Like many people, I’ve long been in the habit of purchasing parts–skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, pork chops, fish filets, and the like–at the meat counter. Many shoppers are willing to pay a premium for the convenience of prepped meat, poultry, and seafood. Also, we may not know how to break down a whole chicken or clean and filet a fish. Your grandmother probably could do it with her eyes closed, but could you?
Old-school butchery is making a comeback, and butchers are the newest stars on the culinary scene.
I certainly couldn’t–at least, not very well–until I took the Meat Identification and Fabrication class at culinary school. The three-week class was a crash course in understanding different cuts of beef, lamb, veal, and pork, as well as gaining loads of practice cutting up whole chickens and ducks, and filleting all kinds of fish.
Of course, despite that, I’m no expert. Butchery is an art and skill that can’t be mastered in three weeks. But I did enjoy the satisfaction of cooking fish that I’d cleaned and filleted myself, and sauteing the breast of a chicken I’d just broken down.
The class was also particularly well timed, since a do-it-yourself approach to meat, poultry, and fish is making a strong comeback, along with other budget-friendly, old-timey, back-to-basics kitchen skills like canning. Part of it is a desire to save some coin–whole or large cuts are cheaper than parts–but it’s also an extension of the local, know-your-food movement. In other words, pork chops come from an actual pig, not a tightly sealed Styrofoam tray. People are doing this in all kinds of ways, from purchasing meat and poultry from local producers at the neighborhood farmers’ market to raising their own livestock. In one elaborate experiment, an Alabama-based magazine editor raised and slaughtered a pig–and documented it in the fascinating blog Killing Dinner. Top-drawer chefs, like Blue Hill’s Dan Barber, are bringing butchering back to restaurant kitchens in order to take advantage of high-end animal products, like hazenut-fed pigs and grass-fed beef. The newest culinary stars are butchers, according to The New York Times.
Home cooks are jumping on the bandwagon, for quality and cost-savings. If you know how to clean and filet a fish, you can inspect the whole fish before you buy to ensure it’s truly fresh–i.,e, with bright eyes, intact scales, pinky-red gills, and a fresh scent (or no scent). Buying a whole chicken is cheaper than parts, and you can get a lot of mileage out of it. A pound of organic skinless boneless chicken breasts is $9 at my local supermarket; a 4-pound whole organic chicken is less than $8 (and that’s for a premium bird from Whole Foods). I roasted one on Sunday night. Two of us ate the breast halves on Sunday; I cut the meat off the thighs and drumsticks for tacos on Tuesday; and I’ll use the carcass to make stock this weekend.
And, of course, there’s the emerging trend of bringing locally raised/caught meat, poultry, and seafood directly from producers to consumers. NPR just reported on CSFs (community-supported fisheries) in New England, which will may help small-scale fishermen and whole fishing communities survive while bringing high-quality, local seafood to Boston-area residents. CSFs work just like CSAs. Can dedicated CSRs (community-supported ranching) or CSPs (community-supported poultry) be far off? In fact, many CSAs already include delivery options for local meat, poultry, and dairy products.
Of course, the trick for many of the Boston CSF’s new customers is what to do with the whole fish they get each week. And to help with that, organizers offer classes in the fine–and nearly lost–art of cleaning and filleting a fish.