Make Peace With Meat

Cubes of raw veal shoulder meat for an Asian-style stew.

I probably eat a third as much meat as I used to and, on the not-rare (three times a week?) occasions that I do indulge, I eat less of it.

I’m reminded of a really good plate of slow-roasted lamb shoulder I had in Seattle two weeks ago; there were about six ounces on the plate, and I ate half. It was delicious, and it was enough. This is no longer a conscious thing but a new habit.

The new habits, I suppose, come from new attitudes. The vast majority of Americans still eat meat at least some of the time. Statistically, most of us eat it in unwise, unsustainable and unhealthful quantities.

I’m betting that you eat meat more consciously (and less of it) than you once did. The health, environmental and ethical concerns affect the attitudes of almost everyone I encounter, and although our priorities differ, few people I know indiscriminately fill their supermarket carts with shrink-wrapped meat and leave. Not long ago, almost all of us did that.

It was never easy to judge meat quality, and that remains the case. The Agriculture Department grades meat by fat content, “select” being the leanest and “prime” the fattiest. This is not an adequate system for those of us who consider other things when we buy meat, including at least some assurance that the animal was treated humanely. (There are also the issues of aging — with beef at least — and the animal’s breed, but I’m not getting into that here.)

“Humanely” means different things to different people. Veal consumption plummeted in the ’80s when confinement turned people off, and as a result crates are set to be phased out by 2017, producers say. But veal can be as natural a part of legitimate agriculture as any other animal. If you consume dairy, you support veal production.

When it comes to beef, pork and lamb, some people insist that meat come from animals raised on small farms, individually tended; others are interested only that the animals are not raised in confinement or routinely fed antibiotics. Feed is also an issue, because cows evolved to eat grass, not grain.

Many of us consider all of those factors when shopping. Sadly, claims like these are not ironclad and difficult to vet. But they’re still better than buying commodity or branded meat from the country’s biggest producers, which is almost assuredly from animals that have been subjected to confinement, prophylactic drug therapy and assembly-line processing.

I feel best when buying from a farmer or farmer’s representative I know, or think I know. But even assuming this is possible, it has what at first appears to be a decided drawback: cost. It’s difficult to nail down averages, but if commodity meat — I’m talking about red meat here, but most of what follows could be argued about almost any product — costs something under $10 a pound in most cases, and national brands from humanely treated animals like that from Niman Ranch or Coleman Natural cost maybe twice as much, meat from local farmers costs considerably more. It’s not uncommon to spend $25 or more a pound on beef from a trustworthy source.

A Little Meat Goes a Long Way

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Francesco Tonelli for The New York Times

The immediate response that we as consumers have to this is “ouch.” Counterintuitive as it may seem, this is good for everyone.

Relatively large-scale sustainable and “natural” or “organic” or “humane” farmers might raise 500 pigs in a year— they are not getting rich. We want these farmers to earn a living; they are stewarding the land in a manner we appreciate and they are providing us with the kind of food we want to eat; they are not using antibiotics routinely or torturing animals. Nor are they likely to be receiving, directly or indirectly, federal subsidies. And they are providing us with meat that tastes better.

All of which may not make up for spending $30 instead of $15. But there are other reasons you can live with these higher prices. It’s widely accepted that large quantities of red meat may be problematic, health-wise, and we know that many people have made it a goal to eat less meat because large-scale industrial production is damaging to the environment. This is to a great extent what flexitarianism is about, after all.

Here’s a way to think about it: The price of food in general is what economists call “inelastic” — you’re going to eat something no matter the cost. But the price of any particular food like meat is elastic — you will buy less as it becomes more expensive. Though it may at first seem paradoxical, this is a good thing from nearly every perspective.

I am saying this: Spend the same $30, or $50 or $100 or $300 on meat that you now spend each week or month, but buy less and buy better. You might compare this to an annual purchase of 20 $5 T-shirts made by child labor versus one of five $20 T-shirts made by better-paid and better-treated workers from organic cotton. Expensive meat from real farms is a more extreme example of this less-is-better policy.

Then cook meat differently. I could offer hundreds of recipes for dishes that take advantage of this kind of cooking. Here are three, which are among my current favorites, using different meats, cooking techniques and vegetables.

The first is a vague interpretation of fajitas that focuses on grilled vegetables and makes beef a supporting player. A pound or so of tender, fatty rib-eye or sirloin goes a long way here. And it makes a lovely impression if you present it whole before slicing or chopping. You can cook everything in a cast-iron skillet (you will most likely need more than one, or you will have to cook in batches) instead of on a grill.

The second is a new-age version of a veggie burger (as in half and half, not a burger made from vegetables and grain), which you might also think of as a stuffed mushroom. It’s terrific, hearty, unusual and really cool: a portobello filled with sausage meat and grilled. In this instance, a broiler will work, as will a skillet.

Finally, there is an Asian-style veal stew. Despite the name, it’s a fairly quick dish to prepare, combining simple technique with decidedly unexpected flavors and doing so with plenty of vegetables. Finding good veal is perhaps the most difficult challenge, although tender beef, like tenderloin or pork from the shoulder, also works well.

These are good recipes. With really good meat (and less of it), they’re even better. That’s a change in attitude.

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