A Girl and Her Cleaver

March 2, 2010

As noted in my previous post, I spent this past Saturday at the St. Helena campus of the Culinary Institute of America participating in an introductory butchery class titled “Behind the Meat Counter.”

We fortunate few were instructed to present ourselves at the CIA’s general reception at 9 am with a medium-capacity cooler in tow.  After some cursory instructions and affixing of the inevitable “Hello my name is” tags, we were escorted to a classroom for initial orientation followed by a far-ranging tour of the CIA’s impressively appointed facilities – gleaming steel, rich red enamel and wickedly sharp cutlery as far as the eye could see.  It was a treat to inspect the many test kitchens where fledgling chefs hone their skills and earn their credentials.  It was surprising to observe the clear distinction drawn – both in attitude and physical territory – between “savory” and pastry chefs.  Turns out that pastry chefs are considered the nerds of the bunch due to their penchant for precise measurements and inflexible adhesion to process.  Renovations were recently completed on a chocolate and candy kitchen featuring six marble bench tops with finely calibrated temperature controls to promote the careful tempering required to produce the generous shine, luxurious texture and satisfying snap indicative of a quality product.  But I digress.

The disposable toque makes it official

The real focus of the day and my particular attentions was meat and its “fabrication,” the technical term used to denote the breaking down of larger primal cuts into the steaks and chops with which we, as consumers, are more familiar.  The course included both a demo and hands-on deconstruction of a chicken, a rack of lamb, one full bone-in center cut pork loin and a beef round.  I would have liked to see a rabbit or a duck or other game on the agenda – I would have been over the moon for some offal – but, as it turned out, the product provided presented more than ample challenge for the time allotted.  The course itself is intended for the culinary “enthusiast” with little to no experience and the class participants ranged from a CIA-trained pastry chef to one woman who I am confident had never held a knife before in her life, so I congratulated myself on occupying a position comfortably in the middle of the pack and said a silent prayer hoping to end the day with a full set of fingers.

The individual meat-specific lessons were administered thusly – the chef (“Chef Wild” funnily enough) would address his product, chicken in the first instance, skillfully palpating the bird to indicate the several joints where the parts would be separated from the body while we stood at rapt attention around his demo bench.  He then selected a knife and with expert precision sliced through skin and flesh, bone and sinew with no apparent effort – talking all the while – until a perfectly portioned chicken lay disassembled on the board before him.  Then he would clean his knife restore it to his rigidly regimented knife roll, smile and say “your turn,” whereupon we would all turn to our appointed stations to find that a chicken had suddenly materialized thanks to the stealthy efforts of a small but efficient cadre of teaching assistants.  And then the fun began.

I witnessed at least one whole chicken hit the floor as a result of overzealous joint reconnaissance and observed some curious freeform cuts that I did not recognize as components of the Colonel’s ever-popular bucket, but I too was there to learn so I tried to keep my eyes on my own board and stay out of the weeds myself.  No mean feat as it happened due to the sorry state of the knives provided.  I’m not suggesting that an “enthusiast” level class warrants fresh metal, but the tools offered had an edge somewhere between a shovel and a pair of kindergarten safety scissors, which, contrary to what you might think, is far more dangerous than an appropriately sharpened knife.  But no matter.

Chickens having been dispatched with relative ease, we turned our collective attention to the beef rounds populating our freshly sanitized cutting boards, each of which – estimating conservatively – weighed in at around 10 pounds comprised of a tri-tip perched atop a generous mound of sirloin all of which was capped by an inch thick bonnet of waxy fat, membrane and sinew.  Our mission – to remove as much of the fat cap as possible while preserving the integrity of the meat below, separate the tri-tip from the sirloin and portion the remainder into two healthy slabs of pot roast, thinner minute steaks or 1-inch cubes of stew meat.  Removing fat and sinew from room temperature meat can be deft work not helped by a knife with an edge like a trowel.  I cannot speak to the efforts of my colleagues as my attention was completely consumed by the task at hand, as well as surreptitiously monitoring the location of Chef Wild as he wandered between the benches noting deficiencies and offering advice.  He reached my station as I was studiously running my blade beneath a stubborn sinew lifting it from the glistening sirloin below and said, “That’s good too.” For obvious reasons, I chose interpret that as commentary appended to previous observations about my neighbor – “That is good. That’s good too.” – and elected not to seek further clarification.

