Food Republic’s column Ask Your Butcher seeks to answer FAQs in the world of butchery. Ethically minded butcher Bryan Mayer has opened butcher shops and restaurants and has trained butchers in the U.S. and abroad. He helped develop the renowned butcher-training program at Fleisher’s. Today, he consults with farmers, butchers, chefs and anyone else who will listen. In each column, Mayer tackles a pressing issue facing both meat buyers and home cooks. This week, he shines a light on a controversial selection in the meat case: veal.
If there’s one thing that can quite possibly raise the hackles of animal-welfare activists more than foie gras, it’s veal. And rightfully so. When you consider the cages and crates, the minimal to no movement, the usage of antibiotics (hormones have never been approved for usage in non-ruminating veal calves), veal production has had a bit of a dubious past. Fortunately, it’s because of the outrage over these practices that we’ve seen much improvement in the quality of life for veal calves. But that improvement is quite subjective, especially when you’re starting from such a low point.
Meanwhile, dairy production and cattle raised for meat are interconnected as they share many of the same pitfalls: intensive raising practices and the financial incentive to get the job done as quickly and cheaply as possible. Fortunately, there are many farmers who believe there is a financial incentive to raise veal calves outside of the industrial model. “Free-range,” “rose,” “meadow” and “suckled” are all terms that have been used over the last few years to define a difference in the raising practices of some farmers. There has been blowback from some in the veal industry, however, who don’t consider veal that was raised on pasture to be true veal, but rather young beef. It’s all in the flavor, and an animal eating grass can taste and look substantially different than one consuming an all-liquid milk substitute, the diet of industrially raised veal.
In some respects, it could be argued that the consumption of veal is directly tied to one of the main tenets of sustainable agriculture — waste nothing. To understand this concept, you have to understand something very basic: In order to produce any dairy product, you must have milk. Milk is for nursing, and, in most cases, it doesn’t just magically appear. There will be some babies. Now, to most of you this might not be a revelation, but I have had this conversation over the meat counter, resulting in an “Oh yeah, that makes sense” from a customer or two.
Now, whether the animals being raised are dairy crosses (crossed with beef cattle to be raised to a more mature age) or purebred, there are going to be some males. And though you can pick up a copy of Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine and read about lactating human males, I doubt you’ll find any reference to that occurring in the bovine world. So what do you do with those males? An estimated 4 million dairy cattle are sent to feedlots every year, and some of those are males. They’ll be fed high-energy rations and sold for their meat. Cross-breeding has made this possible. But if you’re a dairy farmer who believes purebreds produce higher fat and protein ratios for your products, then for those males, veal is the option.
If you’re a dairy farmer like my friend Sue Miller from Birchrun Hills Farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania, you raise purebred Holstein and Jersey cattle and make some incredible cheeses, like my personal favorites, Red Cat and Birchrun Blue. You also produce some of the best-tasting veal I’ve ever sold. Sue understands the delicate balance of economics that come into play when raising livestock, especially dairy cattle outside the industrial model.
As an advocate for eating older, more mature animals, I also understand that this delicate balance does not exist in a vacuum. The sale of veal for Sue and many dairy farmers is an important part of their business model. The costs associated with raising these animals to a more mature age can be high, and a market in which to sell them can be difficult to find. But trust me, we all benefit from such well-raised animals. And forget about your ethical argument about eating something so young, because if you’re eating chicken or turkey, guess what? They are slaughtered at much younger ages.
So you’re totally cool with consuming veal that has been raised the right way — out on pasture, consuming milk, grass and grass hay. However, just like our desire to eat chicken breasts as opposed to the much tastier thighs and legs, it all comes down to the taste. We’ve been sold the idea that the almost white, naturally fork-tender meat of industrial veal is superior to that of the rosier, slightly beefier texture of pastured veal. Well, you’ve been had. Allow your food to taste like what it is. So I say, if you’re consuming dairy (I hope the pastured, grass-fed, or even raw kind if you can get it) then you should be eating veal.
Well-raised, fully pastured veal can be difficult to find. If your local butcher shop doesn’t offer veal, I recommend trying a dairy farmer at a farmers’ market. And when you get that veal home, here are a couple of recipes outside of the usual rib chop and osso buco.
