Sunday, April 11, 2010

Let’s Hear it for the Local Butcher

Last time, I talked about my ever-evolving food philosophy. I spoke about how I’m trying to cut down on meat consumption and switch completely to organic and ethical meat sources. I said that I was buying my meat from Whole Foods and PCC, both of which offer organic meat options. Whole Foods, once a smaller organization, dedicated to local and sustainable foods, is now a huge corporation who uses their “green” focus to overcharge customers for products they are made to feel are morally superior to those from the Safeway down the road. By reading the labels on many of their products, indicating places of origin everywhere from California to Australia, they seem to be far less committed to local products than they once were. Now, this is not to say that Whole Foods is not a store worth going to: they do offer great variety and quality in many of their products, especially fish, meats, and cheeses, and if you know where to look, you can get some local and sustainable products. PCC Markets is much smaller than Whole Foods: they have a total of nine locations, all in the Seattle area. They are similar to Whole Foods in their focus on organics, but they seem to be a lot more dedicated to local products, and a better bet for meat that is local, organic, ethical, and sustainable.

Both of these options have their advantages, but neither can beat Bill the Butcher, the awesome butcher shop that just opened up two blocks away from my place. I’m not going to lie: I am ridiculously excited about this place. Their meat is all very local, organic, ethical, sustainable, and, just as important, of very high quality. I’ve been on the hunt for a place like this: a small, local shop where I can go in and talk to the (knowledgeable) butcher about what I’m buying. I’ve been in there three or four times since I’ve discovered it, and every time I’m greeted by an enthusiastic butcher who can’t wait to tell me about what they’ve got in this week, whether it be the exquisite grass-fed beef tenderloin on display, or the impressive wagyu rib steak that just came in.

Last time I went, the new excitement in the shop was the bag of morel mushrooms that just came in. When I say “just came in”, I don’t mean it came on a big refrigerated US Foods truck with a bunch of other produce from California, Mexico, and Chile. These morels arrived in the hands of a man who goes foraging for them in the nearby woods and the mountains and then goes around, selling them to local shops. The butcher, described him as quite a character.
  Now, can we just pause for a moment and appreciate the awesomeness of this? I went wandering in to my local butcher shop, thinking of buying some flank steak to serve while my mother-in-law was visiting, and maybe something else for the week ahead, and I left with (among other items) wild morel mushrooms. I want to emphasize how vastly different this experience is from anything that ever could happen in a large supermarket, and that includes Whole Foods and PCC Markets. I didn’t take these mushrooms out of a bin in the refrigerated area of the produce section, picking through dried, broken, and old-looking fungi to select the few edible ones. I didn’t toss a plastic-wrapped package of these mushrooms into a cart filled with every other category of food one could imagine. In fact, these mushrooms were not on display or in visible evidence anywhere in the shop. I only learned about them because I had a conversation with the butcher, and he told me about these morels that they had just gotten. The personal connection was necessary in order to even know that this treat was available, and I absolutely love that. It makes it so special, and this is no small triumph. I believe that food should be special, all the time, and I believe that we should have this personal of a connection to it. I believe in the importance of having the story behind where my food has come from. When you buy food from the big, national supermarket, you don’t get the stories behind what you are buying; at places like the local butcher shop, you do. Does the story make the food taste any better? I would argue that absolutely, yes, it does.
 So, along with my flank steak, I left the butcher shop with a few house-made Italian sausages (good enough, by the way, to make you swear off eating any sausages from the supermarket ever again), and a quarter pound of freshly gathered morel mushrooms. A quarter pound may not sound like much, and it isn’t, but (understandably), they were not cheap. The five mushrooms that made up this quantity cost twelve dollars, so I took great care to treat them gently and use them well.
 I sautéed them with the sausage, along with some blanched green beans, shallots, and garlic, tossed with whole wheat spaghetti and parmesan. It was a satisfying meal, perfect for the beginning of spring, made special by the knowledge of the story behind what I was eating.

Whole Wheat Spaghetti with Sausage and Morels
Serves 3-4
¼-½ lb. fresh morel mushrooms, or 1.5 oz. dried morel mushrooms, reconstituted in hot water and drained
½ lb. green beans, rinsed and trimmed
1 lb. Italian sausage, casings removed
1-2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, if necessary
1 tbsp. butter
1 medium shallot, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 lb. whole wheat spaghetti
½ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper

If using fresh morels, soak them in a large bowl of cold water for 30 minutes to one hour to remove dirt and any critters in the caps. Do not skip this step! Remove mushrooms gently and dry well with several paper towels. When mushrooms are dry, slice them.
While the mushrooms soak, blanch and shock the green beans: bring a large pot of water to a boil. As it comes to a boil, fill a large bowl ¾ of the way with ice water. When the water boils, dump the green beans into it and boil them for 30 seconds to one minute, depending on how crisp you like your beans. Drain the beans and then immediately plunge them into the ice water. Leave them for about five minutes to cool completely, and then drain them again. Slice the beans on a bias, into halves or thirds. Set aside.

Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling, salted water, and then drain. Meanwhile, heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the sausage and brown until cooked through, 8-10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove the sausage to a separate dish and tent with foil to keep warm. Add olive oil to the hot pan or remove dripping as necessary to equal two tablespoons of fat in the pan. Add the butter and let it melt. Add the mushrooms and sauté until browned and softened, 4-5 minutes. Season generously with salt and pepper, remove from pan, and set aside.

Reduce heat to medium, and add olive oil, if necessary, to equal one tablespoon of fat in the pan. Add the shallots and sauté until beginning to soften, and then add the garlic. Sauté one minute, then add the green beans. Sauté another minute, then return the sausage and mushrooms to the pan. Stir to combine, and then add the cooked spaghetti to the pan. Toss for a couple of minutes until all ingredients are well combined and heated through. Remove skillet from heat, and stir in the Parmesan. Season to taste with salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper.

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