That sounded a little dramatic. You know why? It was. My weekend was full of excitement, drama, and the emotional rollercoaster of figuring out what, exactly, is in the perfect bolognese. It was exhausting. It was stressful. It was delicious. Bolognese is really the ultimate Italian meat sauce. It’s the quintessential sauce that you’d want in a lasagna. It is simmered for hours and tended to with the utmost care. It is magical. It’s also time consuming, expensive, and potentially extra fussy. Through my time striving to become an honorary Italian, it is something that I have just recently become comfortable making and serving to my New Jersey Italian in-laws (although it’s an entirely different style than the ricotta-based lasagnas that I’ve had from them). If you’ve ever spent any time reading about Italian cooking, you have without a doubt come across the goddesss of Italian cuisine, Marcella Hazan. Sometime in the last year, after reading this hilarious public apology note to Marcella, I bought one of her books. It has been collecting dust on my shelf for the last several months.
So when I decided to make a lasagna last weekend? I broke down and made Marcella’s version. The version that simmers the meat and aromatics in milk, before adding wine, then finally tomatoes. And her version? It uses white wine. It was more than I could bear. Her recipe was just too…. weird! And so after reading through her recipe with much skepticism, I figured I would hedge my bets and also make a double batch of the Smitten Kitchen Bolognese that I not only love, but trust. So then I got down to business.
Ingredients prep was fairly simple, if not time consuming. There was a lot of onion, carrot, and celery to chop. And since I was going to be using a LOT of wine in those recipes, (plus I have plans for a risotto or two in the next week or so and a wine-based braise that’s going to be happening soon), I got the good stuff. 😉
And I got to browning my aromatics, beef, etc. And I made some sauce. The Smitten Kitchen recipe (that I doubled) took up 4 cans of tomato paste and a full quart of wine. It is marvelous.
And as I began to make progress in the Marcella Hazan bolognese? I began trusting it less and less. As the milk bubbled away, reducing down to near nothingness, I cursed myself for wasting my beautiful grassfed beef and milk on a recipe that was sure to be a failure. When the white wine was added, I silently cried, watching the beautiful golden liquid disappearing into the anemic meat mixture. And after adding the tomatoes and simmering for hours? I didn’t feel any better. Sure, it tasted alright, but it was no deeply tomatoey, red winey masterpiece. So I let the sauces cool, then tucked them away into the refrigerator overnight before starting on the lasagna assembly the next morning.
The next afternoon, I threw together a batch of spinach pasta, preboiled (this step is imperative), chilled, and laid it out. I made my bechamel. Ricotta is for amateurs, or people who are not nearly as pretentious as I am. A lasagna bolognese must be delicate, simple, and layer only pasta, bolognese, bechamel, and maybe a sprinkling of cheese.
And so the shootout began. I have nearly a gallon of the rich, tomatoey Smitten Kitchen recipe, and just under a quart of the Hazan one. As such, I made a full 9×13 pan of the SK sauce, and just a small loaf pan with the Hazan bolognese. And I got to layering.
And then I ran out of bechamel! But I was at the top of both of the pans anyway, so I replaced the final topping of bechamel with a nice thick layer of sliced mozzarella (sacrilege!).
And then I put them in the oven for a solid hour or so. I pretty much just waited for the cheese to start getting nice and brown on top. Scientific, I know.
And we had the whole clan over for dinner. My mother in law, father in law, aunt in law, and grandmother in law. And we all tasted both. Everyone preferred the Hazan example. I was floored. It’s true. Her bolognese has a cleaner flavor and really…. refined the lasagna. That’s not to say that the Smitten Kitchen sauce doesn’t have it’s place. I don’t think it could be beat on top of something big and robust, but Marcella has a place in my heart now.
Also, lasagna is awful to photograph. These shots were taken the next day with some reheated Smitten Kitchen lasagna. Every last piece of the Hazan lasagna was eaten at dinner.
I am aware that these sound kind of “icky.”
