Prime v.s. Choice Beef

Prime v.s. Choice BeefIf you are someone who consumes beef with any regularity, you have most likely seen the USDA Prime or USDA Choice grade symbols either on the package or as part of an advertisement. But, do you know what they really mean? The easy answer would be to say that the USDA Prime option is the better cut of beef…which would only sort of be true. You could have a cut of USDA Choice that can be as good or sometimes even better than Prime. So how do you choose?

The guidelines the USDA uses to determine what is Prime, Choice, or Select beef all revolve around two words, marbling and abundant.

Marbling is the easy part. Marbling is the amount of fat that can be seen within the cut of meat. The more fat marbling, the better the flavor.

Abundant is a little more complicated. A cut of beef can have moderately abundant marbling, slightly abundant marbling, moderate marbling, slight marbling, and everything else in between. It’s enough to give someone a headache.

To help soothe the ache, below is a quick guide to the two most popular grade, Prime and Choice:

USDA Prime
USDA Prime beef refers to high-quality cuts of beef with slightly abundant to abundant marbling. Though Prime beef can now be found at more and more food retailers, Prime beef is most often sold to restaurants and hotels. Prime beef is high quality and tender and comes with a price tag to match. Prime roasts and steaks are best suited to roasting or grilling.

USDA Choice
USDA Choice beef is also high-quality tender beef but with less marbling than Prime. Choice roasts or steaks that come from the loin and rib areas will be very tender and have great flavor with a much more affordable price tag. The less tender Choice cuts will come from the round section. These are the cuts that are better used for braising or slow roasting.

The grade of beef you choose wholly depends on you, what you are cooking and what your budget can allow. There is no right or wrong option. A lot of times it depends on the person preparing it.

If you ever get the opportunity to try a bit of each option side by side I encourage you to experiment and see if you can tell the difference.

How to Grill a Perfect Steak
Here are our instructions for grilling a steak to perfection. Read more…

The Benefits of Fat

The Benefits of Fat — Rib Eye Steaks with Herbed ButterThose of us of a certain age fondly remember the can of rendered bacon fat that your grandmother kept in the fridge (or some kept under the sink). It was used to prevent fried eggs from sticking to the pan on Saturday mornings or to slowly caramelize onions for Sunday night. (Frighteningly, some used to spread it on toast for lunch. A throwback to an era when money was tight and nothing was wasted.) But the main purpose for that can of fat was to add more flavor to everything.

For decades doctors have been telling us that fat is bad and because of that grocery shelves are filled with products that are fat-free. We have been told that fat will clog your arteries and raise your cholesterol levels. While it is true that the wrong fats will do this, it is also true that the body needs fat to function. What is also true? Fat is flavor. So what is a foodie to do? Finding the happy medium between healthy and yummy is what’s important when trying to lead a healthy yet tasty lifestyle. In other words, everything in moderation. Knowing when to go all out with a beautifully marbled steak and when to dial it back is key.

Fat is essential in cooking because it not only adds flavor but moisture as well. For example, you can make a burger out of lean ground chuck but it will never be as juicy or as packed with beefy meaty flavor because the fat needed to produce those results is missing. You could get away with using lean beef in a Bolognese sauce though because the meat will already be in a moist environment and it will lower the chances of your sauce tasting greasy.

BBQ aficionados know that a ribeye from the grill is one of the best things you can put in your mouth because of the extensive marbling in that particular cut of meat. You could also throw a nicely marbled New York steak on the grill and produce great results but, because New Yorks have less fat marbling, you have to be a bit more vigilant to keep them from being overcooked and dry. A filet mignon steak, while very tender, does not have as much fat marbling and therefore should not be cooked for long periods of time because it will be dry and you ruin a beautiful and expensive piece of beef.

Pork fat is a beautiful thing. Its flavor is the preferred addition for sausage makers who use their own fat to meat ratio in their recipes to create the perfect bratwurst, breakfast link or other sausages. Anyone who has had the pleasure of consuming a pork shoulder that has been slow roasted for hours should agree. The high-fat content in a pork shoulder breaks down and slowly bastes the meat as it cooks thus adding flavor and moisture to the meat that melts in your mouth. And then there’s bacon…

Pork loins have very little fat in them and because of that, they make a healthy alternative to always eating chicken breast. The lack of fat though means that they will dry out much faster when cooking. If you are cooking the full loin, it’s best to add moisture with a brine—or slice the loin into 1/2 inch chops and sauté them in a pan.

The bottom line is this. If your goal is an awesome steak dinner right off the grill, you are better off going with the cut that has the higher fat content, or risk disappointment. Leaner cuts are great too but save those for the recipes with more complicated ingredients than salt and pepper.

Rib Eye Steaks with Herbed Butter
Adapted from Rea Drummond on the Food Network
Yields 4 servings Read more…

Shrimp

ShrimpBecause there are literally thousands of varieties of shrimp in the waters of our world, seeing shrimp on an ingredient list in a recipe is not as straightforward as you may think. A cook in Vietnam will use a shrimp in their recipe that may look similar to the shrimp used by a cook in Louisiana but the flavor and texture will be different. Not better per se, but different.

