"As my dear wife likes to remind me from time to time," Josh Applestone told me one day over the cutting table during my apprenticeship at Fleisher's Meats, "behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes."
Half his size with twice the pluck, Jessica Applestone is Josh's better half. With her curly locks swept up hurriedly each morning, she wears the tired smile of a mother, writer, and co-owner of the business. Oftentimes you'll find her behind the counter talking to customers, making sure that they know how to cook the meat when they get home.
"Do not cook this beyond medium-rare," she gravely tells a man who buys one of the strip steaks. "Grass-fed beef does not have the same fat content as corn-fed, so you really need to stand over your stove and watch this thing. I mean it!"
Jessica likes to say that the act of eating is unavoidably political—that every bite of meat we eat is taken from an animal, and that the animals we choose to eat affect the farmer, the environment, and own bodies. As a butcher shop with a philosophical underpinning, Fleisher's and a handful of its contemporaries have changed the way we consume meat. It's the ultimate indication of the shop's success that we take its philosophy for granted. Americans these days are able to find to grass-fed beef as well as pastured veal and pork, all raised without hormones and antibiotics.
If you're in doubt, ask yourself if, as recently as six or seven years ago, you had as much access to sustainably raised, grass-fed and organic meat. The answer is, quite simply, no. Fleisher's began when Jessica, a former vegetarian, wanted to start eating animals again but was unable to find a butcher shop selling the kind of meat she believed in. When Jessica talks about meat, "sustainability" is a word she uses often.
What is Sustainable Meat?
What does it mean for a butcher shop to be sustainable? Sustainable meat carries with it the economic concerns of sourcing from local farmers, as well the environmental advantages of raising grass-fed animals on well-maintained pastures without the use of antibiotics or hormones. Even pausing to contemplate the word itself—sustain —reminds us that these policies and practices are done for the sake of long-term well being and functionality.
A sustainable butcher practices thrift. When I asked Jessica and Josh what the most sustainable cut is at the butcher's, they gave their answers along the same line: that each and every part of the animal needs to be used. Jessica said;
I'll tell you what's not sustainable. When you walk into a butcher's shop or restaurant, and you see lots of hanger steaks for sale or on the menu. A cow only has one hanger steak. One. So years ago when hanger steaks started becoming trendy, we began to have problems on the restaurant supply end. We would give the restaurants all of our hanger steaks and then get stuck with the rest of the animal, thinking, "Now what?"
And in Josh's words:
Grind is, hands down, the most sustainable cut in a butcher's shop. In addition to the regular cuts we use in grind, every little bit that we can scrape from the animal goes into the chop bin. If there's a cut that didn't sell well during the week, that cut is never wasted because it can be sold as ground meat or used for sausages. Bottom line: if we can't sell the grind, then we can't buy another cow.
Keeping Sustainable by Grinding
"everything that's not displayed in the case must be turned to grind or used in stock"
As a newbie apprentice, I spend plenty of time at the shop cutting down meat for the chop bin. Whenever a rack of lamb is frenched, the meat in between each and every rib must be scraped or pulled off the bone. If a cut of pork shoulder or belly is being rolled and tied into a roast, we save the meat that's trimmed prior to tying the roast. In short, everything that's not displayed in the case must be turned to grind or used in stock in order for the shop to maintain its input/output calculus.
Grind is certainly not nasty in any real sense, but like offal, it is an underappreciated type of meat. The common conception of grind is either that of hamburgers or sloppy ragus and meatloaf. Sausage—a thing of beauty and craftsmanship—is often overlooked due to its prevalence behind the meat counter.
Because we only think to reach for ground meat when we're in the mood for burgers or meatballs, we forget that grind is actually an essential and dynamic preparation in the kitchen. As Brian Polycn and Michael Ruhlman write in one of my favorite cookbooks, Charcuterie, "By turning lamb shoulder into sausage, you are merely changing the tenderizing mechanism from an atmospheric one (hot, moist heat) to a mechanical one (grinding), but with dramatic difference." (102)
In other words, grinding meat is the most efficient way to cook tough meat with plenty of connective tissue, without resorting to low and slow heat. Oftentimes, grind is superior to retaining the meat in its whole form, since grinding offers the considerable advantage of adding extra fat for moistness and flavor.
Cooking with Ground Lamb
In the spirit of sustainability, this week's recipes feature ground lamb. Though ground lamb has a much more distinctive flavor profile than ground pork, it can be cooked in the same way as ground pork and beef. I often use lamb in lieu of pork in dumplings and wontons, and the unique flavor of lamb is a refreshing change from ground beef in ragu.
To further demonstrate ground lamb's flexibility, I've provided two recipes—one for ragu and one for meatballs (kofte)—that start with almost identical ingredients, yet result in very different dishes. Both dishes employ plenty of cumin, a classic and essential spice pairing for lamb, as well as tomatoes and onions. Hearty and thick, the lamb ragu can be served with pasta and gnocchi or in lasagna. The nuggets of ground lamb stay tender throughout the cooking process, so that each bite of the ragu is juicy.
The meatball dish, cooked with dried chili pepper, jalapeno pepper, and a bit of harissa, is adapted from a recipe for Aegean kofte in Paula Wolfert's excellent book, Mediterranean Claypot Cooking. Instead of an initial browning, the kofte are gently poached in an onion broth—a preparation that's simpler and yields even better results. Whereas browned meatballs have a tendency to build too much crust, poaching results in uniform tenderness with a succulence that's rarely seen a meatball.
According to Jessica, ground lamb is the most difficult type of ground meat to sell at the shop. "When people think of lamb, they want to buy lamb chops or shanks," she explained. "Of course, that leaves most of the animal behind, so we always have ground lamb that we need to sell."