By: Nick Marino
Marcus NilssonWhen you go clothes shopping, you know that what's on the sales floor is only a fraction of the inventory. Additional sizes and colors are always in the back. The butcher case is kinda like that-it's just a starting place-and the guy on the other side of the glass will happily pull exactly what you want (or great stuff you didn't even know existed) if you summon the courage to strike up a conversation. To build a relationship with your butcher, follow these tips from Rob Levitt, who co-owns The Butcher & Larder, the first sustainable whole-animal shop in the meatpacking mecca of Chicago. It won't be long before your own butcher joins your tailor, your doctor, and your accountant as one of the most important advisers in your life.
1. Ask About Your Meat's Backstory.
It's very Portlandia to discuss how a cow lived before his date with the abbatoir, but meat's provenance actually does influence quality and flavor. So ask what the cattle were fed. Levitt stocks some beef from cows raised on strictly free- range grass pasture and some finished on grain before slaughter. Grass-fed beef tastes more rustic. With grain, he says, "you get a really nice marbling, a nice fat cover on the outside. The beef doesn't have so much of that funky, iron-y flavor."
2. Have Your Butcher Plan Your Party.
Let's say you're having a cookout. Tell the butcher about your guests (how many, how hungry, how picky) and he might be able to save you some hassle- and some cash. "If you plan on buying a mammoth rib eye for each of your friends, it's gonna cost a lot of money," Levitt says. Instead, he'd suggest buying a few brontosaurus-sized steaks to share. "You cut off the bone, you slice them up, and you're ready to go."
3. Learn to Love the Whole Barnyard.
Tell your butcher what you like and let him suggest something comparable but offbeat. "If you're used to eating beef and you want something different, lamb is a great place to start," Levitt says. Any butcher should have shanks; braised in beer or red wine, they'll make a hearty entrée come fall.
4. Make Sirloin Popsicles.
Buy more than you need and ask for any extra to be wrapped in freezer paper, Levitt says. Unlike regular butcher paper, it has a plastic lining that creates a moisture barrier. Put the wrapped meat in a vacuum-sealable FoodSaver bag or a zip-top freezer bag with the air squeezed out, and then freeze.
5. Call Ahead for That Hog Snout.
With a week or two of notice, butchers can special-order just about anything. They'll pull together veal-and-pork sausages like Nonna used to make. They'll get you a whole suckling pig for your Labor Day blowout. Basically, they'll procure whatever's too esoteric to take up regular space in the display window. Levitt hardly flinches at orders for blood sausage or chicken feet. "We've had science teachers ask if they can get eyeballs from us."
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