When looking at a recipe that has shrimp as an ingredient, most people think of the medium-sized shrimp that can be found in your local meat case in varying forms: wild, farmed, frozen, and peeled & deveined. Most of the thousands of varieties of the world’s shrimp don’t ever make it to market. They are eaten by the larger occupants of the earth’s oceans. Of the hundreds of varieties that are eaten by people, only a few dozen are readily available for consumption in the United States.

To help you navigate these confusing waters, we’ve put together some brief information about the shrimp you are most likely to find in stores to help keep you informed.

First things first, unless you live in the Gulf Coast or in areas where there are local shrimp, finding fresh shrimp will be fairly difficult. The good news is that, unlike other seafood,  shrimp freezes really well without losing its flavor or texture. Buying frozen shrimp and keeping it in your freezer to use as needed, can be a convenient way to always have some on hand. Fair warning—shrimp will start to deteriorate even in the freezer so it is recommended that you store them for no longer than a couple of months.

Most of the shrimp sold and consumed in the US is part of a group considered to be Tropical Shrimp. They are found in the waters off the coast of the Carolinas and Florida as well as the Gulf of Mexico, Ecuador and Mexico’s West Coast.

Gulf Shrimp
Probably the most visually recognizable variety of Tropical Shrimp is the Gulf of Mexico Pinks. When raw they are a pinkish, pale orange-ish color and are usually labeled as Gulf Shrimp or Gulf Prawns. They are considered to be the premium domestic shrimp and their sweet flavor is the main reason.

Gulf of Mexico White Shrimp
The next best variety, and most popular, would be the Gulf of Mexico White Shrimp which is harvested in the same Carolina, Florida Gulf of Mexico area as the pinks but are also available as farmed shrimp. They are known for their full, nutty flavor and firm texture. These are the shrimp most likely to be found in your seafood case.

Black Tiger Shrimp
Giving the White shrimp a run for their money would be the Black Tiger Shrimp from the waters of Thailand, Indonesia, and Taiwan. These shrimp are more likely to be farmed, although wild black tiger prawns can be found in the waters from Japan to East Africa. These shrimp can grow to be up to 13 inches long but most of the tiger prawns found in the US markets are smaller than the Gulf shrimp. And, though they have excellent flavor, they can be a bit inconsistent.

This is just a drop in the bucket of all the information available should you want to do further research. (The classifications alone will have your head spinning!) Who knew that shrimp was this complicated?

Snapper

Grilled SnapperIf there was ever a utilitarian fish it would be snapper. This delicately flavored fish is relatively inexpensive and pairs well with virtually any cuisine you find. It is low in fat and its mild flavor is more appealing than stronger-tasting fish.

Snapper is found worldwide in tropical and semitropical water and for that reason, buying and ordering snapper can be a little more complicated. The name snapper refers to any fish in the family Lutjanidae of which there are approximately 113 species—all with their own variations. The most well-known of these is the red snapper, lutjanus campechanus. Because it is the most well-known, the name red snapper has been used to sell any fish that can be considered a snapper. If you ask the FDA though, the only snapper that can be sold as red snapper is lutjanus campechanus.

So with all the name games, how do you know what is what? We’ve listed two of the most popular varieties of snapper readily available to us in the Bay Area to try to make your decision a little easier.

Red Snapper
Comes from the Gulf of Mexico and the Western Atlantic. They can grow to be as large as 40 pounds but most weigh around 2-3 pounds whole. It is easy to differentiate from other snappers because it’s profile is more rounded and less streamlined. Its flesh has a consistent pink coloration throughout the fish. Like all fish in the snapper family, red snapper is best prepared whole or filleted, grilled, pan-fried or steamed.

Pacific Red Snapper
This snapper is found in the Eastern Pacific off the coast of Mexico and Baja California. It looks, tastes and cooks very similar to red snapper but with a slightly more elongated body. The best preparation for this fish is the same as true red snapper: whole or filleted, grilled, pan-fried, or steamed.

Rockfish
A lot of the fish sold on the West Coast is incorrectly labeled as red snapper or Pacific red snapper when it is, in fact, rockfish. While still very tasty, rockfish is a totally different type of fish. When buying your snapper, make sure to ask your butcher or fishmonger if it is a true snapper.

At Piedmont Grocery, we only sell the Pacific Red Snapper.

Oxtails

Braised Ox TailsOften overlooked in the meat case, oxtails have become a more popular choice when cooks are looking for the satisfying flavors of a good, long braise.

Oxtails are not just the tails of oxen. They are, in fact, the tails of beef cattle of all types and they make some of the most delicious braised beef dishes at a more than affordable price. Typically weighing 7 to 8 pounds each, oxtails are cut into shorter chunks of approximately 2 to 3 inches in length for sale.

Ox Tails are a gelatin-rich meat that requires long cooking times at low temperatures to produce tender melt-in-your-mouth meat. The high amount of collagen that is released during these long cooking times produces a rich sauce with deep beef flavors and a silky texture. Perfect when paired with a pillowy mound of mashed potatoes. Oxtails are also the perfect candidate for making beef stock or a nutrient-packed bone broth and if you are an Instant Pot aficionado, cooking oxtails is a snap.

Braised Oxtails Recipe
Adapted from Saveur Magazine
Yields 4 servings

The juices from braising the bone-in beef along with wine and vegetables combine to create a rich gravy. Read more…