Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Cooking and baking -- meat

Some Facts about Meat:

1) Meat may be one of the pricier items in your food budget. However, it does provide many nutritional benefits and is also filling, so it can be a very good buy from that point of view. Also, cooking a piece of meat generally provides leftovers you can use to stretch your food budget. For example, you can cook a ham on Sunday, have some ham sandwiches on Monday, and have ham in a casserole on Wednesday. You can also cook a piece of meat and freeze some of it for later. Obviously, watching for sales on meat is another way to incorporate meat into a frugal budget.
2) In past days and during certain times when fresh meat was not plentiful, cooks in many cultures devised ways of using little bits of meat with other foods in order to stretch the meat. For example, many Chinese dishes have bits of meat, along with lots of rice and other vegetables. Americans and Europeans developed many casseroles. Cooks in the Southern U.S. used bits of meat to season greens or beans. Italian pastas use bits of meat in the sauce. Some dietitians of today think that using meat almost as a condiment rather than as the main dish is a more healthful way to eat meat-- especially since many in today's world do not perform the physical labor during a day than our ancestors did. Whether it really is more healthful or not to eat meat as a seasoning in a dish of starch and vegetables, experimenting with such foods from all around the world is a fun and budget conscious way to incorporate meat and poultry into your diet. You can either buy smaller amounts of meat in order to make these dishes, thus saving on your meat budget. Or, you can serve meat as a main dish and use such recipes to make the leftovers appealing to your family. Either way, these are great budget stretchers and can possibly be a healthful way to eat, as well.
3) Meat is an easily digested food. It is also one of the best ways to obtain complete proteins, vitamin B-12, vitamin B-6, many other other vitamins, iron, zinc, certain mineral salts, and essential acids in our diet. In fact, if you do prefer to eat a vegetarian diet, you will need to take certain measures to make sure that you obtain nutrients you might be missing by not eating meat. It certainly can be done, and many vegetarians experience excellent health. However, it does require some study in order to achieve optimum nutrition through a vegetarian diet. So, if you are embarking on a vegetarian way of life, its wise to do your homework. An interesting fact that I came across in doing some nutritional research is that eating a vegetarian diet seems to extend the lifespan for some men but, surprisingly, may potentially decrease the lifespan of some women. Thus, it's extra important as a woman to educate yourself about the proper way to cook and eat for a completely vegetarian lifestyle.
4) Regarding beef: The USDA grades beef this way: prime, choice, select and standard cuts, which come from younger beef. Prime is generally sold to restaurants. It comes from the inner, more protected portions. It is of very high taste and quality. Choice is also of tender quality and delicious taste. In the past, choice was the preference of many shoppers. However, because we are now favoring leaner cuts of meat for health reasons, standard cuts -- which are leaner -- are becoming more popular. There are three lower grades, which are seldom sold in the grocery store. These are utility, cutter, and canner. These are used to make ground hamburger or hot dogs and some other manufactured beef items.
Lamb and pork are graded in a similar way to beef. They are generally taken from younger animals and there is less variation in tenderness with these meats than there is with beef.
Whatever the grade, stores offer a wider variety of leaner meats today because of consumer demand. Even many pigs are now bred to be leaner than in days past.
5) In general, the more prime and choice cuts of meat come from the inner, more protected portions of the food animal. These are naturally tender cuts of meat. They are usually cooked by dry heat to preserve their flavor. Other cuts of meat come from the more exposed, more muscular, and more fibrous portions. Though these other cuts of meat may be tougher, they are generally less expensive and more budget friendly. As mentioned above, they are more valued today than they were even a few decades ago, because they are often leaner than the prime and choice cuts. They can be rendered tasty and tender by proper cooking. Stewing, braising, cooking as a pot roast, or other methods of slow cooking with moisture are great ways to turn these tougher, leaner cuts into tender delights.
6) If you have a large family and a freezer, investigate buying a side of meat and having it butchered into smaller cuts. You can store these smaller cuts in the freezer for future use. Check out 4-H and other livestock auctions. Of course, if you live on a farm, you can always grow your own.
