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At 8 p.m. on the Saturday before the first snowfall, organic grower Patrick Thiel harvested the last of his 50,000 pounds of potatoes in eastern Oregon. His crew — an itinerant chef, some furloughed firefighters and day laborers — unearthed the haul by hand. Alby’s Gold, Corolle and La Ratte Fingerlings were among the heirloom varieties Portland’s top chefs demanded of Thiel’s tiny Prairie Creek Farm.
When Gabriel Rucker, Naomi Pomeroy, Vitaly Paley and Portland’s other culinary all-stars create a potato side dish or make French fries, they don’t accept any old spud. That got me thinking about Thanksgiving.
Next to turkey, mashed potatoes play the best supporting role. They are essential. You may mess around with a vegetable side dish, invent a salad or even mix in a new pie, but mashers are on the menu each and every year.
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How, I wondered, could this year’s mashed potatoes be their very best?
Storage and starch
Snow flurries scattered on the silver roof of a makeshift potato shed in Prairie Creek Farm’s fields. My feet were cold within moments, but I’d come to learn what I could from the most renowned potato grower in Oregon. Gene Thiel, the farm’s founder known as “Potato Man,” died in July at 77 and left the legacy to his son, Patrick. They’d worked side by side on their leased patch of glaciated soils making their root crops — beets, carrots and potatoes — memorable highlights of many menus.
Looking like a miner with a helmet and headlamp, Thiel led me inside his potato shed. The earthy air was noticeably warmer and dark as night. Hills of soil-caked potatoes reached head height — 50,000 pounds, Thiel estimated with undisguised disappointment.
“It should be 100,000,” he said. But he couldn’t get enough organic seed potato for a full crop. Shaking his head, he noted that meant rationing the smaller yield to his 50 chefs to fulfill deliveries from now to spring.
Bent over a bulwark of 50-pound bagged potatoes, Thiel commented offhandedly, “Cooking potatoes is a question of sugar content and temperature.”
I realized my lesson had begun. He explained that in cool storage (within 40 to 45 F), the potatoes retain their sugars. So, you want to store your potatoes, whether from the store, farmers market or your own garden, as cool as you can for long keeping.
When they’re warmed up, the potato’s sugars convert to starches. Because the best mashed potatoes require a starchy potato, Thiel’s key advice was simple: Warm your potatoes before boiling.
“If your sugars are high, you’ll get glue,” Thiel said. Then, he added, “My dad could tell the good chefs who set their bag of potatoes by the stove.” Their French fries had the best color and their mashed potatoes the best texture. Flavor is another story.
Not your ordinary Russets
Thiel is a soft-spoken father of four with a brown cap of hair who harbors fervent opinions on potatoes. I asked him outright, What is the best potato for mashing?
“If you like light and fluffy, use Russets,” he replied. “If you like flavor, use better varieties.”
He was speaking, of course, of heirloom potato varieties. Not the Idaho potato, the Burbank Russet, grown for uniformity in size, starch, color and flavor. Commercial potato growers are paid to produce to specifications and penalized if their tubers don’t make the cut. Thiel and his dad left behind commercial-scale potato growing many years ago and became committed to producing diverse breeds, including Alby’s Gold, a yellow variety that is the farm’s mainstay.
On this topic, Thiel is passionate. “No potato has better color, flavor and texture than Alby’s,” he said. “They come alive like no other potato.”
More brightly colored than Yukon Gold, Alby’s is the only potato that can hold an astonishing amount of butter when mashed, according to longtime Chef Pascal Sauton. Just 1 pound of Alby’s potatoes can absorb 1½ sticks of butter.
“Put that much butter in anything, it’s incredible,” Thiel conceded. He also recommended blending them with good quality olive oil, duck fat, bacon fat or truffle oil.
Prairie Creek Farm grows roughly eight potato varieties, including Ranger Russet, best adapted to the growing conditions in Oregon’s alpine region. Throughout the country, small farms offer their own favorite heirloom breeds. (Find the one closest to you at LocalHarvest.com.)
