Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Beef Impact Study....Not New News

 Ruminants are not efficient eaters! If you feed a pig some carbs it will put on fat and grow quickly. The same goes for chickens and most other poultry. But beef? They eat and then ferment their foodstuffs and produce all sorts of gas. They take much longer to reach full size. They drink a lot of water and the feeds they eat require irrigation, fertilizer, harvesting, storage and lots of energy! Here is an article explaining the study. It states beef causes at least 10 times the impact on the environment than other meats. This is not really new news. The question of whether or not to eat meat is one that many people are considering today but it may come to another layer, not whether or not to eat meat but if you decide to eat it, what types have the least impact? This study shows how much less poultry and pork require much less feed and water per pound. They don't require pasture lands and can be raised in a lot of environments.
   Here are a few other things to consider. If you don't eat meat, and choose strictly a vegetarian diet what is your impact? Certainly there is a reduction in greenhouse gases and this fact is as an absolute. But how and what are you buying? How far away did your food come from? Its ironic to state you don't eat meat because of the impact on the environment but then buy olive oil imported all the way from Italy, drink wine from Chile or Spain, eat lettuce produced in California in winter, cook with chopped garlic that originated in China. What about the processed foods? Breads, crackers, boxed cereals, all packaged in plastics etc. An example is the super nutritious food, Quinoa. Its attributes are fantastic but it is grown in the high Andes Mountains. How does it get to us? Our food's environmental impact is enormous and meat is a major part of it, but we need to consider many things beyond the farming impacts. We need to consider travel and packaging.
  Back to beef....I would like to see a study on the impact of raising beef on pasture compared to grain finished. Beef raised close to the consumer, without the feedlot and the crop impacts that go along with that, in areas that can support pasture raised beef. I'll bet the impact would drop considerably. There are a lot of conflicting papers and articles on this subject. On one hand you have the conventional beef industry claiming grass fed impacts just as much as regular beef because it takes longer for cattle to reach their market weight. This may be true but they are not considering breed and pasture quality. There are breeds that will finish better on grass than others, Red Devon comes to mind. These cattle are smaller which, as a chef , I find appealing. Beef size has gotten huge in the past few years. On the other hand, studies that are designed to refute the pluses from grass feeding also come from the vegetarian side. Grass feeding impacts the planet, that is for sure, but there are different styles of grass feeding. If you finish the animal on stored "grass" which can be a number of feeds and the resulting impact will not be that much different than feedlot beef. If you use this as your model then it won't show a big difference between the two styles. Real pasture raised, where rotational grazing techniques are used, and pasture lands are sequestering a certain amount of carbon must have less of an impact than regular grain finished feed-lot beef. That just seems like common sense.
  One way or the other, ruminants are less efficient than other meats. The price of it should reflect that and often does, and therefore the consumers would naturally reduce the consumption. The problem is when we allow cheap meats from Brazil, Mexico or Uruguay that keep our burger prices artificially low and consumption high.
  The spin on this subject is well funded and passionate. Fingers are pointed and accusations are made from the vegetarian and conventional beef industry sides....but the impacts are real and consumption is increasing due to the increases in wealth in China. Here is an article that lists the amount of meat waste the world allows... This is a way to reduce the impact also.

