Making the most of meat

Many of us are seeking a closer relationship with what we eat. This is true of all of the food groups, but perhaps none more so than meat, where provenance makes a huge difference to taste.

For some, eating meat is a basic fact of life. For others, it is a moral quandary.

At Thorntons, we cater comprehensively for meat and non-meat eaters, and for me the most important thing is that the meat I use and eat is fully traceable, and of the highest quality.

Meat can be broken down into four categories:

1.Carcass meat: beef, veal, lamb, mutton, hogget, pork and goat.

2.Offal or internal organs: liver, kidney, heart, tongue, oxtail, crubeens, sweetbreads (glands).

3. Poultry: chicken, duck, guinea fowl, quail, turkey and goose.

4.Game: four-legged – venison, wild boar, rabbit and hare, and two-legged – pheasant, partridge, grouse, plover, wild duck (teal, mallard) woodcock and snipe.

This week, I am going to look at beef, lamb and offal.

We produce great beef in this country – mostly Angus, but also some French Limousine. It is important to know where it comes from; your butcher should be able to tell you exactly from which farm your beef originates.

Beef should always be aged before it is cooked. A good butcher will usually hang his meat for at least 21 days in a refrigerated room with controlled humidity. This makes the enzymes present in the meat break down the fibres, tenderising it and giving it a more pronounced flavour.

An aged cut of beef will be dark red in colour and it should have some fat running through it like marble. If both of these requirements are met, you are off to a good start.

The various cuts of beef are as follows:

Chuck is from the neck and is used for braising and stewing.

Rib is best used for roasting and steaks because it is so tender.

Loin is another prime cut of beef which is used like the rib (hence the name sirloin steaks).

Round is from the leg and usually used for braising, but if handled well and hung for a longer period it can be roasted with great care.

Shank is used for stewing, roasting or consomme. Flank is good for grilling or barbecuing.

Brisket is used for corned beef and is really good for a pot roast.

Fillet is the most prized part of the animal. It is used for roasting (whole), for steaks (fillet steak) – including steak tartare, when it is cut into – cm pieces served with diced shallot, capers, chives and raw egg yolk.

Veal is a milk-fed calf that never eats grass or grain, so its colour remains pale pink. It is slaughtered at about 20 weeks old, so it is much more tender than beef. The flavour is quite neutral, meaning it is great with items that have a strong flavour, such as lobster and morels.

Lamb is what you call meat from a sheep under one year old. Spring lamb is available from March to June and ordinary lamb from July to December. Between one and two years old it is called hogget, and above two years old it is called mutton.

We only use spring lamb until June and lamb until the middle of September. As with beef, it is important that lamb is hung in order to tenderise it. It should also have a small amount of fat through the meat for flavour.

My favourite Sunday lunch is roast lamb, and this is how I cook it at home.

One leg of lamb
Garlic cloves
Rock salt and olive oil
50ml of white wine
Lamb stock

1. Stud the leg of lamb with cloves of garlic and rosemary, brush with rock salt and olive oil and cook in a slow oven at 60 degrees Celsius for about five hours.

2. Remove and turn the oven up to 175 degrees Celsius. When hot, return the leg for about 20 minutes to brown.

3. Remove the leg and rest it for about ten minutes. In the meantime add a miripoix (a selection of diced vegetables) to the roasting pan, deglaze with a drop of white wine and lamb stock, and reduce by half.

4. Pass through a fine strainer and serve with the leg.

5. Serve with roasted root vegetables and potato puree.

In James Joyce’s Ulysses, we are told that ”Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls”. But today, the notion that we are what we eat gives us pause when we consider the inner organs of beasts and fowls beloved by Bloom.

”Thick giblet soup,” Joyce goes on, ”nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crust crumbs” and, most delectable to Bloom’s palate, ”grilled mutton kidneys”.

I think offal is fantastic; as well as being delicious, it is really economical and nutritious.

However, it is rarely used today, as most people find it distasteful and don’t really know how to cook it. I am particularly partial to veal offal, which is excellent, particularly veal kidneys.

Kidneys should be bought with a protective covering of fat, which you should remove carefully before cooking.

Then remove the connective tissue in the centre of the kidney with a sharp knife, being careful not to damage the meat. Finally, remove the membrane surrounding it.

Kidneys should be soaked in milk for an hour, as this helps to remove any impurities.

Veal kidneys are so tender they can simply be sauteed in olive oil; however, Il ike to make more of a fuss about them by cooking them in the following way:

Veal kidney
Pork fat
Olive oil
White wine
White peppercorns
Fresh thyme
Bay leaf

1. Marinate for a few hours in a little olive oil, white wine, miripoix, white peppercorns, fresh thyme and bay leaf.

2. Wrap in pork fat to protect the kidney and to add flavour.

3. Saute the wrapped kidney in a warm pan, add the marinade and then place the kidney on top.

4. Cover with a lid and cook in an oven at 175 degrees Celsius for 15 minutes. Remove the kidney and deglaze the pan with Madeira.

5. Cook the liquid for a few minutes, season, remove and pass through a fine sieve.

6. Slice the kidney and pour the sauce over the offal. The fat removed from the kidney can be cut into small thin strips and sauteed in a hot pan to make crispy, then served on top of the kidney. Accompany with root vegetables.

Sweetbreads is the name of a dish made from the thymus gland or pancreas of an animal younger than one year old (in the restaurant we only use veal or lamb).

The two organs have different biological functions, but look fairly similar and so are considered, for the purpose of cooking, to be comparable. Thymus sweetbreads are slightly longer and more irregular, with pancreas sweetbreads being larger and more rounded.

As with most offal, they are best soaked in milk overnight or for at least three hours to remove any impurities, then the membrane should be removed with a sharp knife. It can also be removed by blanching the sweetbreads and refreshing them – this makes them stiffer and easier to handle. I prefer the first way, as I have more control in the cooking.

Veal sweetbreads with wild mushrooms

Veal sweetbreads
Selection of mushrooms
including girolles, chanterelles and horn of plenty
Olive oil
Fresh thyme
Whole white peppercorns
Sliced shallot
Celery and diced carrot
Veal stoc

1. Marinate the sweetbreads in olive oil, fresh thyme, tarragon, whole white peppercorns, sliced shallot, celery and diced carrot.

2. Heat a pan, season the sweetbreads and saute for two minutes.

3. Remove and add the marinade without the oil, cook for a minute, stirring the vegetables.

4. Add the sweetbreads and a little veal stock and cook for about four minutes in the oven.

5. Remove and reduce the juice, correct the seasoning.

6. Serve the vegetables on the plate and the sweetbreads on top.

7. Wash, season and saute the mushrooms.

8. Flambe with a little brandy and serve with the sweetbreads.

Kevin Thornton is a Michelin-starred chef and owner of Thornton’s Restaurant on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin.