Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Beef in the Afternoon

Last week we brought in steaks from five different suppliers for a big tasting. I've been thinking about offering meat for sale through our catalog and website so I thought we should taste some of what's out there. We were tasting strips and sirloins. There was beef from cows that had been fed only grass (Lasater and La Cense) and from cows that had been finished on corn (Niman Ranch, Omaha and Roadhouse farm). Some was dry aged in meat lockers and some was wet aged in cry-o-vac. 

Brad and Kristie continue snacking.

We cooked them on wood fired grills and they came out in waves, twenty steaks in all, over two hours on a Wednesday afternoon. I'm sure everyone went home and took a nap. It was a gout-a-thon.

We do tastings all the time, at least once a month for dozens of foods. This was different, more complex, because there were so many moving parts. The steaks were different ages, from different animals, different thicknesses, some had bones, and they all had to be cooked to come out at the same done-ness. 

The real complication was grass fed beef. Unless you've been to Argentina chances are you've never had beef that comes from a cow entirely raised on grass. For many decades we've finished American beef on corn, which means that the animal eats grass for some of its life (all cattle start on grass) and ends up eating corn at the end. The corn adds weight to the animal up quickly, some of it as intra-muscular fat that's desirable for its texture. Corn, it turns out, makes steak soft and luxurious. 

In contrast grass fed beef is more chewy. This is not a big deal to some (ribeye lovers!) but to others (petite filet aficionados) it's less desirable. In the end, though, grass feeding is the most traditional way to raise cattle. And, in terms of the health of the environment and the cow, it's the most sustainable. People always say that we're not ready for grass fed beef. Supposedly we're all suckers for soft marshmallow steaks raised on corn and we'll never turn back. After this tasting I'm not so sure.

At the end, the Roadhouse's beef was a favorite and it is finished on corn. But several of us also thought La Cense's 100% grass fed beef was very promising. I'm going to continue to work with them since they can ship.

After tasting, we visited Chef Alex's meat locker behind the Roadhouse where they store beef cuts that are dry aging. 

 Chef Alex in the meat locker.

When beef dry ages it forms a soft white and green mold on its surface. It is washed off before being cut into steaks and cooked. The dry aging concentrates and expands flavors as well as changing the texture. Many describe the taste of dry aged beef with words like "mineral."

Each cut in the meat locker is dated by this simple, ingenious method. The beef we tasted had been aged about five weeks, which Alex things is just about best for the cattle he gets.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Two Recipes for Fava Beans

Fava beans are coming in season. Fresh, they're delicious, but they're also a pain in the ass. You've got to shell them — twice. First, from their large pods (pictured above). Secondly, from their individual wrappers after boiling for about five minutes in salted water.

Favas with Olive Oil
Start with four pounds of favas in their pods and you're left with a half pound of edible beans if you're lucky. Is it worth it? Whether the labor is what you want to spend your evening doing is a personal choice. But for me, spring favas, just boiled, glowing green, warm as lips, swimming in a glossy olive oil with a cover of coarse sea salt are totally worth it. It's not a dish I make often. But  the first time each year is a bright sign of spring. I know the mud is receding and the earth will soon be littered with grass.

Fresh favas also go well in pasta. Here's a dish I recently made with favas, spring peas and Martelli maccheroni. It's worth mentioning since it incorporates a lot of good things you find at their best in spring. 

Tender Young Thing Pasta
Chop some fresh mild sausage into small bites (I like one my butcher makes with fennel seeds). Brown it in a deep skillet, then put the cooked pasta and some of its pasta water in the pan. Add the favas and fresh spring peas (already parboiled very al dente), then a few spoons of ricotta. Stir. Add fresh young arugula and pea shoot leaves, some freshly grated lemon zest. A couple turns of the spoon and count to one hundred and it's done. Top it off with more ricotta dollops, freshly grated black pepper and Parmigiano-Reggiano and a small handful of shredded mint leaves. If you are able to nab some spring morels they'd also be welcome. I guess pretty much any tender young thing is fine to add.

Spring cooking like this can be fussy, a lot of work. There's lots of shelling and an annoying tangle of trimming since arugula and shoots are very stemmy at this time of year. But do the work and, with it, know you've broken winter's back for good.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Education is a Push

In lean terminology, there are pushes and there are pulls. Pushes are bad and to be avoided. They're when you make something for a customer — or the next process in your sequence — regardless of whether it's needed. Pulls are good. They're when the customer — or the next process — asks for something and then you make it.

Classroom education is largely done as a push. The process usually pushes a class identical units of information — lectures, homework and reading — regardless of any individual's specific need. (Sometimes you get time for questions and answers, which is an example of pull.) Anyone who's dozed through a class knows push education can be boring as hell. And often not terribly effective.

Here's some interesting news about a school that's trying to make education a pull process,  one that responds to what the student needs when they need it. They are creating classes that are customized daily. It's an interesting experiment.