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February 8, 2011 at 10:08 PM

Meat ‘n greet: there’s help at your neighborhood supermarket

I’m handy with a knife, never fearful nor shy about turning a whole chicken into frying parts, or chunking up a hunk of pork shoulder for carne adovada. But why should I spend my time trimming and boning meat and poultry when there are powers far greater than I willing — and able — to do the dirty work for me?

I came late to this conclusion not long ago after asking the meat man at Shoreline Central Market about a specific cut of beef in his display case, one that looked like the perfect dimension for my Sri Lankan beef-curry recipe. “Would you like me to cut that for stew?” he asked. Indeed I would! And in fact he did, trimming the fat from the beef — and trimming at least 20 minutes from my kitchen prep time.

Jason Whetham, meat manager at Shoreline Central Market, assists customer Nancy Wiesner, who lives in Ravenna, but shops here regularly — thanks to the great service. [Seattle Times photo/Ken Lambert].

With all the talk lately about the rise of specialty butcher shops doing things the old-fashioned way (my hat’s off to them), I’m here to remind you that if you ask nicely, the guy (or gal) behind your supermarket meat counter is also there for you. I’m not just talking about the folks in the upscale meat departments at places like Metropolitan Market, PCC or Whole Foods, among others.

Jackie Shaff, an Albertsons meat cutter of 13 years standing, plies her trade in Lynnwood. Hand her a whole chicken from the refrigerated case and, “We can bone it, we can skin it, we can pretty much do anything you want with it.”

Unimpressed with that prepackaged ground beef? “We can grind a burger out of any roast you pick,” Shaff tells me. “Beef only, though. We don’t want to mix species through the grinder.”

Can’t afford New York strip or a rib steak? Find a cheaper cut, said Shaff, and she’s happy to turn it into a cube steak with a special tenderizing machine. Is everybody there so happy to help? It’s their job, she insists. And if we’re told otherwise, “Go see a manager and say something.”

This spencer steak, from Central Market, is fit to be tied. And if you need some A-1 sauce or some mushrooms to saute on the side, you can find those there too — and at supermarkets everywhere. [Seattle Times photo/Ken Lambert]

Just before Thanksgiving, I was shopping at my neighborhood QFC when I spied a cold case full of whole Draper Valley chickens on sale at giveaway prices. Grabbing two, I smiled at the fellow doing double duty processing turkey orders, then asked if he’d be kind enough to break down my birds. Though his eyes said, “Lady, you’ve got to be kidding,” his mouth said, “You want the backs?” “Soup-er!” I said with a wink. (I save them for chicken stock.)

When I told my tale of two chickens to Dave Bolewicki, who manages the meat department at QFC in Factoria, he provided this caveat: “We deal in retail-quality meats, not wholesale-quantity meats. When they’re on sale at 49 cents a pound, they’re a grab-and-go commodity. We’ll process one or two, but we can’t cut up a whole case of them for somebody.” That requires time and labor, he said.

Echoing other meat-department managers I spoke to, Bolewicki said special orders are always welcome. “With a little heads-up, we can have things ready and waiting for pickup.” But the last thing they want to see, he said, is some restaurant chefs buying a half-dozen pre-packs of pork shoulder at 99 cents a pound and asking supermarket staff to cut the meat into steaks or otherwise “process” it for them.

Rest assured, not every meat counter — and meat cutter — is created equal. At one market, my husband was shocked and not a little appalled when he asked to have a whole duck cut into pieces. His bird got the band-saw treatment, providing him with four bony quarters: not exactly what he had in mind for his gumbo. “Next time, bring it home whole,” I told the man who sharpens my knives. “And I’ll carve if for you.”

So, tell me: Where do you shop for meat? And how’s the service at your supermarket meat department?

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