“When you’re using different potatoes,” Thiel advised, “you need to know your potato.” On his weekly delivery runs, he informs chefs about the storage conditions, but stops short of the direct instructions his father shot off for cooking them. “I don’t have the courage to argue with them like my dad,” he said with a shy smile. He does confide in me that when he wants an extra fluffy mash, he’ll mix a few of his Russets in with his favored Alby’s.
As I stepped gingerly between piles of potatoes to exit the shed, Thiel shined his headlamp to the roof to show me droplets suspended there. Entombed, the potatoes make their own moisture, respiring and living in a state of waiting until we claim them for our own Thanksgiving Day feast.
Top photo: Patrick Thiel. Credit: Lynne Curry
What does it take for a well-established farm-to-table chef to make a name for himself in a hotbed of gastronomy like Portland, Ore.? If you ask Rick Gencarelli, it’s all about street cred.
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His recognition came by way of the food cart called Lardo that he opened in September 2010. Slinging a porchetta sandwich with a side of hand-cut Parmesan-herb fries and homemade ketchup, Gencarelli instantly won the attention of the food-loving cognoscenti. “Who is this guy?” Portlanders began to ask.
Until then, restaurant developers wouldn’t even return his phone calls.
Gencarelli arrived in Portland from the East Coast with his family in 2009, ready to hit the ground running. He sported a stellar fine dining résumé with the requisite high points: an early start as a busboy in a Chinese restaurant, a degree from the Culinary Institute of America and involvement in award-winning restaurants from San Francisco to Boston. Most notably, Gencarelli launched several restaurants for celebrity chef Todd English before leading the kitchen at the Inn at Shelburne Farms, a landmark farmstead restaurant in Vermont. He even had a New York Times notable cookbook to his name.
Nonetheless, no one in Portland took notice until Gencarelli created Lardo in a charming blue cottage-style cart. His name value skyrocketed, capped off when Smithsonian magazine declared Lardo one of the top 20 foods trucks in the nation in 2012.
The new fine dining
In switching from four-star fare to street food, Gencarelli trailed Portland’s top chefs, including Tommy Habetz, a Mario Batali protegé who created Bunk Sandwiches, and Andy Ricker of Pok Pok restaurant fame, a 2011 James Beard Best Chef Northwest winner. His food was fitting, too, in a town that excels in raising lowbrow cuisine — including PB&Js and barbecue (locally sourced) — to new heights.
Lardo generated so much buzz, the community of chefs and restaurateurs opened up their arms to Gencarelli. “I give Portland all the credit,” he said. Soon, he was on the receiving end of phone calls, including an invitation from restaurant developer Kurt Huffman of Chefstable to give Lardo a real home.
On the day in June 2012 when Gencarelli locked up his food cart for the last time, he felt both relieved and anxious about the transition. “This was never a way to earn a living,” he acknowledged. Now that he was taking his food cart concept into the big time, he worried, “Will I still be able to make my own porchetta? My own ketchup?”
Food cart followers
Gencarelli did not predict the big welcome his brick-and-mortar Lardo would receive in its new Hawthorne Boulevard neighborhood.
On opening day that summer, 1,000 fans crowded the shop. “It was absolutely crazy,” Gencarelli remembered, “and we didn’t stop for three days.”
He felt relieved when demand rescinded to manageable levels, but the ball was already rolling with food pod fans ready to follow wherever Gencarelli went with his meaty, signature sandwiches.
Lest anyone think Gencarelli the chef was going back to white tablecloth dining, Grassa has no waiters, no stemware, no linens in sight. Just generous $8-$12 bowls of homemade pasta served to a surging niche of diners who seek well-crafted, affordable food without the frills. Created in Portland, this is the next wave of fine dining.
Building the Lardo brand
With three new restaurants in operation within eight months, Gencarelli reflected on his quick ascent. He was happy to report he was still rolling his own porchetta, producing the pastrami, and forming banh mi meatballs by the hundreds of pounds. “The flavors of the cart live on,” he said, noting that the only sacrifice was replacing his homemade ketchup with Heinz.
