A story from this weekend’s Globe and Mail, by Beppi Crosariol:
Growing up Italian, I learned to appreciate many undervalued things: family, naps in the afternoon, impractical shoes, guilt.
I also learned to love veal. Consuming the flesh of infant calves may arouse the scorn of Pamela Anderson and her ilk, but served up as melt-in-the-mouth scallopine or ossobuco Milanese, the delicate white meat beats kelp juice any day.
Thus when a two-inch-thick boneless chop arrived before me at an acclaimed Asian-fusion restaurant in Toronto, I was stoked. Gargantuan steak knife in hand, I began to carve away at its caramelized exterior in anticipation of that ultimate in bovine tenderness.
Then it happened: a bloody mess. My serrated Excalibur turned out to be no match for the distressingly undercooked flesh below. Soon I was hacking away at its rubbery middle like Jack Nicholson in the role of some nuthouse inmate.
My veal ordeal was not the only raw experience I’ve had in recent weeks. At another top spot in the financial district, I was served a “medium-rare” strip steak so underdone it could have ambled back to the kitchen for a remedial searing.
Then there was the swordfish “catch-of-the-day” at another Bay Street hangout, so pink and cold inside that the faint grill marks on its pale exterior might as well have been penciled on.
As sizzling summer temperatures transform the great outdoors into a giant sauna and amateur cooks everywhere fire up the barbie, there is one place Canadians can go to escape contact with a heat source: a restaurant kitchen. As trendy chefs seem gripped by a collective pyrophobia, raw has become the new cooked, and flavour and texture are the lesser for it.
I know what you’re thinking: “trailer-park boy.” Not so fast. For the record, I love many raw things, from beef tartare to tuna to oysters, even monkfish liver.
But I risk such delicacies only when I know the kitchen staff will brook no compromise in the matters of provenance and handling. Ask any parasitologist: Pathogens such as salmonella, E. coli and campylobacter can fester in poorly handled meat, especially in summer. And there are other parasites, common to many fish, especially, yes, swordfish.
Besides — and this is the point many of today’s appearance-before-flavour chefs seem to be missing — not all things taste good raw or even rare.
One man who knows how to handle his ingredients is Mark Bittman, the gifted cook behind The New York Times column The Minimalist..
I called him to ask if he, too, has tired of raw-flesh fanaticism, and he sounded like Archimedes bounding from the bath.
“At super-upscale restaurants, it’s true, they’re not cooking it any more,” he said. “I just had the experience last week.”
At a private party for 100 at a posh Manhattan eatery, Bittman recounted, the lamb chops were so underdone that about 10 per cent of the foodie crowd sent their plates back. “And a lot of them left chunks of meat on their plate because they were too rare to eat.”
Rare lamb, though it may glisten with the promise of succulent tenderness, is in fact disgusting. Why? Unmelted lamb fat is bitter and exceptionally tough, hardly fair game for the delicately evolved human jaw, unless, of course, your name happens to be Dracula.
Bittman also described a recent guest appearance by famed chef Daniel Boulud on his PBS television series How to Cook Everything: Bittman Takes on America’s Chefs, in which the namesake of New York’s ultra-expensive Daniel restaurant made a point of grilling baby lamb chops all the way to medium. “He said baby lamb and veal and baby goat are no good rare, they taste metallic and they’re too chewy and they have no flavour.”
In scientific terms, the muscle of many young animals contains a high proportion of collagen, the connective tissue that holds fleshy fibres together. Only when cooked does collagen melt into gelatin, yielding flavour and a silky texture.
So why the obsession with undercooking? Bittman theorizes that it’s a sort of “Look, Ma, no stove!” affectation intended to signify a willingness to live on the edge, a kind of Fear Factor for foodies. “We’re so cool, we do things extreme,” Bittman offered, facetiously.
Another influence is simple perception. “You anticipate that it’s going to be tender if it’s undercooked,” said Professor Peter Purslow, a meat science expert and chairman of food science at the University of Guelph in Ontario. As for his own preference, “I don’t like the taste of raw blood, and it’s something that I avoid.”
By ordering your steak rare, you may also miss out on what less extreme diners have known since the dawn of the barbecue. If you cook beef past rare, it will actually taste better. Don’t believe me? Try the comparison with a blindfold on.
Jeffrey Steingarten, the celebrated food scribe for Vogue magazine, made this point years ago in a piece on Wagyu beef — also known as Kobe — the super-fat, $500-a-kilogram Japanese delicacy from black cows raised on beer and sake-soaked grain. “While my wife was in the ladies’ room, I made off with two of her Wagyu morsels for the scientific purpose of comparing her rare with my medium-rare,” he wrote. “Mine won. It lacked none of the tenderness and moisture that steak can lose when you grill it medium; like most blood-red meat, hers lacked a rich beefy taste.”
Michael Olson, chef at 17 Noir restaurant in the Fallsview Casino Resort in Niagara Falls, Ont., notes that there’s a patronizing attitude prevalent in many kitchens when customers ask for a steak beyond medium doneness. “I think it’s none of our business,” said Olson, who prefers his steak medium-rare.
The raw obsession is just as common, if not more so, in the case of seafood. Exhibit A is the seared sea scallop, mainstay of countless ritzy appetizer menus. The theory is to flash-fry the bivalve in butter or oil to create a golden crust and firm up the gelatinous interior without cooking it so long it becomes dry and rubbery. Rather than risk the latter, chefs will err on the side of sushi, offering up a slimy, fish-flavoured marshmallow.
“I am personally tired of raw scallops,” said Olson, who is also a professor at the Niagara Culinary Institute. “If I’m standing next to the ocean, yes, but if I’m 2,400 kilometres from the ocean, I’m going to treat it differently.”
Olson thinks the raw-fish craze started with North America’s obsession with all things Japanese in the 1980s. Proclaiming one’s fondness for sushi became code for worldly sophistication. But Olson, who lived in Japan in the early 1980s, says virtually all the fish he ate there was cooked, often in dumplings or soups.
Another social movement undoubtedly feeding today’s raw-flesh extremism is the raw-vegetable craze. Underweight movie stars such as Uma Thurman and Natalie Portman have touted the nutritional benefits of all-raw diets. Dozens of stove-less establishments have sprung up across North America, with books such as Eating in the Raw by Carol Alt preaching that plant matter begins to lose its nutritional value above about 115 degrees Fahrenheit.
When it comes to the nutritional value of meat and fish, though, the virtues of proper heating outweigh any concerns about burning away vitamins and minerals.
Here’s the raw truth: As prehistoric humans developed a taste for cooked fare, we developed smaller mouths and shorter digestive systems, enabling us to harness higher-energy diets. In return, we ended up with reduced digestive capacity. Untrendy though it may be, our survival imperative forces us to favour cooked meat.
“Why is it that only in the last 20 years we’ve been going away from that?” asked a cynical Prof. Purslow. “It’s because we’ve survived longer eating cooked meat.”