Monday, July 21, 2014

NYC Local

  I'm looking for more info on this subject and the goal is to encourage all types of restaurants to consider using more local products, so please feel free to add lots of comments.
   The difficulties in serving local meats in a restaurant setting are many but certainly not overcome with some planning and changes in purchasing mindset. First we need to define local. What is an acceptable range for local? Some claim 50 or 100 mile radius but for a restaurant in NYC this may be difficult. There are farms close enough but the volume would be depleted in a day if most restaurants had a “local only” menu. So many restaurants have broadened to a regional area. Purchasing meats in NYC from the region might mean extending out to farms in Pennsylvania, western New York, New England, New Jersey, or even beyond into Virginia, Quebec, Ohio. The focus may drift from locality to the raising style of the meat and of course, price. Some of the prerequisites for “local” might be free roaming or pasture fed, maybe grass fed, or raised outdoors. Restaurants may require specific labeling such as USDA Certified Organic or NOFA, certified American Grass fed, Humanely Raised and Handled and more. Defining local is up to the restaurateur and the customer. Purchasing is another hurdle. Most small farmers that are raising meats in this style are selling their meats for top dollar in the local farmer’s market or as whole freezer orders. Many will not sell a subprimal cut let alone an individual portion cut. So how does the restaurant purchase? Some are buying the whole or half animal, breaking it down in-house. This presents problems of inequality in the types of cuts available. There is only so much Rib Eye compared to chuck cuts.
  Some purveyors have jumped in to try to satisfy the restaurant needs and this area of purchasing is growing. Examples would be Debragga and Spitler selling all grass-fed beef cuts and burgers from their sources in western NY and featuring Mangalitsa pork from NJ as well as specialty poultry from small processors in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Another quality purveyor, Pat LaFrieda, is selling some local products and is adding more. These types of purveyors are servicing the very high quality restaurants in NYC and they allow a restaurant to purchase meat in the “normal” way without having to buy a whole carcass or pick the meats up themselves etc.
   Another option is to buy from some of the smaller niche markets that focus primarily on retail sales. Places like The Meat Hook and Fleishers in Brooklyn or Saugatuck Craft Butchery in Westport, Conn. are selling cuts customized for restaurants. Many restaurants that sell local make a connection with a farm at a farmers market or off a website where they can make arrangements to either have it delivered or go and pick up directly. Restaurants typically want to feature the name of the farm on their menu so this connection can be very important.
    Many NYC restaurant menus that are featuring local meats are not necessarily 100% local. Some will approach it with a few local items such as a local burger, local chicken or duck, local pork cured products but rarely will you see a local beef striploin or tenderloin steak. There are some but many tend to run these expensive cuts as a featured item as opposed to a regular menu item. Restaurants that feature local also tend to feature meats from a distance but raised in a style that will be appealing to the same type of customers. Meats that feature a specific name brand such as Niman Ranch, Creekstone Farms, Meyer Angus, Berkwood Farms Pork, Bell and Evan’s Poultry. These are examples of quality name brands that are certainly not local but are produced in ways that might have some of the same features that the customer is looking for in a local product. Heritage breed names, feed styles or lack of pharmaceuticals in production are features that many customers will seek out, in addition to local, when considering their purchase.
   There are certainly plenty of restaurants featuring local meats but some are doing a much more comprehensive effort than others. A prime example is Gramercy Tavern where much of their meats are locally sourced. Perla is also featuring some local product and the chef has a lot of butchery skill in utilizing the whole carcass. Bill Telepan, owner of Telepan, does some local products and features lots of local pork on his menus. Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns needs to be mentioned here as well. They are strict about their local offerings and hold to their ideals that serving local is very important. But the truth of the matter is that many other restaurants claim they sell local but the menu reflects only a small portion of their meats are local if any at all. Many “talk” local but are not serious about using local products when it becomes inconvenient.
   Some restaurants are approaching the local menu idea with a different idea. In addition to their regular menu they have a small selection of “nose to tail” items on a separate menu. This gives the chef the freedom to purchase a whole carcass and make all sorts of interesting alternatives. Bar Boulud features a four item nose to tail menu featuring Raven and Boar pork, Feast features Whole Hog Mondays. The term “feast” is becoming a popular way to present a “tasting” menu with a singular meat theme. Resto and Trestle on Tenth both feature unique party menus or “feasts” that are price fixed featuring whole carcass dishes. They require you reserve a few days ahead. Blue Hill offers a summer ”feast” and they showcase seasonality as well as location.
    A good source for locating local meats is the EatWild website. They showcase a number of New York farms and the restaurants that are featuring their food.
    The solution to serving local meat is multi-layered. Flexibility seems to be the key. Being able to feature the whole carcass, especially with beef and lamb, and using all of the variety of cuts is the best way to feature local. Pork is the easiest in that it can also be sold as cured and sausage products and poultry are easy because they are small enough to be sold as whole or cut up portions. Having the staff to break it down and use everything is crucial but also having a chef to think of enough dishes to use it all is also important. The alternative is to leave it up to the purveyor to sell local in typical restaurant cuts. This is a growing area and more places are getting into it. Companies are re-evaluating their products to see if they can cash in on the local movement. An example is Leidy’s Pork from southern PA. They are not a small company compared to others but they are also not a huge conglomerate located thousands of miles away. Olymel is a huge pork producer in Quebec that sends their products around the world, or Taylor Packing Co., a Cargill owned beef processor in western PA that slaughters 4,000 beef cattle a day, can they be considered local? These are the decisions that must be made with care in the restaurant