Strangely enough, a business built on Lardo was never part of Gencarelli’s plan. At the first chance, he believed he’d distance himself from the food cart. “I never thought I’d stick with sandwiches. I’d do the cart for a little while and then do plated food again.” And he’d thought about being on the short list for a James Beard Award. “You have to let your ego go a little bit,” he confessed. Now, with his reputation solidly built on the tagline “bringing the fat back,” this ambitious chef was embracing a different career strategy while making real food for the people.
Might Gencarelli follow Ricker to New York, opening a Lardo in that proving ground where his career began?
“I plan on dying in Portland,” he quickly replied. True enough, the last word was that Gencarelli is planning his third Lardo location for Portland’s thriving Alberta neighborhood. It will open by the end of the year.
Top photo: Rick Gencarelli. Credit: David L. Reamer Photography
The end of summer is prime time for preserving fresh food in jars. With fall fruits coming into market and late summer fruits still on hand, I sought out Deluxe Foods founder Rebecca Staffel to answer my burning questions about pectin, canning methods and the best jam jars.
Rebecca Staffel's favorite preserving books:
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» Home canning renaissance
A former cookbook editor at Amazon, literary agent and Microsoft executive, Staffel turned her penchant for preserves into Deluxe Foods in 2010. She sources all her fruit from local farms and uses Old World techniques to boil them into jams, chutneys, jellies and conserves, all in a tiny commercial kitchen in Seattle. In 2001, her gingered rhubarb jam won a Good Food Award and in 2012 her jeweled strawberry preserves were a finalist. Full of humor and generous tips, Staffel describes herself as “jam passionate.” Here are her responses to our questions:
A lot of people are trying canning for the first time, so I want to ask you about the thickening process where fruit becomes jam.
It starts with the fruit, because depending on what fruit you pick that’s going to have its own pectin content. Less ripe fruit has more pectin but less flavor. Riper fruit has more flavor, less pectin. Personally, I don’t mind it dolloping. My bias is for peak-of-the-season fruit, which might make for a slighter looser preserve but it’s going to have maximum flavor.
What about pectin you buy in a package?
I don’t use commercial pectin. We just rely on the pectins in the fruit with lemon juice and sugar. We do a lot of work with maceration. So, we let it [fruit and sugar] sit overnight. The sugar pulls the water out of the fruit, and basically starts candying the fruit while it sits there overnight. That lets us cook the preserve for a shorter period, which I like.
What is commercial pectin and why don’t you use it?
Commercial pectin is completely natural. It’s not evil. Pectin is fruit based, generally citrus. I don’t use it because I don’t care for the gummy texture.
I’m like you, I like a looser jam, but my daughters don’t like it dripping out of their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. What do you do to test your set?
I cook to temperature, to 220 F, with a couple of exceptions. Apple butter, pear butter, we cook until a spatula stands up in it [laughs] — so that’s kind of fun. Plum, it’s hard to get Italian prune plums past 218 F. It’s hard to get apricots to go past 218 F without overcooking them, so I just give in and have a soft set with apricot, but with plum you’ll get a firm set.
When I first started canning jam it was blackberry, a good beginner jam, and the woman I was canning with filled the jars, put on the lids and turned them upside down. Other cookbooks do the oven method, while the USDA only approves of the boiling water canning method. What’s the deal?
There is no way you can kill someone with a jar of jam unless you throw it at their head. The botulinum spores do not grow in the high-sugar and high-acid environment of the jam. There are no invisible killers in jam. If you get white or blue fuzz, do not eat that jam. If it’s in the fridge and it starts to crystallize, it’s bad quality. Life is short, don’t eat bad quality jam.
What’s the difference between the rolling water boil method and the oven method?
