- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 15, 2007

It’s no secret that grocery stores are adding coffee bars, mouthwatering bakery sections, even sushi bars in hopes of wooing increasingly discerning consumers who want high-quality food without hours of preparation.

The same is true in the butcher case, where a combination of improved butchering techniques and marketing magic have generated new, attractively named cuts of meat designed to appeal to flavor- and time-conscious cooks.

These cutting-edge cuts — which include the flatiron, the Western griller, ranch steak and petite tender, to name a few — even are showing up on restaurant menus.

“We’ve had customers tell us the steak is the best they’ve had in a long time,” says David Bodner of Miguel’s Baja Grill in Moab, Utah, which uses the flatiron as a stand-alone steak, in fajitas and in tacos.

“It’s a well-marbled piece of meat. I’d have to compare it to a choice top sirloin,” he says. “It’s definitely not prime, but in flavor, texture and tenderness, it’s quite good.”

The new cuts come from the chuck and bottom round, beef mainstays whose popularity has suffered as consumers have become more health conscious and the nation’s demographics and cooking habits have shifted.

Smaller families and less at-home cooking have translated into a shrinking market for larger, fattier cuts of meat. Instead, consumers want smaller, boneless options they can cook quickly with minimal preparation and fewer leftovers.

Which is why the beef industry funded research in the 1990s to find new ways to cut and serve large, multimuscle roasts. By 1999, the investment paid off. Researchers at the University of Nebraska and University of Florida had developed a new butchering methodology based on a technique called muscle profiling.

The technique involves isolating muscles, then cutting them lengthwise, which allows butchers to offer smaller, more tender cuts of meat just the right size for consumers’ appetites and pocketbooks.

By contrast, the traditional method of meat cutting was less precise, making it nearly impossible to separate more lucrative cuts from less choice ones.

“Now you can take the good stuff out and grind the cheaper stuff, which is more profitable,” says Tom Schneller, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

“The petite tender is going for $4 to $5 a pound, while the Western griller is about $3.50 a pound, as opposed to hamburger which runs about $2.29 to $2.49 a pound,” he says.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association estimates the new technique and the resulting cuts have translated into another $70 per head of cattle for producers.

Still, availability of the cuts is somewhat limited. Meat processors usually want a guaranteed customer before reconfiguring production. As a result, the new cuts are mostly available in large grocers.

Last year, Kroger introduced prepackaged flatiron cuts in more than 1,800 of its stores, a move the beef association says has spurred increased demand and availability.

Mr. Bodner of Miguel’s Baja Grill says flatiron steak prices have climbed steadily since he started using the cut about seven years ago. Today he pays about $7.90 per pound, compared with just under $2.60 a pound in 2000. “It’s no longer a bargain, but the quality is there,” he says. “We’re pleased with the cut of meat.”

Grilled beef fajitas

5 pounds Western griller or shoulder London broil, 3/4 inch thick

4 teaspoons salt

21/4 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

1½ cups lime juice

3 tablespoons minced garlic

3/4 cup minced yellow onion

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 red bell peppers, seeded and cut into thin strips

2 green bell peppers, seeded and cut into thin strips

2 yellow bell peppers, seeded and cut into thin strips

½ red onion, sliced

16 corn or flour tortillas, 6 inches in diameter

Trim the meat to remove any visible fat. In a medium bowl, combine the salt, pepper, lime juice, garlic and minced onion. Transfer to a baking dish. Add the beef, cover and refrigerate. Marinate for at least 2 hours and up to 24 hours.

When ready to cook, preheat a gas grill to high. If you are using a charcoal grill, build a fire and let it burn down until the coals are glowing red with a light coating of white ash. Spread the coals evenly. Clean the cooking grate.

Grill the steaks for 7 to 8 minutes per side for medium done. Remove the steaks from the grill and allow them to cool, about 5 minutes. Cut the steaks into 1/4-inch-thick strips, being sure to cut across the grain, and on a slight bias. Set aside.

In a large saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Saute the peppers and onions for 5 to 7 minutes, or until they just begin to soften. Add the steak and cook until just heated through, about another 2 to 3 minutes.

Meanwhile, grill or toast the tortillas until softened and warm, about 20 seconds per side. Serve the steak mixture with the tortillas and a variety of toppings, such as cheese, sour cream, guacamole or salsa. Makes 8 servings.

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