Cowbell Toronto – A butchery walkthrough courtesy of Margaret Mulligan

I recently had the honour of being invited to a butchery demo in the basement of Cowbell (a very unique restaurant in Toronto).  Our friend Margaret Mulligan (the fabulous photographer) was shooting the session and, along with Head Chef, Mark Cutrara, I was offered to come along.  I always love the chance to explore something I haven’t seen or tried before – we only write about the experiences that we liked or loved.  This was one to love.  Today’s article is art 1 of 3 and is a serious comparison of a butcher, a chef and a vegetarian.  All of the photos are hers.   To see the entire series of posts, click here.

Before scrolling, please understand that this post may be too graphic for some.  It’s a photo essay that walks you through our butchery session that we experienced.  I like to think that this is what Kerouac meant by “Naked Lunch” when he gave the term to William S. Burroughs.

Margaret’s photography is stunning.  She has a passion for food and photography and the intersection of the two.  Her professional site is here and her personal photo blog here.

Note the small amount of waste captured towards the end of the photos.  The work of Ryan and Mark is inspirational to me and I highly recommend attending a session if you can.  Hope you’ve enjoyed the series!

Cowbell Toronto   A butchery walkthrough courtesy of Margaret Mulligan

Cowbell Toronto   A butchery walkthrough courtesy of Margaret Mulligan

Cowbell, Toronto – a different approach to butchery

I recently had the honour of being invited to a butchery demo in the basement of Cowbell (a very unique restaurant in Toronto).  Our friend Margaret Mulligan (the fabulous photographer) was shooting the session and, along with Head Chef, Mark Cutrara, I was offered to come along.  I always love the chance to explore something I haven’t seen or tried before – we only write about the experiences that we liked or loved.  This was one to love.  Today’s article is art 1 of 3 and is a serious comparison of a butcher, a chef and a vegetarian.  All of the photos are hers.   To see the entire series of posts, click here.

There are several photos below which include an active butchery session.  Graphic as they may be for some, we have been careful to choose what we believe is a balance between sharing an important story of sustainable eating and the sensibilities of many.  The most graphic photos are not part of what follows.

Ryan Donovan worked at the Healthy Butcher for years before joining Mark Cutrara at Cowbell.  His is passionate about butchery and mastering a craft that is disappearing.  There is a theme of sustaining at cowbell (butchery, preserving, charcuterie, baking) which is also contrasted by a the welcoming of newer techniques (Sous Vide plays a significant role in the kitchen as an example).

Ryan and Chef Mark Cutrara lead a group of 10 people through the butchery of a 100+ pound lamb.  It’s early evening when a group of 10 people enter the basement prep kitchen and are greeted by the graphic reality of the task at hand.  For some it’s the first time to see an animal in this state (it has arrived skinned and cleaned from the abattoir) and even after seeing hundreds of deer and moose in a similar state it is a raw site.  The next 3-hours is an incredible sharing of information, explanation of philosophy and technique and education on sustainability.

“There are less and less butchers today – even in butcher shops.”  Many restaurants order pre-butchered meat or roasts of which they cut into portions that they wish to serve.  More and more butchers are ordering from the same suppliers and the art becomes further threatened.  Between farming and butchering we are dreadfully risking losing the ability to actually feed ourselves independently.

Cowbell, Toronto   a different approach to butchery

The session starts when Ryan produces a scale.  He places it on the table and rests a bowl on top of it.  Since Cowbell buys the animal based on weight, the bones cost as much per pound as any “fine” cut of meat.  There is absolute clarity that the use of the entire animal is not simply a financial decision – use of the entire animal is a vision that is tied to animal husbandry, their vision of sustainability and the beliefs they share with the farmer (Dingo Farms in Bradford in this case).  The total waste of this animal was 1.31 pounds – less than 1%.

The education process continues as I hear the words “retail cuts” for the first time.  The gentlemen mention that one of the advantages of self-butchery is not having to produce these things.  I realize that they are referring to dissecting the animal differently than what I see on styrofoam and am pulled deeply into the conversation.  The explanation of retail cuts is simply what you find in the grocery store.  Rib-eye, sirloin and the like.

