Foraging For Food: The Meat Processor’s Floor

“Meat Processor” sounds nicer than slaughterhouse, right?  Welp, that’s my one concession in this blog.  I am going to be discussing and showing parts of the cow that don’t make it into your average meat case.  In fact, I think a lot of the time they end up on the slaughterhouse floor and incorporated into pet food or the most discussed food topic of the day, pink slime.

I’m not planning to show anything graphic from the process of killing a cow or anything, but there will be a lot of organs.  I won’t take offense if you scroll down to this picture of Janet proudly standing on her own, smile, exhale, and close this window to read no further.

Her hair isn't as red as it looks here, more blonde. The profile is a little too much like mine, though. Let's hope she grows out of that one soon

A few weeks ago I mentioned that Uncle Billy continued his run as the most underrated ADB blog contributor by leaving me a cooler full of miscellaneous meat in Vermont.  The back story was that Billy had raised a cow with a friend and eventually split up the meat.  He let me know there would be plenty of cuts they wouldn’t be interested in and he’d be happy to save for me.

A couple weeks before the planned slaughter, Billy and I exchanged a few emails regarding what I would like saved.  In those emails I’m pretty sure I sounded like a budding serial killer, but Billy was patient with my endless questions and saved me a bunch of my requests.  Leading to a pickup of this cooler a few days after the cow met its end.

Over the course of writing this blog, I haven't had that many moments where I truly questioned what I was doing. However, when I opened this cooler on the back porch at Kristi's grandmother's house, I couldn't help but mutter "what the f*ck is WRONG with me?!?" aloud as I nervously chuckled and shook my head

That right there is a bunch of organs and unusual cuts from a grass fed cow, stuffed into trash bags and thrown in a cooler.  I’d imagine it took a lot of unnecessary effort to butcher the cuts I ended up with, especially since they were for someone else, so big thanks to Billy and his buddy for doing so.

After hanging with our friends Tara and Nancy until late on Sunday night after picking up the cooler, I realized I needed to get this stuff cleaned, trimmed, vacuum sealed, and in the freezer before it spoiled.  I prepped accordingly.

That cleaver gets used pretty rarely and is only partially effective when it is. Those towels underneath are still showing the battle scars and stains they saved the butcher block island from

I had a general idea of what was in the cooler, but there was a lot left to discover.  First out was a cut I hadn’t seen before but one that looked the most normal of anything in the batch.

Looked like flank steak, but the symmetry made it clear that it wasn't

My first guess was that it was cheeks, but Billy had mentioned that he wasn’t able to keep any parts of the head due to sanitary reasons.  Also, the fact that it was in one continuous piece didn’t seem right.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to drop some disgusting bombshell here (that comes later).  It turns out that it is the piece between the spine and diaphragm, which I believe is known as hanger steak.  See!  This blog isn’t all gross!  There’s stuff we all overpay for when paired with french fries that they call “frites”!

Next up, a throwback to one of the early posts on this blog back when I knew even less about what I was doing than I do now.

A return of the absurd cutting board, on top of another cutting board, on top of a butcher block island that was intended to be used as a cutting board. There's a classic Phil Hartman SNL skit called the Anal Retentive Chef, and the reality is nothing they spoofed in that skit comes close to these OCD moments from me

The heart was quite a bit larger than the one I cooked a couple years ago, and it also didn’t arrive pre-butchered.  The only steps I took before bagging and labeling was removing the ventricle and valve-laden top area and cut the whole thing in half so I wouldn’t need to prepare it all in one meal.  Should have mentioned that part of the goal of bagging was getting everything into individual meal portions.  You know, so I can drag out the misery for my friends (joy for me) for more than one meal.

Next up was the thymus gland (or sweetbreads) and tongue.  Both of these don’t require a ton of detail since they are pretty common on restaurant menus, but….

Nothing to see here, move along move along

The thymus gland isn’t that pleasant to look at it in it’s fully butchered form, but when it’s still encased in the hard, bloody fat that surrounds it, it’s even less so.  I will have to revisit this when it’s in some sort of delicious meal in a few months.

The tongue. I've got lots of these thanks to Billy and David from Snow Farm. This one required a little rinsing

The tongue had the biggest, “oooohhhh, daggg.” moment of the entire process when I removed it from the trashbag and found it still covered with grass from the cow’s last meal.  As I said in the chicken slaughter post, it’s occasionally good to get a reminder of the previously happy animal on the other end of your grubfest.  I love eating animals, but if this paragraph grosses you out and the $18 Filet at Applebees doesn’t, it might be time for a reminder that your meat doesn’t grow in styrofoam packages.