A few months back, we talked about some of my favorite cuts and how to prepare them. Frying up some schnitzel was — and still is — on the top of my list. While I talked about schweineschnitzel (made with pork) in that instance, we’re making wienerschnitzel if I can get my hands on veal. Whether its origins lie in Germany, Austria or the Holy Roman Empire, I think we all can agree that thinly sliced and pounded veal, breaded and fried, is the perfect anytime meal. I’ve had this for breakfast with eggs, over ramen, and even between Martin’s Potato rolls (highly recommended). You’ll want to find a cut that’s lean, with little to no connective tissue. The muscles off the round (hind leg) are perfect for this, though the top round, bottom round, eye round or whatever is available that hasn’t made its way into your butcher’s meat loaf mix will work. You can go traditional with your sides and make some potato salad, spaetzle and French fries, or keep it simple and just garnish with some lemon slices. I like to keep it simple. Okay, maybe I’ll add some fries.
4 veal cutlets, from pastured, rose, suckled (the good stuff) animals. Roughly 1/4 pound each, pounded thin, about ¼ inch
¼ cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
2 cups bread crumbs (panko also works)
Neutral-tasting oil (I like safflower oil)
4 tablespoons butter
- In three dishes/bowls, separate your flour (seasoned with 1 teaspoon of salt and pepper), eggs (beaten), and bread crumbs with the remaining teaspoon of salt mixed.
- Dredge each side of veal cutlet, shaking off any excess.
- Next, dip the cutlet into your beaten egg, making sure to coat completely and allowing any excess to run off. Finally, coat with bread crumbs, making sure not to pat down. Let’s call it a soft coating, shaking off any excess.
- Once the cutlets are coated, you’ll want to work quickly and get your oil and butter hot at about 330°F. You don’t want your cutlets sitting around, or they’ll never crisp up! You’ll need enough oil to pan-fry. We’re not deep-frying here.
- Test temp with a thermometer, which I’m sure you have at this point, and fry away. Roughly 2-3 minutes per side should be enough to get that golden brown color.
- If you need to work in batches, pour off the oil and quickly repeat the process. A quick cool on some paper towel absorbs any excess oil. Add a bit of lemon juice and you’re ready to go. Grab a potato roll!
A slightly more ambitious undertaking is the preparation of a stuffed veal breast. And with the weather here in the Northeast showing signs of spring, I think we’ve got time for one more braised hunk of meat. Veal breast is one of those cuts, like the round above, that usually finds its way into a meatloaf mix. But if you’re able to snag one, grab some sausage, garlic and onions and the reward will be all yours. You could do bone-in, but for ease we’ll go with the bone-out version. I’m assuming if no one has requested bones, your butcher has already got a batch of veal stock cooking. That stuff is liquid gold! I like a simple stuffing of sausage, spinach and bread crumbs. You’ll want to braise this cut for a roughly 2½ to 3 hours in chicken stock or a dry white wine until it’s fork-tender. If you can’t get the breast, the similarly muscled brisket will work just fine. It’s a little trickier to stuff and tie, but it works. And it’s delicious.
Sausage- and Spinach-Stuffed Veal Breast Recipe
2½ to 3 pounds boneless veal breast
4 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, minced
½ cup bread crumbs
2 to 3 links sweet Italian sausage
½ cup fresh spinach
½ cup dry white wine
1 cup chicken stock
2 tablespoons neutral oil
Standard mirepoix (2 carrots, 2 celery stalks, 1 small onion, all chopped)
- First you’ll want to make your stuffing. Over medium-high heat, melt 2 tablespoons of butter and add onion and garlic, stirring often. Cook until soft, roughly 5 minutes.
- While that’s going, uncase your sausage and mix, in a bowl, with your spinach and bread crumbs. When your onions and garlic have cooled, add to the mix and season with salt and pepper. Mix until smooth.
- With the bone side up, lay your veal breast flat, season with salt and pepper, and spread a thin layer of stuffing over the surface, making sure to leave space at the edges.
- Roll up the breast into a cylinder and tie with butcher’s twine.
- In your deep-sided skillet or Dutch oven, melt the remaining butter with oil over medium-high heat, and brown the veal breast on all sides. I like to think of the breast as having four sides. So 4-5 minutes each side, or roughly 16-20 minutes total, until lightly browned.
- Remove the breast and pour off all but a tablespoon or two of the excess oil. Return the heat to medium-high, add in your mirepoix and cook for about 5 minutes.
- Add in your white wine to deglaze, and scrape up all those bits of veal from browning. We’re not wasting any flavor here.
- Back in goes the breast along with the chicken stock; bring to a boil and then it’s off to a preheated 300°F oven. Cover and let simmer for about 3 hours. We’re looking for fork-tender, not fall-apart. As oven temps can vary, start checking around 2 to 2½ hours.
- Let the breast rest for 10 minutes and carve away. As good as it is the day it’s cooked, it’s even better the next, cold, with some mustard!