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An Insider’s Guide to the Meat Case

Each weekend, I spend a considerable amount of time in front of the Co-op’s meat cases stocking out our many products while helping customers find their favorites. When I ask if I can help find a specific item, however, a common customer reply is “Oh, I’m still thinking,” or “I’m not sure yet.” You see, there seem to be two basic types of shoppers in our meat department. The first are those that have a specific cut or product in mind already, say for a recipe or favorite dish. They have a tendency to zip in and out and I never get a chance to meet them—or recommend something delicious. The second group is made of those who aren’t quite sure what’s for dinner tonight, and hope that an idea will materialize in our display cases. This article is an insider’s guide to the Co-op’s meat case—from the point of view of someone who has tried almost everything we have available—and is an attempt to talk turkey with the former group while aiding that latter group in their future decisions.

One thing that makes decision making so difficult is that our cases are full of dozens of delicious, healthy and high quality choices. We stock products from eight different animals, a number that actually increased with various seasonal specialty items. Personally speaking, every one of these is seasonal in my kitchen, regardless of the time of year. One of my all around favorites, definitely found off the beaten path, is the bison we carry from Heartland Bison. It can be found in the freezer section of the meat department. Bison meat is a deep wine red, has a distinct flavor, and is both extremely rich in nutrients and very low in fat. I find that I actually have to add oil to the pan if I’m trying to fry up a pound of ground bison. We stock this delicious meat in ground form, in brats, and even bison wieners which are surprisingly tender and delicious—and a great option for the grill.

Another fantastic choice in our freezer case comes from Willow Creek. Customers who are familiar with our local producers should know Willow Creek well. They produce some of the finest pork products in the region, and we’re proud to offer a solid selection of their line. While all of their cuts and products are of the highest quality, I recommend trying their pork shoulders and loin roasts. Whoever opined that beauty isn’t skin deep may have been thinking about Willow Creek’s pork shoulders; roasted low and slow with plenty of homemade spicy barbecue sauce, these juicy roasts literally fall apart with nary a knifing. A thing of beauty indeed, and perfect for pulled pork shoulder sandwiches. If you’re looking for something that will hold together in thin slices, though, try the loin roasts instead. I ain’t loin, you’ll be amazed.

While there are other great standouts in the freezer case, the two fresh cases also contain some of my top recommendations. If you’re considering beef, Black Earth Meats offers many choices. All of their cows are grass-fed, the result of which is, well, beef that tastes much “beefier.” You may stake your claim to one of the premium grilling cuts suchas tenderloin, New York strip, top sirloin, or rib-eye, but my favorite cut is the lowly soup bone. Black Earth’s soup bones are a slice of bone surrounded by a (truly) significant amount of meat. If you have a hankering for some roast, but don’t want to purchase multiple pounds of meat, try the soup bone for a single or double serving. Treat it like you would a roast; put it in a Dutch oven, add carrots, onions, potatoes and garlic. Season it all with salt and pepper, add some water, broth, or wine. The meat will cook up tender and juicy like a roast, and you’ll have a marrow-filled bone for soup the next day. If that weren’t economical enough, well, let me just gently prod you to check the price on these cuts. You’ll be shocked.

Now, if you’re into the more robust taste of grass-fed beef, you’ll probably enjoy the mild but distinctive flavor of Pinn Oak Farms’ high-quality lamb. Cooking with lamb, though, needn’t be a sacrifice. I enjoy the lamb stew meat because it is versatile, healthy, and economical. Lamb takes on and interacts with spices in a way that beef, chicken, and pork simply do not. I love it in a variety of culinary traditions: Indian, Greek, North African, and, well most any Mediterranean cooking. But don’t stop with the stew meat; if you’re entertaining, try the larger sirloin roasts or boneless leg roasts. Invite some friends and family over, I promise they’ll love ewe!

Ground beef
Finally, I want to cover two questions that I field almost daily regarding our meat products. The first concerns the ground beef we sell. People often ask me, “What does the 90/10, or 80/20 on the label mean?” Both of these designations refer to the lean meat vs. fat content. The 90/10 is 90 percent lean, 10 percent fat. The 80/20 is 80 percent lean, 20 percent fat. I recommend using the 80/20 when forming burgers or meatballs. The extra fat helps the meat bind together and keep its shape. If that kind of forming is not a concern, such as in a casserole, or ground taco meat, I suggest the lower fat 90/10.

Stew meat
The second question applies to both beef and lamb. We sell both beef stew meat and lamb stew meat as well as beef and lamb “stir fry” or “fajita” meat. Stew meat requires, in general, longer cooking times to make the meat delectably tender. This meat comes from the rear end of the animal and is often a bit more flavorful. The “stir fry,” or “fajita” meat, on the other hand, is suitable for kebabs, or pan frying. Sourced from the shoulder and arm regions of the animal, it is naturally more tender and can be cooked quickly. Both are excellent styles of cut, though with slightly different intended uses. As with most meats, this advice should be taken with a grain (or more) of salt; I’ve used both styles in a range of cuisines with excellent results.

I love talking with customers at the meat case because, even though I often teach them about our products, they end up teaching me more about their cooking and how they use our meats. Customers from every culinary tradition use the same cuts of meat to completely different ends, and I hear and collect their ideas about their delicious meals every time I work. There is a lot of food knowledge out there in our store, and it’s exciting to me to learn just a bit, and pass on a bit more. See you in the meat department.