Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Its spring, lamb and goat time approaches! (But this is always so at Salem’s Halal Market...)


Does everyone know that animal products are seasonal? Yes, this includes meat, eggs, milk (and, therefore, cheese, butter, etc.). We will get to a big meat talk one day, but, for now, it's the beginning of spring which, for many of us, means spring lamb (and goat if you're lucky). One of the best parts of my job is self-imposed continuing ed, so when Slow Food announced their MeatThink workshop (Topic: halal lamb and goat butchering) and tasting at Salem’s Grill and Halal Market in the Strip, I jumped on the opportunity. (P.S. I could just kick myself for not getting a photo of their newly muraled building front, it is worth the trip to the Strip just to see the gorgeous colors!)

Grape Leaves

Salem’s opened their first spot in Oakland more than 20 years ago. The whole halal market concept was the project of a Lybian Muslim student from Pitt who was just trying to find halal foods and meats for his family and community. This many years later, the business remains family owned and family operated with no signs of changing. The operation is exceedingly customer focused, butchering to order, even through expansion to a second location in the Strip. Meats are sourced locally as much as possible and halal butchering practices ensure humane slaughter—registered halal butchers are exempt from some USDA regulations because the requirements of halal processing demand the quick and efficient slaughter of animals one at a time. You will not find pork at a halal butcher shop, but you will find lamb, goat, beef and chicken aplenty. You will also not find grass fed beef (I’m guessing that the bias toward grain fed meat is due to Salem’s practice of selling fresh meat only, meaning that the meats have little to no hang time. While fresh meat can be a very good thing, grass fed beef requires a minimum two-week hang time to develop flavors and allow enzymatic action that helps to  tenderize the meat). 

Our tour, expertly organized by Slow Food's Virginia Phillips, Susan Barclay and Marlene Parrish, began with "appetizers"--stuffed grape leaves, flatbread fresh from the oven, samosas stuffed with ground lamb (don't know the recipe, but I can guarantee there was curry, coriander and cardamom, fantastic!) and some sort of garlicky thick yoghurt-type dish. Had I known this was just the warm up, I might have held back a little. Well, then again, maybe not.


After we munched and chatted, Abdullah (the owner’s son and tour guide extrordanaire) took us back to the meat cooler to give us a tour and demonstrate butchering techniques. (I love butchering. There was a time when I had to choose my culinary path—ultimately I chose cooking, but that was mostly because I couldn’t find a butchering internship in my locale that could accommodate a mom’s schedule.)

Abdullah showing us how its done.

Lamb and Goat ready for the butcher

For me, one of the most impressive things about Abdullah’s philosophy (yes, butchering is a philosophy, a meaty one at that) was the time, care and respect given the meat. Every bit of each animal is used in some way, shape or form. Get this, on any day you can walk up to the meat counter and ask for any cut or part of meat you want (heck, you can even just take a picture, they'll help you figure it out!). The butcher or meat cutter will go to the back, pick the right carcass for your needs and saw away right then and there. If they don't have what you want? As long as its within halal (and health department) guidelines, they will get it for you (or help you figure out where to go). Salem’s has a devoted customer base who come in looking for all those tail to snout bits that the rest of us make efforts to use up (because we know we should, not because we really really want to). Even UPMC, CMU and other medical professionals are customers—apparently eyeballs, tendons and just-from-slaughter cow hearts are invaluable to medical research here. Abdullah is warm, engaging, energetic and knowledgeable—and he makes you want to come back.

After we wandered away from the meat we were told to come sit down for our meal. WHAT??? Oh my, feast part deux. Marinated and roasted leg of lamb, goat shoulder steaks, rice, salad, curried vegetables, spicy spiced liver and the most incredible ground lamb meat patties. I was already late to get home so, after nibbling, our host was gracious to bring some carry out containers (my entire family was grateful, oh the food is so good!). Nearly all of the breads and desserts are made on site, being late to get home kept me from continuing to gorge, but they looked so good that I guess I’m just going to have to go back. Drat.

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