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Local Cheers and Woes

 I recently saw a special party menu featuring local beef tenderloin. Sheesh! A large party featuring over twenty beef tenderloins! That's more than 10 whole animals. What was the reasoning behind the menu idea? Many chefs today want to ride the next popular wave and create menus that will catch the customers desire to be eating what is on the cutting edge of the culinary world. The term "local" has jumped on to many menus all over the nation and beyond. Local seasonal vegetables, local free-ranged eggs, beer featuring locally grown hops, wines from local grapes all combined on to menus,
giving the customer a way to support local farmers. Meats are part of this puzzle and featuring local meats is absolutely possible and being done, even on the food truck level.
 So why did this menu irk me so much? My worry is that "local" takes on some sort of elitist tag when viewed on a menu. The last thing the local supporters and farmers want to see is their products becoming an elitist out of reach food source for restaurants.
 Here is a scenario. There's a chef running a nice bistro with and eclectic menu that they've created from experiences and travels. They look to serve local products. Why? In their travels to Spain, Italy or Hungary they found that the best food had was in small places that featured the food and wine from that area. Chefs there had a relationship with a local greengrocer or butcher and they bought through the age old practices of haggling and "working" each other for the best prices. The chef here wants to recreate that experience in the US. Do they want to put this local stuff on their menu because its trendy? The answer should be NO, they want to use the local products because they have a better flavor and they have a relationship with their farmer or purveyor.
 The hard part for a restaurant, especially when concerning the use of local meats, is two fold. First the price tends to be higher and restaurants are always struggling with profit margins. It is sooo tempting to look at the prices from a large distributor and buy pre-cleaned vegis or pre-cut meats that are ready to go and may have decent flavor. Second, buying meats from a local source often means buying a large primal or full carcass. A purveyor that sells cuts that are broken into small subprimals is most likely to not be selling truly local products or they are going to charge a fortune. They also most likely will not have enough of one cut available, especially if it is a small item such as a teres major, tenderloin, lamb loin or middle meat cuts such as striploin or rib eye. The" local only"butcher shops that I know can get top dollar for these cuts in their retail case so why would they want to sell to restaurants at a discount. My friend Kevin at Side Hill Farmers in Syracuse NY would be more than willing to let chefs know what cuts are available that are outside of the normal middle meat cuts.
 The point is if a chef wants to feature local they need to be flexible and inventive in their creations. It showcases much more skill as a chef to create a dish from a beef bottom round or lamb breast than from the middle meat cuts. These types of cuts, although, as local, they may still be more expensive than larger commercial meats, will be reasonable enough to make a good margin.
 So how would a large hotel or banquet hall present local? This may require some really inventive thinking but a chef might consider a grind product as part of the menu or appetizers. A chef might buy a half hog and make a myriad of different sausages that could compliment the meal, or provide a local burger on the lunch menu. A big operation might not be able to do the absolute local product but might consider a regional meat item. A casino in Connecticut could feature pork from a large plant in Pennsylvania rather than from a distant plant. This shows at least the spirit of local and could prove attractive on a menu. The definitions of local can vary from chef to chef.
 Personally, I think beef tenderloin lacks the flavor depth of many other cuts and it takes very little skill to roast it. To put "local" beef tenderloin on any banquet menu reeks of desperation of a chef that is trying to keep up with the "trend" of local without changing from their old mindset and in the end appearing as a food elitist, even if that wasn't the original intention.
Assorted meat dishes at The Cannibal in NYC from local sources
P.S. Local beef tenderloin sold at my friends at the Saugatuck Craft Butchery in Westport Conn. sells for $38. per lb!

Friday, May 23, 2014

Dry Aged Pork??

 Just over two months ago we started an interesting project in class, dry aged pork. My meat class teaching assistant, Dan Erne, and I took the loin of a locally raised hog and left the skin and fatback on the outside, placed it on a rack and left it next to the beef rib we were aging. The temp was about 35 -37F in about 70-80% humidity. Being on the top shelf, in front of the blower fan, allowed for good airflow and we also slathered a little rendered lard on the ends. We let it sit for 30 days and did a tasting for the class, then again at about 60 days. It was simply pan-seared with a little salt and pepper. The idea was to allow my students to really taste it without a sauce distracting. The flavor was certainly richer and full with slight undertones of that same distinct flavor that is dry aged beef. The older one started to get a little strong or musty in flavor. The result, in general, was that pork can be dry aged to improve taste.
 There are some things to consider when dry aging pork, the pork needs to be very fresh when starting. The preferred is from a whole carcass that you are breaking down but if you want to age vacuum packaged pork it needs to be as fresh as possible. The second thing is to have the skin on and any extra exterior fat. Again buying a half hog and breaking down guarantees a skin cover so if you were to age packaged pork the only choices would be either the ham or picnic. The loin is not sold skin-on commercially by any large producers.
 My nephew raises a few, various heritage breed hogs and we slaughter them in the late fall and he has a small walk-in cooler that we hang them in. We cut two of the hogs about a week later and the pork was very very good but a third hog hung for well over three weeks. This pork was outstanding.The flavor was like no other pork I've had.
 Aging pork is probably best at about 3 - 4 weeks and the fattier the pork, the better the result. A thick cut chop is guaranteed to be, by far, the best way to eat a grilled chop.  

