Thursday, November 15, 2007

Iowa Meat Farms: Meet the Butcher on Mission Gorge

When was the last time you bought meat from an actual butcher? It’s so easy to hit the supermarket or Costco and pick up a couple of steaks, a roast or chicken, but how good are they really compared to a shop that specializes in these products?

It had been awhile since I’d been over to Iowa Meat Farms on Mission Gorge Road, but it was my turn to host my book club last week and after seeing Ina Garten (aka The Barefoot Contessa) make a gorgeous roast loin of pork, I thought I’d head over there and pick one up. After all, Iowa Meat Farms is a 25-year staple of San Diego, opened by the Cohn family before they even started Corvette Diner and their other dozen or so restaurants. For the last few years, they’ve also owned long-time competitor Siesel’s off Morena Blvd.

I’m glad I went for a variety of reasons, but the first compelling one was that the recipe from the Food Network website called for a five-pound pork loin roast, bone in, tied and frenched (this is when the meat on the end of the bones is scraped off to create a little “handle”). When I called Iowa Meat Farms to tell them what I wanted in case it had to be ordered, the butcher asked how many people I’d be serving. “Eight,” I said. “Well,” he replied, “five pounds isn’t going to be enough—not with the bones in and shrinkage from cooking.”

That’s important information and not something I’d have gotten had I just picked up a pre-wrapped roast at the supermarket.

So, already I was experiencing a butcher conversion. Then I met up with Stan Glen, Iowa Meat Farms’ meat supervisor. He’s been in the business for 50 years, 15 of which have been with the store. He explained that while they don’t do the kind of butchering that involves an entire side of beef, “We do everything, carry everything and have access to everything.”

I told him my story, but he said that the real reason people should go to a butcher is the quality. “It’s what people who shop here are looking for,” he says. Both Iowa Meat Farms and Siesel’s carry nothing but mid-Western prime and choice beef—no chuck here. Because they’ve found that the quality can vary between slaughterhouses and packing houses, the company has signed on to a branded beef program, which certifies the source and quality of the meat. Their choice beef comes from a certified plant in Grand Island, Nebraska; it’s hand selected and can be tracked back to the source.

“It’s reminiscent of when I was a kid and there were two slaughterhouses in National City,” recalls Glen. “I used to go to them with my dad, who was also a butcher, and he would hand stamp the beef.”

Glen took me into the cooler room—a very chilly 36 degrees, where beef was dry aging.

There were roasts the size of watermelons that would soon be cut for steaks and others that would be some lucky families’ prime rib roast for Thanksgiving.

But, I had gotten there just before the delivery of the Thanksgiving turkeys. Glen said that between the two stores, they’d sell over 3,000 for Thanksgiving. Once the turkeys were gone, 600 choice rib roasts were to be delivered along with 300 prime rib roasts. These would begin the aging process in anticipation of Christmas. Glen expects to sell 1,200 rib roasts at Christmas time.

Ah, but let’s return a moment to the turkeys, since Thanksgiving is approaching. To my surprise, Glen sells both Zacky Farms private label turkeys and free-range turkeys—but doesn’t necessarily recommend the free-range turkeys. “There’s a huge difference between conventional chickens and free-range chickens,” he explains, “but not much in turkeys. The conventional turkeys have more fat on them and are much more forgiving to cooks who only prepare turkey once a year.”

Since we’re on poultry, let’s follow up with the chicken discussion. At both Iowa Meat Farms and Siesel’s, only Sonoma Select free-range chickens are sold.

Glen claims there is a huge difference in flavor and safety between them and conventional chickens. And, he adds that chickens that are marketed as “air dried” are no better than conventional chickens.

“They plunge chickens into hot water to pick out the feathers, then they’re plunged into cold water, which soaks up the water. You get as much as 15 percent water in a conventional chicken,” Glen says. “With air drying, you get the same bird going through the same preparation process, but at the end they let them air dry. They lose some water, but that’s it.”

The free-range chickens aren’t stacked in cages and basically take in the outdoors. They’re given no hormones or antibiotics or animal by-products. They’re fed corn—and maybe indulge in a worm or two. The only trick in cooking a free-range bird is keeping the skin of the bird moist while roasting or grilling. But a little oil on the skin before cooking should keep in from drying out.

I bought a couple of whole chicken legs and was kiddingly talked into a half of a “Baja chicken,” a bird marinated in lemon juice, cilantro, garlic, pepper and a commercial Baja seasoning—reportedly the same one that El Pollo Loco uses. Over the weekend I baked both. I treated the chicken legs to a bath of citron honey from Trader Joe’s diluted with a little lemon juice, along with olive oil, garlic salt and pepper. They baked at 350 for about an hour and were tender and juicy with a lovely crispy skin. More to the point, the meat had flavor.

