By Amanda Faison
We’re all for Meatless Monday, but when we do choose to put pork, beef, lamb, or any other meat on the plate, we need to do so responsibly. The butcher’s case is stacked with the most-in-demand cuts—loin, rack, rib-eye—but, as Francis Hogan, executive chef and partner of Sabio on Main in Pleasanton, California, says, “Therein lies the problem. There are two rib-eyes per cow. That’s it. Once those rib-eyes are gone, there’s another 600 pounds of [beef] that has to be sold.”
It falls to chefs, well-versed butchers, and conscious consumers to expand the dinner plate to include lesser-known cuts. The good news, says Kay Cornelius, vice president of sales for Niman Ranch, is that many of these cuts are truly hidden gems—if you know what to ask for. First and foremost, that means consuming meat that comes from animals that are raised humanely and naturally, without the use of antibiotics or growth additives.
Justin Brunson, the chef-owner of Old Major in Denver, Colorado, who buys whole animals from Corner Post Meats, agrees. “Of course an animal that lives a happy life tastes better,” he says. “It’s more relaxed and it’s fed a better diet.” That happy life yields cuts like the coulotte (the top sirloin cap) and the top sirloin heart, that, in conventionally raised animals, are tough and tasteless. But when the animal is raised right, Cornelius says, these are her favorite steaks.
Buying whole animals is a practice that demands creativity so nothing goes to waste. That hasn’t been a problem at Old Major, where among other off-cuts, Brunson has sold 60 pounds of pig ears a month for the past five-plus years. Across town at Beast & Bottle, chef and co-owner Paul Reilly, stockpiles lamb hearts from the whole lambs he buys and butchers. Every so often he’ll make a very special lamb tartare. This makes Megan Wortman’s heart, well, sing. As the executive director of the American Lamb Board, she says working with whole animals "requires chefs to use the lamb from nose-to-tail, to understand butchery, and to educate their servers (and thus their patrons) on the importance of using all cuts.”
So, how as chefs and eaters, can we broaden our dinner horizons and make more responsible choices? Read on.
“I spend a lot of time in the meat aisle at the grocery. I see people pick up responsibly raised and organic meat. They look at the price tag and set it down. It’s hard to buy that $25 chicken but it’s just the right thing to do. We wouldn’t buy clothes made with children labor. This is the same moral concept.” —Justin Brunson, Old Major
“We need to encourage the public to ask questions about their food. Ask where it came from. Ask what the rancher's practices are. Ask how the animal was raised and treated. Talk to the rancher at the farmers’ market, or talk to the butcher behind the counter. If these questions can't be answered, it may be better to move on from that product.” —Francis Hogan, Sabio on Main
“We want chefs and home cooks to know that there is a use for all lamb cuts. We are seeing many approachable and delicious braised dishes—from lamb shank tacos to braised lamb shoulder pasta dishes. Ground lamb is increasing on menus and at retail as people discover how it can be used in place of other ground meats in most dishes. Why not a lamb burger?” —Megan Wortman, American Lamb Board
“The larger steaks like sirloin and rib-eye have gotten too big, even in naturally raised cattle. We still want that delicious steak but we don’t need to eat the whole thing. I saw this at the River Café in Brooklyn, where the chef served a Prime dry-aged strip loin cut into planks. He served three planks on a plate and you just got bite or two—it was perfect. —Kay Cornelius, Niman Ranch