The rolling water boil method is the USDA-approved method for home canning. You can do oven canning in a commercial kitchen that’s inspected [by the government]. At Deluxe Foods we do oven canning. My feeling is that while my oven may be different than your oven, there are no two ways about boiling water. It is always 212 F. Maybe we mess with elevation, but there is not a 50-degree swing in the rolling water boil. Also, when you start to branch out to pickles or canning fruit, you’re going to have to do the rolling water boil, so you might as well learn how to do it.
Do you have a jam jar you prefer?
Funny you should ask. I have been evolving in my jar choice. I used to use the regular mouth and I liked those crystal jars just because they’re pretty.
Recently, I have switched to wide mouth. I prefer the half pint. Twelve ounces is too much jam.
I have to say two more things about jars. When you have finished jarring up your jam, let it sit for 24 hours. Don’t touch it, don’t move it because that is the time when your set is happening. Once the 24 hours is over, and you’re bored of jam and you can’t believe you even started on this project, you just throw it in the cupboard and forget about it. Don’t do that! Always take the time to label what it is, the date, and, as a bonus, who made it.
Do you have any reflections on the pure labor of love jam-making entails?
I urge people to make small batch because it’s the right amount of labor. You get out of the jam what you put into it. So if you were feeling attentive and loving of the fruit, that’s going to come through in the jam. Not so much that it fills you with wrath because you’re sick of look at rhubarb or sick of looking at apricot. Should you use a processor if this fruit’s been sitting for a week? Of course! It’s more of a sin to waste the fruit. You don’t have to have communion with your food every time. Sometimes you just gotta get it done. It’s OK [laughs], but I like to be with the fruit.
Top photo: Rebecca Staffel. Credit: Hayley Young
I became the family grill master because my husband was happy to leave me to the cooking, even when it involved live flames. I never grilled a steak or burger until the summer we bought a one-quarter share of a locally raised beef steer. When I cooked in restaurants, meats and the grill were strictly men’s domain. The same holds true on back decks across America: Men rule the barbecue.
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Here’s the big secret I want to share with any of my non-grilling sisters: After 12 years of all-season grilling using all manner of grills, I am here to report to that anyone can “man” the grill.
The job comes with loads of perks, like being outdoors while enjoying a refreshing beverage and little kitchen cleanup. Many women I know already do most of the meal preparation before the guy in their lives fires up the grill. Then he gets all the credit for the succulent meal. Sound familiar?
This Fourth of July is the time to own your grill. Or, at least to make friends with it. Start grilling now and you will set yourself up for a summer of cooking fun and ease. Oh, and you will learn a thing or two, like how you already possess most of the skills you need to excel at outdoor cooking.
I once taught a private cooking class to a group of six professional women. All of them entertained regularly and were confident in the kitchen. But, when it came time to grill the lamb chops on my Weber, not one of them was game.
I was shocked, but I also understood. I remembered how inhibited I felt about the whole thing. The process of lighting any type of grill, gas or charcoal, is daunting. Then, there’s the uncertainty of managing those unpredictable flames and knowing when everything — be it pork chop, chicken breast or vegetable kebab — is done.
Five fast steps to grilling success
Even if you didn’t grow up roasting hot dogs over campfires at sleep-away camp, it’s never too late to learn to grill. Backyard barbecuing is not a competitive sport, but a cooking technique like any other.
There is no perfect grill; whatever grill you already own is the best one to use now.
Grilling does not necessarily mean cooking a big piece of meat, but truthfully even that is not hard.
Shooting flames are for show-offs who don’t know how to grill.
So, take a deep breath and leave the high-testosterone grillers to their gigantic tools and their top-secret rubs. It’s time to put on your big girl pants and follow these five steps to get grilling:
1. Learn to light your grill: Igniting the grill is likely the biggest hurdle to girl grilling, so here’s how to take the pressure off. Don’t wait until dinnertime or when your guests are on the deck to light it. Instead, practice. You can ask a supportive spouse or friend for a hands-on tutorial or watch a video. No harm done in burning a little gas or charcoal. Once it’s lit, cover the grill and keep track of how long it takes to heat up. When you hold your hand over the grate and count to less than 5 Mississippi before you have to move it away, it’s hot. If you have a gas grill with a temperature gauge, you’ll wait until it reaches 500 F or higher.
