Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Choosing Your Ingredients - Part 1

In many of my earlier posted recipes, I gave instructions or guidelines about how to choose ingredients for the recipes. However since I use many items frequently in other recipes, it can be difficult to find the information for making subsequent recipes that feature those same ingredients. Therefore in these next two posts I will outline what I look for in a variety of ingredients. As a general rule I try to choose the highest quality options that fit into my budget, as I outlined in earlier posts. The major food categories I will discuss are chicken, pork, beef, fish, stock, spices and alcohol or liqueurs, divided into two posts. This post contains some material lifted from earlier posts added with new material.

When possible, avoid ordinary supermarket chicken. First, because they are water-chilled, you are paying for water and more importantly there is a much greater risk of salmonella contamination than when chicken is air-chilled. Second, the cheapest chickens are so priced because they are raised in truly horrible conditions. They live jammed together, are fed food of questionable origin and are more prone to diseases. There is a very good TV special hosted by Jamie Oliver where he exposes the practices of chicken farmers. Finally, higher quality chickens tend to have better flavour. Obviously, free-range organic is the best choice but can be pricey. A decent compromise would be to buy chickens that are fed 100% vegetable grain. Another budget option can be Kosher chicken. The chickens have to meet higher standards of health and, because the process of Koshering involves soaking the chicken in a salt solution, the meat is more flavourful. Just be sure to use a little less salt if you use this chicken. Depending on where you live, a similar acceptable option may be Halal chicken, which I believe follows many similar processes. The difference is not all halal meat has official certification whereas all kosher food is certified by a recognized agency. If the halal chicken is from a certified halal provider then that is also an option.

Many people do not realize this, but many of the same problems I just identified with chicken farming apply to pig farming as well. Many of the factory farms keep the pigs in pens at all times, much like milk-fed veal, which I generally avoid in favour of grain-fed veal. The conditions are atrocious and this is why pig farms smell the way they do. Pigs raised in healthy and humane conditions do not stink. A recent development in pork production is the raising of “heritage breeds”, such as Berkshire (also called Kurobuta), Tamworth and others. These tend to have a more pronounced taste and, since they are farmed on a small scale and command a premium price, they are usually raised in more humane conditions. I don’t eat a lot of pork (partly due to my Jewish upbringing) so, when I do, it has to be good. My favourite pork products are cured items, such as bacon, salami, prosciutto, kielbassa and the like. Unfortunately, most of these products require the use of nitrites and/or nitrates to preserve them. Overconsumption of these chemicals has been linked to certain health problems so, it can sometimes be worth searching for products that only use sodium nitrate (curing salt) for preservation. Some traditional prosciutto and a few very dry cured sausages can be safely cured without any nitrates, but they are few and far between. And when you can find them, they are very expensive, because nitrate free products have to have a very high overall pH, which is usually accomplished through additional drying, which means more raw product is needed to produce the same amount of cured meat. Otherwise, just don’t eat too much of it. Cured pork tends to be high in salt anyway.

The beef you select has a lot to do with its intended use. Some cuts are better for slow cooking and others for quick searing. In my last post I told you in general terms that meat cut from more heavily used muscles are more flavourful but need longer, slower cooking times. For a stew, my favourite cuts are short ribs, bottom blade (from the shoulder) and cheek. If you want to make a pot roast or a similar slow cooked whole piece, brisket is the best for that. For steak, I prefer rib steak or rib eye (that is rib with the bone removed), but striploin and T-bone are good options. If you want something less expensive, top sirloin is a really good choice. Usually even cheaper is bottom sirloin (also called tri-tip) and flank steak, but these require some care. Flank steak should be marinated beforehand and either cut should be sliced across the grain of the meat to make sure the meat is tender when eaten. The grain is where all the visible muscle fibers on a piece of meat run in a uniform direction. You will see a bunch of ridges or grooves, most of them clearly going in the same direction. Cut thin slices across these grooves and the meat will pull apart tender. Many less expensive cuts of meat you will see in the store have the word “round” in their names (top round, bottom round, eye of round). Don’t bother with these. They are not tender and don’t have enough fat for good flavour. Finally, ground beef or hamburger meat. Your standard ground beef is made up of all the miscellaneous parts of the cow that can’t be sold as an individual cut of meat. Also if a butcher has more supply of one cut than they can sell, it will be ground into hamburger. The cheaper, mass produced hamburger uses all kinds of bits and pieces you probably don’t want to think about. Because they run so many different parts through the grinder and isn’t always very fresh, there is more risk of E. Coli contamination. If you buy preground and prepackaged hamburger meat it is not safe to cook it less than well done, an unfortunate situation for the quality of the finished product. So can a hamburger be safely cooked to medium or medium-rare? Yes, if you use the right meat under the right circumstances. Ideally, buy a whole cut of meat, such as chuck or blade and grind it yourself and use it right away. Obviously you need a meat grinder to do this. You may be able to do this in a food processor as well but the consistency will not be as good. If you have a quality butcher shop near you, you should be able to buy a cut of meat and have them grind it for you. The key element is that risk of contamination increases the longer the ground meat is exposed to the elements and if the grinder is not properly clean. This is why there is no risk to eating a rare steak, and little risk even for steak tartare, raw chopped meat, since it is hand chopped right before serving.

With all of these meats there is the issue of whether or not to buy organic. In general it is true that meat produced using organic methods are treated more humanely and taste better. However, quality meat does not necessarily have to be certified organic. The thing is, the requirements to be considered organic are quite stringent. Not only are the animals only allowed to be fed good food with no chemicals, antibiotics or hormones, but the source of all feed must be certified organic, which requires pure, organic, uncontaminated soil that remains so for several years. That means new, start-up farms can never be certified organic. And sometimes there are practices that do not meet the criteria of “organic” that are not necessarily an indication of unsustainable practices or inhumane treatment. The best thing to do I suppose is find out as much as you can about the source of your meat.

I don’t eat a lot of fish and seafood, so I don’t have much to say here. The main thing is that if you think you don’t like fish because of the “fishy” taste, you were probably eating old fish! Fresh fish should smell of nothing but the ocean. The problem is that fish is very perishable and not as popular in North America than other meats so fish often sits around longer than it should. Also, if you live in the middle of a large landmass, (like in the prairies or the midwest) fish has to be transported a long distance before even getting to the store. Just try to buy as local as possible and at a shop that sells a lot of fish. The other consideration is sustainability. Many of the most popular eating fish have been overharvested to the point where the numbers are decreasing at an alarming rate. Seafood Watch in the United States and Ocean Wise in Canada are programs that monitor global fish stocks and rates whether certain fish are still being caught in a sustainable manner or if they should be avoided. Many of the big deep sea fish are not caught in a sustainable manner and are to be avoided. The manner in which the fish are caught also factor into the ratings.

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