Saturday, November 28, 2009

What was in that bird??

The annual decision of buying a turkey for thanksgiving is done by millions of people. For most it requires a trip through the frozen bins at the supermarket, for others a visit to the local butcher shop to have the fresh bird, even less will seek out local farmers which have taken orders months ago, and finally those who purchase via the internet. So which is it? What did we eat this year? There are so many choices and price ranges. First lets start off with the standard commercial birds.

Most commercial turkeys are raised similarly to chicken. They are a single breed, the large breasted Holland White; this bird dominates the market and is raised in large crowded outdoor pens. They are typically fed a corn based diet with a soy protein mixed in. This premixed "ration" has vitamins, minerals, and a variety of possible antibiotics including tetracycline, various sulfates, bactracin depending on the grower or company that supplies the grower with feed. Many farms are vertically integrated with the grower being supplied the birds and feed from the processing company. But there are also small farmers that use many of the pre-mixed rations as well. The goal is rapid growth. The price of these birds is consistantly low. Hanaford supermarket was offering a turkey for $.40 per pound. Others are giving away turkeys with a purchase of a certain monetary amount of other groceries. But not all supermarket birds are the same either. Many offer fresh or organic, quasi niche market birds on the days just before Thanksgiving.
Natural - No added ingredients, after slaughter ( has nothing to do with feeding methods)
Naturally raised- This may mean a few different things but typically the bird was fed a ration that had no antibiotics or animal byproducts such as bone meal.
Naturally enhanced- Has a solution of salt, turkey broth up to about 10 % and often "natural" flavorings.
Enhanced- Turkey that is pumped with varying amounts of salt, water, sodium phosphates and flavorings. Most contain around a 12% solution but I have seen a higher and lower amounts.
"Super" Enhanced- Think Butterball, bird is enhanced with water, salt, sodium phosphate, but also hydrolyzed soy protein, autolyzed vegetable protein. These are basically nicer ways of describing MSG (monosodium glutimate) which are typically frowned upon by consumers.
All added ingredients must be listed on the label but the meaning of those ingredients is up to the consumer to research.
Fresh- This means the bird was slightly frozen quickly after slaughter but not frozen solid and should not require a thaw out.

Frozen- Bird is blast frozen right after slaughter and stored at 0 to -20F. Can be stored like this for many months without much harm.

Organic- Bird was raised without antibiotics, fed all organic ingredients, has more space to roam etc. ( organic rules are listed on the USDA web site)

As far as pricing goes, the least expensive is the basic naturally enhanced bird, next would be the phosphated bird and then the super enhanced product. Fresh birds are typically twice the price of regular frozen and organic were at least three times the price.

Brand names for supermarket birds may include the forementioned Butterball, Jennie-O, Perdue, etc. Many brands are actually owned by much larger meat companies such as Hormel , Tyson, Smithfield.

The top turkey producing states are listed below in order of production.
North Carolina
South Carolina

So what about the local butcher or specialty market? Most small butchers will sell a single brand that they consider quality. Often a non- enhanced small market bird. Brand names such as Jaindle or Bell and Evans, Eberling provide a quality that is considered higher than the larger market birds. The local butcher also provides cooking instruction and advice on how much to order. Small butchers are more likely to sell a variety of naturally raised birds and even local, very small market birds. Fleisher's of Kingston, near where I live prides themselves in knowing the farm where the turkeys are from and can guarantee the way they are raised. Some exclusive markets will offer heirloom breeds too.

For those who frequent farmer's markets there may be a poultry farmer who raises a few turkeys. These would need to be ordered in advance. The sizes may be varied and the price will be high but the fact that you personally supported a local farmer and you know exactly where the bird came from is something you can brag about to family and friends. Many small farmers are also selling "heritage" breed turkeys. Heritage breeds are those which have fallen out of popularity for one reason or another. They often require a longer growing time but have a deeper, richer flavor. Some breeds I've seen are the Standard Bronze, Blue Slate, Bourbon Red, Narragansett and Royal Palm.

Internet sales of turkeys are another way to purchase niche market style birds. There are hundreds of small market producers of heirloom, naturally raised, organic turkeys. They tend to be expensive and shipping is another part of it. Expense can be quite high for example a "WillieBird" organic turkey from Williams and Sonoma is $116 for a 18 lb bird. Other sites list birds from anywhere from $3.00 to $6.00 per lb. They come in styro boxes and shipping can be expensive also.
To avoid all of this decision making you could simplt take your guests out for dinner....but thats just the chef in me talking.