7) Look for meat that is firm, has a good color, and smells appropriately for the type of meat. Avoid meat that has an off odor. The more you cook, the more you'll recognize what is healthy and what is not. It's good to be aware that we cannot rely on meat color alone to gauge whether meat is safe or not. We consumers often misinterpret meat color, and meat suppliers are aware of that fact. They lose quite a bit of money when consumers turn away from meat that is perfectly safe because it does not have the color we expect. Meat is a dark, purplish red when first cut. Some parts are redder than others due to natural factors. Meat naturally turns browner when exposed to oxygen. That does not necessarily mean that it has spoiled. It can, in fact, still be quite fresh, healthful, and nutritious. However, many of us mistakenly believe that brown color in meat automatically means it is less than fresh, and we instinctively reach for redder-looking meats. Thus, suppliers use various means to keep meat looking artificially red. One method that has developed in the past few years is to wrap meat and fish in packaging material that holds in carbon dioxide. This reduces the exposure of meat to oxygen and keeps it looking redder longer. This is particularly used in the U.S.; if I understand the matter correctly, the E.U. has banned such packaging. Also, suppliers know that the nitrates used in curing some processed meats has a side effect of making them look redder.
Unfortunately, meats kept in packages that bathe them in carbon-dioxide may look fresh for too long. The meat may still look nice and rosy, yet be in the process of spoiling. So, be sure to check for other signs of freshness or lack of freshness. Also, be aware of when the meat was packaged and compare it to food safety charts showing how long that particular kind of meat will stay fresh. Here is a food safety sheet about meat color which explains this in a little more detail.
Note that meat is not the only item in which suppliers study how to enhance the color. Many food items, from fruits to vegetables to margarine to meats, are artificially colored or packaged in a way make them more appealing to modern tastes. If you have ever eaten home-grown, old-fashioned varieties of vegetables, for example, you know that some very wonderful foods do not conform to our modern expectations for food size, shape, color, and uniformity. Usually, the methods used to enhance shelf-appeal in foods are harmless to the human body. However, the wise shopper should be aware that this does occur.
8) In today's more sedentary world, it's better to avoid too much saturated fat. We simply can't burn off fat as much as we did when more people engaged in labor intensive work and also burned off fat simply by living in draftier houses and spending more time out in the elements. If you buy meats with less marbling in them and trim off the fat, you can obtain leaner protein. Also, roasting, broiling, baking, or simmering meat tends to reduce the fat in meat. Drain and discard fat that drains off and accumulates in cooking. De-fat broths by letting them cool in the fridge, and, then, taking off the layer of hardened fat that forms on the top. Look for lean cuts of meat, and learn how to cook them so that they are tender and tasty.
9) Once you bring meat home, learn how to handle it safely. Wash your meat before using it. If you are using frozen meat, thaw it in the fridge or microwave. After cooking, refrigerate leftovers within two hours. Cook thoroughly, as is appropriate for the cut of meat you are using. Don't chop vegetables on a board where you just chopped raw meat. Clean your counters after handling meat. Follow any specific safety instructions on the meat package. Food safety is also important when handling plant foods, but we're addressing meat specifically today.
10) When you do select cuts of meat that have some fat in them, it's important to balance your diet by pairing the meat with foods that are low in fat.
11) In the past, organ meats used to be thought of as being healthy. Even in the early eighties, when I was having my children, pregnant women were advised to eat liver for its iron content. Also, in the past, people could not afford to waste any part of a slaughtered animal. So, they devised ways of cooking organ meats, and organ meats were often considered to be a great delicacy. It's important to remember that at the time when organ meats were prized a) people did not have as much access to meat and did not eat meat with every meal and b) people were more active. Today, organ meats are not looked upon with as much favor by nutritionists. For one thing, they are they have the highest cholesterol levels of all portions of meat. Also, regarding liver, some people question the wisdom of eating the "filter" of an animal. The liver is an organ that helps us remove toxins from the body, and, thus, it potentially contains these toxins within it. Do your own research and make your own decision about eating the various organ meats. If you do eat them, save them for occasional treats and don't eat them regularly.
