Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Beef Encounter

Being a food writer has put me into all kinds of interesting and unusual situations. The morning I spent buckled into a belly protector handling a huge hunk of steer and a big sharp blade called a “Texas butter knife,” is among the more memorable.

I was at the recently opened Certified Angus Beef Education & Culinary Center in Wooster with a bunch of media people from around the country. The organization- a non-profit information and marketing group for ranchers that raise this registered cattle breed- had invited us to come see the new place. The itinerary for our weekend featured a night of feasting in Cleveland, a hands on class in meat cutting, and a visit to a real Ohio ranch. It was great fun and I came home knowing more than before.

The kick-off event was a downtown dine-around that started with appetizers at Hodges. It was of course a beef-centric menu, as was the dinner that followed at The Greenhouse Tavern, and- so I don’t have to repeat myself- I’ll state the obvious here: all the red meat was Certified Angus Beef, which means it was premium quality- intensely flavorful, juicy and tender. Needless to add, both places did an outstanding job and the food was fabulous. Chris Hodgson served it as tartare; on skewers; and shredded in fried rice. But the most memorable presentation was a 6 foot long board loaded with roasted marrow bones, big ones split lengthwise: it looked a caveman’s buffet. More tartare at Greenhouse along with 40-day aged ribeyes, braised shin and strip steaks. I didn’t pace myself properly and bailed when everyone else headed next door to Lola for desserts but I heard they were fabulous.
It was early to rise next morning for the drive to Wooster. The Center, in a converted restaurant, is large, attractive and incredibly well-equipped. There’s a spacious dining area/classroom with a handsome and well-equipped demo kitchen that would get most chefs drooling, and behind that an industrial-sized prep kitchen plus a meat fabrication space with rails and hooks to accommodate “swinging” beef (half and quarter carcasses)…and this is where we gathered for Butchery 101.

It was led by the highly entertaining Dr. Phil (Phil Bass, PhD) who delivers one-liners about rumps, flanks, and roasts with the skill of a polished comedian. We suited up for his performance in the aforementioned belly guards, plus kevlar sleeves and gloves on our non-cutting arms and hands, white coats, hair nets, and chain link belts to hold scabbards for our knives. He taught, we tried, working in small groups to break down the full loin in front of us. Thanks to David O’Diam, CAB staffer who watched over us, making sure we did no harm to man, woman or meat. It was fascinating to learn a bit about the science behind why specific parts cook and taste the way they do and the variety of less familiar cuts like a tri-tip, an excellent steak for grilling from the the bottom half of the sirloin that CAB chef Michael Ollier served us for lunch. Chris Kick, a reporter for Farm and Dairy Newspaper, was on my team. He wrote about the session and put a video and pix on the Social Silo blog.

We spent the afternoon in Rittman at Chippewa Valley Angus Farms. Owners Rod and Laurie Ferguson are breeders, raising animals they sell for “seed stock” not the slaughterhouse. They took us out to the pasture to see the cattle grazing. The ladies, myself among them, also appreciated the appearance of the very cute cowboy on horseback- the real deal, we were assured, though it looked like they recruited him from a Hollywood casting agency.

The Center was built primarily for business to business gatherings aimed at food industry professionals and ranchers. But in the future they hope to welcome consumers in too for information sessions, tasting events and cooking demos. When they do, it would definitely be a trip worth taking.

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