Earlier this year, in a kind of hazy beef frenzy brought on by the New Mexico Beef Council's Gate-to-Plate tour, I made a handshake deal with a couple of ranchers to buy half of a steer—not as a partial pet, but as more meat than I can possibly eat. It's the best food purchase I've ever made.
The other half of the steer was shared, I'm told, between too many people in Albuquerque—one of those "let's all pitch in together" deals that leaves everyone with an unsatisfactory selection of cuts—but a good 600 pounds of it was all mine. It was slaughtered and butchered at Mathews Custom Meat Processing in Belen and, when I picked it up, it barely fit in my double-cab truck.
Each simple white package came carefully wrapped and stamped with my name—a small but significant point of ego that still makes me giddy each time I pull a gigantic rib eye from the freezer.
And they are gigantic.
"How thick would like your steaks cut?" I remember the guy from Mathews asking me.
"Um, what do you recommend?" I asked.
"Well, most people go with half an inch," he responded.
"An inch," I said.
"OK," he said.
"Inch and a half," I quickly amended. "Two inches if you want."
Because, really, what's the point of a waifish little steak? I routinely feed five or six people with a single steak these days and, each time, the towering, sedimentary layers of doneness—from seared to red and back again—fill me with a kind of minimalist serenity, as though I'm gazing at a particularly fine Mark Rothko painting.
Although the meat is all mine, it would be cruel, not to mention impossible, to avoid sharing it as often as possible. For one, it's distributed across at least four freezers, only two of which belong to me. As a kind of rent, my freezer-having friends pull out whatever they like whenever they like. I haven't even noticed a dent. But I do sometimes reap rewards.
A couple of friends recently made hotdogs from scratch using fatty beef short ribs. This is considered such a tedious task that rumor has it the test kitchen at now-defunct Gourmet Magazine refused to approve a recipe and told the editors to simply advise people to buy premade hotdogs. But the recipe in Michael Ruhlman’s modern classic text, Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing, proves to be an excellent guide. (Earlier versions of the book include a recipe with a blend of lean beef and suet, which doesn’t work nearly as well as the short rib recipe.)
Briefly smoked and then grilled, the dogs have a crisp bite with a tender, but not pulpy, interior; their rich, layered flavor envelopes the tongue and haunts the mouth. Best of all, these are no tubes of mystery meat compiled from the trash of a zillion carcasses. These are fresh, beefy treats made from the beef of one steer—an animal I never met while he chewed grass on open New Mexican plains, but whom I adore, nonetheless.
Buying a whole animal (or even half of one) doesn’t just provide a lot of meat; it provides a lot of different kinds of meats and organs and bones. It gives one both the challenge and the pleasure of finding new and different ways to
prepare all the cuts and parts. It means many fine feasts and also an education worth a lot more than approximately $2.40 a pound.
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