Thursday, March 15, 2012

On the best dinner I have ever made; aka, saving spoiling meat

I abhor waste.

I'm not perfect--I screw up and things go bad or beyond eating--but Grammy's Depression Mentality skipped a generation and hit me full force, and I do what I can. I am suspicious of calls to throw anything away (though Chris luckily provides a sound, cautious balance to any out-and-out packrat behavior), and minimize waste every way I can. If something can go to goodwill, to recycling, to a classroom, or into the compost bin rather than the garbage, I try it.

My proudest accomplishment recently was saving meat--poultry, no less--from beyond the brink.

In the past, this would have been something we'd have thrown out--it was only three days past its sell-by, but smelled unpleasant through the package, a sign of spoilage, and poultry is notorious for carrying bacteria. But I had looked all over for a large raw turkey breast (we planned to roast it for sandwiches), it was a couple of pounds, and I could NOT stand the thought of letting something so substantial and hard won go without a fight.

So I did a little research. How bad is bad?

According to this article (and the two separate labs and a human test subject involved), it's a lot farther off than we tend to think.

I don't understand all forms of spoilage, I'll be honest--but I do understand bacteria and temperature pretty well. While Tom Rawstorne said no to his chicken past-it's-prime, in the article above, the lab confirmed that while the smell was produced by an excess of bacteria, cooking it thoroughly would kill it; the only problem would be foul tastes left behind.

I won't eat things that smell or taste rotten; I'm not going to fight with evolution on this one, because I'll lose. But the world has developed plenty of ways to make "bad" food safe and palatable in famines, and I resolved that if I could get the turkey clean enough to NOT smell, and that if I could make it taste good, we would eat it. Reassured that it's safe if cooked through and cross-contamination is avoided, that was all that was left to cover.

(I also consulted with Chris to make sure he was okay with this plan; I would never push old meat on anyone.)

First, the smell--fat and skin spoil faster than anything else, and the plastic packaging meat tends to come in traps all manner of foul-smelling gases bacteria are emitting. (If you get inflated packages, this is most likely what is going on, there.) So I cut away every scrap of skin and fat I could get to, scrapped the packaging, and rinsed the hell out of the breast in running water. (Rinsing won't kill anything, but water and friction will displace a lot of things, and at the very least dispel the gases clinging to the meat.) Moved it to a clean plate, washed and bleached everything it had touched previously, and hit it from the cats so it could come to room temperature.

Room temp. probably sounds like a bad idea, since refrigeration slows bacterial growth, right? But the fastest way to undercooked portions of meats is to put them still cold into the oven or pan; a piece of meat with a cold core will not cook as evenly as a piece of room temperature meat, and uneven cooking is the enemy of safe cooking.

I smelled it every hour or so while I was waiting, to see if the packaging stench came back. It did not; there was a distinct smell of meat, strong, but not foul. Step one: success.

Second: taste. In case any of the off-ness survived the de-smelling, I wanted to be sure I cooked it thoroughly, safely, and with a lot of strong flavors. I don't want to go that far and come up with something that tastes funny and we won't eat.

So I looked at world cuisine. Cuisine from hot climates and from impoverished or famine-struck nations has developed in response to avoiding or curing spoilage; if you can't afford to throw anything away (famine) or food pre-refrigeration would go off in the heat too quickly (equatorial zones), you find a way. Hot climates have cultured spices and very hot peppers, which in addition to having vibrant enough tastes to hide off notes, have some health benefits related to insulin and heart disease, and have serious anti-bacterial properties--they retard or reverse spoilage.

So do garlic, onions, and alcohol - here we get into the impoverished era of French cooking.

Now I know "famine" isn't generally how we think of French food; French food is what comes incredibly expensive in incredibly small portions in incredibly fancy restaurants. But how do you think anyone decided eating frog legs and snails was a good idea? This was not the product of a rich nation.

A segment of french food comes down almost entirely to stewing for a long time (killing bacteria with heat; making tough cuts or scrap meat tender) and cooking with wine (alcohol will kill almost anything). The onions and garlic are an added bonus.

Anyway, I've been making a lot of curries and middle-eastern dishes lately, so I thought I'd try my hand at French. This is almost always Chris's bailiwick--southern French, northern Italian, Provençal--but he has taught me how to make two of the best things in the world: marinara and boeuf bourguignon.

Beouf bourguignon is taking hunks of beef and sauteing them with garlic and onions before (guess!) stewing them with vegetables for three hours in red wine (Burgundy, specifically) and stock. It is the most delicious thing in existence. (And stewing for that long would also hide how not-crisp those carrots and how soggy those mushrooms were, too). I knew there had to be chicken versions of this, too, with white wine, and confirmed that fricasée de poulet au vin blanc is a common enough dish, so I decided fricasée de dinde au vin blanc would do nicely--even though the turkey is a New World bird, not common in French cooking.

Here were the basics:

First, take as read that any time the turkey touched any implement, the implement was cleaned before it touched anything else--including the turkey as it was cooking. All veggies had devoted boards and knives that never came in contact with the turkey.

*Sauted garlic and onions in butter until slightly browned.
*Still on the bone, seared both sides of the breast.
*Almost covered with water, added a clove, salt, pepper, and a little wine (see below) and boiled for about 30 minutes, turning midway (this step should have killed everything even potentially dangerous, and as a bonus made the gorgeous turkey stock I wanted with the stew)
*Removed the breast, let it cool slightly (left the stock boiling down to concentrate; tasted the stock to be sure it was excellent before going any further--it was)
*Cut the meat off of the bone into hunks, returned to the boiling stock (in case any part of the meat close to the bone didn't cook thoroughly, this took care of that)

*Chopped up a pile of carrots, celery, and mushrooms; added to the stock
*added the rest of a half-bottle of Sauvignon Blanc to the stew (remaining half to have with the stew at dinner, naturally)
*set the whole thing to a gentle simmer and let it go 2-3 hours

Now I'm paranoid about off-tastes; usually, even the fear of something being off might convince me something tasted wrong. Not so, here: this was, without a doubt, the most delicious entree I have ever made. I even managed to whip up a sourdough-starter-aided crusty white bread to serve with it, and some green beans, so the meal was complete and gorgeous and trés Français.

I suppose I should say "replicate at your own risk"--be sensible about any food risk you decide to take, everyone is different... but if all of the appropriate precautions are taken, there really isn't any risk to speak of.


Barbara from Nova Scotia said...

Thanks for this.

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