Training day

Apr 20, 2005 at 12:00 am

When it comes to beef, Virgil Marble, aka “Chef Virgie,” knows his stuff. With 30 years in the business, and five years as chef at Southfield’s Morton’s Steakhouse, he’s learned how to work with the highest quality beef.

Many of the steaks he normally grills would not be available at even better supermarkets, the double-cut filet mignons that stand up on a plate, or the 20-ounce New York strips that call for doggie bags. But for those seeking the very best steak from the local supermarket, Marble has some invaluable advice.

He describes a typical scenario: A busy shopper rolls up to the steaks, finds an appealing red slab of meat marked “select,” takes it home and cooks it and asks, “Why is this meat so tough? It looked so good in the grocery store.”

So why do so many shoppers continue to walk into supermarkets looking for another big, bright-red steak? “People are programmed to look for color,” the chef says, “and the effects of lighting on the steak bring out that color. But color doesn’t translate into taste.”

As for that “select” sticker, Marble explains that “select” cuts are not as high in quality as the “choice” cuts. Highest in quality are the “prime” cuts. An estimated 3 percent of all beef is prime quality.

What sets prime quality meat apart is the fat. Though health-conscious Americans are cautious about fat, it’s everything to prime beef, unlocking more flavor and better texture. “Marbled” meat has fat finely speckled throughout it, which keeps the meat’s fibers from tightening up during cooking.

The availability of prime meat is limited to better supermarkets, such as Hiller’s Market in Farmington Hills, and those looking for it should be prepared to pay a premium, with prime New York strip or prime porterhouse running about $25 a pound. For comparison, Angus is usually choice quality, not prime, despite the name’s reputation for quality. “It’s the mystique of the name,” Marble says. “Black Angus or Angus beef are among the very best choice cuts, but these steaks are not prime quality.”

Marble also recommends examining the quality of the marbling. Avoid meat that seems to have lines or patterns of fat in the middle of the meat. This could be the “fat cap” that melts away into nothing on the grill leaving you to wonder where the flavor went. Look also for lines that cut through the patterns of fat, as these may be “vein cuts.” An ideal steak has flakes of fat throughout, and unless it’s the eye of a delmonico or ribeye, avoid lines of fat that look like a pattern — they will cook away.

The worst thing to do with a prime quality cut is to overcook or overseason. Marble says there’s no reason to marinate a prime quality steak; you should grill it hot to sear in the flavor and flip it no more than once. Marble also cautions that steak should be room temperature when cooked. “Don’t throw cold meat on the grill.”

For those who can’t seek out or shell out for the very highest quality steaks, Marble suggests a marinate-tenderize strategy to bring up the quality. Though stew meat should be marinated for at least 12 hours, shorter periods in a marinade infuse oils into the tissues of the meat and keep the fibers from binding together when cooked. And even stabbing a steak with a fork to break up the tissues can make for a better meal, as the fibers cannot bind together as tightly when cooked.

George picks the best

After 30 years in the food business, retail and wholesale, import and export, and after five years as part-owner/operator of Assaggi in Ferndale, George Gize is the person to tour Eastern Market with on a Saturday morning.

As the shopping on this chilly spring morning gathers steam, he crackles with excitement, stopping to chat with farmers and colleagues buying food for other restaurants. His excitement about food is palpable, and Gize says that the outlook for food in the metro area is brightening, crediting everything from the Food Network to the stock market. He says middle-class people are entertaining at home more, and they’re more educated and better-traveled than ever.

Despite this growing interest in food, Gize warns that there are persistent misconceptions about quality produce that pose obstacles to the aspiring gourmet.

To Gize, one of the most stubborn errors is that bigger is better. To the average buyer, large fruits or vegetables look somehow healthier than the runts of the litter. Gize sees it differently, choosing to use the youngest and most tender vegetables, even tailoring his recipes to when ingredients are freshest.

A visit to one of Gize’s favorite haunts, Eastern Market’s United Specialty Produce, offers a glimpse of what he means. United Specialty deals exclusively in heirloom and specialty produce, and the supplier has boxes of baby everything: baby greens, baby spinach, baby acorn squash and baby zucchini — even spineless baby artichokes. Such vegetables, picked when young and tender, need the least preparation. Of the baby artichokes, Gize says, “Just grill them with olive oil and salt and pepper for 10 minutes.”

But the store has other treasures. Owner Frank Cusumano stocks everything from edible orchids flown in from Thailand to melt-in-your-mouth large-leaf basil that comes from the Hawaiian Islands. Gize proudly says, “To us who use special ingredients, Frank is our god.” A flattered Cusumano smiles at the praise, and though he only does business with shops and restaurants, he says he might be willing to give people a peek at his wares if they call first.

Continuing on through Eastern Market, Gize expounds on the importance of freshness and youth, why it is crucial to eat things only when they’re in season.

For instance, a large onion contains water. “If it contains too much water,” Gize says, “it takes too long to caramelize and does not keep its flavor.” He recommends onions 3-4 inches in diameter for general cooking.

When looking for fresh peppers, a few imperfections are fine if you’re going to peel away the skin and grill it. Peppers for the grill should have a good heft and thick meat. To tell how fresh a pepper is, don’t look so much at the surface but at the core of the stem. The darker the stem, the older the pepper.

Want asparagus for the grill? Again, don’t buy big. You don’t want the well-developed stringy fibers inside. Look for spears with nice, tightly bundled, firm heads. For grilling and presentation, only use the top half of the spear. Even if the bottom’s dry and the shaft is shriveled, it could still be fine for asparagus soup.

Citrus fruits can be judged by texture. The softer and silkier the skin, the juicier it will be. The more rugged fruits are less juicy.

Gize’s expert hands pass over boxes of produce as he dispenses advice. A stalk of celery should be green, not yellow, near the bottom. You can judge how fresh grapes are in a snap by looking at the stem; if the stem is green, the grapes are fresh. Pick your pineapple by trying to pull a leaf from the top; if you can pull off a green leaf whole, then the pineapple is ripe and ready.

Sadly, Gize’s advice for tomato-lovers is one of restraint: You must wait. Tomatoes have their delicious flavor only when they’re in season and fresh. This means waiting until tomatoes grow ripe in the Detroit area, around June to early August. Right now, tomatoes are picked green in Florida and California and arrive here a few weeks later. But once the nights get warmer, tomatoes will be ripening in area farms. For presentation, scientifically grown hydroponic tomatoes look uniformly good, but they lack flavor. If you must have tomato flavor out of season, Gize recommends cutting an imported tomato into small pieces and sautéing it to bring the flavor out.

Most important to Gize, though, is shopping in season. Not only is the quality better, but suppliers often have such abundance that they must sell it for less.

That’s a market force we can deal with.

Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]