They were not icky…well, for the most part.
I will admit that I tend to have a higher tolerance for squeamishness than others. But we got all of these great bits of offal from the butcher, and I want to try to honor the steer they came from. And also, I try to be an adventurous eater. I have been ruminating(hehe, see what I did there?) on the possibility of cooking tongue for the last few months after coming across it at my local Costco, but I just hadn’t pulled the trigger. This was the perfect excuse to try it. I have some great plans for our other tongue, but for my first one, I wanted to make a well-known dish that had enough other stuff going on in it that if I didn’t like it, I could obscure it. Tacos de lengua are a pretty classic Mexican dish, and one that I keep hearing great things about. So I decided to suck it up and cook that bad boy! Craig initially said that he would eat tongue. Then he said that he would not. Then I got him to agree to try it in tacos, as long as there was an “alternate meat.”
I vacuum packed the tongue with some garlic powder, oregano and cumin. Then I cooked it sous vide at 170 degrees for 36 hours, knocked the temp down to 140, and let it go for another 10 hours.
This is what it looked like when I took it out of the vacuum bag.
The next step here is to remove all of the connective tissue, and the “skin” of taste buds and whatnot. The tongue was soft. Really soft. Even after hearing my father in law describe tongue as “the softest pot roast he’s ever had.” I was unprepared for just how… soft it was. But I trimmed all the weird stuff off, cut out a few really spongy areas, and fed all of the trimmings to the dogs. The house smelled incredible. Just a clean, beefy flavor. When all was said and done, we got about 2 cups of cubed meat.
And then came prep for tacos. All I did was dump it out into a nonstick skillet with a little avocado oil, sprinkle with chili powder, cumin, and salt, then cook on medium-low heat until it started crisping, turning every now and again.
I served the tacos with sour cream, guac, some tomatillo salsa verde, cojita cheese, and of course… TONGUE. Craig refused to eat a tongue taco, opting instead for the “alternate meat.” He refused to try the tongue either. He is missing out.
We have had some issues regarding dog food. First, we were making raw food for Boris, focusing on a very low phosphorus content to ensure his kidney health. Then when his kidneys seemed to be doing OK, we just focused on feeding him real food. We have tried several dry foods over the past few years, and each one of them has given Helo longstanding diarrhea in addition to being full of not-real stuff. Even high end dog foods still have a great many things in them. When trying to track down the cause of Boris obsessively licking his anus (believe me, it’s more gross than it sounds), the vet wasn’t able to find anything wrong with his anal glands, and suggested that due to his breed, it was most likely allergies. He said that many dogs like Boris have really awful allergies, and there’s really not much that can be done to get around them. He suggested that chicken was most likely the culprit, and that a very limited ingredient fish-based diet would be a good option. He also gave us some prednisone. The new LID Sweet Potato & Fish food combined with the prednisone seemed to fix things. But then when we reduced and stopped the prednisone, the anus licking came back, even with a diet consisting of fish, sweet potatoes, and dog food chemicals, in addition to some salmon and pea meal dog treats. Plus, neither dog really appreciated eating kibble after having gotten used to a varied diet of fresh ingredients. So when we ran out of the special kibble, I broke down and began cooking for the dogs again, but in a much simpler capacity. It’s been hot outside and I have no interest in using the stove or oven. Everything got cooked in the microwave.
The greens are easy. I toss half the peas and half the spinach(both nuked til they’re not frozen) in the food processor, and added enough yogurt to encourage them to blend smoothly. I also added a large pinch of salt and some garlic powder. (Careful with the garlic, too much can be bad, but a little helps them fight fleas) Then I followed up with the second half.
The 5lb bag of carrots got sliced in the food processor, then into a big glass bowl covered with a plate to steam in the microwave. My biggest pyrex bowl full of carrots took 14 minutes til the carrots started getting soft enough to blend.
