Smile Politely

Local meats are the best meats

After a long and arduous winter, the sunshine and warm weather inspired some much-needed yard work and indoor spring cleaning. What better way to reward myself than with a delicious grilled meal? I’ve been pretty slack on getting meat and lunches from The Urbana Butcher Shop; I’ve spent months salivating over the menu and Facebook photos, but haven’t managed to get there. Last Friday I finally went to pick up some meat for the grill, and by Sunday night was lamenting having waited so long to do so.

The shop is surprisingly large; the counter is set pretty far back from the front door. There is a long table with plenty of seating on the left; the rest of the space is pretty open, and desperate for some additional seating, or more deli coolers.

I was immediately greeted by the person working behind the counter — I was the only person in the shop, after all. He was friendly and asked what he could get for me. I answered with something along the lines of “I don’t really know yet,” and he followed up with asking me if I was looking for something to grill. He pointed out the brats, and I immediately asked for four of them. There was no lack of selection, despite a seemingly small-ish cooler. It was stuffed with a variety of different meat and some local cheeses. There were cuts of beef and pork, as well as whole chickens and rabbits. There were sausages (including dried, cured ones) and cuts for the more ambitious cooks and eaters, including kidneys and sweetbreads. After looking, considering my options, and my anticipated level of laziness for the weekend, I also ordered two strip steaks, cut at about an inch into to an inch and a half in thickness. My final item was an inch thick cut of pancetta.

Next to the meat cooler was a drink cooler that not only held drinks, but also had containers of giardiniera, kimchi, and homemade mustard. They all looked delicious. The food menu was quite enticing; I was very much interested in a smoked rabbit sandwich for lunch, but decided against it since I had plans for those strip steaks. The sandwiches and salads ranged in from $8 to $12. I’m sure they are delicious, and I’m sure I’ll be back to try them out.

My total was $38.35, which is not cheap. At $20 per pound, the steaks were the most expensive. The two cuts totaled $22.85. The brats were $10 per pound, and the four brats came to $12.20. The pancetta rang in at $3.30. Even though the meat was pretty expensive, it doesn’t even compare to something you’d pick up at Schnuck’s or Meijer. It’s simply better.

I brought the meat home, and immediately started up the grill. I put the brats and the pancetta in the fridge, but left the steaks on the counter to come up to room temperature. I planned to make some steak salads — it was going to be the perfect way to use up some produce, eat some veggies, and enjoy a steak.

I unwrapped the steaks, and they were beautiful. They were a rich red in color, and had a good amount of fat marbling through the muscle. There was a nice, thick rim of fat around the edge, too. I seasoned each side of each piece with salt and pepper, and off to the grill I went. There’s no need to marinate or over-season a nice cut of meat like a strip steak; there is so much flavor in the meat already and it’s not a tough cut that needs the extra marinade to help breakdown connective tissue. 

The steaks weren’t that thick, so they only needed a couple of minutes on each side to reach medium-rare. If you’re looking to have a more fully cooked steak, leave them on a little longer. You can always check the internal temperature with a meat thermometer, or you can press the middle of to see how much give there is. The softer the middle, the more rare; the less give, the more well done. The meat will continue to cook just a bit after you take it off the heat, too. When you’re cooking meat, it’s also super important to remember to let the meat rest before you cut into it; it allows all the juices to reincorporate. If you cut into it too soon, all the juices will run out, and you’ll have dry meat. No one likes dry meat.

I pulled the steaks and let them rest. I also grilled some scallions, and let them cool down before cutting them. In the meantime, I put together the salad. I used mixed greens and baby spinach, and dressed them in a homemade garlic lemon dressing. I was too lazy to add much else, but I did manage to throw in a handful or two of some pine nuts in addition to the sliced scallions. Once the salad was ready, I thinly sliced the steak and dumped it on top of my salad. The heat of the meat warmed the salad some, but the hearty baby spinach can handle those things. The steak was so incredibly tender that there may have been some food moans. (I can neither confirm nor deny such claims.) It was sweet, tender, and moist, and basically melted in my mouth. It paired perfectly with the garlicky dressing, and was the best lunch I’ve had in some time.

I grilled the brats on Sunday. They grilled up nicely and I shoved one into a baguette I cut and sliced to serve as a bun. I topped that brat with some kraut and yellow mustard and it was game on. The brat was really well seasoned and well balanced in a sage-sausage sort of way, but it was a bit on the salty side. The texture was fabulous — it was smooth with the right amount of chewiness. All of the sausage components were evenly incorporated, without any surprise large chunks of fat or meat. The grill made the outside nice and crispy, and biting into it required a little oomph to break through the skin and get into the juicy insides. I ended up reheating one of the leftover brats the next day for lunch, and it was still moist and delicious.

What about that pancetta, you ask? I riffed on carbonara. To begin, put a pot on for pasta. You can pretty much use whatever pasta shape you’d like; traditionally it’s spaghetti, but I had fettuccine. Likewise, it’s most traditional to use guanciale, (cured pork jowls, which The Urbana Butcher Shop has available), but since I had the pancetta (cured pork belly), I went with that. I diced the pancetta and put it in a pan to render the fat. Once the fat was rendered and the pieces crispy, I pulled them from the pan. I also grated a hefty amount of cheese — you can use Parmesan (Parmigiano-Reggiano) — but I had some Grana Padano, so I used that. Take a couple of eggs, beat them up, add the cheese. Take your cooked pasta and mix with the pancetta fat. Pull the pan off of the heat and add in your egg and cheese mixture, stirring so the egg doesn’t cook. You want a creamy sauce; no scrambled eggs. Add in your cooked pancetta, peas (if you like), and plenty of black pepper.

The pancetta gave off some lovely fat, and it was super delicious. The pork was seasoned well, and the crispy meat bits were mildly sweet and porky. Pancetta isn’t smoked like bacon, which means that it won’t be as pungent or woodsy.

While the Urbana Butcher Shop isn’t responsible for raising the meat it sells, or how well or poorly someone cooks it, it is responsible for selecting the farms on which the meat is raised. The shop is also responsible for properly cleaning and cutting a nice cut of meat. In those regards, The Urbana Butcher Shop has excelled. C-U has been in desperate need of a high-quality butcher, and I’m excited that we finally have one. Where else are you going to find guanciale? Not at the Meijer, I can tell you.

I know plenty of meat eaters who are afraid of buying and cooking meat at home, and thus only eat meat when someone else is cooking it, in a restaurant or otherwise. Buying and cooking meat doesn’t have to be scary; you just have to go ahead and do it. From my very short experience in The Urbana Butcher Shop, I can tell you that your questions about meat and how to cook it can and will be answered by the people working behind the counter. Don’t be afraid. Eat local meats. They taste better.

The Urbana Butcher Shop is located at 119 W Main Street, Urbana and is now open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sunday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

All photos by the author. 

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