|Meat is back. Of course, it never went away. It was herded out of town during the fear-of-food epidemic. This contagion is the curse of first-world countries whose consumers are satisfied with third-rate produce. Lucky us. Almost any food is cheap. It's available any time of year and is frequently tasteless.
In North America, where this anti-gastronome trend is at its worst, foods such as fat-free yogurt, taste-free oat bran and imported water get prominence even as we cast gaze guiltily at French peasants who savour triple-crême cheeses, foie gras and red wine.
Fortunately some sanity is returning to the table and one of the surest signs that the anti-food fad may be ending is that meat is back. One only has to look at the proliferation of steak houses or the size of sirloins set to the table. Gourmand and gourmet cross paths here. Big may not be not better in the flavour department. However, old is.
Old, in the steak world, means aged, ideally two to three weeks. "Aged"means that the meat has been hung in a cold room, not wrapped in plastic and left to season to a mushy vacuum-packed consistency that retains as much solid, meaty flavour as fresh-packed foam core.
The pink soft flesh of fresh meat (and for many butchers that can mean a few days old) is fine for hamburger but a great steak should be firm and purplish. It will be an inch thick for a rib steak, more for a sirloin. It will be well-marbled, with streaks of fat fitting comfortably into the muscle, ensuring that the meat will be moist and flavourful when it cooks. It will smell fresh without that cloying cheesy smell that is often the mark of plastic-wrapped supermarket steaks. An aged steak should be cut from a roast in front of you. The butcher should trim it before it is weighed.
Aged meat is expensive, at least 25% more than fresh to account for the shrinkage that naturally occurs. $8 a pound ($17 a kilo) for rib steaks is not unusual. Three-week naturally aged filet mignons are already priced at $40 a kilo at the Atwater market. Prices will increase as we head toward Christmas and New Year's as hotels commandeer aged beef roasts and steaks.
Cooking a well-cut aged steak is marvelously easy to do on a grill or under a broiler. The meat should need nothing more than a light brushing of oil to ensure an even sear. Make sure the heat is hot and even and that the steaks are at room temperature. If using coals, they should have burnt down to a dull red and be slightly ash covered and about four inches from the meat. A one-inch steak needs about four to five minutes on one side before turning and a couple of minutes on the other. Salt and pepper should be added just before you turn it over. Let the steak rest on a warmed platter for two minutes before serving.
Butchers who air-dry and age beef in their coolers include Boucherie de Tours in the Atwater market (514-931-4406), J&B Kosher Meat in Cavendish Mall (514-369-2727), and Boucherie Mario in the Jean Talon Market (514-272-5553).