The eggs were easy enough. I have these silicone baking pans that are awful for actual baking, but great for things where you need to plop large blobs of things out without them sticking. I melted a stick of butter in this HUGE square pan, then dumped the eggs in and microwaved til set.
Then all I needed to do was break them up into hunks and stick in a resealable container.
And the dog food. Some carrots, greens, eggs, and a chicken thigh. The dogs ate better than us that night. Really. I made popcorn.
For the last few years, I have been wanting to buy part of a cow. I read In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma and it got me interested not only in the health of the animals that I was eating (and in turn how that affected my health), but the environmental impacts that my cuisine choices were having. Grass-fed beef is appreciably better for the environment (no crazy fertilizer, shipping, etc to get the food to the cow, it’s just eating grass, and then hay through the winter, plus – no feed lot sewage lagoons), healthier for the cow (corn and grains ferment in the cow’s digestive tract and not uncommonly give them serious medical issues, including leaky gut, etc), and healthier for the person eating it (grass-fed beef has a much higher omega3:omega6 ratio than grain-fed beef, as well as being leaner overall). There are a lot of philosophical reasons to eat grass fed beef. In the Seattle area, we are lucky to have easy access to it at most grocery stores, however it’s fairly limited in terms of what cuts are available, and it’s appreciably more expensive than standard feedlot grain-fed beef. The way many people get around the huge cost differential is to buy the beef in bulk. Prices in the greater Seattle area run in the $4-5/lb hanging weight, which begins to quickly add up, and that is if you can even get beef from the farms. Many of the ones in the area sell out the year before harvest, so you put down a large deposit and then wait like a year for the cow to be slaughtered. And I’m not particularly good at patience or planning ahead.
The way that beef shares are bought (at least most of the time) is by hanging weight. You find a farm that has some available, and you decide how much of that cow you want to eat. Most farms charge less per pound if you buy a whole steer vs. 1/2 or 1/4. The farms give prices per “hanging weight” of the steer. This is the weight of the cow after it has been slaughtered, skinned, and all of the guts and other undesirable bits have been removed. When you buy 1/4 cow, the hanging weight of the half steer is taken, and all of the cuts are split in half, so both buyers get equal amounts and cuts of beef. Hanging weight varies greatly. Some farms have a ballpark in terms of how much their cows will weigh in at, others don’t. You won’t know how much beef you’re going to be getting until after your deposit is down and the cow has been killed. The way that most farms do it is that they collect a certain fee/lb hanging weight, then on top of the farm’s cut, there’s a cutting and wrapping fee that you pay the butcher. The farm that we bought our 1/4 from is about 2 hrs south of where we live, outside of the Seattle metropolitan area, that charges $3.25/lb hanging weight, plus a $.55/lb cutting/wrapping fee. But that cost isn’t the end-all, be-all cost of the beef. By the time the meat has been trimmed from the bones and cut into all of the cuts you requested, there is some loss. Most butchers run 60-75% of the hanging weight in dressed cost.
Now let’s discuss the math. Because you don’t know how much your share of the beef is going to weigh, it can be difficult to gauge how much money it’s going to cost and how much freezer space you’re going to need. Our 1/4 cow came in at 148lbs hanging, making the whole cow’s hanging weight about 600lbs. Once you factor in the loss, let’s say you end up with 100lbs of beef. It’s just Craig and I at our house, and we don’t want to hold onto this beef for more than a year, so the math that I’m doing is based on a 2 person household over a year. With just the 2 of us eating the beef, we would have to go through 1/4lb of beef per day. Now of course it’s doable, but we do not usually eat a great deal of beef, so deciding that we will start eating a great deal more beef than we have been eating in the past for an entire year is a tough proposition. Last week bought 2.5lbs of steak, and it felt like a lot of beef to eat that week. We just weren’t quire prepared to commit to 1/4 cow on our own. Locally, we have a couple of great friends who were also interested in getting a share of beef, but weren’t prepared to take an entire 1/4 cow, so we agreed to split it. It’ll work as an effective trial run.