2. Know your tools: Unlike your kitchen full of pots, pans and appliances, the grill brings everything back to basics. All you need to grill is a clean grate, a grill brush for scraping it clean and a pair of sturdy tongs or a spatula. Of these, the grate is the most important. After you’ve lit and preheated your grill, open the lid and scrape that grill hard until every bit of char is gone. You can oil the grate or the food you’ll be grilling to prevent sticking.
3. Start slow and easy: Plan for success by starting your grilling career with simple fare. Hot dogs and sausages cook quickly, and you don’t have to guess when they’re done as you do with a steak. Kebabs are also good beginner fare. Try grilling whole rounds of pita bread and slices of eggplant or portobello mushrooms brushed with olive oil. Be fearless and stay attentive as the foods cook, noting the timing for each. There is no shame in taking a hamburger off the grill, cutting it open to check its doneness and returning it to the grill if it needs more cooking. This is the power of learning.
4. Practice and advance: Once you’re comfortable with lighting, preheating and basic grilling, move up to steaks, salmon and chicken (the most challenging). A good thermometer like the Thermapen will take away all the guesswork. When you get a flare up (flames shooting up through the grate), just grasp the food with your tongs, slide it on the grate away from the flame and close the cover. Flames only scorch food and do not make it taste good.
5. Get adventuresome: Starting out, olive oil and salt and pepper are all the grilling seasonings you need. The magic of grilling is cooking foods to the right doneness, not secret sauces. Still, playing with marinades, rubs, herb sauces and salsas is part of the pleasure. “Weber’s Way to Grill” is one of my favorite books because it covers grilling basics (with photos) plus oodles of seasoning ideas. Another advanced step is to grill an entire meal. The trick is use the grill to its maximum efficiency and to keep yourself completely out of the kitchen.
Once it’s time to plan your first grilling party, get ready to enjoy all the freedom of outdoor cookery and to bask in the glory of it all.
Top photo: Use the whole grill to make a meal: corn, salmon, lemons, polenta and peppers. Credit: Lynne Curry
Can chefs change the way we eat? The Chefs Collaborative is taking a stab at promoting sustainability with a new cookbook of recipes gathered from America’s most notable chef-activists.
Celebrity chefs have a long tradition as tastemakers. It began with Julia Child, the French Chef who influenced Americans’ purchasing decisions about everything from pots and pans to whole chickens. More than 30 years ago another Californian, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, introduced us to mesclun. This baby lettuce mix is now available in every supermarket and served in restaurants across the nation. In today’s television food culture, celebrities such as Anthony Bourdain and David Chang tempt us with their daring and globetrotting to try foods that are ever more exotic. Meanwhile, another group of chefs in America is influencing another, less flashy but significant trend: responsible eating.
These chefs are members of Chefs Collaborative, a nonprofit devoted to creating a more sustainable food supply. Working in restaurants across the country, they lead by example: celebrating seasonal, locally produced foods on their menus and advocating for farming and fishing communities. For its 20th anniversary, the organization released its first cookbook, “The Chefs Collaborative Cookbook: Local, Sustainable, Delicious Recipes from America’s Great Chefs.” Few of the 115 chef contributors are celebrities of TV fame. Instead, they are community leaders who are drawing attention to critical food issues by what they choose to put on the plate.
‘Think like a chef’ with Chefs Collaborative Cookbook
The recipes in this seductively photographed cookbook are grouped in four categories — vegetable and fruits, meat and poultry, fish and seafood, and dairy and eggs. While I expected the recipes to be organized seasonally, this approach made page-turning like armchair-traveling through the seasons. Reading through each recipe inspired me to “think like a chef,” considering how each contributor selected ingredients and flavors together with attention to seasonality, yes, but deliciousness, too.
