Several years ago, when I was helping Pat Koch, owner of Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari, a family owned amusement park, write her autobiography, she recalled for me growing up in Mariah Hill, a tiny Southern Indiana town where in the fall, the families would come together to harvest the meat of the fattened cows and pigs.
There was the actual killing of the animal and gathering its blood to make sausage and soup and there was a huge cauldron of boiling water for searing off hair and fur before rendering the fat, making sausages, hanging hams to age and carving the meat into favored cuts. Koch recalled the hard work, the slippery, fatty and very heavy carcass and even the burns from scalding water and cuts from knives but even more, the sense of connectiveness to both the community who came together and the food we eat.
As a girl who grew up in a city, I had never known meat beyond what we bought at the store already wrapped in cellophane and I was left with a vague sense of having lost something that was important though I had never known before it existed.
The feeling arises again when I talk to Carlos Rivero, owner of Don Quijote, a Spanish restaurant in Valparaiso. Though he’s far from Pontevedra, the small village in Spain where he was born, Rivero still practices the culinary traditions taught to him by both his grandfather and father.
“My father was a chef and my grandfather was a butcher,” Rivero tells me as he walks me through the steps of butchering the meats served at Don Quijote, his restaurant in Valparaiso. “So I got a little of both.”
There was a time when the tradition of butchering, still practiced in Spain, was the work of a small town; but butchering had almost become a lost art here in the U.S. But that is changing. Call it snout-to-tail and the next step in the farm-to-table food movement, as American chefs revive the practice—once the only way to get your meat. And though it’s still not the norm, according to Datassential, a company which follows food trends and does custom research, 17 percent of restaurants currently have an in-house butchery program.
For Rivero, it’s not just carrying on a way of doing things as they have been for centuries, but also about knowing the meat and the suppliers.
“What happens when you buy meat already cut, you end up with cuts that you may not want and also have a lot of waste,” he says. “When you butcher you own, you know what you want and trim it that way. Like strip steaks and filets, when they cut it there’s no fat or too much fat but when you cut it, you make it like you want. When I say I serve a 9-ounce steak, I mean 9-ounce.”
It’s also about saving a lot of money, says Jack Strode, owner of the recently opened Miller Bakery Café, who orders the meat for the restaurant from the Calumet City-based Meats by Linz. Family-owned since opening over a half century ago, the company has also developed the Linz Heritage Angus Program to enhance the quality of the raw material as well as eliminate a link in the supply chain.
“They’ve got top quality and are very particular about what their cows are fed,” says Strode, noting that butchering in-house is extra work but more than cost effective. “For the last 150 to 180 days the Angus are finished on a corn diet to add flavor.”
Floor manager at Smith & Wollensky in Chicago for five years, Strode says he paid a lot of attention to what the chefs, including the old school Swiss chef, were doing in the kitchen.
“At Smith & Wollensky, they dry age and butcher all their own meat. Butchering our own meat is part of our philosophy, of fresh, top quality, noting frozen, nothing in a can and nothing store bought. We even butcher our fish too.”
“Chefs will get in box beef of certain kinds say beef strip loins, beef tenderloins, pork butts, Canadian pork loins and then cut their portions from that,” says James Galligan, sous chef at the Sand Creek Country Club and president of the American Culinary Federation Chefs of Northwest Indiana. “They may have different sizes and applications for each product.”
At Bistro 157 in historic downtown Valparaiso, owner/chef Nicole Bissonnette says she hasn’t worked with a whole animal in a while, but does butcher cuts of meat to her own specifications.
“By that I mean cleaning and cutting whole beef tenderloins, legs of lambs and the like,” explains Bissonnette, noting that she currently makes charcuterie in-house from pork shoulders and pork bellies that she’s butchered.
An old farm saying talked about using everything from a pig but its squeal and these Northwest Indiana chefs are adapting that old adage, ensuring nothing goes to waste, saving money and making sure that the meat they serve is the best.
The following recipe is courtesy of Carlos Rivero.
Ingredients for 4 people:
2 pounds of diced meat (beef, lamb or pork)
½ cup olive oil
1 cup chopped onions
1 tablespoon crushed garlic
1 tablespoon fresh chopped parsley
1 teaspoon of ground black pepper
1 tablespoon of crushed red pepper seeds
1 tablespoon of Spanish paprika
3 cups diced potatoes
1 cup roasted red peppers
1 cup frozen peas
1 cup of white wine
Salt to taste
In a deep pan, heat the olive oil, cook the meat and onions until brown. Add the garlic, cook a little longer and put in the rest of the ingredients except the wine; Bring to a boil for 5 minutes, cover and simmer for 45 minutes.
Place in a blender about a cup of the cooked veggies (no meat and few carrots if possible, it will change the color of the dish too much ) add the white wine , blend well , return to the pot, bring to a boil stirring for a couple of minutes longer , serve and enjoy.