Cowbell, Toronto   a different approach to butchery

The team explains that individual muscles are always separated by layers of fat (much of the butchery can be done by hand without a knife).  As each muscle performs a different function and is a different texture from the others, each requires different cooking methods to extract the most from the cuts.  Many retail pieces include multiple muscle groups (look for layers of fat).

I remember studying first aid and being explained that many of our muscles work in groups of 2 and the muscles alternate flexing/relaxing in order to allow us to move.  As you flex your bicep, your triceps becomes relaxed.  The more a muscle is worked, the more flavor it can develop and the tougher it can become.

The use of the animal is fascinating.  They render fat, make sausage, prepare stock and brine larger cuts.  The animal will last several weeks to feed the restaurant and they will only bring another lamb in once this one is complete.

The workshop end over a beer and tastes of their charcuterie and preserves.  The chef and butcher share stories, field questions and share their passion with the group.  Details are offered on their site and are worth every penny.

Over the weekend we will be adding a more detailed gallery of the workshop – the photos are more graphic than shown here and we will share a link on the main page for those who wish to explore more.

A steakhouse with no steaks; a fascinating restaurant (Cowbell, Toronto)

I recently had the honour of being invited to a butchery demo in the basement of Cowbell (a very unique restaurant in Toronto).  Our friend Margaret Mulligan (the fabulous photographer) was shooting the session and, along with Head Chef, Mark Cutrara, I was offered to come along.  I always love the chance to explore something I haven’t seen or tried before – we only write about the experiences that we liked or loved.  This was one to love.  Today’s article is art 1 of 3 and is a serious comparison of a butcher, a chef and a vegetarian.  All of the photos are hers.   To see the entire series of posts, click here.

A steakhouse with no steaks; a fascinating restaurant (Cowbell, Toronto)

The concept of Cowbell seems easy enough to understand on it`s surface: it`s a sustainable restaurant that works closely with select Farmer`s concerned with animal husbandry and provide top quality (and top dollar) product to the restaurant for them to butcher in-house and then cook nose-to-tail with a sustainable focus.

Chef Mark Cutrara starts to explain some of his dilemma when he explains that an 800 pound carcass could have less than 20 steaks.  There are plenty of other great cuts beyond steak but it`s clear that he could sell out of steak the night he butchers a cow and still have meat for weeks (or longer) and no steak offering on the menu.  This was a struggle when they first opened – customers would enter with anticipation of ordering a steak and be disappointed or confused about the offerings on the menu.

Speaking of said menu, it is written in chalk.  Some cuts yield three or four dishes per animal.  As the dish sells out, it is replaced and may not return (if at all) for several weeks until the current animal is consumed and replaced by the next animal.

A steakhouse with no steaks; a fascinating restaurant (Cowbell, Toronto)

A revelation hit the restaurant around the price they paid for their featured product.  When they bought an entire cow for $3.50 a pound, filet was worth the same amount as silverskin, bones, fat and tongue (more on their approach to butchery and Ryan Donovan tomorrow).  Everything was just as valuable as everything else – ethically and financially.  A different method of approaching large proteins was needed in the kitchen and staff would have to be trained extensively to describe and educate the patrons of the restaurant.

A single dinner will likely include several different preparations from the same animal.  You may get a piece of steak paired with charcuterie, a sausage or other cut from the same animal to ensure the restaurant cycles through the whole animal in the course of it`s use.  They make their own charcuterie in-house, render fats and cook with as much as 99% of the animal.

I love the story of their hamburger as an example of their vision.  The beef is ground in-house.  It is matched with greens from a farm that used compost created by the cows to fertilize it`s vegetables.  Buttermilk (from in-house churned butter) is part of the bun which is baked in the basement.  Mark explains it`s a series of tightly entwined closed concentric circles that make up the dish.

The restaurant recently eliminated olive oil from the menu, replacing it with their own rendered fats, canola and soya oil – items that can be sourced locally and are part of our own terroir.

There is a lot of things happening here that add to the localization and sustainability of the menu.  Connections with farmers allow them to provide input into diet and exercise based on what they are receiving from the farmer.  Preserving a local bounty (curing charcutire and pickling included) allows the flavors of the spring to come through year around.  Locally sourcing produce (including in the winter) and working directly with farmers allows the restaurant to consistently provide stunning flavor without compromise.  In-house baking, sous vide and using a variety of animals (fish, venison, pork, lamb and potentially bison and others) allow great diversity.