At this stage it was clear to all that we were short on time.  Wiping furrowed brows and bent at uncomfortable angles, we trimmed and sculpted our subjects as best we could acknowledging that the surgically precise cuts presented on the Chef’s board were the most remote unobtainium.  Running low on time, the executive decision was made to skip the lamb racks, which were deposited whole into our coolers for “study and fabrication at home.”  This left the full bone-in center cut pork loin – easily the largest cut assigned – as our final challenge.  The options for fabrication of this cut are many and, with a mere 45 minutes of our class remaining, we were invited to tackle at least four different cuts from the whole loin.  Under ideal circumstances this might be a welcome adventure, but, with the clock counting down and a general panic in the air, it was – I must confess – a little daunting.  Several of the participants, myself included, spent the first few minutes gaping at the two-foot hunk of meat bristling with ribs and cushioned by fat intended by Mother Nature to protect the long, lean pork loin and its smaller cousin the tenderloin.  I had never previously addressed a piece of meat of this dimension nor boasting such a flurry of bony protuberances.  There did not seem to be an obvious entry point, but acknowledging the dwindling time and the naked fact that the whole loin was not going to fit into my cooler, I swore a bit under my breath and dove in.

I resolved to fashion two double thick center-cut pork chops (a personal weakness), one four-rib roast, the tenderloin to be grilled whole and, if I was lucky, some boneless end-cut loin chops – all of which was very nearly stymied by my realization that the chime bone (vertebral column) had been left intact running the length of the loin and intersecting all the ribs I had so recently resolved to separate.  The chime bone is a serious structural component and I was not going to get through it with a chef’s knife – much less a dull chef’s knife.  There was a bone saw in the room slowly working its way down the line, but with no time to spare, and following an honest assessment of the likelihood of my inadvertently sawing off a finger in the final minutes of the countdown, I elected instead to investigate alternative methods.  Using my knife as a wedge I separated the individual vertebrae as indicated for my desired cuts and, taking hold of the ribs on either side heaved the whole mess down on the edge of my bench as hard as I could and, to my very great surprise, with an organic crack, the chime bone separated and the cuts fell apart.  It was immensely satisfying.

I cannot pretend that the pork cuts are as carefully crafted as I would have liked and I have a fair bit of work to do if I intend to serve them to company; however, I will have far have greater confidence tackling primal cuts after attending this class and I doff my hat to the experienced butchers who make light work of what I have learned firsthand is a daunting and dangerous process.

In addition to these practical lessons, I came away from the CIA with no less than 25 pounds of

Double thick center-cut pork chops

chicken, beef, lamb and pork that are now languishing in my freezer until I can negotiate a means of getting them on the table.  The first items on the menu were those double thick center-cut pork chops (I could not resist!) – brined overnight (water, salt, whole peppercorns, lemon juice and rind, thyme, honey), roasted in a hot oven with a pan-seared finish.  They were fantastic!  Moist and redolent with rich pork flavor – well worth the price of admission.

A special thanks to Michael for arranging this most recent culinary adventure.  It was an inspired idea and a wonderful way to spend a day. This has reinforced my amateur interest in meat and butchery.  Perhaps one day I will have the knowledge and means to butcher and dry age my own steaks.

A girl can dream.

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One Response to “A Girl and Her Cleaver”

  1. the dad Says:

    For a kid who can’t stand anyone pointing anything sharp in her direction… that was quite a days work. I REALLY want that double cut pork chop this very minute… with mango chutney. Glad you had fun. I look forward to dinner at your house soon.

    the dad

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