Respect the Ingredients: Peter Sanagan

Peter Sanagan

After cooking in restaurants for 15 years, Peter Sanagan opened a butcher shop in Toronto’s Kensington Market. Since 2009, Sanagan’s Meat Locker has grown to become one of the most prominent butchers in the city. “Our niche is quality products, locally sourced from Ontario farms,” he says. “I work with farmers who raise interesting breeds and raise them well.”

How can home cooks buy better meat?

We’re lucky in the city, because there are lots of butcher shops. For the majority, who buy meat in grocery stores, I recommend just talking with the meat counter staff. You can ask where the meat comes from, whether the animal was corn-fed or grain-fed, how old the animal was, but mostly, just be inquisitive. The staff may not know the answers—and that’s fine—but you’re looking for someone who is engaged.

Good grocery stores, the ones with beautiful vegetable displays, will have a produce manager who knows exactly where that zucchini came from, for example, or when the oranges are in season. There’s probably a meat manager there too who has the same passion.

Does grade matter?

In beef, grading matters, but only if you’re looking for marbling. Prime and AAA are the highest grades; they meet a certain standard of intramuscular marbling. But the system doesn’t really take into account farmers who choose not to get their products graded. For instance, I work with a farmer who tests his animals’ genetic lines and breeds the animals to get the most tender beef. His goal is tenderness, not marbling. So his strip loins might not be as juicy, say, but they’ll be a lot more tender.

There are other farmers raising beef only on grass, which results in super-lean beef. Someone who’s used to the grading system would think this beef is barely AA and wonder why it costs more. That’s when you need to get into a conversation with a butcher.

A suggestion I’ve made to the Canada Food Inspection Agency is to have a QR code on each label so customers in the grocery store can use their phone to open a federal website that tells them about the meat. If the label claims “certified organic” or “naturally raised,” the website would explain exactly what that means.

People want labels, but they should also ask questions.

Has nose-to-tail cooking moved from restaurants into the home kitchen? Do you sell trotters, for example, to home cooks?

We do, but mainly to new Canadians. In China and the Caribbean, trotters are huge. People from those places will come in to buy them because they understand how to work with them. They have a history and tradition of cooking them.

There’s also the hipster cook who wants to try something for the first time, and that’s cool too. Nothing wrong with that. Trotters probably won’t be part of their staple recipe collection though. But we do sell a lot of pork belly now; ten years ago, that wouldn’t have been the case.

What less-familiar part of the animal is the most accessible, the gateway to trying other bits?

Heart. Unlike liver or sweetbreads, heart is a muscle, so it has the same eating and cooking qualities as a cutlet or a steak. You can trim heart so it looks like any other meat. That’s the one I encourage people to try.

Same with tongue, but the only problem is getting the membrane off. People are a bit weird about taste buds.

What are the big sellers in the shop?

Boneless skinless chicken breast. Every week, we look at the data, and it remains number one. That and lean ground beef. Chicken breast is the most approachable lean protein. People can just throw it in the oven with some salt and pepper. It will be edible, but whether it adds to the pleasure of eating is another question.

One steak I really like, but doesn’t sell well, is blade steak. It’s from the shoulder, so it’s tougher, but it’s a great braising steak. That’s a style people aren’t used to—I just fry it a bit, add some wine and aromatic vegetables, and let it stew out for an hour or two. It’s a pot roast, sort of, but in a smaller piece.

What’s a good steak to grill?

Flatiron. It’s pretty common on restaurant menus, but can be hard to find for home cooks. Same with bavette, which is similar to a flank and from the same area. Bavette, which means “bib” in French, can be up to an inch-and-a-half thick in the centre. It has much better marbling than a flank steak, but can be grilled the same way, then sliced across the grain. It’s very traditional in French bistros for steak frites. It’s a great grilling cut.

Those so-called lesser cuts have way more flavour and are way more forgiving. Skirt steak, too, because it has such great fat in it. You can cook that thing well done and it will still be juicy and tender. Great for marinating.

The problem is access. It’s all well and good for me to suggest these cuts, but if people can’t get them, it’s frustrating. I was on the radio a couple of weeks ago and a caller asked me about skirt steaks because he couldn’t find them where he lives. It’s surprising because on every animal, there are four of them. They are going somewhere.

What should home cooks do if they can’t find a particular cut of meat?

If enough people ask for it, grocery stores will start carrying it. As soon as there’s a demand, they’ll put a price tag on it.

How do you feel about bacon on everything?

Anyone who likes bacon, loves bacon, but the whole bacon thing was ridiculously overdone. I eat bacon maybe once every couple of weeks. Not that I don’t like it; I just don’t want it all the time, and I don’t want everything wrapped in it. What you’re doing is just adding a smoked pork flavour—that’s great, but there are other ways. For example, I make choucroute garnie a few times each winter. I’ll add a little bacon, but I get more flavour from a smoked ham hock. I make pasta sauces with pancetta or guanciale, which are versions of bacon that are cured but not smoked.

Are people making their own charcuterie?

I grew up on grocery store meat—from A&P—and I didn’t know the word “charcuterie” until I was much older. It’s really just another word for deli meat. Once people realize that, it brings charcuterie off its pedestal, and they can start learning about fermented versus smoked versus cooked and so on.

With fermented styles, you’re dealing with bacteria, and you have to be careful. Before getting into making fermented salamis and such, I recommend starting with a cooked terrine, which is another word like “charcuterie.” A terrine is really just a meatloaf—a set meatloaf that you eat cold. If you have an oven, you can make a terrine.

Even sausage making can be easy. In a restaurant I worked in, to make sausage for cassoulet, we seasoned coarsely ground pork—about 30 per cent fat—with nutmeg, allspice, clove, salt, and pepper. We rolled the mix in parchment paper, chilled it, and then roasted off sections in the oven, still in the paper. We just unwrapped that and sliced it into discs. You don’t even need casing to make a great sausage.