The Fedex guy was bitter.
Six massive boxes up two flights of stairs will do that to a man. But our cow had arrived. W, a 578-pound steer, had been butchered, put into vacuum packs, frozen, and shipped from upstate New York to my East Village apartment. And it was finally time to divide the spoils.
We were splitting the beef eight ways, and would have an sporting league-style draft to divide up the beast. I had done some homework, boning up on the beef section of The River Cottage Meat Book to determine which cuts to target (The RCMB is the official Portable Chef Book of the Year; equal parts moral manifesto, encyclopedia, and cookbook, it’s the best food book I’ve read in awhile). My experience cooking beef has historically been very narrow in scope, and I was excited to broaden my horizons. I had bought two shares, so the six other participants and I would split the cow eight ways.
We were overwhelmed as we started to take the beef, which had been butchered and frozen in vacuum packs, out of the boxes. This was a lot of animal; it was an incredible thing to see a cow, neatly divided up into several hundred vacuum packs, and made me realize just how many people one cow feeds.
STEAKS ARE HIGH
Fun fact: the T-bone (your grandpa’s steak) and the porterhouse (the default steak at Peter Luger’s) are essentially the same thing – a T-shaped bone (duh) with two different cuts of meat on either side of the vertical line in the T: the strip loin on the larger side and the tenderloin on the smaller side. The difference is in the designation: to qualify as a porterhouse steak, the tenderloin must meet certain size thresholds. That’s it. A great way to cook ’em if, like me, you don’t have a grill: heat up a cast iron pan to extreme hotness (pan should be on the verge of smoking). Pat the steak dry and cook it for 3-5 minutes on each side, until there’s a good brown crust. Put it into a 400-degree oven until your desired state of doneness (140 is medium rare; take it out 5 degrees before, as it will continue to cook after you take it out). Take out the steak and let it rest for at least 1/2 hour, preferably an hour, before eating.
We drew lots to determine drafting order. Andy won and would go first. I drew #3 and #5. Now, it wouldn’t be a draft if I didn’t at least consider packaging my top two picks to trade up and get the top pick. But I quickly discarded the idea. First of all, looking at all these cuts – my beloved tenderloin (cut in two), plus a mountain of brisket, ribeye, chuck roasts, chuck steaks, ground beef, sandwich steaks, sirloin, short ribs, and T-bone and porterhouse steaks, it was clear that there was no Shaq or Peyton Manning-type cut that had to go #1, and equally clear that this draft was deep – lots of quality all the way through. It simply wasn’t worth losing a first-round pick just to go #1. Second, I knew Andy wanted the tenderloin at #1 and this meant that, depending on what Jonathan and Carleen did at #2, it was entirely possible that I could land my coveted hanger steak with the #3 pick AND pick up the last piece of tenderloin at #5.
So when Jonathan and Carleen drafted a gorgeous piece of brisket at #2, I pounced all over the hanger steak and when Glen and Maria took the skirt at #4, my draft day objectives were complete, and Angela and I had kicked ass. I felt like this guy (for the first few seconds only, that is; as for the rest of the video, I’m sure there is a life lesson in there someplace, but I’m not sure what that might be).
That’s the good thing about a Beef Draft, though: everyone makes out extremely well. There’s more than enough to go around. That the porterhouse, thought of throughout the country as perhaps the choicest cut of ’em all, went undrafted through the first five picks is testament to the bounty of deliciousness involved here.
-Hanger steak (1)
-Tenderloin (about 1 1/2 lbs)
-Porterhouse steaks (2)
-T-bone steaks (3)
-Brisket (1, about 3 lbs.)
-Chuck roast (2)
-Chuck steak (1)
-Flank steak (2)
-NY Strip steaks (2)
-Sirloin steaks (4)
-Stew meat (2 lbs.)
-Ground beef (37 lbs).
-Shanks (4 inch-thick cross-sections)
-Sandwich steak (about 2 lbs).
So now the eating. The next day I made my first meal from W, burgers. Holy crap, they were delicious, perhaps even superior to the sample we tried in the burger-off. The draft had already paid off – even if I had nothing but the promise of 36.5 more pounds of burgers coming my way, I’d consider my investment worthwhile.
THE PORTABLE CHEF BURGER
Spoiler alert: the most important part of a burger is the meat. Hamburgers of any kind tend to taste good, but do a head-to-head with beef from a place like Eight O’Clock Ranch or Whippoorwill Farms, that raise their livestock the right way and are responsible stewards of the land, and beef from a supermarket (even high-end, pricey joints like Whole Foods). You won’t go back. Even if you already get grass-fed beef, don’t stop there – find the best meat.
OK, so once you have some top-quality ground beef: take half a sprouted grain and seed muffin from Food For Life (available at most health food stores, the one that comes in a blue box; don’t let the quotations from Genesis throw you. They make a hell of a muffin); toast it and smear some flavored something on it (my favorite is Vietnamese pineapple mayo, which I get from the Belgian fry place on 2nd Avenue just south of St. Mark’s, but depending on your taste ketchup, mustard, and sriracha sauce all work well here); add a thin slice of tomato; barely cook the burger on a very hot cast iron pan; serve open face.
Next up was a beef slow cooked in beer. Holy crap. Outrageous marbling, and perfect taste and texture. A T-bone steak – amazing. And reports coming were starting to come in from my co-drafters: a through-the-roof beef Bourguignon. Sirloin tip steaks. Brisket. People throughout the city were feasting on our cow, and making some of the best dinners they’d ever made.
This started my mind reeling at the possibilities. Tongue braised in red wine? Flat iron steak: should I cook it up steak au poivre-style or braise it? And how awesome would a Bolognese sauce made with this ground beef be?
What only a few days ago had seemed an impossibly large mountain of meat now appeared to me panic-inducingly small and shrinking – like Antarctica, except made of beef. I had already used all of my chuck roast, had just had one brisket and some short ribs left among the true braising meats, and I had a holiday dinner coming up that threatened to cut into that; I only had a dinner for two’s worth of Porterhouses; and with my personal chefing I knew I’d end up going through my two shares much faster than everyone else would go through their one.
I was hurriedly scanning my address book, scoping out potential candidates for an emergency supplemental beef draft, when the phone rang. It was Jesse.
“Next time,” he said, “we need to double up the size of these shares.” Good to see I wasn’t alone. There’s a deep ratchet effect to having a dealing quantity of beef in the fridge – no sooner do you get it than it seems absolutely impossible to live without it.
Feedback from everyone confirmed the obvious: beef drafts are awesome. The benefits are overwhelming: the best-tasting, healthiest beef around; a huge cost savings over farmer’s market beef; a deeper connectedness with the animal; a chance to broaden cooking and eating horizons; a little frisson of competition; fun for the whole family. I learned a lot: as a direct result of studying up for the draft, I now know what part of the cow the brisket, chuck, and ribeye come from, as well as fun facts like that there is only one hanger steak per cow. And there’s a certain Survivorman-type comfort in knowing that under a very specific subset of doomsday scenarios – one that involved food shortages but would need lots of electricity, and no looting – I’d be covered.
The downsides? None. The need for forethought, I guess, and a need for some freezer space.
So it is written here: a whole animal draft is the way things will be done in Portable Chef-land. Bring it.
Uri is scoping out potential candidates for an emergency supplemental beef draft anyway.