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Specialty Meats: Exotic Entrées

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Wild game and premium cuts bring adventure to menus.
By Barb Freda May 2013

New categories of specialty meats are embellishing menus, and experts in the field—those suppliers who are raising quality meats in settings where grazing and animal welfare are elevated to the highest standards—are eager to help chefs and consumers alike become more familiar and comfortable with new cuts, cost efficiencies, and creative renderings.

Already, consumers’ views on the origins of meats have reached new levels of sophistication. We know where the steak on the plate came from, what the breed is, who raised it, and what it ate. Especially when it’s not just meat; it’s specialty meat—which runs the gamut from goat to gator to finely aged prime beef.

At Gotcha Goat, chairman Bruce Dobbs heralds “the Americanization of goat,” and says people are increasingly familiar with goat.

“We are introducing goat to a wider audience through our ground goat,” says Dobbs, noting his company supplies Kroger supermarkets as well as restaurants. “You can also get chops, legs, loins, and the ever-popular goat cubes. The moisture content is the same as beef, so it cooks like beef, and the price is in line with beef as well.”

Although most goat meat comes to the U.S. from Australia and may have been frozen for months, Gotcha Goat ships from Georgia. And it is all USDA-approved and halal butchered (killed according to Muslim law).

“We are the only branded goat meat in America—and we’re looking to be to goat meat what Coca-Cola is to the beverage world,” says Dobbs. “Goat is the emerging protein and we think ground goat is going to explode [in popularity] the way ground turkey did.”

He also stresses the healthy aspects of eating goat: “After I tell people goat is the most widely eaten meat in the world, I explain it is lower in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol than beef, pork, chicken, or lamb; and it has fewer calories.”

From novelty farm animals to exotic wildlife, chefs are looking to add intrigue to menus. In fact, the days when consumers shuddered at the thought of eating game are long gone. These days they seek it out, and Roger Gerber, founder and CEO of Blackwing Quality Meats, attests to the growing market for specialty meats. “Our business grew 45 percent last year and is already up 80 percent this year,” he says. That growth resulted from independent restaurants as well as major, nationwide chains.

“The restaurant industry has found its new niche,” he says, recalling Blackwing’s start as an ostrich farm in 1989 and his travels to Africa to learn about harvesting ostrich. That start led to raising bison, venison, elk, organic beef, pork, poultry, wild boar, and more—all without added hormones or antibiotics.

Organic bison is the biggest volume item at Blackwing, but wild boar, which is caught on farms under Fish & Wildlife supervision and processed under USDA regulations, is popular as well.

Pheasant is another specialty meat with growing popularity, and MacFarlane Pheasants, in business and family-owned since 1929, farm-raises birds that are all-natural and third-party certified with no genetically modified organisms (GMOs), hormones, or antibiotics.

“People think it will taste like wild game, but it’s mild,” says Sarah Pope, account coordinator, Food Products Division at MacFarlane Pheasants. “When compared with chicken, domestic turkey, or beef, pheasant is lower in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol.”

MacFarlane hopes chefs will think beyond the holidays when it comes to pheasant, which is available year-round, and is a versatile protein that can be roasted, sautéed, braised or barbecued.

“Pheasant pairs well with whatever ingredient you cook,” Pope notes, emphasizing that the lean meat must be cooked at low heat. “We have our own cutting and packing facility and offer whole pheasant as well as every part of the bird. Choices include boneless pheasant breast, thigh meat, leg quarters, and breast meat strips.”

Game On for Ethical Sourcing

Alligator, which has been off the endangered species list since 1987, is another specialty meat where the whole animal is used. “We have measures to make sure it is being managed properly,” says Justin Timineri, executive chef and culinary ambassador, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “We are proud of the safety and reliability of [sourcing] Florida alligator.”

Many alligator hides are shipped abroad to become fashion pieces, but the meat is often consumed in the U.S. “Alligator brings something different to the menu,” adds Timineri. “The meat comes from the tail, legs, jowls, ribs, even the tongue—and it definitely needs to be mechanically tenderized and cooked properly.”

The appeal of specialty meat is enhanced because suppliers are typically committed to traceable supply chains and sustainable concepts. In most instances, livestock that becomes “specialty meat” does not come from large-scale feed lots, but from relatively smaller farms.

For instance, Megan Wortman, director of the American Lamb Board, says lamb producers typically run small, family-owned operations. “There are almost 80,000 producers across the country. Chefs can access local lamb no matter where they are,” she says. “In fact, we tell people American lamb is up to 10,000 miles fresher.”