So we bought our beef. I drove down to the butcher shop and met the owner of the farm down there to pay her. Then I paid the butcher. We were lucky enough to get some extra offal that the butcher was looking to offload. We got 4 hearts, 4 tongues and a few livers(both cow and pig), plus extra boxes of “dog bones.” When I spoke with the butcher on the phone, I was friendly, but at the end of our discussion about what our preferences were, I asked him if he had any extra “stuff” lying around that he may not want. I explained that I have dogs, so whatever weirder bits that people don’t normally buy, I would love to take for the dogs. He explained to me that if we want anything from the gut sack, we have to take the whole gut sack (barf), but he has some extra tongues, livers, and hearts floating around that he could dig up for us. I was thrilled. I brought down 4 coolers, 2 large ones and 2 smaller ones. They would have been just enough, but when I got there, he ended up giving me 2 big boxes of “dog bones,” which were just all of the extra bones from the cow, chopped up into manageable pieces, but not wrapped in freezer paper. After handling them, I think they look and smell fine, and I suspect they’d make for some pretty incredible stock, so I expect to make a huge pot of stock once the weather finally cools off in the PNW.
How did we split it up? An economist would have been so proud of us. First we split up the lower value cuts, or things that we had equal numbers of. For example, there were 26 roughly equal 1lb packages of ground beef. We each took 13. There were 3 chuck steaks, so we each took one, and added the third to “the pot.” We split the “dog bones” roughly evenly as well. Once the easy splits were done, we laid out all of the high value and one-off cuts, then sorted them into 3 groups with different levels of demand. The high-demand items were the rib roast (prime rib), brisket, tenderloin, etc). Then we haggled. Our friends took the rib roast, which was the largest single piece of meat that we got, but in exchange, we got both the brisket and the tenderloin steak. For the most part, it was a really easy way to split up the meat, because they prefer steaks, and we prefer roasts. We both walked away with very similar amounts of meat, and with the specific cuts that we were most likely to enjoy. When we knew what we had, Craig helped to satisfy my OCD urges to make a list, and we weighed and entered everything into a spreadsheet before sticking it into the freezer for good. Now when I am trying to figure out what to make for meals or reading recipes, I can pull up my spreadsheet and determine what exactly is in the freezer and how many pounds of it I have.
So let’s work out what kind of deal this is. Counting ONLY the “high value” meat, that is, none of the weird stuff I’ve never eaten or cooked before, and no bones, we paid 8.00/lb. The only thing that we would have gotten that cost less than that per pound (grass fed) is ground beef($7/lb locally), with steaks and stuff like roasts running in the $11-19/lb range.
Add in the heart and tongue, which are both quite tasty, based on my research, and we paid $5.71/lb
That doesn’t take into account the cost of the bones. Around here, grass fed bones/oxtail run in the $5-$8/lb range if you can even find them outside of specialty butcher shops. If you include the cost of the crosscut marrow (soup) bones and oxtail, and leave out the cost of dog bones (for argument’s sake) we are down to $4.88/lb.
I won’t count livers, as we wouldn’t have taken them home if they weren’t free. We aren’t big liver eaters, and honestly, I’ll probably end up dehydrating them and using them as dog treats. The “dog bones” will be both eaten by the dogs and turned into stock, so I’ll just call the stock free, and go from there.
As long as this beef ends up being tasty, and we end up using everything (part of the fun is learning to cook cuts you wouldn’t normally buy in the store!), I can see this being an annual thing. And now for some freezer porn.
And to answer your question, that’s a 5 cubic foot chest freezer that I totally emptied and defrosted the weekend before beef pickup. Without the 50 or so lbs of dog bones we got from the butcher, the entire 1/4 beef (148lbs hanging weight) fit in the freezer. Pictured is 1/8 beef with 6x 4lb bags of “dog bones” Of course your mileage may vary in terms of what shape the butcher wraps your cuts in, how efficient he is with cutting the beef, and of course how large the steer is you get.