canada to crazy stuff like Australian farmed ostrich and wild kangaroo, which both taste like leaner, slightly more complex versions of the best beef tenderloin one could imagine. I recently got a chance to barbecue a wild camel shoulder, also from Australia. It was a bit chewier and less fatty than domesticated beef or pork, but made up for those shortfalls with a wonderful gamey flavour.
The most exotic meat I’ve ever tasted was seal, which is also one of the most contentious meats. Ill-informed European activist campaigns continue to threaten Canada’s sealing industry. There are lots of seals -- so many, in fact, that their overpopulation continues to impede the recovery of our East Coast cod stocks. They’re humanely killed, the harvest is sustainable, and I’m pleased to report that seal meat is delicious. All the fat on a seal is on the outside of the animal, so the meat itself is extremely lean – it’s so rich in iron that it’s deep purple, verging on black. Raw seal meat is the texture of the finest tuna sashimi and tastes like a cross between beef tenderloin and sea urchin roe. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but if you’re a true meat lover, it’s worth adding to your bucket list.
How to treat your meat
To make great meat, you must start with an excellent product, but ultimately what makes the difference between disappointing and delectable is you, the cook. Here are some tips.
Choose the right cut. Leaner, more tender cuts like tenderloin are best for shorter, hotter techniques like grilling or pan-frying and are most delicious when served rare to medium rare. Chewier cuts like shoulder, shank and brisket do best with long, slow cooking methods like smoking or braising, which break down the tough connective tissue and turn it into toothsome goodness.
Season it well, with good salt and fresh spices. The best use of standard iodized table salt is to mix it with hot water and gargle with it next time you have a sore throat. Please don’t put it on meat. Instead, use Diamond Crystal brand kosher salt, French sea salt, English Maldon salt, Australian Murray River salt, or pink Himalayan salt to add flavour and texture to meat dishes. Also, always go with freshly ground pepper; it’s ten times better than the packaged, pre-ground stuff, which adds a dusty taste to meat. Feel free to use dried herbs and spices, but make sure they haven’t been sitting in your pantry for six years.
Start out on high, then turn the heat down. This principle applies whether you’re grilling a steak or braising some veal shanks. Use high heat to quickly seal in juices and add complexity to the meat’s flavour, then turn it down to achieve maximum tenderness. In the oven, start roasts at 500F and reduce the heat to 350F after the first 10 minutes. On the grill, start out super-hot and then go with a medium setting after you’ve got char-marks on your meat. To braise the toughest cuts, season the meat and toss it around over high heat with some oil or fat till it’s nicely seared, then add liquid, cover it, and cook it for a long time over low heat.
Treat it simply. Don’t smother meat with sauce or spice it so much that you can’t taste anything but sauce and spices.
Let it rest before you eat. After any meat is off the heat, let it rest, loosely tented in foil, to give the fibres a chance to relax for a much juicier, silkier texture. For steaks and other single-serving portions, five minutes or so of resting is good. For something like a whole roast chicken or a prime rib of beef or pork loin roast, half an hour or even an hour of resting time can make a big difference.
The Perfect Meat Experience: Pan-Fried Steak
Although I’m known as an avid outdoor cook, when it comes to steak, it’s hard to beat a good old frying pan to give the meat a perfect crust. Save this recipe for a rainy day. I love to serve steak on a bed of fresh bitter greens like baby arugula and finish it with a squeeze of fresh lemon and a drizzle of good olive oil. Or serve it with a big salad full of fresh tomatoes and avocados.
1 2-inch-thick well-marbled rib steak or T-bone
1 clove garlic
1 tsp kosher salt
2 Tbsp coarsely ground or cracked black peppercorns
3 Tbsp butter, at room temperature
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 4-inch sprig of rosemary
1/2 cup red wine
Preheat the oven to 425˚F. Take the steak out of the fridge and let it rest half an hour to bring it to room temperature. Peel and slice the garlic into paper-thin slices. Generously season both sides of the steak with salt and pepper. Put 2 Tbsp of the butter and the olive oil into a cold cast iron skillet. Place the skillet on the burner and turn the heat to high. Just as the butter is barely melted and starting to sizzle, lay the rosemary sprig and the garlic slices in the pan and place the seasoned steak on top.
Keeping the heat on high, cook the steak for 3–4 minutes on one side, until it has a nice brown crust, then turn it and cook it for another 2–3 minutes, just long enough to create a crust on the other side of the steak. Place the skillet in the oven and bake the steak for 10–15 minutes, or until the centre is 120°F for rare or 140˚F for medium rare.
Remove the steak from the pan and let it rest on a plate for about 5 minutes. In the meantime, deglaze the pan with the red wine over high heat, reducing it by about half. Add the remaining 1 Tbsp of butter just at the end, swirling it into the pan sauce. Remove the charred garlic pieces and the rosemary sprig, pour the sauce over the steak, and enjoy.
When you’re finished the steak, go chop a cord of wood.
Sexy Minty Lamb Racks for Two
Makes 2 servings
This dish delivers one of the purest meat experiences – a perfect combination of sweet, tangy and herbal flavours does exactly what’s necessary to deliver the goods. It’s great with summery salads like
couscous or grilled eggplant.
1/2 cup fresh mint, finely chopped
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 Tbsp white wine vinegar
2 racks of lamb, Frenched by your butcher
Combine the mint, sugar, and vinegar, and mix them together until you have a thick, wet paste, adding a splash more of the vinegar if it seems too thick. Prepare your grill for medium direct heat. Coat the lamb racks generously with the paste and grill them for 8–12 minutes, or until the internal temperature reaches 120°F for rare or 140˚F for medium rare. Turn the lamb every couple of minutes to allow the brown sugar on both sides of the rack to gently caramelize and the flavour of the mint to intensify.
This article originally appeared in Calgary's City Palate magazine.
Rockin’ Ronnie Shewchuk is chief cook of the barbecue team Rockin’ Ronnie’s Butt Shredders and the author of several bestselling cookbooks, including Barbecue Secrets DELUXE! (Whitecap). He’s also the host of the Barbecue Secrets podcast, available for free on iTunes. Visit www.ronshewchuk.com to find out more.