Monday, October 20, 2008

Meats and the Girl Who Loves Them

Keja and I are joining a meat CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) from Stillman's at the Turkey Farm. Stillman's is out in western Massachusetts and once a month they will deliver frozen beef, pork, lamb, and chicken to a central pick-up spot in the city.

I am both excited and apprehensive about getting regular deliveries of meat I wouldn't necessarily buy myself. I am fairly picky about meat: I am the biggest of carnivores if I'm eating a rare steak or equally rare roast beef, or grilled pork chops or my all-purpose baking method (see below for details). But I never make pot roast and rarely make stew. I love these things, when others make them, but my go to is a nice cut of meat grilled or baked or pan-fried. So, this CSA is going to stretch my imagination, in a good way.

I really enjoy the preparation of food. I am fortunate to stay home with my children, which affords me the time to grocery shop and cook at my leisure, or at least as long as the patience of a 3-year old and a 1-year old hold out. Quick prep meals are fun, too, and certainly have their place in my weekly menu, but for me, there's nothing better than the luxury of a few hours to cut and stir and simmer. Especially in the winter.

My favorite way to prepare meat is versatile, both in the meat variety, and the accompanying spices and veggies. It works with fish (fillet or steak), beef (steaks of all kinds), chicken (thighs, legs, breast), pork (chops, loin roast), lamb (chops, shoulder, leg, rack) - you name it. This method is good for a confident cook, not because it's hard, because it's not at all, but because temps and times and ingredients are open to opinion and how I do it may not be the way you find works best. So, I will give an outline and it's your job, gentle reader, to fill in the blanks. Note, this is a good recipe to try when you don't have a set time you are trying to eat, at least the first time.

To start, you need a good quality frying pan that can go into the oven. Cast iron works well but my favorite is my All Clad stainless steel 10-inch fry pan.

To begin, preheat the oven to 375 degrees or so. In the frying pan mentioned above, add olive oil and start it heating at a medium-low temp on the stovetop. Add minced garlic (a plug here for my favorite garlic press. It's really expensive but worth it. Pro cooks will tell you garlic presses are lame, and maybe they're right, but I don't listen. I love mincing garlic, I really do, but when babies are crying and I'm trying to make the most of my cooking time, I use the Rosle garlic press. You can even press unpeeled cloves.).

You can also add shallots or onions or mushrooms, or all of the above or something else entirely - experiment! Add salt and pepper. A note on salt: I was fortunate enough to go with my husband's family to Alaska seven years ago. While there, we stayed at a place run by a professionally-trained cook who gave us a taste test of salt. "Isn't it all the same?" we naively asked. It's really not. We tasted all sorts of specialty salts and then at the end she gave us Morton's table salt to try and it tasted like metal. It was awful. I will never go back. Any decent quality sea salt is great. I really like larger grains because you get tiny little salt blasts.

Sautée for a few minutes until everything is starting to smell really good and then push garlic/shallots etc. to the side of the pan. Turn heat up just slightly, and add whatever meat you are cooking. Give garlic mix a stir once in a while. Sear meat on the first side for a few minutes, then flip. Immediately cover meat with garlic, etc., and put the whole thing in the oven.

Let it bake until done. Time will vary greatly depending on meat used and thickness. Fish will be minutes. Chicken thighs maybe a half hour. Beef steak, 20 minutes, etc. The point is, check once in a while and cook until done. Never has any cut of meat taken more than an hour total cooking time.

My two very favorite variations are:

- rack of lamb with a rub of minced garlic, salt, pepper, olive oil and chopped fresh mint (mash all together in a bowl and spread onto lamb. Put lamb into pan with just a little olive oil and sear on fatty side first. Flip, cook a minute or so on bony side and transfer to oven.) The rub will form the most delicious crust when cooked.

- pork loin roast with garlic, shallots, salt, pepper, and thickly sliced shiitake mushrooms (cook as described in general directions above).

My advice is to try this method and make note of temps and times and additional ingredients and alter as necessary for next time. In my experience, most things have a wide variety of times and temps and can handle lower temp/longer time and higher temp/shorter time, depending on what else you are cooking. I've started at 375 and realized it was going to take way too long, cranked the heat up to 425 and been fine. And I've done the reverse, too. And, if you come up with some great new creation, let us know! Most importantly, enjoy the process; cooking is a learning experience, with a great payoff.