Once a month, Eater reviews cookbooks on a four star scale (here's more on how the books are reviewed). Today: The Meat Hook Meat Book by Tom Mylan.
Deep in the Heart of Brooklyn
The Meat Hook Meat Book is several things all at once: for starters, it's the story of the Brooklyn food movement of the past decade or so, and Williamsburg's role in it in particular. For the unfamiliar, Mylan and his partners Brent Young and Ben Turley opened the Meat Hook in 2009 in a building they still share with cooking store The Brooklyn Kitchen. Prior to that, Mylan had been the butcher at Marlow & Daughters. In other words, Mylan and company had a front row seat to Brooklyn's food renaissance, along with the folks behind Roberta's, Roebling Tea Room, Pies 'n' Thighs, Brooklyn Brewery and others who make cameos throughout the book.
In the foreword, writer (and Mylan's wife) Annaliese Griffin notes the book "offers a rare peek at how a butcher shop gets made, at how a twenty-first century business gets made." To this end, Mylan tells the story of how he ended up in butchery and the bumpy road to meat success. Several times, Mylan mentions how awful the first year experience was, full of tears, "gallons" of whiskey, and sweeping apologies to loved ones the staff never saw as the newborn butcher shop consumed them. But circumstances seem to have improved since then: the Meat Hook even recently opened a sandwich shop, also in Williamsburg. (You can find the shop's recipe for Cannibal Sandwiches in the book, page 73.)
What Butchering Can Be
Most importantly, though, The Meat Hook Meat Book is a book about meat. Good meat, the kind that comes from an animal that had a good life on a good farm and wasn't pumped full of garbage before it was slaughtered. It's a combination manifesto and instructional treatise, both explaining why you should frequent shops like the Meat Hook and how to do so to your advantage.
Griffin writes: "This book is not intended to be the last word on butchering, but rather on personal, crazed, and hopefully useful version of what butchering can be." That's a good way to approach it. Meat Book contains descriptions of how to butcher larger animals but not step-by-step photography; it's better for developing an understanding of meat cuts than it is for recreating them yourself at home. Anyone jumping into Mylan's book who assumes they'll come out on the other side with the ability to take down a whole steer is better off reading Ryan Farr's Whole Beast Butchery or Adam Danforth's Butchering Beef and Butchering Poultry, Rabbit, Lamb, Goat, and Pork. (Or better yet, take a class. Knives are sharp, everybody.)
What you will get is a full understanding of how the Meat Hook does meat. You'll get an education in how to work with a professional butcher. Under what circumstances would you special order a cut of meat? When and why would you order in bulk — like, say, going in on a whole hog with friends — and what on earth will you do with it? You'll get a better understanding of where tri-tip comes from, and the differences between St. Louis-Style, Baby Back, and Country-Style ribs. Basically, if you don't come out of this book with the thorough understanding that your butcher is someone you should talk to on a regular basis, you need to reread it.
Take Heart, Intrepid Grillmaster!
Here's how Mylan describes the book:
I think of this book as an extension of the idea of the butcher shop: both a place for the home cook to find a recipe for Wednesday night dinner and a resource for a chef to find inspiration and to learn about something new. Whether you read it all the way through like a novel or skim through all the meat cutting and farm stuff until you get to the part about shotgunning beers, none of this is going to be on a test. I've tried to include a little something for everyone here, and it was my goal to present meat in general and well-raised meat in particular in its complete context of farming, slaughtering, butchering, recipes, and cooking — along with a plus-sized dollop of the most important aspect of food: fun and enjoyment with your friends and family.
And that's basically what the book is: a thoroughly charming, deeply passionate, and most of all incredibly personal take on meat. Which means that while the recipes are fun and intriguing, the range is somewhat limited. Want to know how to roast a chicken? Make meatloaf? Pot roast? This is not the book for you (although an argument could be made that every other cookbook in creation will explain these to you). There is a small section in the back that covers the rules for roasting, braising, smoking, and more, but true beginners might be happier elsewhere.
No, this is a book of deep cuts, for people who want to have fun with meat. There are recipes far more interesting than roast chicken. Chicken Nuggets, for example, Rabbit Ragout, Scrapple and Trotter-On Porchetta (!). Mylan eggs the reader on, he wants you to take risks. For example, on the unfortunately named Man Steak:
Take heart, intrepid grillmaster! Because of its mass and thickness, the Man Steak suffers neglect far better than any normal steak, allowing margins of error to be measured in minutes rather than seconds. And its sheer size invokes a theater that will bowl over even the most snobbish of steak connoisseurs no matter how overcooked it may be.