Alright, enough preachiness on topics other people care about far more than me, how bout some kidneys!

From the second I opened the cooler, I recognized that smell, yet I honestly didn't know there were kidneys in there until I started digging around. Nice of Billy and the crew to peel them for me.

Although the kidneys had that distinct kidney smell, they also smelled cleaner than the ones I had purchased previously.  Not sure if that makes any sense or if I was just imagining it because I liked the idea of the non-factory farmed cow smelling fresher.  Regardless, I have no idea what I will be doing with these kidneys since the last few months have left me a little kindney-ed out.  Will think of something.

Next to last out of the bag was the whole skinned cow tail.

That is some extremely cool looking food, and also some easy entry point offal. My friend Marshall has a great recipe for oxtail that calls for an un-separated slab of sliced bacon and a pound of ice, I'll have him send you the recipe

I’ve had oxtail a couple times before and also participated in a few failed attempts to cook it.  It’s tender and flavorful stuff, like great pot roast, when cooked right.  Usually, it’s sliced perpendicularly into inch-thick pieces and this is the first time I had ever seen a whole tail.

I ended up learning that the cartilage that runs down the center of the tail is a lot thicker than I thought when I couldn’t get through it with less than 4 swings of my cleaver.  This was likely due to my consistently decreasing muscle content, the lightweight/dull cleaver, and my wildly innacurrate swings that either missed entirely or landed an inch to the left of the previous cut.  Oh well, I got it broken down to three pieces and into a bag.

Last up was easily the most bizarre/gross item in the bunch and one that led to multiple, “wait, seriously?” emails from Billy after I requested it; the udder.

I'm pretty sure Billy and co. left the fur on to remind me what this is, but it might just have been that they had no interest in dealing with it. Also, please don't tell my wife that this image was taken in our kitchen sink. Thx

As gross as it sounds, I know from watching lots of TV and web research that this is a somewhat common food at grill restaurants in various South American countries.  I was picturing something incredibly fatty but more like an heavily marbled piece of meat than what it ended up being; a huge block of fat marbled with meat.

I think I've shown how big that cutting board is over numerous previous posts. That udder was a good 10+ pounds

I had no idea what I would eventually do with the udder, but I knew I wouldn’t want to use it all at once so it was cut and divided into multiple smaller bags.  During the cutting process you could see the incredibly odd texture of the meat, with large pockets of fat and pink meat running between it.  Odd stuff, looking forward to experimenting with it a bit in the future, especially after learning a lot this past weekend when I grilled a few slices of it.

After nearly burning out my food saver, here is where I ended up.

That right there is a solid two months worth of blog posts, but I'll need to mix it in occasionally with normal meals to avoid alienating everyone who I cook and write for

This all headed into my chest freezer in the basement in a reusable grocery bag that I should have written “Kristi, don’t look in here” on.  Also, chest freezers and food savers are the best use of $300 (combined) that I have encountered in my life.

Thanks to Uncle Billy for providing me with awesome ingredients along with a beef buyers guide that I have been studying with a confused look on my face like an 8 year old boy with a Playboy.  Next week will either be one of my go to recipes or some pretty interesting food that we made last weekend on our visit to NJ.

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Weird Crap I Cook: Oxtail Stew

On the camping trip that featured the hogs head barbacoa, my friend Conor brought along a couple pounds of oxtail from our JP supermarket.  We browned them in a pot with some spices and a quartered onion, covered with water, and set the pot on the edge of the fire to simmer.  A few minutes later our friend Marshall got back to the campsite, dumped out the water, stuck the oxtails in a pan on the center of the fire, and covered them with a pound of sliced bacon (unseparated) and a block of ice.  I’d describe the experience as similar to watching someone make food while they are sleepwalking, but with more violent rage and foul language from me.  Anyway, the oxtails burned, we shifted our attention to the hogs head, and Conor and I agreed to make another attempt at oxtail soup sometime soon.

Two weeks ago we held our annual fantasy football draft and for the first time in the eight year history of our league, the draft was not held in a hotel room at a casino.  The downside was that only 5 members of the league convened in Boston with the rest online elsewhere.  The upside was that there was a kitchen to make food instead of having to eat crappy central connecticut pizza.  Sounded like a perfect chance to take another crack at oxtail stew.