Surprisingly, lamb is also a new experience for many diners. “Forty percent of the population has never tried lamb,” says Wortman. The American Lamb Board created the “shepherd to chef” program to showcase producers and identify chefs who source locally.

Conversely, owners of Del Terruño free-range beef import their grass-fed beef from Uruguay, where the climate supports grass feeding year-round, and they use CheckBeef, a program that traces beef online according to packaging numbers. The program identifies breed, farm and farmer names, location (longitude and latitude), diet, and contact information for the farmer.

Traceability has been an important part of ranching in Uruguay since 1974, notes Pablo Carrasco, founder of Conexión Ganadera, which produces the Del Terruño beef.

“Grass-fed has become one of the latest watchwords in the industry. The flavor is different, and grass-fed beef is leaner than buffalo meat,” says Carrasco. “The lower fat content makes this beef dry if overcooked. But it doesn’t require any marinating and nothing beyond salt needs to be added.”

Del Terruño beef comes from premium Hereford andAberdeen Angus breeds, which are ideal breeds to be grass-fed. To achieve maximum tenderness, the company harvests the cattle at 800 pounds and no more than 30 months old.

Regardless of whether specialty meat is raised next door or on another continent, attention to sustainable practices is one of the selling points. Bernadette Flocchini, executive vice president at Sierra Meat and Seafood Co., says, “We’ve been practicing holistic management for more than 20 years, treating the land and everything, livestock included, as a whole. Everything you do has an effect.”

In addition to beef, pork, lamb, veal, and fish, Sierra offers an exotic category that includes bison, alligator, antelope, camel, elk, and iguana. “The exotics category has increased by at least 30 percent for us,” says Flocchini.

Adding Value to the Menu

Any time a chef can name the brand and trace origins, menu prices get a boost. At Blackwing, Gerber says, “We are adamant that chefs put the name on the menu. It’s a marketing tool.”

There’s also value in the time and care it takes to produce specialty meats. At Strassburger Meats, which has been a family business since 1865 and started offering quality prime-aged steaks in the 1950s, Suzanne Strassburger, president and CEO, says, “Aging requires strict controls of temperature and humidity. This is expensive, prime beef (only 2–6 percent of beef gets graded prime), and you have to be delicate and caring of [how you manage] the product.”

Value, in Strassburger’s estimation, depends largely on the cut of meat. “The meat is not cheap to start with, but people are willing to pay for the tender and flavorful steaks that result from dry-aging,” she says.

In the case of dry-aged beef, there’s certainly value in knowing what it took to get that steak to the plate. Strassburger details the lengthy process behind dry-aged beef: “In the first week, there is the most [weight] loss, about 7 percent; after that it is 10 percent of the weight as the meat dries. By the time the meat is fully dry-aged (at 21 to 28 days), boneless cuts lose up to 50 percent or more in weight, and bone-in cuts lose as much as 20 percent.”

But the end result is a true delicacy that requires little in the way of dressing up; Strassburger says dry-aged beef needs only kosher salt and pepper. And she adds, “America loves beef.”

America also loves pork—and especially the superior flavor, juiciness, and texture of the higher grade Duroc breed. Farmland Foods is a premiere supplier of the delicacy, and introduced its Farmland DURoC Pork about a year ago.

“Chefs are looking for higher quality and consistency in what comes in the back door,” says Chip Morgan, brand manager of foodservice at Farmland Foods. “We’re taking pork to the next level, and our DURoC cuts are to pork what Black Angus or Kobe is to beef.”

Farmland’s DURoC Pork comes from the top 20 percent of the pork produced by the company and the Farmland Hand-Selected DURoC Pork cuts represent the top 2 percent. Morgan explains that this premium product is literally chosen on the line by people who select the cuts based on marbling scores and color scores.

The Duroc bloodline has been intact for centuries, and all of Farmland’s DURoC Pork comes from a genetically superior sire line, is USDA Processed Verified (PVP), and is raised with the most stringent quality standards including no added hormones, no artificial ingredients, and minimal processing.

Recently Farmland Foods unveiled its DURoC Pork Bellies in select areas and plans to expand the introduction to other locations this month.

“Our DURoC Pork Bellies are absolutely delicious,” notes Morgan. “And the packaging is ideal—the product is a 5-pound belly, basically squared off, so chefs have a better idea of how much they will get from the cut. It’s available in a skinless or skin-on cut, depending on what the chef likes and what he wants to create. It’s all a matter of preference and product usage; the flavor changes ever so slightly between the two and the texture is different in skinless vs. skin-on.”

Exceptional and unique flavor profiles more than justify the added expense of introducing premium specialty meats to restaurant menus.