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By Chefs Collaborative and Ellen Jackson
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Another novelty is that this chef-driven book is not cheffy at all. Certainly the glossy pages include luxury ingredients and multiple steps, but this collection is not intended to dazzle or bewilder with culinary alchemy or sleight of hand. Not one to languor on the coffee table, this chef book is enticing, instructive and very approachable.
Take the recipe for turnip soup from Dan Barber. The chef of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Barber is the role model of the sustainable chef. Dining at his Upstate New York destination restaurant-farm-education center was dubbed “a life-changing experience” by Food and Wine.
Turnip soup: There may be no flash to this pea-green fall soup recipe, but there is more than meets the eye. For one, the ingredient list is a carefully selected assemblage of leeks, parsnips, purple-topped turnips plus uncommon parsley root (for which Barber offers a substitution). There is also attentive cooking technique: “Be careful not to get any color on the vegetables” and a teaching note about how parsnips and turnips will be sweeter if harvested after the first frost. Though summer had not yet arrived, I yearned for fall immediately.
Helpful color-coded sections
While the recipes keep the teaching light and informal, other sections of this book offer more hard-hitting resources for study. Interspersed throughout the book, robin’s-egg blue pages called “Breaking It Down” deliver encyclopedic listings demystifying the myriad labels for beef, poultry, seafood, eggs and more, delivering essential understanding for making purchasing decisions today. Other goldenrod-colored pages offer nuts-and-bolts information on topics ranging from using every part of the vegetable to understanding grain varieties to exploring various fish-catching methods. It raises serious issues without being overbearing.
The strength of this book is the variety, including all the highly regarded chefs it introduced me to who work and cook beyond my region. In a series of moss-colored pages titled “Straight Talk,” I read many of them muse about their essential pantry items, their favorite bean varieties, and how they decide between local or organic, among other topics. These read like conversations with the chefs themselves, and I would have welcomed more of them.
As a whole, “The Chefs Collaborative Cookbook” offers insights into the complex web of decisions involved in cooking responsibly and eating mindfully. Without great fanfare, these tastemakers — the contributors and chefs in the Chefs Collaborative — are notable for leading the way to a more sustainable and exemplary way of eating.
Serves 4 to 6
If you make this soup with turnips and parsnips harvested after the first freeze, it will be noticeably sweeter. When exposed to cold weather, root vegetables convert their starches to sugars to prevent the water in their cell structure from freezing. Their survival tactic is our reward.
Parsley root, also known as Hamburg parsley, is a pungent cross between celery and parsley. If you have trouble finding it, substitute 1 cup of peeled, thinly sliced celery root and an additional 2 tablespoons of parsley leaves.
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 small onion, cut into ¼-inch dice (about ½ cup)
1 small leek, white part only, finely chopped
2 medium purple-top turnips (about ¾ pound), peeled, halved and thinly sliced
1 parsnip, peeled and thinly sliced
1 parsley root, peeled and thinly sliced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 cups vegetable stock (homemade or store-bought)
1 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
½ cup picked fresh chervil leaves
¼ cup picked pale yellow celery leaves (from the core)
1. Heat the butter and oil in a large heavy-bottomed pan over medium-low heat. Add the onions and leeks, reduce the heat to low, and cook slowly without browning, about 5 minutes.
2. Add the turnips, parsnips, and parsley root and season with salt and pepper. Stir to combine well with the leeks and onions, cover, and continue to cook slowly for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the vegetables become very soft. Be careful not to get any color on the vegetables.
3. Add the stock, bring the mixture to a simmer, and cook for 10 minutes. Allow to cool slightly, then purée in a blender in batches, adding some of the parsley, chervil and celery leaves each time. Make sure each batch is very smooth, then combine and strain the soup through a fine-mesh sieve. Chill in an ice bath to preserve the soup’s bright color and fresh flavor. Reheat to serve, adjusting the seasoning as necessary.
Top photo composite: “The Chefs Collaborative Cookbook” and Dan Barber’s turnip soup. Credits: Courtesy of The Taunton Press
I watched a butchery demonstration by third-generation meat cutter Kari Underly at the annual Chef’s Collaborative conference last year in Seattle. One of the attendees was the editor-in-chief from a national cooking magazine. I asked her what drew her to watch a skilled professional divide muscles from bone and fat. “I just love watching people cut up meat,” she said. “I won’t ever use this stuff, but it’s fascinating.”
