Worldwide, meat makes up the center of the meal. Authentic global dishes like this steak tagine are a great source for American menu ideation. Photo courtesy of the beef checkoff. Exotic takes on American favorites inspire creativity in meat-centric menu development
By Christopher Koetke
Despite the recent spotlight on the growing importance of vegetables and grains, meat still holds its place at the center of the plate. In my travels visiting culinary schools around the world, I have been fortunate to dine with other passionate chefs, and our focus invariably turns to meat — the star of the meal in most cultures.
I’ve encountered unexpected cuts of meat, such as steer’s hump — a part of the anatomy of Zebu cattle in Brazil. I’ve also been introduced to new proteins, such as guinea pig meat in Ecuador. Along the way, I’ve learned that certain categories of meat are universally enjoyed across the globe. They may offer exotic twists, but they are, in essence, the same basic meat favorites we savor here in the United States.
A NEW CURE
When you’ve been in the foodservice realm for decades, it’s rare to “discover” a world-class but virtually unknown product, but that’s exactly what happened to me on a recent trip to Chile. About 400 miles south of Santiago, I was introduced to an assortment of cured meats under the brand Secretos de la Unión that left me speechless. From cured venison to cured boar to smoked, cured lamb — all were delicious. But it was the cured wagyu beef (and the loin in particular) that was truly superlative.
Unlike the lean air-dried beef of Switzerland, the Chilean-raised wagyu beef is exceptionally marbled. The result is cured beef that is comparable to the world’s finest cured hams, with a complex, gamey flavor profile and silky, melt-in-your-mouth texture. Wagyu beef is available in the United States, and it deserves a spot on the menus of the best restaurants. It’s an example of the kind of exceptional, interesting ingredient that should be sought out whenever creating top-quality cured meats.
While beef can indeed produce great cured meats, it is the pig that has reigned supreme in restaurants across America for the last few years. Pork’s starring role in cured meats will continue for good reason, but as chefs become more comfortable with in-house charcuterie, other proteins may start sharing pork’s spotlight. Internationally, there are some intriguing examples of other such meats.
Goat is a common staple in many Mediterranean cuisines, where it is routinely featured in roasted and braised applications. But in the mountainous center of Cyprus, chunks of goat are rubbed with salt and oregano, then air dried. The result, called Tsamarella, is chewy, dark red and streaked with fat. Like other cured meats, it is thinly sliced and served at room temperature. Its rich, full flavor is memorable. As goat is becoming increasingly popular in restaurants across the United States, chefs should consider incorporating it into a variety of charcuterie products, including sausages and pâtés.
In Southern Chile, the Patagonian version of ham is made from leg of lamb instead of pork. It is not only cured but cold-smoked, then thinly sliced like prosciutto. The unique flavor of this cured lamb can be attributed to the fact that the Patagonian lambs feed on grasses that are naturally coated with the salty ocean mists, much like the pré-salé lamb of Bordeaux.
I was surprised to find cured lamb across the Atlantic, in the southern Valais canton (state) of Switzerland. Just as delicious as its Chilean cousin, this cured lamb was made by René Meyer in the small village of Turtmann. Meyer has resurrected a regional tradition of curing mouton (mutton), using Old-World methods but substituting lamb for the adult sheep. In Switzerland, the lamb are fed on Alpine grasses and flowers, then slaughtered at 12 months. The meat is cured in salt and spices for three weeks, and air-dried for an additional nine weeks, resulting in a distinct and delightful cured lamb.
Lamb raised locally and featuring unique flavors could be the perfect base ingredient for creative charcuterie in the hands of an innovative chef.
Rogan Josh is a traditional Kashmiri dish in which lamb shanks are slow-cooked in a tomato-curry paste. Photo courtesy of meat & livestock australia. LATIN LINKS
Sausage is a global phenomenon — a simple food that somehow captures the terroir of a region as well as the culinary creativity of its people. While traveling from Mexico City to the city of Toluca high up in the mountains, I encountered one of the most unique sausages I’ve ever tasted.
Chorizo verde — green sausage — can be spotted hanging in butcher shops or proudly displayed in local 10-seat eateries. You can’t miss its bright green color. Chorizo verde is a pork-based sausage tinted green from its mix of ingredients: spinach, cilantro, green chiles and green pumpkin seeds. It is a fresh sausage — not dried, cooked or smoked — that is cooked to order on a comal, or Mexican griddle. As it cooks, the sausage crumbles and browns lightly. Once cooked, it is usually folded into a freshly griddled tortilla along with other ingredients, such as nopales, avocado and green salsa. The flavor is spicy and intriguing.
Recently, I was pleasantly surprised to encounter chorizo verde on a non-Mexican menu in the United States. As sausages gain in popularity among today’s consumers, chorizo verde should be considered for its captivating color and nuanced flavor. It could easily become as well-received as more common chorizo — both Spanish and Mexican styles. Beyond being featured in lunch or dinner dishes, chorizo verde can also spice up breakfast fare, tucked inside an omelet or rolled inside a crêpe.
All over the world, people have discovered the delicious results that come from threading thin pieces of marinated meat on long, heavy-duty skewers, roasting the meat vertically, then slicing the cooked meat onto warm flatbread. Think Middle Eastern shawarma, Greek gyros or Turkish doner kabobs. These famous dishes are not only enjoyed in their native countries, but have successfully spread internationally.
Tacos al pastor is a common, inexpensive meal enjoyed throughout Mexico. It consists of pork that is marinated in achiote, chiles, onion, garlic, vinegar and tomato sauce. The meat is layered on a skewer, then crowned with a peeled pineapple. The pork is roasted vertically, while the pineapple browns atop it. For service, the meat is thinly sliced and placed on small corn tortillas along with a couple of roasted pineapple slivers. The tacos are served with sides of minced onion, chopped cilantro, lime wedges and an assortment of salsas. These easy-to-eat tacos would be a runaway hit at American street-food venues or fast-casual concepts.
Another Mexican street food awaiting adoption north of the border is the torta ahogada. This messy and irresistible handheld originates from Guadalajara. Meaning “drowned sandwich,” the torta ahogada starts with a small bun (bolilla) which is split and filled with shredded poached pork. The sandwich is then submerged in a tomato sauce flavored with chile de arbol, onion, garlic, vinegar and bay leaf. Once the bun is slightly soggy, it is removed from the sauce, doused with more sauce and served with citrus-marinated red onion slices.
Like with ribs, you can’t eat tortas ahogadas without a hefty pile of napkins — which adds to the fun. As global sandwiches continue their popularity with the U.S. consumer, tortas ahogadas could be the basis for a great new sandwich concept that marries international pizazz with handheld comfort.
Street food offers inspiration for how to use lower-cost cuts of meat in new ways — something that the recession has forced chefs to consider. In Peru, skewers of chunked veal or beef hearts, called anticuchos, are a common street food. Anticuchos are marinated in vinegar, chile (ají in Peru), garlic and spices. The trick is to grill them quickly so that the meat does not toughen. While heart is not going to appeal to mainstream American consumers anytime soon, it merits a second look. After all, heart is a muscle just like meat, but denser and sweeter. It is already served in Peruvian restaurants across the United States, and ought to be one of the non-luxury cuts of meat that chefs add to their repertoires.
As a chef, I used to think that one could only do so much with meat, and that the options were limited to the usual favorites. During my global travels, I have seen and tasted so many wonderful local protein interpretations that I now realize there are endless possibilities in the preparation and appreciation of meat.