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Make peace with meat

By Mark Bittman
New York Times

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  • Grilled Steak and Vegetables With Flour Tortillas

    2 ears of corn, shucked

    1 avocado, halved and pitted

    8 radishes, trimmed

    1 fairly firm mango, peeled and halved

    4 limes, halved

    1 large zucchini, sliced lengthwise

    2 large bell peppers or poblanos, cored and halved

    1 bunch green onions, trimmed

    1 head romaine lettuce, outer leaves removed

    Olive oil

    Salt and ground black pepper

    1 to 1 1/4 pounds rib-eye or strip steak (about an inch thick)

    8 to 12 small flour tortillas

    PREPARE a gas or charcoal grill for direct cooking; the heat should be high on one side and medium on the other, with the rack about 4 inches from the flame. Have 2 platters handy; one so you can remove the vegetables as they begin to char, and a smaller one for the steak. Get a towel or foil ready for wrapping the tortillas.

    TOSS the vegetables or rub them all with olive oil (even the limes and the whole head of lettuce) and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Blot the steak dry with paper towels and set aside.

    PUT the corn, avocado, radishes, mango and limes on the hottest part of the grill and char lightly, turning as necessary, for no more than 5 minutes. Start the zucchini, peppers, green onions and lettuce on the cooler side; they should be cooked until just tender and browned, 5 to 10 minutes. Move the vegetables to the platter as they finish cooking.

    SEASON the steak with salt and pepper. Score the outer fat if necessary. If using charcoal, push the coals together so the heat is high again. Put the steak on the hot grill; cook, leaving it alone until the bottom is nicely charred and the steak releases easily, 2 to 4 minutes. Turn and cook 3 minutes, more or less, for medium-rare.

    REMOVE steak from the grill and let it rest for at least 5 minutes. Meanwhile, cook the tortillas on the grill, turning once or twice until lightly charred, and stack in a towel or foil, wrapping loosely. Prepare the vegetables for serving: Strip the corn kernels off the cob and scoop out and slice the avocado; chop or slice the rest of the vegetables however you like, keeping in mind that you’ll be putting them in tortillas.

    SLICE the steak crosswise, sprinkle with more salt and pepper if you like and return to the platter. Serve with the tortillas.

    YIELD: 4 servings.

  • Pork and Portobello Burgers

    1 pound ground pork

    1 tablespoon minced garlic

    1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary, fennel seed or parsley

    Salt and ground black pepper

    4 large portobello mushroom caps, stems removed

    Olive oil

    4 burger buns

    Any burger fixings you like

    PREPARE a grill; the heat should be medium-high and the rack about 4 inches from the heat.

    COMBINE ground pork, garlic, rosemary and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Use a spoon to lightly scrape away the gills of the mushrooms and hollow them slightly. Drizzle the mushrooms inside and out with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

    PRESS 1/4 of the pork mixture into each of the hollow sides of the mushrooms; you want the meat to spread all the way across. They should look like burgers.

    GRILL the burgers, meat side down, until the pork is well browned, 4 to 6 minutes. Flip and cook until the top side of the mushrooms are browned and the mushrooms are tender, 6 to 8 minutes. Use an instant-read thermometer to check the interior temperature of the pork, which should be at least 145 degrees.

    SERVE the burgers on toasted buns with any fixings you like.

    YIELD: 4 servings.

  • Chinese-Style Vegetable and Veal Stew

    2 tablespoons peanut oil

    1 pound veal stew meat, cut into 1 1/2 inch chunks

    Salt and ground black pepper

    2 medium onions, chopped

    4 medium carrots, cut into 1-inch chunks

    12 radishes (about 8 ounces)

    3 tablespoons minced garlic

    3 tablespoons minced ginger

    1/4 cup soy sauce

    2 cups white wine, stock or water

    1 pound bok choy or baby bok choy (leaves and stems)

    12 ounces snow peas, trimmed

    Dark sesame oil, for drizzling

    Chopped fresh cilantro (optional; garnish)

    PUT oil in large pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add veal and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook, turning as necessary, until well browned on all sides. Transfer veal to plate and set aside.

    ADD onions, carrots and radishes. Cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, 5 to 10 minutes. Add garlic and ginger and cook for another minute. Season with salt and pepper.

