Bruce Aidells is already a household name when it comes to meat, but now he’s dealing with households that are buying different ingredients than in years past. His weighty new book, “The Great Meat Cookbook,” lives up to the title, explaining cuts, types, and recipes from beef and bison to lamb and goat.
The book’s main focus is on cooking all different sorts of cuts of meat — including the ones you might encounter when “cow-sharing” or joining a meat CSA. It also fills readers in on what to expect from meat with labels like “grass-fed” or “raised without antibiotics.” It’s a useful reference whether you’re buying grass-fed beef straight from a farmer (the quality will depend on what time of year the animal was slaughtered, Aidells explains), or looking for veal (in the wake of anti-cruelty campaigns, some producers have switched to more humane farming methods, he notes), or whether your favorite pork is a supermarket commodity brand (don’t use any pork labeled “flavor enhanced” for recipes that call for brining or curing, he warns, the meat is likely pumped up with salt, water, and phosphates.)
“So much has changed in terms of availability. (There are) so many choices right now and an awareness that didn’t exist before about how animals are raised…” Aidells said by phone before a string of Seattle appearances. (He’ll be at a talk and butchery demonstration Oct. 2 at Rainshadow Meats, a discussion with snacks at the Book Larder Oct. 3, and dinner at the Dahlia Lounge Oct. 4.)
“But nobody’s really written a cookbook that’s taken all this stuff in mind, and said, ‘OK, if you make all these choices, what are you going to do? How are you going to cook it?”
In his case, the authoritative answers range from West Indian goat curry to maple-sage pork sausage patties to braised coffee-marinated bison short ribs to the ultimate meatloaf sandwich.
Here’s an edited, condensed version of our conversation.
Q: How did you address issues like sustainability and organics when you ran your own large sausage company?
A: “It frankly wasn’t an issue. I left it 10 years ago, we were already miles ahead of our competition just buying high-quality meat, albeit from the commodity world. Over the years they have come out with an organic line, but that actually happened after I left. We had looked into it, we wanted to do business with Whole Foods, and of course it was more expensive, and Whole Foods wasn’t willing to pay us the increased costs the meat supply would have cost us.
“If I was running the company today, it would be totally different. First, I doubt if I would be doing poultry, and I would be searching out some really good quality pork. I just had a long conversation with a fellow chef raising pigs for his own restaurant, and he’s considering making sausages and other things using whole pigs, which is a huge challenge. It’s a different world. I couldn’t even have thought like that when I started, because I couldn’t buy meat that way.”
Q: How do you decide how demanding to be on your readers? You’ve got a recipe in the new book for ham soup with greens and peas that calls for either homemade ham stock, homemade pork stock, or canned chicken broth. It seems like it would taste so much better with the ham or pork stock.
A: “You have to make certain compromises. That’s actually an extremely quick soup. If you want to throw it together and don’t have a ham stock, you can still make a perfectly edible soup (with canned broth.) I usually doctor it. I am lucky enough that occasionally I can get my wife to bring me home some demiglace from the restaurant, but I can’t tell people to do that. I’d rather see you at least cook something from scratch — OK, so you have to use some Swanson’s — than not cook at all.”
Q: I was glad to read in the book that Seattle is one of your favorite cities. Where do you eat when you’re here?
A: “To tell the truth, I eat at Jeff Bergman’s house. He’s an amazing cook…we used to go to…Monsoon, and when I’m there tomorrow I’ll be at Golden Beetle, Maria Hines’s place. Tom Douglas has been a friend of mine from when he was just a sous chef, we go way back. I particularly like Dahlia Lounge.”
Q: You talk in the book about what you’re getting when you buy sustainable, grass-fed, local, and/or organic meat. When I use those words in print, I inevitably get letters saying it’s elitist food.
A: “It all depends on our attitude. Some people say, ‘I’ve driven by a feedlot and it’s horrible, I’ve seen the conditions of the animals and it’s horrible. But, (buying non-commodity meat) you are going to pay a lot more. I’m a cookbook writer, so I don’t want to abandon anybody…If they buy (commodity meat) in a grocery store, that’s fine — once they cook it so they know what they’re doing, so they know when it’s properly done. That’s my primary goal, to make sure that what you cook is delicious. The other stuff I just felt, these are my own choices, but I certainly don’t expect to lay them on anybody else.”
Q: In the book, you listed official USDA recommendations for cooking meat, and then explained when and why you diverge from that. I don’t see that very often. Did you have to debate much about whether to get into that?
A: No. First of all, I’ve tried to do a decent job explaining the risks and leaving the decision to the individual. (But) the USDA’s charts are basically written by lawyers trying to cover their asses… How can you tell somebody that if you cook a piece of meat to (145) degrees it’s going to be medium rare? I just can’t do it. If you ordered a steak in a restaurant and it came that way, you’d return it.”
Photo: Bruce Aidells photo by Luca Trovato