Let the whole animal butchers who are flourishing in Maine introduce you to something new

Let the whole animal butchers who are flourishing in Maine introduce you to something new

Have you chatted with your independent, whole-animal butcher lately about which cuts of locally, sustainably and humanely raised meat in their cases might best fit your budget? If not, give it a go. The conversation will be easier, and more interesting, than you might expect.

It will be easier because the number of butchers breaking down whole animals in Maine is growing.

In 2010, farmer-turned-butcher Ben Slayton opened Farmers’ Gate Market in Wales. At the time, there were few butchers in Maine bucking the industry’s standard practice of opening boxes of conventionally raised primal cuts (chuck, rounds and rumps of beef from the Midwest, pork bellies, loins and shoulders from the South, or racks and legs of lamb from Australia) and slicing them into the short, standardized list of steaks, chops and roasts that American cooks since the 1950s had become accustomed to buying cheaply in grocery stores.

“The art is not just in the breakdown of the carcass. It is also in the merchandising and retailing of ALL of the cuts,” Slayton said. In a whole-animal scenario, a butcher doesn’t have the luxury of ordering an extra 10 boxes of ribeye to meet the 4th of July demand. “If we want more ribeye, we must also accept more top round, more shank, more of everything. This creates a challenge, but that’s part of the fun – finding ways to move the whole animal (all of its parts) at roughly the same pace.”

In 2012, nose-to-tail butcher shop Maine Street Meats (now called Bleecker & Greer) opened on Commercial Street in Rockland. In 2013 Jarrod Spangler and Shannon Hill started Maine Meat Co. in Kittery Foreside. In 2017, Riverside Butcher Shop opened on Main Street in Damariscotta. In February, Steven Campbell became the meat-cutting partner of The Butcher & Bakers in Brunswick. Just before Memorial Day, Kennebec Meat Co. opened in Bath in the Water Street space previously occupied by Beale Street Barbeque restaurant. And just last month, Slayton sold Farmers’ Gate to a group of Maine livestock farmers who are building a processing facility and custom butcher shop in Leeds.

Conversations with these whole animal butchers are more interesting than buying packaged meat in a grocery store because working with whole animals gives them the latitude and expertise to supply you with unique cuts of meat that hit many purposes and price points.

Two raw steaks from the Kennebec Meat Company in Bath, a so-called tomahawk steak, or bone-in ribeye steak, top, and a poodle steak. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

I went to Kennebec Meat Co. recently to chat with head butcher Patrick Tweedie about 2-inch-thick, highly marbled beef ribeye steaks still attached to a very long (up to 18-inches) rib bone. I’d been seeing this cut popping up in chefs’ social media feeds and on restaurant menus all summer and wanted to understand the hype. These gigantic 40-ounce cuts resemble something Wilma Flintstone would serve Fred in cartoonish prehistoric times, but in reality each can feed upwards of six people once the bone is removed and the meat is sliced thinly on the bias.

[An aside: They are sometimes branded as “tomahawk” steaks because the bone is stripped clean of all meat, fat and sinew to resemble the traditional Native American tool. I reached out to Darren Ranco, a Penobscot Nation member and a University of Maine anthropology professor, to ask about that name. I know that many Native Americans consider the “tomahawk chop” demeaning. No, that’s not a cut of meat, rather a gesture/cheer made by some sports fans. While Ranco hasn’t heard complaints about the steak’s name, given the current political climate, he could “see some folks embracing the brand as a way to signify that they do not care that certain speech practices are harmful to others and believe that their freedom of expression is specifically tied to practices that some find offensive and/or harm others,” he wrote me in an email. So I won’t be using that name.]

Tweedie says while grocery stores can offer bone-in ribeye, it takes a whole animal butcher to create one with such a long handle. In conventional slaughterhouses, the bones are cut off flush to the top of the steak, and the several inches of the ribs, as well as the meat, fat and sinew, are cut to be sold as bone-in short ribs. Tweedie also sells a “poodle cut,” which has just of bit of the meat attached to the top of the bone and is thought to resemble a poodle’s hind leg. Both cuts sell for around $18/lb. To prepare them, he suggests applying a spicy coffee rub and grilling them with a combination of direct and indirect heat.

These cuts are show-stopping, crowd-pleasers, for sure. But Tweedie says the practicality of whole animal butchers lies in their ability to produce “weeknight” cuts that are typically underused but still approachable and less expensive than the showstoppers. I asked Tweedy and his fellow whole animal butchers in Maine about their favorite “weeknight” cuts and how to cook them at home.

