Monday, August 19, 2013


Not counting vegetarians, I haven’t met many people who don’t love a good steak. Because of this love affair, many steak-sized not too tender meats in the supermarket meat section are labeled “steaks,” such as beef chuck steak, chuck tender steak, round steak and chuck eye steak. Even some pork chops are deliberately mislabeled as “steak.”

I love a good steak like any meat lover yet I gave up on cooking it. Why? I cannot match the flavor and tenderness of the meat served in a good steak-house. My steaks are not fork-tender and just mediocre in flavor.

For a good steak the grade of the meat is of prime importance. The USDA started grading beef in 1927 and ever since every piece of beef is graded according to their system.

The highest grade steak, Prime, is well marbled throughout. The next grade is Choice with less marbling and that’s the highest grade you find in most supermarkets. Select grade has even less marbling and the lowest, Standard is a meat red all the way through without the marbling fat. Only the edges contain fat, not enough to lubricate the meat. A tough piece of meat. Note that some supermarkets use their own grading system though Prime and Choice are standard for all.

So for a good home-grilled steak, go for Prime. But you won’t find this grade in just any meat counter. Prime grade is expensive and often reserved by high-end butchers, exclusive clubs and restaurants for customers and clients who have generous expense accounts or far-reaching credit cards.

Yet we all had affordable steaks in steak-houses. How do they do it? By meticulous tenderizing lower-grade Choice meat. They do this by either chemical tenderizers (and these are all blends of natural products such as papaya, fig and pineapple) or by passing the meat through mechanical tenderizers which are like medieval torture instruments with many sharp needles that break up the tough meat fibers.

But grade is not the only thing you need to consider. A good steak needs to be aged too. Raw, unaged beef has a metallic taste and is rather tough, chewy; aging improves both flavor and tenderness. It chemically alters flavor and softens tough connective tissues. During the aging process the meat shrinks and loses some 12 to 15 percent moisture. The process adds to the price as the meat must rest in a temperature-humidity controlled room for about 15 days, for real high quality meat up to six weeks. Plus you pay for the shrinkage too.

Most shoppers are very conscious of the price of the meat package, and meat processors need to consider how much extra they can charge for the aging before they lose buyers.

When I want a good steak, I choose a steak house.

Saturday, July 27, 2013


Dedicated barbeque cooks mostly believe in hot charcoal, not gas-heated grills. They claim the flavor of the grilled food is better. Unless you have both and taste test grilled foods prepared on both, it’s impossible to know for certain.

I grill my foods on charcoal and have done it so
for many decades. Yet if you like grilling and your cooking time is limited, there is nothing like turning on the propane heat which heats up in minutes. My charcoal, backed by many years of experience, heats up to very hot in about twenty minutes. I never use charcoal lighting fluid or instant charcoal that had been soaked in some chemical for quick fire. Nor the traditional chimney starter. And I don’t use the true charcoal made from wood that I found unpredictable. Plain, inexpensive briquettes work fine for me.

Since I live in a forested area, I use two pine cones or dry twigs to start the fire, both readily available. After removing the grill rack that holds the charcoal (I use two double-hooked wire made from two coat hangers), I light the cone or twig fire and when burning fiercely, I reposition the grill rack using my wire hooks, piling the briquettes over the fire. Having alively fire under them, they catch quickly and in no time they glow red.

Grilling outdoors is fun and eating the grilled food comes as a second enjoyment. Plus cleanup work is minimal (I never bother cleaning my grill unless charred food accumulation gets too thick—with the intense heat it remains perfectly safe).

Whether I grill meat, poultry or fish, I often add a few other foods to grill: thick rounds of eggplants, thick slabs of summer squash, thick slices of partially cooked unpeeled potatoes to name a few, all generously oiled to promote browning and prevent sticking. On a hot fire sausage, one-serving pieces of marinated meat or boneless poultry takes no more than three or four minutes per side. Fish less, two to two-and-half minutes. Vegetables take about the same, three to five minutes each side.

I haven’t found that using two-stage fire (one side hotter than the other) has any benefit—it’s just another unnecessary step.

In the winter I continue grilling, though less frequently, in my wood stove, setting a small home-made wire stand inside and above the glowing hardwood ashes.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


If you are a hunter, read the first half only; if a cook, read the second half. Only those hunters who cook their game need to read from top to bottom.

Few people enjoy game meat, complaining that the flavor is too gamey and the meat is too tough. Blame both the hunter and the cook. Game meat can be as free of gamey flavor as good ranch-raised beef and nearly as tender. Let’s start with the hunter.

The Hunter’s Job

A frightened animal releases adrenaline that tightens its muscles; tight muscles mean tougher meat. Good hunters have stealth, patience, and skill to take their game unaware and not frightened. After a successful shot, drain the blood right away, remove testicles and scrotum from males before they can release hormones that taint the flavor of the meat. Gut the carcass quickly and don’t delay transporting meat any longer than necessary.

Hunters who want to save money and process their own game meat are fools. Meat processing is an art and science that butchers spend years learning. The cost of the butcher’s work pays for itself in the long run.

All meat benefit from aging and game is no exception — aging improves flavor, relaxes muscles and tenderizes fibers. Unaged wild meat is still good, but aged meat turns more tender and more flavorful after about five days under controlled temperature and humidity. Very few have the proper place to age meat, again, leave it to the butcher.

Aging means moisture loss, so expect 10 to 12 percent less meat after proper aging, yet the flavor will be more concentrated.

Packaging the meat for long-term storage is as important as processing and aging. Poorly-packaged meat turns rancid when exposed to oxygen in the air that finds its way into the package. It also develops “freezer burns.” The cause of freezer burn is simply dehydration, loss of moisture and oxidation. In a properly wrapped package freezer burn doesn’t exist.