Cowbell allows us to truly taste what it is to eat with a sense of HERE; it also helps us learn what that means.

Similarities between vegetarians, butchers and chefs

I recently had the honour of being invited to a butchery demo in the basement of Cowbell (a very unique restaurant in Toronto).  Our friend Margaret Mulligan (the fabulous photographer) was shooting the session and, along with Head Chef, Mark Cutrara, I was offered to come along.  I always love the chance to explore something I haven’t seen or tried before – we only write about the experiences that we liked or loved.  This was one to love.  Today’s article is art 1 of 3 and is a serious comparison of a butcher, a chef and a vegetarian.  All of the photos are hers.   To see the entire series of posts, click here.

“When people write about us they often pit us against vegetarians, and that’s not what we’re trying to do.”  Ryan Donovan said this as he stood behind the butcher block of the restaurant he has helped build.  He is all things “B” – butcher, baker and breads are all of his domain here.  He is also very serious.

“Let me be clear.  We need to eat less meat.”  He continues to share a vision similar to that of Michael Pollan.  Leafy greens should form a large part of our diet and we need to lower our impact and increase our health through a radical change of how we view our diet.

It may sound slightly mad from a butcher and part of the force behind one of Toronto’s leading meat restaurants.  It shouldn’t be shocking that Executive Chef Mark Cutrara has the same vision.   Both a focused and firm on their vision – and neither has lost it.

My personal relationship with meat has been a conscious and complicated one.  Hunting and fishing runs through my family for more than 200 years in North America and I was raised on my share of it.  I spent 5-years of my life not eating pork, beef or wild game before coming around full circle to organize the hunting camp I grew up within (more on the entire story is here).

I understand why people struggle with hunting and, on a bigger scale, meat in general.  I have also had (and have) many dear friends in life who are devout vegetarians.  I firmly beleive that food hunters and vegetarians have much more in common with each other than with many others.

William S. Burroughs wrote the Naked Lunch.  Many find it surprising to find out that it was Jack Kerouac who actually came up with the title and proposed it to Burroughs.  “The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”

It`s an oversimplification with plenty of exceptions to state that a vegetarian and a hunter are fully conscious of what`s on the plate – one makes a conscious decision that they cannot consume it while the other decides they can.  It`s also something I have found to often ring true in my own experiences.

Similarities between vegetarians, butchers and chefs

Ryan and Mark are incredibly conscious of what is being served on their plates.  They recognize what is on the end of their forks.  They are concerned about the quality of life their animals had and buy direct from Farmer`s who do the same.  They purchase whole animals direct from farmers and butcher them to cook nose to tail to use as much of the animal as possible.  We`ll show how they use as much as 99% of an animal within the restaurant.

The two gentlemen recognize that meat does not come from or grow on styrofoam.  There is a conscious acceptance (and excitement) about their product that appears to come from a similar basis that many vegetarians establish their rejection of meat.  They both see the Naked Lunch and make opposite decisions for themselves as individuals.

What appears to be diametrically opposed views may actually be more closely related than views from the middle.  although there are plenty of exceptions, perhaps it`s as simple as the two sides of the same coin.

Cheap Tuesday Gourmet – with help from our friends

My Grandmother shared stories of the Great Depression with me as I grew up.  Others in my family have echoed very lean upbringings and their survival techniques from the time.

As an example, my Mother`s family is from the Eastern Shores of Cape Breton.  As children they were teased for eating lobster in their school lunches.  Lobster was for poor people – their families were fishermen who could not afford to buy their own food.  The kids who ate imported SPAM (canned ham) were seen as having something of prestige and value because it had a monetary value.  Perspective is everything. [Read more...]

Curious days for molecular cuisine

The world economy has had it`s impacts on global dining.  Fine dining has taken off it`s tie and white gloves and offer cuts of meat typically featured in the kitchens of the working class or disposed of altogether (trotters, tongue, sausage and even cheeks have been raised to gourmet status).  Fine dining is, in places, becoming more affordable and less pretentious.

