I always feel faintly guilty writing about meat on this blog. It’s not that I pretend to be vegetarian or to write a vegetarian blog (though I admit, having this blog is influencing me to make more vegetarian food, because I like writing about it!), but I do know a lot of the people who read this regularly are vegetarian or vegan. So they probably are not going to be especially interested in this post, which is entirely a gloat over the joys of meat. And yet, it would feel dishonest not to write about meat, because that’s the thing I’m most excited about right now.
When I first started teaching myself to cook, I had what I suspect is a very common Australian approach to meat: meat for one person was chicken breasts, lamb chops, fillet steak, sausages, bacon, or mince; meat for multiple people might be a roast chicken or leg of lamb; fish was tuna from a tin or flake from the fish and chip shop.
The trouble with this approach, of course, is that chickens have thighs, wings, and legs as well as breasts; tuna and shark are over-fished, and not always fished in an ethical fashion, and lamb, pigs and cows are also possessed of a variety of less choice body parts (though I suppose one really doesn’t know what goes into the mince or the sausages…).
So after my most recent failed attempt at being vegetarian, I decided that one thing I certainly could do was start to be more conscious of how I use meat. I’d already started using less of it, but I wanted to pay a lot more attention to where my meat came from, and to respecting the animal itself.
In the case of chicken, I’m sticking to free-range chicken only, buying the whole bird, and using all of it, right down to the carcass. This is, of course, rewarding on a gastronomic level as well as an ethical one – I’m finding that stock made at home from chicken bones and skin and the odd wing tastes a lot better than anything you can buy at the shops, and while I do still prefer the white meat as a standalone, chicken thighs and legs and the little bits of meat you can pick off the carcass are lovely in pies or risottos or casseroles. Unfortunately, chicken has just become a lot more problematic for me, as I have heard that Lilydale’s free-range chickens may not be all that free-range after all, which is something I’ll need to learn more about before I buy chicken again.
In the case of fish… well, to be honest, not much has changed, except that we are eating it even less often. Andrew isn’t keen on fish, which means I’d have to disguise it, and it’s awfully expensive for something whose flavour you’re going to hide anyway. Also, I worry about bones and choking. So no solution on that one just yet. And we don’t eat pork, which keeps that corner of the equation pretty simple. (And if you are wondering about things like venison or kangaroo or rabbit, you’ll have to keep on wondering – I haven’t really done my research on any of them, and they aren’t readily enough available around here for me to bother at present.)
And in the case of beef and lamb, well, without a much larger freezer, or a much larger household, it really isn’t practical to buy an entire beast (though Koallah Farm will sell you a whole cow or half or a quarter of one, and the same for lamb). But I can choose to buy it only from a farm which treats its animals well and lets them graze freely rather than raising them on grain (faster and more efficient in fattening an animal up, but less good for the animal). And the other thing I can do – which is where the excitement comes in – is deliberately try out different cuts of meat from different parts of the animal. Because, to be blunt, if an animal is going to die so that I can have a nice dinner, I want to be doing my bit to make sure none of it is going to waste.
Koallah is very good for this – they really do use the whole animal and have different specials at different times. So for example, this month’s meat order includes osso bucco (which is beef shank with the bone and marrow at the centre – I’ve never dared try it before, but this month I shall) and topside roast (no idea where this is, but it was on special and I haven’t tried it so it is worth a try). Last month, we tried lamb shoulder instead of lamb leg. And yes, we still order mince and sausages and diced lamb and beef for casseroles – and free range eggs from the chickens they have wandering around their farm too.
Of course, this food philosophy does lead to some disasters, mostly springing from me having no idea what to do with some cuts of meat – I’ve managed to produce one totally inedible meal so far, which rather undermines the intention of not letting the animal go to waste, but other than that, while things have been a bit hit-or-miss, they’ve mostly been close enough to what I was aiming for. And I will say that when I get it right, we get to eat some of the best beef and lamb I have ever tasted.
Mostly, though, I’m loving both the flavours I’m getting to discover and the sense of knowing where my food comes from. This is one of the things I like about the farmers’ market too, of course. Supermarkets are incredibly useful for things like flour and sugar and milk, or for when you run out of garlic or lemons and the greengrocer is shut. But I really do find it satisfying to buy food from the people who grow it, as far as I can. You know that the people producing your food are getting a better cut of the price, too, which is both pleasing (it’s nice to be able to pay people a fair wage) and practical (because people who are paid a reasonable wage for producing gorgeous food are more likely to be able to keep producing it).
I’ll probably have another try at vegetarianism next Lent – this seems to be becoming my tradition. But in the meantime, I have to say that I’m really enjoying this experiment. It’s making me think differently not just about meat but about how I plan my meals. And it’s making the days when I do cook with meat far more special. Which, I think, is the way it should be.