Tweedie immediately brought up the oyster and the underblade. The former, also called the spider steak, is a half-pound, semi-circle piece of meat woven with a web of intramuscular fat that sits inside the cow’s hip. This small, flavorful cut costs about $19/pound and is easy to prepare with a quick pan sear. The latter, taken from under the shoulder blade of the cow, is also called the “faux flatiron” and sells for about $15/pound. The underblade is great seared in a cast iron skillet with a bit of fat or cut thinly against the grain and used in a stir-fry, Tweedie said.

Farmers’ Gate new butcher Matt Lewis is also a fan of the spider steak, which he sells at $14/pound. He likes the boomerang steak, too, also named after what it resembles, which he describes as a small, delicate chunk of meat hidden underneath the shortribs, between the chuck and the rib bones. “At $15/pound you will not be disappointed (with it if you apply) salt, pepper and garlic rub and throw it on the grill,”  Lewis said. As for pork, he prides himself on being able to deliver whatever cut a customer wants.

“We had one couple come in who had been driving all over the state looking for pork presa, which is the cap on the pork shoulder butt. Since the first one went out the door to them, it has become one of our best pork sellers,” Lewis said. Very tender and well-marbled, the oval-shaped presa can be prepared quickly and simply by roasting. Slice it to serve.

Butcher & Baker’s Campbell points to the spoon bone sirloin as the cut that best illustrates the difference between whole animal butchery and boxed meat. In big meat-packing houses, top sirloin, tenderloin and tri-tips are separated from the hip bone of sides of beef and packed, like with like, in boxes being shipped to grocery stores. The spoon bone steak is a crosscut that has a bit of all three of those tender cuts. When Campbell sells them ($14/pound), he draws a picture on the butcher paper wrapped around them to show which part is which. “That helps extend the conversation about where the meat came from and how it landed on their plates,” Campbell said.

Spangler singles out Denver beef steaks; pork blade steaks crosscut from the butt; and lamb sirloins, which are as tender as butterflied legs of lamb but perfectly sized to serve one or two, as some of the best everyday cuts of local meat. The Denver steak is taken from the shoulder area of the cow, specifically a section underneath the shoulder blade bone. Because this muscle doesn’t get used much by the animal, the cut is tender. Denver steaks run about $18/pound. Cook them for two minutes a side in a skillet and finish them in the oven before topping them with compound butter.

“You have to make your customers comfortable with these different cuts,” Spangler said. While they may come into the shop looking for a particular cut, “if you find out what their plan is – do they want to grill something quickly or braise something slowly? – you can steer them toward all kinds of cuts that will work for their plan.”

The benefits of buying meat from a local butcher are many. You’re reining in the carbon footprint of the meat in your diet. You’re supporting local livestock farmers who practice regenerative farming techniques. You’re circulating dollars within the local food economy. You’re supporting a small business in your community. You’re giving butchers a chance to hone their craft for an economically viable career. And lastly, you’re setting yourself up to learn to love some very interesting cuts that have been cut out of the conventional meat industry.

Sliced bone-in ribeye steak with marinated cherry tomato salad and local lettuce. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Coffee-Rubbed Bone-In Ribeye Steak

A gas grill works fine here. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

This recipe is an adaptation of one Kennebec Meat Co. head butcher Patrick Tweedy dictated to me as his favorite way to cook this showstopper of a steak. He cooks his over charcoal or a wood fire, but I can attest that this recipe is also well-suited for a gas grill.

Serves 4-6

1 (2 ½ -pound) bone-in ribeye steak, at room temperature
Olive oil
2 tablespoons finely ground coffee
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 tablespoon Gryffon Ridge Spice Merchants Senor Pistole’s Mild Chili Seasoning
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
2 teaspoon toasted ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Rub both sides of the steak with oil. Combine the remaining ingredients in a small bowl. Rub the mixture all over both sides of the steak and let it sit while you heat the grill to very high heat. If you’re using a charcoal grill, set the charcoal on one side of the grill before lighting it to create zones of direct and indirect heat. If you’re using a gas grill, fire up both side of the grill.

Place the steak on the grill directly over the heat and cook for 2 minutes. Flip the steak and cook for 2 more minutes over direct heat. Position the steak over indirect heat to finish cooking it. For a gas grill, that means shutting off the flame directly under the steak. For the charcoal grill, that means moving the steak to the side without the charcoal. Place the cover over either type of grill. Cook until the internal temperature of the meat is 115 degrees F, 10-12 minutes.

Transfer the steak to a cutting board to rest for 10 minutes. The residual heat will finish cooking the center of the meat to medium rare. Cut the steak from the bone and slice it thinly on the bias. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Local foods advocate Christine Burns Rudalevige is the editor of Edible Maine magazine and the author of “Green Plate Special,” both a column about eating sustainably in the Portland Press Herald and the name of her 2017 cookbook. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

Sprinkle the steaks with a coffee-and-chili rub. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

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Let the whole animal butchers who are flourishing in Maine introduce you to something new

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