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Cold Shortening

This time of year you might think cold shortening is a result of men joining the Polar Bear club but it is really something else. Cold shortening is the result of chilling a carcass too soon after slaughter. Most folks don't realize the amount of things that need to take place right after evisceration to create the maximum amount of tenderness in meat.
 First I'll do my best to explain what cold shortening is without getting too technical. When an animal is slaughtered the system for transporting oxygen to the cells shuts down, obviously. This causes pumps that move adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to shut down and allow calcium ions to
bind up proteins, all at the cellular level. This is part of the process of rigor mortis. If the carcass is chilled too fast, this condition is magnified, resulting in muscle contraction that shortens muscle fibers, making the meat tougher. Think about it, when you get cold you shiver and your muscles tighten up. Its not exactly like that but sort of. Also, there are natural enzymes that kick in after slaughter to break down and loosen muscle fibers but a cold shortened muscle will remain tougher and never achieve the tenderness levels of a properly chilled carcass. Hanging a carcass allows for some muscles to be stretched which minimizes cold shortening for some muscles.
 Preventing cold shortening can present problems for a processor. To prevent it studies show that the fresh pre- rigor carcass ideally should be kept at a balmy cave like temperature of 60F 16C for about 10 - 16 hours.  A large beef plant wants to move thousands of animals through each day can't wait quite that long so many will speed up the process by applying electrical stimulation to the carcass. Zapping the fresh carcass depletes much of the glycogen energy that would allow cold shortening to happen. I saw this at a Cargill plant years ago. It was like "CLEAR" and bam, the whole side of beef twitched. Another trick is to add a calcium chloride solution into the carcass which increases the activity of the endogenous enzymes, the enzymes that break down meat when it is aged.
 The old method of slow chilling was much more haphazard. If a carcass has a lot of exterior fat, a poor yield grade 4 or 5, the carcass will naturally chill slower, resulting in more tender meat. I can remember picking out hindquarters of beef with my dad in the markets on 14th street in NYC and he would always look for the extra fatty ones. They cost us more but the quality level was always much higher so we could charge accordingly. Plus we would buy an old bull carcass for lean beef to mix in the fat trims for our grind. That meat was tough like a shoe but perfect for grinding.
 I recently talked with John Jamison from Jamison Farm in Latrobe PA and he confirmed the 16 hour rule for keeping a carcass warm for the first part after slaughter. The USDA allows him to keep the carcass at this warm temperature for longer than what is considered normal. He says the quality of the carcass is greatly increased. Most of his production is with lamb but he has experimented with lean grass-fed beef also, with great results. It is a delicate balance between tender meat and food born illness. If a processor wants to allow a carcass to chill slowly they need to be diligent in keeping the process as clean as possible.
 Another factor that can effect cold shortening is the condition of the animal when it is alive. A calm animal that has had no food for 24hrs but not starved will be less likely to have the condition than an animal that is aggravated or stressed.
 One other experiment has been done to change the muscle structures pre-rigor. We normally hang a carcass by the gambrel on the back leg. This stretches certain muscles guaranteeing they cannot develop cold shortening. But what if we hang the carcass in different positions? This would allow for the stretching of muscles typically allowed to shorten. This opens the door for small processors to do some custom things. It is very difficult for a large processor to change the way they hang carcasses because everything is geared to the chain speed and equipment used to break down everything.
 A bit of history also. Farmers that slaughtered their own meats often did it in the fall when the temperatures would range from just above freezing to about 60F. An old timer that knew what they were doing would slaughter on a warm morning and hang the carcass for a few days in the barn with the temperature slowly lowering. Perfect condition for tenderizing.
 A friend of mine shot a deer this fall just when the weather turning a little warm. He typically hangs it for about a week before I cut it for him. He was worried about the warm temps and I told him to relax, he did and so did the muscle structure of his deer. It was one of the most tender wild caught meat I've ever worked with.
 So as the temperature once again plummets this week keep in mind not to cold shorten, leave that to the polar bears.