12) Hams are the hind legs and rump of pork, which are cured and smoked. Picnic hams are the front legs and shoulder of pork, which are cured and smoked. Fresh hams are the same portions of pork, but they have not been cured. They are often labeled pork shoulder picnic. Note that fresh hams must be thoroughly cooked since they have not undergone any curing process.
Gammon is a name that is used in the British Isles for ham cuts; ham is called jambon in French and jamon on Spanish.
Almost every country has its own famous type of ham. For example, Italy is famous for prosciuttio, Germany is famous for Westphalian ham, and China has a ham called Jinhua.
Country hams, which are very popular in Tennessee where I live, have undergone a dry cure and are very salty. Preparing country ham involves a good cleaning and soaking in order to cut some of the salt content. Even when cooked properly, it is still saltier than other types of cured hams. It has a very flavorful taste. Some types of American country ham could be compared to prosciuttio or to what the French call country ham. Those are generally more moist, however, and are not quite as salty. People often serve country ham with red eye gravy. This is made by adding coffee or water to pan-fried country ham drippings and cooking this mixture down for some time. Country ham is often served as breakfast sandwiches made of slices of ham between two layers of a buttermik biscuit. It is also usually served with grits.
Smithfield and other Virginia hams, as well as Kentucky hams, are forms of American country hams. However, I personally don't tend to think of them as being exactly as salty as what we call country ham in Tennessee.
Virginia hams are famous for their unique flavor, which used to be attributed to the fact that their pork was fed on acorns and, more importantly, peanuts. Today, a Virginia ham is not necessarily peanut fed. Kentucky is also famous for its method of curing hams. Many Southern U.S. states produce fine hams.
My favorite hams are honey cured.
13) Barbecue is slow cooked fresh meat smoked over a pit, in a drum, or on a spit. It is usually brushed with a sauce, and other sauces are provided when it is served. In the Southern U.S. and in areas where Southern barbecue culture has spread, barbecue means pork, though chicken and turkey are barbecued, as well. In Texas and other points west, beef is the meat that is most often barbecued.
Every state in the Southeastern U.S. has its own twist on barbecue. In some states, it even varies by certain sections of the state. But, no matter how they serve it, Southerners love their barbecued pork. Game meats, particularly deer, can be barbecued as well.
Please note that a barbecue does not consist of throwing meat on a grill. It is incorrect, for example, to invite someone over for a barbecue and then serve them hot dogs, hamburgers or steaks off the grill. That makes for a delicious meal and a fun event, but it's not a barbecue. To quickly cook meats on a grill is more properly termed a cookout. (We'll make an exception and let you throw a steak on the barb-y if you live in Australia, but only for you!) A true barbecue means a whole animal or the ribs slow roasted or broiled over a pit fire. Many a fine barbecue has been held in someone's backyard, and you can host one, too, if you are willing to put in the time to slow roast the meat. For a big barbecue, it can take up to twenty-four hours to prepare all of the meat, especially if its marinated. However, if you start early enough in the morning, you can have a fine barbecue feast ready by lunchtime. A true barbecue is a wonderful occasion, and waiting for the meat to be ready is just part of the fun. (I know we have some other G.R.I.T.S. following along with this course. You know what I mean!)
The best barbecue restaurants are those which have been using the same fire pit for a long time and which take the time to barbecue the meat well.

Happy cooking!


Ivy in the Kitchen said...

Haha, I was bred, born and raised in Kentucky so I'm familiar with G.R.I.T.S., being one myself.

It's funny you should mention the "meat as a condiment" line of thought; if memory serves me right, Thomas Jefferson agreed with that.

I'm very glad you mentioned the misconceptions regarding what our food is supposed to look like; you'd be surprised at the number of people I've met that don't make the connection of cow = burger or that produce doesn't have to be symmetrical to be tasty.

By the way, I'm slowly getting started on the dish strainer project (meaning I bought the materials), and will be posting progress on my blog. We'll see how that goes; I haven't crocheted since elementary school. :)

-Miss H.

Elizabeth said...

Hi Miss H.

I heard another article recommending using meat almost as a condiment even since I wrote this article.

I'm glad you're plunging into the crochet project along with us!