When trolling our local markets we gaze upon case after case of beautifully butchered produce. It is easy to forget that every piece of meat, chicken, pork, or fish was once a living, breathing animal. I am not a vegetarian but it is extraordinarily easy for me to understand why people abstain from eating animal protein. If we choose to eat meat, we should be cognizant of where our food comes from and how it was treated. Invariably, when I start talking about organic foods or sustainable fish, someone will object. They remind me that they live in a part of the world where they are just fortunate to eat. I understand more than you know. My entire family emigrated from Cuba in the early seventies. Under the communist Castro regime, food is rationed monthly and people struggle to feed their families. Fortunately for me, I live in Miami, in the United States, and I choose to demand more of my purchasing habits.
Furthermore, as cooks, we control every piece of produce we serve. I have witnessed countless “chefs” let their concentration wane while cooking and ruin product. If these “chefs” had killed the cow themselves, would they squander it? My guess is no, there would not be that disconnect. The biggest sin a cook can commit is to waste product. My friends, there is absolutely no honor in that!
Using every part of any foodstuff is another way to pay your respects. Offal meat, the innards of animals, is rarely seen in American kitchens. When we go to the market and scoop up a lovely filet mignon, we must realize that the animal from which that came had many other parts. Thumbing your nose at offal meat is nonsensical, arrogant, and improvident. Anyone can cook a filet mignon; no inherent skill is needed. Now, the true hallmark of a talented cook is taking something that would be thrown away and making a delicious dish from it. Lastly, organ meat is more affordable than prime cuts. So learn to cook offal properly and make a 5-star dinner for a fraction of the price.
Since many of you good people are dead-set against cooking organ meat, the course pictured above is an example using fish. I purchased a delightfully sustainable Pacific cod from Alaska, caught via long-line. For comprehensive information on sustainable fish please visit The Monterey Bay Aquarium website. My main goal when conceptualizing this dish was to avoid waste. I started by butchering the fish into four parts: the head, bones, and the two fillets. The head and bones were used to infuse the East Indian lemongrass broth. After portioning the fillets into three-ounce segments, I was left with odd-sized bit pieces. Normally these bit pieces would go in the trash. However, I made a flavorsome cod ravioli and properly honored the fish that gave its life for my sustenance. This dish has cod in the broth, cod in the ravioli, and the pan-seared cod fillet on top. These types of courses are most gratifying for the mind, body, and soul.
Thomas Keller, one of America’s greatest living chefs, has been a vital influence on my attitude towards food. His book, The French Laundry Cookbook, is an amazing tutorial on haute cuisine. The two themes that resonated most with me were taking the time to artfully present every plate and relating to the product used. On page 205 of the book, Chef Keller tells a story about the importance of rabbits. While working in a small restaurant in Catskill, New York, he was exposed to countless remarkable livestock found in the Northern part of the state. He was able to work with veal, pigeons, pigs’ ears, cockscombs, and even duck testicles. All right, that last bit was disgusting; I personally have never worked with those! At any rate, his curiosity was piqued to the extent that he asked his rabbit purveyor to teach him to kill the rabbits. Long story short, he describes the impression that killing, skinning, and butchering the animals himself made upon him. To this day, he uses that story to impress upon his cooks to show consideration for the ingredients they work with.
Forgetting that the steak, pork chop, chicken wing, or grilled fish fillet on your plate was once a living, breathing animal is easy to do. Take pride in knowing how the animal you consume was raised and treated. Organic produce are born and raised with respect and dignity. Grazing on pristine pastures, they roam free in the sunshine, with unrestricted access to clean food and water. Animals give their lives for our nourishment; at the very least let’s pay tribute to them.