Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Kitchen basics: proteins part 1, one man's meat

If there is one thing that makes your grocery budget puff up, its your protein count. Meat and dairy are somewhat high-price items on which we devote a large chunk of our budget. You can certainly do without, but its not a budget issue, its one of lifestyle choices, and yes, in some cases actual dietary necessity.

So under the heading of proteins, I will deal with the sorts of meat, meat replacements and dairy products that should be in your stocks, so that not only you are fed, but you have enough variety to stave off boredom, all the while keeping with the budget.

So first off, animal flesh.

Keep in mind that the more work a butcher has put into the carcass, the higher the price tag, influenced with the market's offer-and-demand philter. If you want to maximize your budget, accept that having to deal with bones might well be on the table; you'll also have to deal with fattier cuts, because trimming costs more money. Now bones and fat are not waste, far from it. Bones enhance the flavor of stock and sauce, and fat is concentrated nutrition and makes meat more tender. Get yourself some knife skills and you can do the trimming job yourself, re-purposing the trimmings for your own benefit. Tougher cuts also become a factor, but that means learning slow-cooking methods and far more flavorful cuts. Seriously, tenderloin is boring as all hell.

So, by beast, the cuts:

Here's looking at you, kid.
buy it whole, and look at the type; a frying chicken is not the same as roasting and mature is yet a different bird. A good roasting chicken is always handy, prepared whole, or taken apart at home with a modicum of knife skills. Its a rare thing that individual cuts will be worthwhile, but a family or economy pack of thighs or drumstick can be very handy when you want to prepare a specific dish. A mature chicken (or hen) or two in the freezer are always useful, and very cheap; a bird will cost you a couple of dollars, make flavorful stock and tend to have a larger meat-to-bone ratio than roasting birds, but they require long slow simmering coking time.

Can you find Waldo?
I buy little beef myself, I find it generally uninspiring. You'll want to stay away from steaks, and they are in high demand, and the price goes accordingly. Blade roasts (on the bone) are cheap and flavorful, and can be cut in pieces if you want stewing beef. I buy oxtail, because I can source it pretty cheap, but you sort of have to know what to do with it, so its not for everybody. Another good source of cheap, flavorful beef is shank, usually cut into slices, again requiring slow-cooking methods. Its a meatier, heartier osso bucco.

-Lamb and goat:
They forgot to tell you how delicious Lamb Chop was.
When I go for red meat, this is what I usually head for. Lamb shank is a favorite piece of mine, and the shoulder makes beautiful stew meat. If you are going for individual cuts, look for grilling pieces instead of the chops; they may not be as neat and sexy, but you'll more than make up for it in the flavor and tenderness. The last piece I'd recommend is the neck, commonly used for stews and many variations of middle-eastern dishes. The same cuts apply equally to goat, which is leaner, and little more flavorful, but harder to find. Try to get the local stuff instead of the New-Zealand imports; they may be somewhat more expensive, but they more than make up for it by having a more tender and meatier output.

You know, the other white meat.
If you do not have dietary requirements preventing it, pork is your best friend. Its an incredibly versatile beast that takes well for spices, fast and slow cooking and multiple methods of preservation. My go-to cuts are the shoulder and the belly, from which craftsmen derive sausage and bacon. If you get those parts fresh, you have delicious meat oozing with unctuous fats that will leave you satisfied. You can also grab shanks, in slices for stews and confits, or whole, fresh or smoked for pea soup. There's very little of the pork that goes to waste; even the intestines are reused as casings for sausages.

-Cured meats:
They see them hanging, they be hating.
I would recommend that you make sausages a part of your diet. Any sort of flesh can be made into sausage, from ostrich to salmon and of course pork. The only meat that is actually rare to find in sausage form is beef. And when I say sausage, I don't mean hotdog weiners, I mean sausages. If you have access to them, head to your local ethnic deli and butcher shop. Their products are more likely made on site and of far better quality than the factory-made grocery store stuff. Most of them are made out of pork, but if you like some spice into your life and shun the piggie, merguez are your friend, available in lamb and chicken at any hallal butcher shop.

Having some dried cured sausages around is always a good idea, since that they are versatile and have a longer shelf life than fresh sausages. Of my favorites I would got for Spanish chorizo and Romanian kabanos. They can be eaten as-is, or cubed and added to bean dishes for flavor and meat content. Buying bacon in chunks rather than slices is also a good idea, as it leaves you with a greater range of use than the traditional sliced kinds. If there is a deli shop in your area, look or ask for the butt-ends of cured hams, like prosciutto. They may well have those pieces on sale as a chunk, as they become too difficult to put on the slicer and they want to maximize their revenue. Treat like bacon slabs as for their use in cooking.

I would certainly suggest that you mix and match, vary your stocks and keep it flexible, but my rough list of things that should be in supply are a boiling chicken, some lamb or pork shoulder, a pair of chorizo, a slab of smoked bacon and a selection of good sausages. Once that you know how to handle them, its pretty amazing the variety of dishes you can come up with that variety, and I haven't even dealt with dairy and other options yet...

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