It`s an interesting time for those who `cook with science` as well.  Meals which are produced with painstaking accuracy and evolving techniques can be challenged even further to balance a cheque book with a product that has a cost much higher than traditional fare.  Alinea, in Chicago, has 0.75 staff members per guest per evening while El Bulli in Spain is rumoured to go as high as 1.5-2 staff per guest.

The cost goes much higher than staff – the chemicals, equipment and ingredients also run high.  Many of these restaurants claim to lose money on dinner but make profit through wine sales, speaking tours, cook books and the rest.  The days are impossibly long and the work takes it`s toll on chef and crew.

I imagine it`s a tough go on the best of days – and these aren`t them.

Grant Acchatz (the amazing chef and co-owner of Alinea in Chicago) shared a link on Twitter yesterday (follow him here) which describes a move in Italian Parliament to `outlaw Molecular Cuisine`.  It`s an odd concept – after all, all food is made up of molecules and all of the powders, elixirs and concoctions are found in commercial food (which is not impacted by the ban).  It is being perceived as a move to protect their cuisine and culture and the legislation is full of flaws that appear to have workarounds but the Government has clearly stepped in to the kitchen.

Ferran Adria is the mad Chef behind El Bulli in Spain.  The restaurant opens 6-months per year and the core crew create experiments in re-imagining food the rest of the year.  Millions of requests for reservations are declined every year (including ours this year) to seat a few thousand in the course of a season.  The restaurant was named the top in the world for it`s fourth consecutive year this year.

Adria announced that the restaurant would close for 2 years to take a break from the demands of the restaurant.  Plans were unclear as to the future of the restaurant – rumours floated about a permanent closing, stress leave and more…

Our friend Jen shared a great link with us that declared the future of El Bulli would be as a culinary academy.  It`s a funny coincidence to note that Grant Achatz spent a pivotal 3 days at the restaurant which changed his view on cooking.

Adria is planning to transform El Bulli to a nonprofit school where he will work to train top chefs from around the world as well as special projects including archiving a catalog of contemporary food from around the world.  Yes, he is interested in preserving the culture of modern approaches – including the same approaches that are being banned in Italy.

It would seem to be that we are approaching an interesting crossroads on the timeline of cooking with science.

A butcher opened my eyes to vegetables with an option better than composting

I recently had the honour of being invited to a butchery demo in the basement of Cowbell (a very unique restaurant in Toronto).  Our friend Margaret Mulligan (the fabulous photographer) was shooting the session and, along with Head Chef, Mark Cutrara, I was offered to come along.  I always love the chance to explore something I haven’t seen or tried before – we only write about the experiences that we liked or loved.  This was one to love.  Today’s article is art 1 of 3 and is a serious comparison of a butcher, a chef and a vegetarian.  All of the photos are hers.   To see the entire series of posts, click here.

In the butchering process, they weigh the scraps (waste) that they cannot use.  Their waste is stunningly small – a lamb had less waste than the amount of trimmings, peels and vegetable ends that we dispose of weekly.

I was thinking about that last statement and a few others.  Restaurants, delis, food producers and fish mongers all find ways to reduce their waste.   Less waste = profit.  Less waste also equates to less overall consumption, an easier budget and a better sleep at night.

So I was chewing the proverbial fat with a vibrant discourse in my head as I filled my cart at the grocery store.  Although I had many vegetables I also knew that I needed stock.  I had a $4 “box” of it in my hand when an idea struck…

A butcher opened my eyes to vegetables with an option better than composting February

I realized if I cleaned all my vegetables when I got home, I could make a quick stock of my scraps.  Carrot peel and tops, celery bottom (and top), the stalks of herbs, seeds from our squash, mushroom ends and so forth.  Jam them in a pot, cover in water and simmer with a bay leaf.

The verdict?  It’s a work in progress but a very promising one.  The yield was 1.25 liters (5 cups) of golden broth – the seeds made things bitter and slightly awkward (like being a kid at a wedding – you belong with the family but don’t entirely fit in just yet).

I wouldn’t drink it on it’s own but it’s plenty flavorful to add to dishes through the week, deglaze pans and add to think mashed veggies or other soups.