How you freeze meat and how fast you freeze it are both critical to retaining high quality and full moisture content, and only quick freezing in the butcher’s very cold deep freezer with fans running can achieve that. Leave both packaging and freezing to your butcher.

The Cook’s Job

When you want a frozen game meat ready for a meal, plan ahead. Defrost it slowly in the refrigerator for the least moisture loss, never on your counter (bad), under running water (worse) or in a microwave (worst). Thick steaks defrost in a day or two, roasts in three to four days, a little longer if the inside of your refrigerator looks like a commuter bus in rush-hour.

Wild game is not like corn-fed beef. Most wild game develop little fat reserves (except bear in the fall). Expect lean meat — in fact, so lean that it can be much too dry if you don’t cook it right. If the hunter bagged on old animal, it is likely to be tough, too.

First, let’s get rid of the strong gamey flavor that comes mainly from the fat covering, whatever little there is. Trim off all visible fat as much as possible and you get rid of most of that objectionable flavor. But you end up with even leaner meat.

Any cooking method that uses oil adds lubricant to the meat and makes it more tender. Long, slow cooking at bare simmer is the best, such as stewing, braising or pot roasting. If you chose dry-heat cooking, such as broiling or grilling on coal, use either tenderizer or an acidic marinade for at least four hours before cooking. A splash of dry red wine is very nice with wild meat, either in the marinade or in the liquids of slow-cooking methods.

If you are roasting a large piece of wild meat, trim off all fat and stick fatty bacon or salt pork on top to keep the meat moist, then baste it often — every 20 to 30 minutes — while roasting.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013


As soon as the first fresh-picked pickling cucumbers appeared at the farmers’ market, my mother was ready with her jar, dill weed, garlic and pickling salt. Naturally fermented summer pickles are hard to beat for flavor. They are ready to start fermentation after only ten minutes of preparation and are ready to eat in five days. As kids, we could hardly wait until my mother pronounced them finished and edible.

Now I follow my mother’s tradition, and during the summer season it’s rare for us not to have either a jarful in the fridge or one on the counter where natural bacteria and yeast are working diligently to ferment the cucumbers. It’s hard to believe that with such little work you can produce such good pickles in your own kitchen.

Purchase pickling cucumbers as small and as fresh as you can. If only larger ones are available, splitting them lengthwise not quite to the other end also works. You don’t have to use pickling salt, but it works better as chemicals added to table salt tend to cloud the liquid. Fresh dill weed is not always easy to find, but if all else fails, I use dried dill weed and dill seed.

The concentration of salt is critical. Two bacilli (Lactobacillus and Leuconostoc) produce lactic acid (same as in yogurt), which ferments and softens the cucumbers, and yeast from the air produce the flavor. Both bacteria and yeast tolerate a certain salt level that also inhibits the growth of other undesirable creatures. It is necessary to measure the water and salt carefully so nothing can go wrong.

The ideal fermentation temperature is 68 degrees. Pickling will still occur within a range of five degrees cooler or warmer. Below 50 degrees fermentation is slow, above 80 degrees cucumbers ferment too fast and are likely to turn soft and mushy.

Naturally Fermented Summer Pickles

2 lb (about 2 quarts) firm, fresh, unblemished pickling cucumbers, preferably not much larger than your thumb
3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
3 sprigs fresh dill OR 3 fresh heads of dill weed
2 to 4 hot chilies, fresh or dried, slit on one side
2 Tbsp pickling (canning) salt
4 cups water
1 Tbsp dill seeds
1 Tbsp pickling spice

  1. Wash cucumbers thoroughly. If large, slice each to within ½ inch of other end along its length.
  2. Place garlic, dill, and chilies into a two-quart glass jar or crockery pot. Slip cucumbers into the jar so they stand up side by side (like people in an elevator in rush hour). Add dill seeds and pickling spice.
  3. Heat water until lukewarm, add pickling salt and stir until dissolved. Pour over cucumbers until they are totally submerged.
  4. Cover with a cheesecloth, note the date started on a label and let ferment at room temperature.
 Scrape off any scum that forms on top of the liquid. The cucumbers turn translucent and mildly tart with a pleasing fermented scent in three to five days. Start checking pickles after three days—continue testing flavor and texture daily. As soon as they are sour enough to suit your taste but still crisp, cover the jar with a lid and refrigerate.

Pickles stay firm in the refrigerator for three to four weeks but over the seeks they tend to get more sour.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Corn-on-the-Cob: BBQ grill or boil?

Should I throw my corn on the hot grill (since it’s already hot anyway) or boil in salted water? In my mind no question remains: boil. We have superb table corn in our area and during corn season we OD on corn, have them three or four times a week. I am an expert on corn cooking.

Reasonable young corn cooks in salted boiling water for exactly four minutes, same as soft-boiled eggs. You never should overcook corn, it toughens it. Microwave is also a death to it.

One day we were attending a backyard barbecue party. The host cut absolutely fresh, young corn from his luscious garden in the back and gave them to his non-cook wife. I was horrified to see her cooking them in the microwave. Sure enough, they turned tough as beef jerky and virtually inedible.

When grilling corn you lose cooking control. How much time on the grill provides tender, succulent corn? It’s impossible to say as heat of the grill varies. I had many overcooked corn off the grill from friends party but do not remember perfectly cooked ears.

In boiling water nothing can go wrong: drop them in briskly boiling water, set the timer for four (but no more than five) minutes and lift them out with a pair of tongs when the timer buzzes. You’ll have perfect corn every time. All it needs is salt and for many, butter.

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