Then I tried the Baja chicken. The butcher instructed me to bake it at 350 for an hour, but in my oven it took more like an hour and 15 minutes before I got the caramel skin tones I was after. I’m a dark meat eater and thoroughly enjoyed the sweetness and moistness of the thigh and leg. It was especially delicious with the Brussels sprouts I thinly sliced and sautéed in olive oil and garlic, then finished off with a tablespoon of the porcini sage Epicurean butter I bought at the store.

Its dark, woody undertones were a perfect match with the Brussels sprouts.

I ate the leftovers the next night—and, to be honest, wasn’t keen on trying out the white meat, which I usually find too dry. This, to my surprise, wasn’t. Even with reheating, the breast meat was moist and absolutely delicious.

And, how was the pork loin I served last week? Actually, I served two. I bought the conventional pork loin roast but Glen insisted that I also try Berkshire pork from Eden Natural and had me take home a little over a pound to prepare exactly like the conventional pork so I could compare them.

There is no comparison. I made The Barefoot Contessa recipe—it calls for a mixture of rosemary, fennel seeds, lemon zest, garlic, Dijon mustard, olive oil, salt and pepper blended into a paste and pressed onto the top of the roast. Both were magnificent and after letting them rest, I sliced them and put them on a platter with sprigs of rosemary from my garden.

Everyone enjoyed the conventional roast, but none of us could get over the sublime flavor and texture of the Berkshire pork. It was an entirely different animal and I don’t think there’s any going back.

“These are free-range pigs,” Glen tells me. “They’re fed better and as a result they taste like pork did 40 years ago before the suits decided we wanted it as lean as possible.”

So, what’s the difference in price? The conventional pork is $4.99 a pound. The Berkshire pork is double that, but to my mind absolutely worth it. It has finer marbling and shorter muscle fibers, which, in turn, lead to more tender meat. Oh, and if you’re in a fine restaurant and see “Kurobuta pork” on the menu? It's not some exotic Japanese imported pork that's the porcine equivalent of Kobe beef. It’s Berkshire pork—Kurobuta pork is just what it’s called in Japan and it means “prized black hog.”

So, let’s say you go to Iowa Meat Farms. What else will you find there? Essentially, it’s a full-service grocery with everything from soup to nuts: Yes, soup, nuts and also produce, cheeses, wines, coffee, jam, El Indio tortilla chips, olive oils, vinegars, mustards, breads. You’ll go crazy trying to figure out which barbecue sauce to choose. Do you dare to pick one of the Beverly Hillbillies or stick with Paula Dean or the Iowa Meat Farms house blend? Or one of the other hundreds of bottles?

Same with the rubs. Go for spicy, Asian, maple and sage, chili cocoa or the intriguing Butt Rub? Or just close your eyes, stick your hand on a shelf and see what you get? There are so many to choose from.

All this, plus the meat—of which there’s a huge selection.

Rich-looking homemade sausages, thick-sliced bacon, dry aged steaks, brisket, pork ribs and chops and butt roast, short ribs, shrimp, salmon, ahi and swordfish. And, this time of the year, you’ll even find turducken. That’s a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken that are each stuffed with a different dressing—Louisina cornbread, apple/cinnamon, and sausage and herb. And, no worries, the butcher will send you home with written cooking instructions.

So, you get quality; you get experience and knowledge. But most of us would assume that shopping at a butcher is a sacrifice in price. Surprisingly, the price is right. “Our starting philosophy,” says Glen, “is how good can I get it? Then we think about cost.”

Iowa Meat Farms is located at 6041 Mission Gorge Road and Siesel’s is at 4131 Ashton St.

Have some thoughts about Iowa Meat Farms, Siesel’s or other markets in San Diego? Do you have a favorite neighborhood market or shop that carries unique or unusual foodstuff? Let me know or add to the conversation by clicking on comments below:

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  1. Hi Caron:

    Love your website! I was at Siesel's today. Bought the Korean barbecue ribs. Yum! (We used to go to Iowa Meat Farms when we lived in Kensington.)
    The butchers are so good about sharing cooking ideas and tips. Plus, I studied with a American Indian Medicine Man for many years and he thought that Iowa Meat Farms had some of the purest, cleanest meat in San Diego County.

    As you continue your food searches around town, consider visiting International Market on Main Street in El Cajon for Iraqi and Middle Eastern food. The whole neighborhood is quite exotic -- full of Middle Eastern shops.


  2. 3rd generation San Diegan...stuck in the OC at the moment...but on my way back: Just found your blog- sweet MARY! My mouth watered the entire length of this post... as a matter of fact, I THINK my high school kidnapped that cow for senior prank (Didn't it use to have the cuts painted on it?)...BUT the most important gem you mentioned? You can buy EL INDIO chips at this shop?! I can't wait!!!!!!!! Someone should start an entire blog devoted to that tortilla chip.