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Observing a butcher elegantly wield a knife is a spectacle, one I recommend to anybody tempted by the smells of a burger on the grill. Years ago in cooking school, I was rapt by my first butchery demonstration on a lamb, and I wasn’t even a meat eater then. Since there’s no blood to speak of (slaughter and butchery are two vastly different steps in the process), the butcher’s craft is akin to witnessing a master wood carver create an end table from a stump.
Underly is one of several pro butchers to publish a book on her craft, “The Art of Beef Cutting.” Her step-by-step illustrated guide is geared toward professional meat cutters, but is approachable for motivated home cooks. Other recent books are for the general meat eater eager to learn their striploin from their skirt steak. They include San Francisco 4505 Meats butcher Ryan Farr’s “Whole Beast Butchery” and New York-based Fleisher’s owners Joshua and Jessica Applestone’s “The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat.”
Along with “The Butcher’s Apprentice,” these books aim at the DIY market and the mania for home-cured bacon and assorted salumi. The newest butchery book out this spring is “Butchery & Sausage-Making for Dummies.” Written by San Francisco Chef Tia Harrison, co-founder of The Butcher’s Guild and co-owner of Avedanos Meats, this book brings butchery to the masses.
As I paged through illustrations, photographs and diagrams of animal carcasses and cuts in each of these books, I wondered how many people would find it both fascinating and useful.
Butchery is back, but is it relevant for everyone?
By the time I witnessed Underly in action in Seattle, I had years of informal experience cutting up parts of beef, elk, pork and lamb, whole rabbits, chickens, duck and turkey.
Laying my hands on primals and smaller muscle groups gave me firsthand understanding of how those parts related to the whole. I had an intimate understanding of how the composition of the shoulder differed from the leg, right down to the muscle texture and color.
These experiences handling, cutting, trimming, chopping and grinding my own meat not only improved my knife work, they also enhanced my cooking knowledge and skill with anything meaty.
Even if you don’t aspire to break down a whole hog or side of beef, there are surprisingly many transferable skills to be learned from a bit of butchery. Butchery guidebooks such as these are an accessible starting point for seeking out new opportunities to use your knife.
You can also sign up for a class, watch an online video or enlist a more experienced friend.
Here’s what some hands-on butchery experience can do for you:
- Connect with the meat you eat, its source and quality. Once you get up close and personal with your meat, it’s impossible not to ask questions, including how was this animal raised? What was it fed? How was it slaughtered? You become a more conscious carnivore.
- Learn the location and composition of cuts. Carcasses are like jigsaw puzzles. When you take just one piece at a time, you can more easily grasp the whole. You can then translate what you know about beef to pork to lamb, or chicken to duck to game birds.
- Increase your confidence at the meat counter and in the kitchen. Have you felt shy approaching the butcher counter? Or, do you only buy steaks because you know how to cook them? With a little experience, you become the master your favorite meats.
- Understand the reasons for different cooking methods. The proportion of lean to fat in any cut determines whether it needs slow cooking or can be roasted, grilled and sautéed. Demystify the cooking and your options open wide.
- Waste less and use more of the meat you buy. Whether you purchase a whole tenderloin to trim or a pork shoulder to smoke, you’ll find a good use for every morsel of meat, fat and even bone. Stock and sausage making are natural next steps.
5 Butchery Skills for Beginners
With your knives — a boning knife and chef’s knife are all you need — freshly sharpened, here are some beginning butchery skills anyone can try at home:
- Slice your own steaks from a strip loin (or boneless rib roast or top round roast)
- Bone a whole chicken
- Bone a leg of lamb, roll and tie it
- Butterfly pork loin
- Trim a whole tenderloin
Top photo: A butcher Frenching a rack of lamb. Credit: David L. Reamer