Come on, doesn't that make you want to go out and buy a massive steak to burn? You know it does. It's almost a dare.
A quick note on machismo: While the book does contain recipes for Man Steak, and one section has Brent Young noting that "90% of butchering is really a dick measuring contest...the same goes for barbecues," do not write off The Meat Hook Meat Book as a total sausage fest. (Sorry.) This club is not boys only: women and their meaty work are frequently discussed. Besides, how bro-y can a cookbook be that takes its lard recipe inspiration from Laura Ingalls Wilder?
For all their personality and charm, the recipes are not the most precise things in the world. Several of the tested recipes required hard critical reads in order to achieve results. That said, they were all easy enough to produce and all of them resulted in tasty food. Here's what I tested:
Meat Hook Chili
This is Mylan's take on a Hormel-style chili; it's more for topping hot dogs or cheese fries than eating straight out of a bowl. Texans will be pleased to discover there are no beans present. I found the technique of thickening the chili with hominy to be a fun riff on your typical bowl of red, although I wish the ingredients list had specified whether you should use yellow or white hominy (I used white). Take care to brown the meat in batches; if you brown it all at once as the recipe suggests, the meat will steam instead. Also note if you buzz it as hard as they recommend — "You're shooting for Hormel consistency here" — it'll be considerably smoother than is shown in the book's photo. Which isn't a bad thing, necessarily.
Taiki's Tongue Steaks
Not for the squeamish. I figured one of the recipes I tested should at least approach something like butchering, so tongue steaks it was. Peeling skin off a raw beef tongue is trickier than it seems, especially if your previous tongue experience is with poached or pickled tongues. If you look at the photos, you can see that the steaks were actually from too high up on the tongue, which is not the fault of the recipe. I messed that up, but they turned out deliciously anyhow. One minor quibble: the recipe has you sear the steaks in cast iron while the photo shows them on a grill. Which do they recommend?
Cumin Lamb Stir-Fry
This is one of the very few recipes in the book I would recommend as a weeknight dinner dish. As such, I added broccoli when I made this, but I don't think it changed the recipe terribly much. The technique here could be applied to lots of cuts of meat (or even, gasp, vegetables), although I'd go easy on the cumin when using meats with subtler flavors like chicken or pork.
The Meat Hook Meat Book has one major flaw which cannot be forgiven: it is severely lacking in recipes for sausage. The butcher shop itself is famous for sausages both classic and insane: their website lists 54 varieties, from bratwurst to "Franch Onion." Meanwhile, the cookbook only has three sausage recipes. Three.
People who buy this book because they are fans of the actual butcher shop will understandably be disappointed by the lack of sausage recipes. Space is at a premium in cookbooks, but how hard would it have been to include a page of twenty or so quick riffs on the basic garlic sausage recipe? They do include their ratio for pork to salt to seasonings, so I suppose you could venture off on your own to create cheese-laced stoner concoctions. But do you want to do that, or do you want to recreate the sausages they make at the Meat Hook? Maybe we should cross our fingers for a Meat Hook Sausage Book.
For all my complaining that there aren't enough sausage recipes in this book, the basic garlic recipe resulted in some stellar tube meats. The first batch turned out way too salty, but thanks to Mylan's troubleshooting guide, it was salvaged. Similar to the tongue steaks, the photos in the book don't quite match the recipe: garlic is written as minced but shown in a mortar-and-pestle. There's also no mention of pricking the sausage, which the photos show. Perhaps the sausage guide is not for beginners, but it was nonetheless successful.
Smoked Duck Howsewiches
These turned out gorgeously, although the timing as dictated by the recipe was a little screwy. At one point while the duck is smoking, Mylan instructs you to make the sauce for the sandwiches. When the sauce is done, "your duck should have started to render fat and be getting slightly golden on the edge." I made the sauce the day before. Still, that's a pretty minor critique for what was probably the most delicious thing I made from this book.
I give this book two out of four stars. It's not for everyone, but I think those who are inclined to like it will like it quite a bit. It's a charming read, and there are enough projects in here to keep meat fans busy for a long time. While the recipes I tested were not always super easy to follow and required some minor adjustments, overall they were pretty solid. Bonus points for invoking nostalgia for Brooklyn's recent past and inciting excitement for well-bred meats. Now, go forth and grill.
In the spirit of Mylan's request that "I hope you go out of your way to buy meat from farmers' markets and support your own local family-owned butcher shop," most of the meats cooked in this review were acquired at Salt & Time in Austin, Texas. Many thanks to Ben Runkle and crew for humoring me. Additional thanks to Winters Family Beef.
[Photos: Paula Forbes]