By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
To get the shoulder clod away in one piece, you gently sever the connective tissue that binds the meat to the shoulder blade while you pull down on the meat with the hook. Sliding the boning knife between the bone and the muscle without puncturing the meat requires a delicate touch, while yanking on the hook hard enough to pull the clod away demands brute force. It's an odd combination of skills. Like playing the piano while moving it.
"Put your weight into it," the young A&M Meat Science major who served as my mentor said. "I'll make sure it doesn't fall on the floor." I hung on the hook, and finally, the clod pulled away. We flopped it onto the worktable like a 30-pound fish.
Now we began to "fabricate" our final cuts. There are a lot of different ways to butcher a carcass. You can remove the whole tenderloin—or you can include it in porterhouse and T-bone steaks. You can make rib eye steaks with the bone in or without. Once upon a time, grocery store butchers cut the shoulder blade into "seven-bone" pot roasts. Today, the same section of chuck yields flatiron steaks and shoulder tenders, cuts that are turning up in fancy restaurants as "bistro steaks." After we cut the outside skirt away from the ribs, we removed the first layer of the abdominal wall that's attached to it. That's the inside skirt, Savell told me.
After I learned how to cut up a shoulder clod to make flatiron steaks and tenders, I took a break and walked around. Griffin called me over and showed me a piece of boneless short rib so marbled the meat was as much white as red. It was the short rib meat Koreans call kalbi.
Savell pointed out the diaphragm muscle, the famous outside skirt steak. Since the meat runs in a circle around the inside of the thoracic cavity, it was easy to see where it got the "belt" name.
I got the tedious task of cleaning it. There is a tough membrane to peel away and under that, there's a layer of silverskin connective tissue that has to be cut off with a knife.
There are two layers of abdominal muscle under the outside skirt. Some people called these tough cuts flap and tail meat, but since both used to go on the ground beef pile, nobody worried much about nomenclature. Which is how these pieces got lumped together as "beef for fajitas."
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the word "fajitas" didn't mean anything.
On Memorial Day weekend, I grilled up fajitas for a family gathering. But before I let everyone dig in, I made them taste-test four different kinds of "fajitas." The marinated sirloin flap was pretty popular; it beat out the marinated and un-marinated inside skirt, and the marinated "beef for fajitas." The meat came from my brother Dave, who works for restaurant purveyor Ben E. Keith in San Antonio and called in fajita samples from meat suppliers. Our taste test represented the most popular meats sold for fajitas in Texas restaurants.
I was surprised to see outside skirt steak, but as my brother pointed out, it was imported. In a bizarre trade swap, we sell our outside skirt to Asia and then import outside skirt from Central America. When we opened the package, we were taken aback by the nasty liver odor. "It always smells like that," Dave said. Because of the smell, I decided to omit the outside skirt steak from our test.
The best restaurant meats we tried were marinated. We can thank vacuum tumbler technology for turning previously tough cuts into excellent fajitas. But as always, there's a catch. As one A&M meat scientist explained, the process of marinating beef faces the same inherent problem as grinding beef. If you start off with one spot of bacterial contamination on the surface of the meat, you end up spreading it very effectively throughout the entire batch. It's only a matter of time before we face the first marinated beef recall.
It helps that fajitas are usually cooked to well done. And adding antimicrobial agents to the marinade helps. But read the ingredient list, and you have to conclude that you are eating beef in a complex chemical stew.
In another backyard barbecue, I cooked up four more varieties of fajita meat, this time based on what's available in retail meat markets. I bought marinated inside skirt, ribbon-cut short ribs and unmarinated chuck steak at a Mexican meat market. The skirt was the most expensive, at $4.45 a pound. The other cuts were around $4. The store also sold "res para fajitas" a hodgepodge of marinated beef trimmings, for $2.98 a pound.
When I saw highly marbled boneless short rib meat for $3.98 a pound at Costco, I impulsively picked some up. It was the same marbled meat that Griffin showed me while we were cutting up our sides of beef in class. According to every recipe I could find, the short rib meat contains lots of connective tissue and needs to be boiled before you put it on a grill. But I eat this stuff in Korean barbecue joints all the time—thin-sliced, marinated with soy sauce and raw.