Tuesday, 22 February 2011

More ways with steak, and the naming of it…

The dividing up of the carcass of a cow, and the naming of the parts thereby derived, is, I have to admit, an area rife with confusion.  I would say it was a minefield, but that would be to go too far.  After all, if a cow were to wander into a minefield, I think we’d end up with a pretty random collection of lumps of meat and no need whatsoever to give any of them names.  

More conventional butchery, though, does produce distinct cuts, for which there are particular names, and that’s where things do become, perhaps unnecessarily, confused.  For a start, there are the distinctly different ways of portioning the cow, according to different national traditions of butchery.  Take a look at illustrative charts of British, French and American cuts of beef and you’ll see that although there’s a broad similarity between them, there are a lot of differences in the detail.  Actually, take a look at enough of these charts, as I’ve just done, and you’ll see that once you get down to the details, there’s a good deal of difference even within each national tradition – and this is just taking three traditions, and not even wanting to think about all the others.  Least of all the Koreans, with their 120 odd main cuts (allegedly) as compared to 35 each for us and the French… 

Even once you’ve established which bit of the animal you’re looking at, there’s the question of how it is separated from the rest of the beast (on the bone or off, at the most basic) and that’s even before you get on to the issue of naming it.  Which is not a simple matter of translation from French to English, say, or even American to UK English.  For instance, in the course of my research, as I write this morning, I have come across the French ‘faux filet’ translated both as sirloin and ribeye.  As it happens, I had ‘faux filet’ for lunch in a restaurant on the shores of Lake Annecy, just the day before yesterday, and it seemed to me to be more like sirloin, but not so much like sirloin that I could definitively say that was exactly what it was.  More problematic, though, than fuzzy translation, is the fact that – like the charts – even within the same tradition, there can be tremendous variations, with the same terminology applied to subtly (or even not so subtly) different parts of the animal, or entirely different names used for the same bit.  Even Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall and his Meat book, in most other respects something close to a bible in all things carnivorous, lets me down in this regard, failing to even mention some of the more obscure and easily confusable terms, let alone defining the distinctions or overlaps between them.

Hanger steak under cling film for pounding into minute steak for sandwiches
Within the British tradition, at least, we feel on fairly firm ground when we come to the four basic cuts of steak – fillet, sirloin, ribeye and rump (in rough price order) – and I do wonder if that’s not one of the reasons they are so expensive: people are willing to pay a premium for the comfort of feeling confident that they know what it is they are buying.  As I’ve said before though, there are other cuts of steak available, less widely recognised but every bit as good, if not arguably better (all a matter of personal taste, of course…), than the four main ones, but people are understandably less confident in buying them, because, if their butchers have them on display at all, they appear unable to agree on precisely what to call them.  And even then, perhaps (I’m guessing) because butchers tend to be conservative by nature, they will usually, cautiously, advise that these cheap (or relatively so) cuts are best suited to slow cooking - for braising and casseroles.

hanger steak sandwich
Take hanger steak, aka butcher’s steak or onglet, as I’ve mentioned before, perhaps my absolute favourite cut of lean meat.  Called hanger steak because it hangs from the underside of the cow’s spine.  Called butcher’s steak because, traditionally the butcher would keep it for himself, in part because it was a trade secret how good it is, in part because each whole cow, would yield just two such steaks, about enough for the butcher and his wife to make a romantic candle lit dinner of, but hardly enough to be worth selling.  I don’t know why the French call it onglet.  Normally when you see it on the butcher’s slab, a hanger steak will be a long, tapering, squared off cylinder of meat, not unlike a pork tenderloin (to which, I believe, it is anatomically similar).  However, the steaks advertised as ‘butcher’s steak’, in Harry’s Food Hall in Kentish town, although otherwise having the appearance of hanger steak, turned out to be more like sail, or wing shaped wedges, similar, in fact, to the veal goose skirt I picked up at Waitrose one time and wrote about here.  To further confuse the matter, the butcher there, while unfamiliar with the terms ‘hanger steak’ or ‘onglet’ suggested ‘feather steak’ as an alternative name.  Now I have to admit that I thought that ‘feather steak’ was another term for flank steak, or bavette, but my research this morning suggests it’s another cut entirely, taken from the (shoulder) blade of the beast.  Appropriate, however, for the same treatment as hanger/butcher’s/onglet or flank/bavette.  To his credit, although his terminology may have been confusing, the butcher did approve of my stated intention to sear his ‘butcher’s/feather steak’ and serve it rare, and made no attempt to persuade me to stew it slow and long.  He also made the point that the two 350-400g steaks he sold me for seven quid odd (as opposed to anything from twice to almost four times as much for a similar quantity of rump, ribeye, sirloin or fillet) were all that a single cow carcass provided, which supported the notion that these were indeed what I understand by the term ‘butcher’s steak’.  But even then, I wasn’t a hundred per cent certain.

Not that it entirely matters.  What matters is that it tasted good, and it certainly did that.  First thing I did was trim each wedge into one thick, roughly rectangular bar (of about 225g), and one thinner, roughly triangular piece (about 150g).  The bar was what featured in the pictures for my last steak posting, the triangular pieces were pounded flat between sheets of cling film (with a rolling pin) to make minute steaks for a quick, late supper of steak sandwiches after coming in from an evening out, a couple of nights later.  A sourdough baguette smeared with Dijon mustard, a few leaves of watercress and baby spinach, red onion and capers for a piquant tang.  A salad on the side, and a glass of robust, rustic red.  Few things better.

Potato, beetroot and been salad...
It was a couple of week’s later that I came across something labelled as Aberdeen Angus Feather steak on the meat counter at Waitrose, recommended again for slow cooking, and at just eight quid a kilo, priced that way too.  It came in the form of a single thick wedge of 800g, with a silvery seam of gristle dividing it horizontally.  When I got it home I cut it in half, first vertically (and put one half aside, which is now in the freezer) then horizontally along the seam and trimmed away the gristle, leaving two lovely lean, coarsely fibred triangles of meat.  These I simply seasoned with salt and pepper, seared to rare and left to rest before slicing into strips and serving over a potato, beetroot and bean salad.  Again, as I’ve said before, slicing a steak before serving is a great way of stretching out your meat – a 150-200g steak served whole would seem a meagre portion, served this way it will look and feel generous.  And I don’t mean this as a cheat, or to promote meanness, I really do believe it’s better – healthier, more economical, more ethical – to eat less meat, but to make more of it.  And yes, I know, a brief scan of this blog’s archive makes that bit about believing in eating less meat look and sound like a big, fat, meaty lie, but really, it’s not.  And even if it were, it’d be covered under the general heading of do as I say, not as I do…

...topped with seared, sliced, feather steak

No comments:

Post a Comment