Montana Master Grillers: Butchering Demo
(Greenough, MT) — Sunday dawns early. It is our final full day of activities at the event, but we've made sure it will be chock full of fun and learning. First up, a butchering demonstration in the Bull Barn. Still groggy from the previous evening's wine dinner, we stumble out of bed later than planned and manage to sneak in some coffee and a bagel before high-tailing it to the demo...
Time got away from us this morning; we arrive a few minutes late for the butchering demo. I hate to be “those people” so we snake our way to the back of the room and slip into our seats. Paws Up Food & Beverage Director Kevin Kapalka has just walked folks through a brief demonstration of what part of the cow yields what cuts of beef, using a cow diagram drawn on a chalkboard. Think of it as a “cow map”.
Kevin talks a bit about the butchering profession, how no cut goes to waste, and how every time the butcher touches the meat, the price on that cut goes up. As he’s hand-trimming a gorgeous whole beef tenderloin, showing us the time and effort that goes into the process, he shares how the difference per pound between a whole tenderloin and a well-trimmed filet can be staggering.
He then describes the process of dry aging beef and explains why dry-aged beef costs more than a fresh cut. As the meat dries it shrinks, which will decrease the butcher’s (or the restaurant’s) profit if the shrinkage isn’t accounted for in the final cost. Also consider the resources spent on the dry aging process. Storing the meat requires space. Keeping it optimally temperature controlled costs electricity. Paying someone skilled to trim it once it’s perfectly aged adds to the bottom line. So while it might seem counter-intuitive to pay more for a 10-ounce dry-aged ribeye than an un-aged 16-ounce porterhouse, it’s really not so outrageous when you consider everything that went into the ribeye. And then there’s the flavor. Anyone who’s had a dry-aged steak can attest to the incredible flavor of the beef.
This portion of the seminar reminds me of the prevalent penny-pinching we see in our hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. We’ve heard many a story from chef friends about patrons who complain about prices. Never mind that the morels were foraged by hand, they’re too spendy. Organic free-range chickens cost for more than fast food nuggets. And yes, the dry-aged steak on the menu costs more than the entire family pack of strip steaks at CostCo. On second thought, maybe I shouldn’t blame this on the frugalness of West Michiganders. It’s probably a combination of the economic recovery and our society’s general disconnection to its food.
I grew up in farm country and as a child I knew exactly where our food came from. Most of the veggies were from our home garden or from those of our neighboring farmers. We grew spring and summer gardens, and had cold frames for winter gardening of fresh greens. I spent summers helping my mother can and freeze fruits and veggies to carry us through the winter. Even in the sticky July heat, I’d already be dreading the trips I’d have to make into the depths of our dark, spider-filled Michigan basement for home canned goods in the winter. (Years later when watching Jodi Foster descend into Buffalo Bill’s basement in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS I felt a spark of kinship.)
In addition to veggies, my friends and I knew all too well where meat came from. One family raised cows and chickens. I recall one dinner at their house where a little prayer and thanks were given for “Velvet,” a pretty little mooer beloved by all, but there she was—sitting on our dinner plates. Every year my stepfather got his deer and a neighbor would come over to help butcher it right in our kitchen. I remember some prized part was always pan-seared in celebration and shared by all after the last cuts were portioned, wrapped, and put into the chest-type freezer in our garage. My mother routinely cooked whatever was brought home after a day of hunting; rabbit, pheasant, and partridge were regular guests at our dinner table. Any extras joined the venison in the freezer to tide us through lean months.
So the sight of Kevin taking a hacksaw to a big hunk of meat doesn’t make me squeamish in the least. He demonstrates how steaks are individually cut and trimmed. The hacksaw is hard work and as he wipes his brow, Kevin admits that most shops use automated methods now, electric saws, etc. He cuts up a few Porterhouse steaks, then some T-bones, and finally some strip steaks. He shows us how all scraps are tossed into the bin to be ground into burger. Despite eating more than my fair share of meat thus far this weekend, I’m thinking a burger from those scraps would be tasty right about now.
But who needs a burger when you can have steak tartare? Kevin has enlisted a volunteer from the audience (Jeremy was being a bit of a stage mother and trying to get me to volunteer, though my shyness won out) to make the tartare. Kevin guides the volunteer to finely chop the tenderloin and then mix it with a combination of spices, egg yolk, capers, and some Worcestershire. To a lot of timid eaters this might sound gross, but the aroma of the fresh beef and spices is mouthwatering. A round of applause is given for our most able volunteer and Kevin. Then we are invited to try the tartare. Normally the thought of raw beef at 11am might not sit right with me but I gamely go in for a big scoop of the tartare on a toasted crostini. It’s savory and briney from the spices and capers. The raw shallots give it a kick. I go back for seconds and refrain from thirds knowing lunch is merely an hour away.
Tartare is credited to the French, but many cultures have their own versions of it. The Danes serve it on rye toast, the Poles mix in pickled onions, and Belgians serve it with fries. If you haven’t tried it, you should give it a go, at least once at home. After all, if steak tartare isn’t to your liking, you can always patty it up and make the world’s fanciest burgers.