Many of these vegetables took months to create – finding a way to use the parts we skip could make a small difference in so many things.  It also just makes me feel great.

Fermenting Sauerkraut – day 1

Fermentation is a type of preserving I have never done and have wanted to do for a long time. Traditional dill pickles, saurkraut and kosher preserves are staples of this art.

The premise is basic: let a vegetable (often pickles or cabbage) ferment in a brine of their own creation.  The fermentation is visible – bubbles rise through the brining liquid.  When the bubbles stop (up to 6 weeks), fermentation is done.

Fermenting Sauerkraut   day 1 Preserving Recipes February Cabbage [Read more...]

Local Food Recipes – and 3 inches of snow

Today is thick and white.  The entire landscape out the window is cold, stark and absolute winter.  It doesn’t feel like there would be a fresh morsel of food for thousands of kilometers.

So I decided to find some inspiration for local recipes out there – here’s a few great looking ones for the heart of winter:

Butternut Squash Curry from Seasonal Ontario Food.  So much to love about this – including the blog itself which focuses on recipes with at least 80% local ingredients.  It’s a blog I pop over to on a semi-regular basis and find a lot of interesting ideas through.

The Vancouver Sun shares recipe ideas and a profile on soup that is fit for our Gold Medal Women’s Hockey team here.  The recipes could easily be localized although I’m not sure it’s a scoop to report that the head of our hockey federation is a soup fanatic – though I did find that anecdote rather humourous.

The Montreal Gazette offers ideas for Maple-Roasted Chicken.  It’s also a good reminder that syrup season (one of the first crops of the year) will be here before we know it!

Roasted Steak Sandwiches – The Intelligencer claims that this is the time if year that we’re “raring to roast.”  I think they may actually be right – we could also benefit from the extra heat this morning.

The Toronto Sun has taken on Apples – apple chips, apple fries and apple sundaes.  This is also my favourite time of year to preserve apple sauce and I’m a little hopeful that it will be the secret ingredient for the can jam for the month.  There’s so many things to preserve in the fall and apples cellar through the winter which makes the timing prime for canning apples.  My apple sauce is my Grandmother’s favourite – and fabulous with a touch of cream in a bowl.

The Toronto Star headed to Hank’s to check out their Ontario grits.  apparently the results render the chef kissable.  They do look fantastic.

I started this post thinking there would be a shortage of ideas based on the bleakness of the world through the window.  The truth is there’s lots of ideas – and even more people sharing them.  I’m feeling a step more inspired and just that much hungrier.

Happy winter everyone!

Coulda been the 6-pack,coulda been the Russians

(The obscure reference from the title ties to the Irish Rovers – if you don’t know it, or would like a reminder – click here).

We have more readers from the US than from Canada and I thought this may be an interesting piece of perspective on our nation and the city in which I live.  I should explain that we live on one of the busier streets in the city on the edge of a very social strip of town.  A 3 minute walk would bring you past 8-12 restaurants and bars as well as a concert venue.

I have managed to find myself on the streets of Toronto around 7PM for the last 2 evenings.  There has been an unusual amount of people walking, by themselves, with cases of beer.  It’s usually a 6 or a 12-pack but they are out there and they are generally walking hurried through the cold winter night.

I have also noticed that by 8PM they are not around.

Last night I counted 10 people walking on the streets as described above between 6.30-7.15.  I sat at a College Street bar for a few hours after this and while I wasn’t facing the street, frequent glances outside revealed no additional beer.

Perhaps I’m hallucinating but I draw an easy conclusion – Olympic Hockey drives behaviours across our city (and I suspect, our Country).  The television support my claim – 20 million Canadians (2 out of 3) watched at least part of the game on Tuesday night.  I suspect last night’s game (vs the Russians) was even higher.

I walked across College and noticed the crowds in many bars who were huddled around televisions.  The bars were diverse – typical pubs, restaurants, watering holes and holes in the wall contained their tribes – all part of a bigger tribe of the Canadian Cult.  It seems that hockey – and beer – are a right of passage for many Canadians these days.

A mention of beer may seem to be a very loose tie to a food post – if you could see the frequency that this pattern occurs it would be instantly clear why it’s not a loose tie at all.  I’d love to know the statistics on beer sales in Canada this week.