Any fool can follow a recipe but you need just a little bit more creativity to prepare a satisfying supper. And in these tough economic times where every cent counts, your dollars must be stretched to breaking point or at least just before they bounce. You can do this by preparing stews. Stews are simple to make, do not require expensive cuts of meat, and they can be extended almost indefinitely by adding additional starches and vegetables. Trust me I know; I’ve a pot on the stove that hasn’t been cleaned for two years now.
When you go to the grocery store you need to think outside the box which is not that difficult. You may look like an anorak inspecting labels, poring over the “past-it’s sell-by-date but some sucker will buy it racks”, or even searching for the “manager’s specials”. But hey, gotta eat right? Whaddya mean that beef looks a bit green around the edges; if they can sell it like that you can buy it. Provided you’re not in some shabby deli or bodega you wouldn’t be seen dead in without wearing a full hazmat suit.
And interesting isn’t it that some of those packages look as if they’ve been tossed down the aisle, and squashed back together by someone wearing a baseball mitt. But a dollar is still a dollar; value-buying is king in today’s financially stretched household.
So, we’re in the store, let’s see what’s cheap today. Nothing, just like always, but you have to look carefully and you’ll see some bargains (a relative term in New York, I know). Look for reduced price turkey wings or thighs, especially after Thanksgiving or other Holidays. Also lamb necks, beef bones, beef shin. I recently tried some turkey necks, and they were not bad (good for a stoup, a cross between soup and stew). All of these can be made into excellent and hearty stews. Its comfort food, load up with vegetables, some potatoes, call it Wally and you’ll be as happy as Larry!
There’s been an interesting shift in the pricing of certain meat cuts in the Big Apple over the last decade or so. Chefs have wholeheartedly embraced cheaper cuts of meat such as oxtails, beef cheeks, pork belly, flank and skirt steak and the like, eliciting oohs and aahs from their legions of fans. All very well and good for your gross margins, but they’ve hijacked a good source of inexpensive cuts for Joe Public and the frugal foodie. For example, if we take a trip in the “way back time machine”, off-cuts such as oxtails were practically given away; as cheap as chips as Britain’s cheeky Jamie Oliver would say. Butchers would get rid of them as soon as sell it. But not today.
What we have today is mass-produced, pre-packaged pink meat designed to look good behind appropriate lighting as served up by your local big box stores. And generally it does, but you have no relationship with the men in white coats behind the counter, unlike your local butcher of yore, who probably knew more about you and your family than you’ve forgotten. So what if you don’t see what you want? Well, ask the spotty-faced guy behind the counter, and trust me, all meat departments seem to have one sprinkled in their somewhere. Ask and ye shall receive. TV Chefs always tell us to talk to your butcher, fishmonger or candlestick maker. But it’s a bit hokey to me, it’s all very well for you Mr. Big Hot Chef person buying thousands of dollars of meat per week; you’re in the driving seat there. Fat chance we have of saying let me look at that meat, is it fresh? When did you buy it? What’s the farmer’s name? I don’t think so.
And another thing, do you ever look at supermarket butchers behind supermarket counters? Most look like they shouldn’t be within 100 yards of sharp knives without a license. In fact, they probably need permission to be out in public; dressed in a strait-jacket and on a leash. I’m sure such professions allow certain folk to act out their darkest fantasies on cutting up dead animals rather than….well, you get the picture.
So now oxtail in the store is damn expensive, and no longer a cheap alternative for a stew. Similar less primal cuts such as hanger steak, skirt steak, can no longer be called inexpensive. The really cheap cuts animal parts in the US are liver and kidneys. Americans are generally not good with the organ meats (as they are sometimes called), probably because each has a certain has a revulsion factor not exactly guaranteed to whet the appetite and tickle the taste buds. Liver, for example, has that lovely slip-through your fingers kind of wobbliness and unmanageability. And as for kidneys, their function provides an unacceptable association. Every day, a person’s kidneys process about 200 quarts (50 gallons!) of blood to sift out about 2 quarts (four pints!) of waste products and extra water, which become urine. Perhaps that’s why the Pilgrims left England. Just imagine, sifting through 50 gallons per day, when we only have about a gallon of the stuff. My, it must be racing around the pipes at some speed.
But tosh, soak in milk, slice up, chop some onions, perhaps some tomatoes, a shot of sherry, a little parsley and cream at the end, perhaps some buttered cabbage to go with, and you’ve got yourself some really good eats and a really cheap dish.
London chef Fergus Henderson espouses the joys of porcine Nose-to-Tail Eating in his book of the same name. Using all of the pig apart from the squeal, his book is so delightfully written that it is an absolute joy to read. His phrasing can be a veritable feast for the eyes. If you don’t know what Bath Chaps are (good fellows from England?), have never heard of Jugged Hare (incarcerated rabbit?), or puzzled over Head Cheese (compacted dandruff?) then this is the book for you. He talks of “expressing yourself”…”let all the ingredients get to know each other” and my favorite “stuffing…to have an unctuous but not squidgy quality”. Marvelous stuff.