Step into the flourescent food haven that is Essex Street Market on New York City’s Lower East Side and you can’t help but notice the piles of ribeye beckoning from behind their glass case at Patrick Martins’ Heritage Meat Shop. Martins, the founder and former head of Slow Food USA and founder of Heritage Radio Network, founded Heritage Foods USA in 2001 in order to encourage a market for high-quality heritage breed meat products that are humanely raised by independent farmers.
Martins himself is not a butcher — that is left up to Dionisio Silva, who worked at this location when it was Jeffrey’s butcher shop — but he does know about taste. Above all, Heritage Foods promise to redefine your definition of the best. As Martins told us, if Daniel Boulud was coming over for dinner you wouldn’t serve him just any generic turkey, you would serve him a heritage turkey — that is if you could get up the nerve to cook for him at all. True to his word, Martins only eats heritage brand meats which are available at over 50 restaurants in New York and to anyone who is interested in buying them online.
Here, as part of Michel Nischan Week, Martins tells us how to effectively buy from a butcher and shares with us his tips for not ruining the meat when you cook it (you know, in case Boulud drops by for dinner).
Related: Photo Gallery: Heritage Meat Shop
What should people ask the butcher to get the best product?
I would say the one question is the value-to-price ratio. Like a wine list, you can always tell what that is. You can almost tell — they set them apart through the price. So likewise with us we have rib-eye and strip which are in the low 20s and then we’ll have our staff specials which are $99 and then there are these whole sets of middle cuts like petite tenders, flank steak, skirt steak, brisket or hanger. I think asking what’s the best bang for my buck is always what is most interesting. Because you never know — maybe the cheapest thing is what the butcher is trying to move and the most expensive thing is what they’re trying to sell the least of but make the most money on.
Is there a specific time of day or day of week you should go to the butcher?
If there’s a lunch component to the butcher shop then it can be a little bit busier [at that time]. But no, I think all times of day. Of course, you know, the end of the day you get certain specials, but at the beginning of the day they’re so happy to have a customer they also give specials.
So not the middle of the day…
Yeah don’t come in the middle — you’ll get screwed.
In the old days they used to have to shop six days a week because of freshness issues. I think two to three times a week is the perfect thing.
Why heritage meat?
With the Italians, local was the last thing that they thought about. You know they say 90% of baseball is pitching? Well 90% of gastronomy is taste. The worst thing you could be as an Italian is celebrating a local fifth-rate cheese. They would never do that. They would always go off taste. If you’re selling the exact same crossbred chicken that Perdue sells on a small farm, it’s still not going to be a world-class food. And so we think you need to combine protocols and ideas with pure animal husbandry with the genetics.
Could I look at the meat and tell if it was heritage?
No, definitely not. I mean marbling obviously can happen, but sometimes grass fed meat is not marbled but it still tastes delicious so I would say you can’t judge a book by its cover. Where you can is with the live animal if you’re an expert, but it’s really a trust thing. Sometimes scrawnier or not as big means something, but it can also be the age so it’s too complicated. I would look for names like 100% Angus, that stands for something. Kobe, Berkshire, Red Wattle.
Favorite cuts and breeds?
I think the best breed for pork is the Gloucester Old Spot. It’s an English breed, and unfortunately it’s very rare so we’re trying to increase the population. It’ll be decades before Americans can go to the supermarket and have a Gloucester Old Spot ham. But on small levels, restaurants, of course the Red Wattle is a very good.
And for the beef, you know the best beef in the world is the Ancient White Park, 100% Angus, Piedmontese, Chianina and Kobe.
Any underrated cut?
The ten-rib rack is the expensive pork chop, the center cut chop, but one cut people don’t know about is the porterhouse pork chop, and that’s like a T-bone chop, so there are ways of getting a chop that can be cheaper.
Also, cured meats – really one of the highest forms of culture, I think, is aging foods.
What’s the biggest mistake people make when buying from a butcher?
People come to get the meat and they say, “Oh I’m going to make a two-hour reduction sauce” and I think, for Chrissake just put it in the oven with some salt and pepper and don’t overcook it. I think people think they’re not doing it justice. They think if I don’t put in six hours…but then they often screw it up as a result and then they don’t go back to it. There’s not a single thing in here, including the shank, that you couldn’t just cut into steak and serve and it’d be good.
A great recommendation I have for all people is getting one of those little hand crank meat grinders because if someone doesn’t finish a piece of their steak or if you’ve served everyone and you have one little piece left over you can throw a bunch of meat together. It’s just about the fat-to-lean ratio and it also extends the shelf life of meats by four or five days. Just make a hamburger, or meat sauce, or meat loaf. There are limitless things and you can put a high end cut or a low end cut you can mix it all together.
How to help: Support small farms through programs like No Goat Left Behind.