Monday, August 4, 2008

Homegrown Meats. Really.

Poor Matt Rimel. Here it is, Saturday, the day his new shop, Homegrown Meats/La Jolla Butcher Shop, is opening. He’s got a back room filled with meat and a grill party planned on the little patio in front of the shop. He’s got to be stoked about what the day will bring.

And, he goes and breaks his foot. So, while we’re all enjoying a beautiful Saturday afternoon in La Jolla eating burgers—his burgers—he’s at the hospital.

Well, Matt, thanks for calling and letting me know the shop was opening. I was there to check it out and I hope you’re not in too much pain.

Fortunately for Matt, his partners and staff kept all the balls in the air and customers happy. The first thing you see at the shop, which is in the same little strip mall on Fay Ave. as his restaurant Zenbu, is a display of sumptuous heirloom tomatoes, as well as a selection of fresh oregano, thyme, chives, basil and greens grown by Chef Andrew Johnson of The Bridges at Rancho Santa Fe. Rimel has partnered with Johnson to provide fresh produce for sale at the La Jolla Butcher Shop.

But, inside the shop, is of course, where the important stuff is and there’s a good selection of protein—basically a mix of local grass-fed beef from Mendenhall Ranch in Mt. Palomar and natural prime meats, such as beef tenderloin, pork chops, top sirloin baseballs, veal cutlets, slab bacon and leg of lamb.

The shop also sells Muscovy ducks, prosciutto and Diestel turkey breasts from Sonora in Northern California. There’s pheasant and squab. Savory cumin sausage and herb sausage. Veal sausage and roasted tomato sausage. Skewers of fish, red onion, tomato and green peppers. Wild boar bacon.

To round things out, there are Bread & Cie baguettes and Raptor Rubs, dry rubs from a local company that donates a percentage of its profit to the Montana rescue facility, Raptor Ranch.

Obviously, the story here is the local grass-fed beef. I know I was surprised to learn that we have ranchers in the area. After all, we’ve been programmed to think that if we want the good stuff it has to come from the Midwest or beyond.

But, Joel and Jenna Mendenhall are the latest generation of ranchers in San Diego County and they’re working with the La Jolla Butcher Shop to supply them with beef. According to Joel Mendenhall, they have 100 head of cattle in line for the butcher shop and another 100 cows being bred.

Now is it totally local? Not quite yet. Mendenhall says that the closest USDA-approved slaughterhouse is up in LA. So, his cattle are transported there and then the meat returns to San Diego for sale. “We’re working on getting a USDA-approved facility on our ranch to keep it purely local,” says Mendenhall. He explained that the cattle are a F1 cross of English breeds—the Aberdeen Angus and Hereford breeds. “The Aberdeen Angus are known for their good tasting meat and their hardiness,” explains Mendenhall. “The Herefords give us a bigger size.”

Behind the counter and visible to customers are a refrigerated room for storage and where the breaking down of the meat is done and a small dry aging room. Hanging on display in the dry aging room were the front and hind quarters of one of those Aberdeen Angus crosses, a large whole prosciutto as well as most of a lamb carcass. Partner Peter Morris and butcher Lee Denham explained that the beef will be spending two, three, even four weeks aging before the butchers break it down. “We try to buy the meat as whole as possible,” says Morris, who is a long-time friend and hunting companion of Rimel’s.

That was a huge attraction to a young Iranian man who came in for some more unusual lamb parts you certainly can’t find at the grocery store. He was thrilled to find a lamb neck and was waiting for some other parts to be trimmed to take home to make kaleh pacheh, a traditional Persian breakfast dish. Basically, he explained, you brown the meat and bones, then braise it overnight on the stove in water with a bay leaf. About an hour before serving, add salt, pepper and turmeric. The liquid becomes gelatinous with a profoundly rich flavor perfect for dunking fresh traditional flat bread. When I researched this, I found that it’s often served with lemon wedges and herbs.

I didn’t go that far afield. First I went outside to enjoy a juicy slider burger grilled and served by one lone grown up and his posse of adorable little kids.

Then, I returned inside and selected a grass-fed rib-eye steak. While Denham took it in the back to trim it, I asked Morris for some coaching on how to grill it to bring out the best flavors. He said to let it come to room temperature and season it with just a little salt and pepper. Then put it on a grill over medium heat, no more than four minutes a side for medium rare. Then take it off the heat and cover it with foil for at least 10 minutes to let the juices reintegrate with the meat.

So, last night I fired up the grill. I trimmed a few small leeks, heated them in the microwave for two minutes to get them soft, then brushed them with olive oil. I had a roll of polenta in the pantry (one of those great staples for when you’re too lazy to make rice or couscous or whatever). I sliced it up and also brushed the slices with olive oil. All went on the grill.

Earlier in the day I had opened a package of hot peppers I had found at Andre’s Market on Morena Blvd. Aji Amarillo Mirasol Seco, the package said. Yellow Mirasol hot peppers. They were a lovely rusty orange and I couldn’t resist them.

I also couldn’t figure out quite what to do with them. So, I soaked them for several hours in water. Then I decided just to boil them. By then the peppers were pretty flexible so it only took about 20 minutes to completely soften them. I removed the stems, added them to the food processor with a couple of tablespoons of the water they boiled in and pureed them—seeds and all. Then I added most of a head of baked garlic, salt and olive oil. Another go at pureeing. The mixture was hot but not inedibly hot (which I’d feared). But, the roasted garlic wasn’t enough. So, I added three minced cloves of raw garlic and a little more salt and olive oil. That did it. Heat, smokiness, layers of garlic flavor.

That was the accompaniment to the steak (and will be the basis of a marinade for chicken tomorrow). I took the rest of the roasted garlic and mashed it in a small bowl with a few tablespoons of olive oil and some grated parmesan cheese. I brushed this mixture on the still grilling slices of polenta. I closed the lid and let it melt into the polenta for a couple of minutes once the steak was off the heat and resting.

It was a fine dinner. The steak was fresh tasting, kind of sweet and very tender. The yellow pepper paste complemented the meat with its smoky heat. The leeks were crispy on the outside and lusciously soft inside. The polenta just melted in my mouth.

Now, here’s the challenge. I really enjoyed the steak, but at $22 or so a pound, it’s a luxury for many of us. I know that the folks at La Jolla Butcher Shop will now want to call me or send me a note to tell me how much value I’m getting for that $22. I get it. Really. I know that the cheap cuts at the grocery store aren’t good for me. Aren’t that good period. Nevertheless, this is not going to be a stop for everyone all the time.

But, if you can afford it, buying meat that was locally grown and well-fed on what it was meant to eat is invaluable. It tastes delicious, it’s much healthier for you and better for the environment.

Homegrown Meats/La Jolla Butcher Shop is located at 7660 Fay Ave., Suite C in La Jolla Village.

Have some thoughts about Homegrown Meats/La Jolla Butcher Shop 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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