If there's one thing we can all agree on, it's that our conventional system for raising livestock animals is unsustainable, contributing to deforestation, reduction of grassland, and climate change. But not everyone has the same reaction to this information. While some opt for reducing their meat consumption, with Meatless Mondays and plant-based meals, others cut meat out entirely, with a vegan or vegetarian diet. Still, others choose what Meredith Leigh has dubbed "ethical meat" in her new book, "The Ethical Meat Handbook: Complete Home Butchery, Charcuterie, and Cooking for the Conscious Omnivore."
Leigh has professional experience as both farmer and chef, but in her introduction to "The Ethical Meat Handbook," she takes on the role of neither. Instead, her approach targets the home cook, the person attempting to sustain her family with the best food possible, and who hopes to inspire others to do the same.
This becomes clear from the very first pages. "If you don’t love food, put this book down. Now," she writes. This voice -- one of authority, approachability, and just the right dose of humor -- pervades the pages that follow, as she shares her philosophy on what, exactly makes meat ethical meat.
"Food that is universally considered good is almost always fresh food, well raised, from superior resources," she writes. "Let’s take bacon. Your experience is richer with bacon you’ve made yourself—possibly with a pork belly that you cut from a pig you raised who rummaged for mast and grub in dark soil and forest litter—than it is when you breeze past the pale, vacuum-sealed bacon at the supermarket, from a distant pig brought up in a concrete pen. We can deduce that food is better when the earth that grows it is healthy, and its source and fabrication are closer to you."
From this theory, Leigh launches into a technical exploration of the world of ethical meat that may seem daunting to some. The book explores a complete overhaul of the reader's meat-eating practices, showing her how to buy, cook, and eat differently. At its core, "The Ethical Meat Handbook" wants to convince the reader to buy whole or quarter animals from reliable sources and butcher them at home. The incredible thing is that it succeeds.
Not only does "The Ethical Meat Handbook" offer a comprehensive (and comprehensible) chapter on the art of home butchery, the book is then broken down into chapters on each major meat type -- beef, pork, lamb, etc. -- and, with illustrative photos, it teaches home cooks how to approach the big, hulking masses of the whole, half, or quarter animal and turn them into family-friendly portions, all the while talking to the reader like a (very informed) best friend.
What will convince you beyond a doubt, however, are the recipes.
One of the book's missions is to encourage home cooks to attempt to cook cuts that aren't quite so common: the beef chapter features no steak, but rather sausage, tallow, jerky, bresaola, and even beef bacon. I opted for the braised beef shank, with which Leigh includes a taco recipe, complete with caper chimichurri. She also notes that the braised shank can be served on crostini with anchovy butter or on sandwiches with a bone marrow horseradish sauce.
I have to admit that the braise itself was so tender and flavorful, I couldn't bear to do much more with it than serve it with mashed potatoes. Next time (and there will be a next time), I'm excited to try that chimichurri.
Next, I tried the pulled pork with vinegar sauce. I'm more of a tomato barbecue girl in theory, but this recipe might have changed my mind. The pork itself is fall-apart tender, and the overnight brine of brown sugar and salt infused every inch of the meat with flavor. Paired with the vinegar sauce, it quickly became our new household standard for barbecue.
Homesteading books like these can be quite overwhelming at first glance, but Leigh offers the perfect blend of palpable friendliness on the page and the obvious knowledge that comes from years of experience to communicate her message. As a result, the book becomes at once aspirational, for those of us who have yet to invest in a home butcher block, and inspirational, with tips that can be followed immediately, from how to source only the very best sustainable meat to how to prepare these cuts to perfection.
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Image care of New Society Publishers