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Soaking in flavor: Marinades add pizzazz, but not that much tenderness, to off-cuts

Soaking in flavor: Marinades add pizzazz, but not that much tenderness, to off-cuts

Inexpensive cuts of meat serve the dual purpose of helping restaurants manage their food costs and of providing customers with what they’re looking for, whether it’s the comfort food that so many seek during troubling times or the extra oomph of flavor that trend watchers say diners crave.

Cheaper proteins often need more help to be palatable, however, and chefs are turning to marinades from throughout the world to ease off-cuts onto menus.

It would be difficult to dispute that marinades add flavor, but many people question the common assumption that marinades tenderize meats.

In his book On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee says acids in marinades weaken muscle tissue and increase its ability to retain moisture, but others disagree.

Stephen Gerike, national foodservice manager for the National Pork Board and an expert on pigs’ muscular structure, says that acids, by denaturing muscle tissue, actually damage their elasticity, making them less able to retain moisture. He says barbecue experts often brine their pork before cooking but wait until the end of a slow-cooking process to baste it with sauces with sweet, hot and sour components to add a crust of flavor without affecting the meat’s texture.

Jeffrey Miller, an assistant professor at Colorado State University’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, says acidulated liquids cause proteins to coagulate, and thus toughen the surface of the meat.

However, he points out, marinades tend to penetrate only about an eighth of an inch anyway, so they have little effect either way.

“What most marinades do though is add a flavorful crust to the meat,” he adds.

Certain marinades can have a tenderizing effect, however, experts say. Gerike says the active enzymes in yogurt can tenderize meat, while Colorado State’s Miller notes that meat-consuming enzymes, such as papain, an enzyme found in papaya, also do the trick.

Nancy Longo, chef of Pierpoint Restaurant in Baltimore, makes use of yogurt’s tenderizing qualities on a bit of ham muscle recently isolated by National Pork Board scientists. The so-called pork cap steak is a thin cut on the outside of the ham that is often discarded by ham producers because it’s a different color and runs in a different direction from other parts of the ham.

Longo marinates it in a mixture of yogurt, lemon juice, lime juice, ginger, cilantro, garlic, chile-garlic sauce, cumin, allspice, cinnamon, curry powder and vegetable oil for about an hour. Then she grills it and serves it over diced vegetables and a sauce of puréed cilantro, cucumber, yogurt, lemon juice and chile garlic sauce.

At Yerba Buena, a pan-Latin restaurant in New York, chef Julian Medina uses Peruvian chiles such as aji panca and aji amarillo in a number of dishes.

“A lot of anticuchos [grilled, skewered meat appetizers] are marinated and glazed with aji amarillo or aji panca,” he says.

Although anticuchos tend not to be made from the finest cuts, Medina also marinates higher-end proteins, such as rib-eye steak. He coats it with a purée of dried chiles, soy sauce, dried oregano, rice vinegar, sesame oil and olive oil. “Aji panca is mild [in terms of spiciness] but it has a lot of flavor,” he says.

He uses medium-spicy aji amarillo to marinate his black cod. He mixes it with miso, pisco and agave nectar, lets it sit overnight and then broils it.

“It gets really nice and sweet and caramelized, and spicy also,” he says.

In Los Angeles, at LudoBites, Ludovic Lefebvre’s fried chicken in duck fat gets extra zing with a marinade that combines the flavors of East Asia and Southern France. He combines soy sauce, sesame oil, fresh ginger, chile oil, garlic, herbes de Provence, Dijon mustard and white miso and marinates the chicken in that for 12 hours.

“If you marinate it too much, it gets very dark,” he warns.

Zarela Martinez, chef-owner of Zarela in New York City, says many Mexican dishes start with marinades that then become part of the sauce. For example, the classic Yucatán roasted pork dish cochinita pibil starts with a marinade of annatto seeds, garlic, oregano, black peppercorns, cumin, coriander seeds, allspice and sour orange juice. Pork is marinated in that overnight before being roasted—traditionally in a charcoal pit after being wrapped in banana leaves.

At Catch in Winchester, Mass., chef Chris Parsons marinates seafood ranging from sardines to scallops for mini appetizers.

For example, he’ll drizzle Greek sardines with a mixture of Kalamata olive brine, olive oil, lemon juice, cracked pepper and finely diced preserved lemon mixed with olive oil. He’ll do that two hours before service, but he’ll keep them overnight and serve them the next day, too.

“After three days the marinade starts to take over the sardines,” he says. “The olive brine has a saltiness to it, but also a nice mild olive flavor,” he says. Just before serving it he plates it with a salad of baby arugula, smoked red pepper purée and julienne olives, and drizzles it with lemon juice, fleur de sel and usually some kind of micro green.

He also uses fermented yuzu, a staple on his garde-manger station, in marinades. He heats yuzu with lime juice, water and honey, lets it steep overnight and then strains it. “So you have this sweet-sour broth with the dynamic of yuzu,” he says.

At the moment he uses it with scallops, which he slices, drizzles with the fermented yuzu and tops it with sea urchin, “for a briny edge.”

He says the fermented yuzu is good with any kind of rich seafood that can benefit from a bit of acid, including tuna. But those are quick marinades used for just a few minutes, much like the method of preparing ceviche. — [email protected]

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