The world of turkey products seems to grow every year and its up to the consumer to really think about the purchase ahead of time. The good thing is you have more options than ever before.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Old Lamb??

Dry aged beef is a standard on many high end steakhouse menus. The aroma and flavor is deeper and more complex and the price tag is warranted. At the CIA, we age a new beef strip loin every 10 days or so. They sit for around 4 weeks until a deep, dark, semi-moldy crust is formed. We do a tasting in class and the students get to taste the difference between a dry and wet aged beef.

About 2 months ago we were breaking down a lamb carcass. The students watched the demo and then teamed up to bone out a leg of lamb. We had a mix up and opened too many bagged legs. I decided to save one leg from the whole carcass and hang it in the cooler, thinking we would bone it the next day. Then I decided to let it age for about three weeks, like the beef.

Lamb, like beef, has a nice fat cover on the outside and a deep red color. In beef we typically age the middle meat cuts from the loin and rib. In lamb, the leg is the largest primal and can be aged as long as a beef striploin. We trimmed off the small flank steak piece and hung it where there was plenty of air circulation at about 35 F. In three weeks it shrank about 15% and became much firmer. It didn't lose much to trimming due to the fact that not much of the lean muscle is exposed. We boned the leg and cut off the sirloin and then did the same with a fresh leg. Out came the cast iron skillet and a little salt and pepper. The flavor differences were very similar to what we find in beef. The aged had a deeper, richer flavor and the taste lingered longer.

So is it worth it? I think of aging almost like another spice. It adds flavor but costs extra. I've served dry aged butterflied leg of lamb years ago at a function and the response was very positive. If you dry age beef, try dry aging lamb.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Frenching a Rack of Lamb

This weekend I taught a food enthusiast class on butchery. One of the tasks was frenching a rack of lamb. But why? Well it is a long standing debate with those who love lamb whether or not to remove the extra bits of meat along the bones. Some will remove it right to the eye, otherwise known as lollipop chop; others will leave over two inches of extra fatty meat on the ribs and just clean off the tips of the bones. Most New Zealand pre-frenched racks come with about an inch and a half of material above the eye. So its is up to the individual to decide. If serving mini appetizer chops, I would lollipop them. When creating a crown roast I go with about an inch and a half. My dad would leave on all of the trim on the ribs and simply trim some of the exterior fat. The meat crisps up almost bacon- like and is very tasty. Rustica!

Techniques vary for frenching. Lately I show how to do it with a butcher twine. There are a series of steps to it and if done correctly the bones will be very clean. In class I am also showing how to french using a drawer handle. I saw this on Alton Brown's You Tube video. Check it out...

Friday, November 6, 2009

Veal, Milk and Money

These are hard times for NY dairy farmers. Milk prices remain historically low when accounting for inflation. Small, mid-sized and even large dairy farms in NY are taking it on the chin. The fact that many farmers are not able to make it on milk money alone means hundreds will close up and many may need to sell off their herds. This is a sad situation that mimics what has happened in the pork industry as well. Over production of product by very large companies in the mid-west and west has forced many smaller northeast producers to rethink their farm. Do they go "organic"? This requires a lot of red tape and there again, you have huge operations in the west that are certified organic and flood the market with product; plus the economic downturn has put a damper on organic purchasing at the retail level due to its higher price. Some have begun to think about cheese making. Artisan cheese is a growing area of agriculture but it takes many years and equipment to develop a quality product. Others have diversified the farm and become crop farmers.
Another direction is meat. Some dairy farms are now starting to raise animals for meat production. If for beef, this often requires a change from dairy breeds to meat breeds. This is an investment but local meats are demanding high prices these days. Chefs are increasingly looking towards the local sustainable products to differentiate their operation from others. The local hook is not only good for farmers but good marketing as well.
Enter veal. Dairy farmers often sell their male offspring at auction which often ends up as veal. A recent article in the Washington Post explains what some farmers are considering, milk feeding the offspring to raise expensive free ranged veal. To me it makes a lot of sense to sell a product that helps out the struggling dairy farmers and have a product that has more true veal flavor. The product, though a little redder than most veal, has a deeper flavor and the bones make for fantastic stock. I think that even the larger veal distributors, who are also hurting during this tough economic time, are looking to get veal back on the high end table. This might be the way.
Here are a couple articles on the subject I found intrigueing