I have lost 30+ minutes, multiple times, looking at and poking products in the meat section at Hi Lo Foods

Oxtail is just the tail of a cow, skinned and chopped into sections.  Hard cartilage/bone runs down the center of the tail with muscle, segmented by cartilage and surrounded by a thin membrane, running up the sides.  Its an extremely popular food item in the Caribbean, mainly in stew form.  Most recently it got a little media coverage when Elvis Dumervil of the Denver Broncos claimed he lost 15 pounds in the offseason just by no longer eating oxtail. Back to the cooking.

I started off the stew, in a homage to my oldest friend (and enemy) Marshall, with a half slab of chopped bacon that I browned in the stew pot.

I was cooking this in Buschy's apartment which meant I needed to start with some comforting smells to up the chances he might actually try a few bites of the finished product

While the bacon cooked I trimmed excess fat and cartilage off the oxtail pieces.

It was tough to tell how far to go with the trimming, so I left on anything that didn't appear to be fat

Once the bacon was cooked I removed it from the pot and reserved it.  I then browned the oxtail pieces in the remaining bacon grease.

Seasoned with salt and pepper and quickly browned on both sides. Had to cook them in three waves due to space

Super Zooommm!!!!!!

While the meat browned, I got to work on prepping the base of every stew: carrots, onions, and celery.   When I asked my wife to grab me a couple “good sized” carrots at Hi Lo, here is what she got for me.

"YOU MEAN THERES CAR'TS OUT THERE THIS BIIG?" Little Anaconda/Ice Cube reference. What?

With a bit more effort than usual, I got through the process of chopping the carrots and then the celery and onion.

That pile represents one half of one of the carrots. Reeeeeeediculous

The last batch of the browned oxtail was removed from the pot and put to the side until the base of the stew was ready for them.

Its tough to reject the idea of eating oxtail once you've seen and smelled this plate

Once the onions were translucent I added a few big pinches of fresh thyme.

This picture could be from many different past and future posts

At this point in went a few smashed garlic cloves, a couple bay leaves, chicken stock, and red wine.  Once I was sure everything had deglazed off the bottom of the pot, I let the liquid simmer for a few minutes, added the oxtail, covered and cooked for four hours.

Once again, I make a hearty stew on an 85 degree night. Still, looks delicious

During the four hours of stewing I cut the remainder of the carrots into sticks and roasted them.  I also engaged in some fantasy football panic, an online mock draft, and 1,500 calories of Shuman’s buffalo chicken dip. When I checked the stew, the meat was fork tender which was what I was looking for according to the oxtail research I’d done online.  There was also a little time pressure with the draft starting in thirty minutes.

I removed the fully cooked oxtails and set them to the side.

Thanks to Buschy for taking pictures in between swallowing back vomit. He is about as adventurous with food as a breast feeding infant

Because the mirepoix had basically cooked down to mush, I poured the remaining liquid through a strainer and pressed the solids down to make sure I got all of the juice back.  Once the liquid settled I skimmed off excess fat and returned the liquid to the stove.

The remaining liquid. At this point Tim would have walked in and insulted the stew, then me, then the clothes that I was wearing, and then punched me. I was glad he was probably 6 hours into his ride home from Little Compton

Bacon and roasted carrots went in first…

Both had a few burned pieces, but I guiltily really like that flavor

…then chopped scallion and boiled red potatoes…

I hate wasting food, and those red potatoes are admittedly leftovers. But I would have just cut and boiled fresh potatoes then added them, so I don't think it changed the stew much

…plus the oxtail to make this completely awful looking pot of food:

I let this simmer together for fifteen minutes or so

And then… I turned the heat off because the draft was starting.  Probably for the best; in my experience soups and chilis are always better after they have rested for a bit.  After two sweaty and technology error-laden hours of auction drafting, I decided to turn the heat back on the stew.  My first bowl:

Once I had the bowl sitting next to my computer, I fully understood how effing stupid I was to make a stew for an online auction draft. I blame it for any stupid picks I made in the draft. And any typos in this post

The flavor of the stew was awesome; we went through a loaf of painfully hard bread just dipping it in the liquid. The problem was that the  Caribbean recipes I saw made a clear point not to cook past fork tender since the meat will fall off the bone.  So I did that without questioning it.  But it really sucked pausing while eating spoonfuls of stew to gnaw the meat off of the oxtail.  If I had taken the time to think about it, I would have just cooked it an extra hour or two to make the meat fall off the bones.  Oh well, looks like there will be a third round.

And Con, you still owe me for the oxtails based on our bowling bet.

Next week, the only time I have ever cooked something out of anger towards the animal.