    ADD soy sauce and wine, stock or water. Bring to a boil, return veal to pot and reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer, stirring once or twice, until veal is tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

    STIR in the bok choy, cover and cook until the leaves are wilted but stems still have some crunch, about 5 minutes.

    STIR in snow peas and simmer until they turn bright green, about 3 minutes. Garnish with cilantro, drizzle with sesame oil and serve.

    YIELD: 4 servings

I probably eat a third as much meat as I used to. And on the occasions that I do indulge, I eat less of it.

I’m reminded of a really good plate of slow-roasted lamb shoulder I had in Seattle. There were about 6 ounces on the plate, and I ate half. It was delicious, and it was enough. This is no longer a conscious thing but a new habit.

The new habits, I suppose, come from new attitudes. The vast majority of Americans still eat meat at least some of the time. Statistically, most of us eat it in unwise, unsustainable and unhealthful quantities.

I’m betting that you eat meat more consciously (and less of it) than you once did. The health, environmental and ethical concerns affect the attitudes of almost everyone I encounter. And although our priorities differ, few people I know indiscriminately fill their supermarket carts with shrink-wrapped meat. Not long ago, almost all of us did.

It was never easy to judge meat quality, and that remains the case. The USDA grades meat by fat content, “select” being the leanest and “prime” the fattiest.

This is not an adequate system for those of us who consider other things when we buy meat, including at least some assurance the animal was treated humanely.

“Humanely” means different things to different people. Veal consumption plummeted in the ’80s when confinement turned people off. As a result, producers say crates are set to be phased out by 2017. But veal can be as natural a part of legitimate agriculture as any other animal. If you consume dairy, you support veal production.

When it comes to beef, pork and lamb, some people insist that meat come from animals raised on small farms, individually tended; others are interested only that the animals are not raised in confinement or routinely fed antibiotics. Feed is also an issue, because cows evolved to eat grass, not grain.

I feel best when buying from a farmer or farmer’s representative I know, or think I know. But even this has what at first appears to be a decided drawback: cost.

It’s difficult to nail down averages, but commodity meat costs something under $10 a pound in most cases. National brands from humanely treated animals like that from Niman Ranch or Coleman Natural cost maybe twice as much, and meat from local farmers costs considerably more. It’s not uncommon to spend $25 or more a pound on beef from a trustworthy source.

The immediate response consumers have to this is “ouch.” Counterintuitive as it may seem, though, this is good for everyone.

Relatively large-scale sustainable and “natural” or “organic” or “humane” farmers might raise 500 pigs a year – they are not getting rich. We want these farmers to earn a living; they are stewarding the land in a manner we appreciate, and they are providing us with the kind of food we want to eat.

All of which may not make up for spending $30 instead of $15. But there are other reasons you can live with these higher prices. It’s widely accepted that large quantities of red meat may be problematic, health-wise, and many people have made it a goal to eat less meat because large-scale industrial production is damaging to the environment.

Here’s a way to think about it: The price of food in general is what economists call “inelastic” – you’re going to eat something, no matter the cost. But the price of any particular food like meat is elastic – you will buy less as it becomes more expensive. This is a good thing from nearly every perspective.

I am saying this: Spend the same $30, or $50 or $100 or $300 on meat that you now spend each week or month, but buy less and buy better.

Then cook meat differently. I could offer hundreds of recipes for dishes that take advantage of this kind of cooking. Here are three, which are among my current favorites.

The first is a vague interpretation of fajitas that focuses on grilled vegetables and makes beef a supporting player. A pound or so of tender, fatty rib-eye or sirloin goes a long way here.

The second is a new-age version of a veggie burger (as in half and half, not a burger made from vegetables and grain), which you might also think of as a stuffed mushroom. It’s terrific, hearty, unusual and really cool: a portobello filled with sausage and grilled.

Finally, there is an Asian-style veal stew. It’s quick to make, combining simple technique with decidedly unexpected flavors and plenty of vegetables. Finding good veal is the most difficult challenge, although tender beef like tenderloin or pork shoulder also works well.

These are good recipes. With really good meat (and less of it), they’re even better. That’s a change in attitude.

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