Cheap Thrills

There are a lot of ways to get cheap thrills around the Bay Area. You could check out the big surf from the rocks below San Francisco's Cliff House,daring El Nino to sweep you out to sea. You could aim your bike down Marin Avenue in Berkeley and hope your brakes don't fail.Or -- hold onto your spatula -- you could try to eat really good food on a really low budget. That's my idea of a cheap thrill, cooking a soul-satisfying meal with a low-cost cut of meat.I have a tough time doing that these days, because many of our trend-setting restaurants have beaten me to the punch. Once-lowly cuts like lamb shanks, short ribs and oxtails have become popular items on the menus of American, French and Italian restaurants.There was a time when skirt steak was dirt-cheap; butchers would practically beg you to take it off their hands. (Of course, when you asked them what to dowith it, few had any suggestions beyond "throw it on the broiler.") Then Mexican-style marinated skirt steak -- also known as fajitas -- turned into anational craze. ("Fajita" is Spanish for "belt" and refers to the belt-shaped skirt steak.) Even Taco Bell and Jack in the Box started putting fajitas on their menus. Naturally, since each steer carries only about two pounds of skirt steak, there weren't enough fajitas to go around. Pretty soon people were making "fajitas" out of every animal handy -- chicken fajitas, pork fajitas,shrimp fajitas. You can guess what this has done to the price of real fajitas. Nowadays skirt steak, when you can find it, is as expensive as most othersteaks.Once upon a time, beef short ribs were also cheap. Then savvy chefs who already knew how delicious short ribs can be started braising them in savory sauces. These homey dishes caught the fancy of diners who missed the comfort foods of their youth, and soon the price of short ribs began to climb.Most cheap cuts of meat are cheap for a reason -- they're either very tough or very fatty. But when properly prepared and cooked they can still yield delicious results. Another reason cheap cuts are cheap is that people don't know what to do with them. If you do, you can seek them out and get a great meal at a good price. Lamb neck, which is bony and tough, is very inexpensive and makes great stews. Lamb breast, which is quite fatty, makes delicious spareribs when grilled. Lamb shank (see recipe) is more expensive than it used to be but is still a bargain.Whole leg of pork (fresh ham) is also a very good buy -- it's so big that most people don't know what to do with it. Smart butchers have learned to cut it upand sell it as smaller roasts. Both the whole leg and the small roasts taste alot better than the much more expensive pork loin.Beef shank is pretty cheap because it's very tough and most people don't know how to cook it -- often it comes out dry and stringy. But when cooked slowly with beans or lentils it can yield a delicious one-pot meal. Chinese cooks poach beef shank in a flavorful soy-based stock, slice it thin and eat it cold. It has so much collagen it produces a kind of jellied beef.Trendy chefs have not discovered beef shank yet. They have, however, discovered oxtails and I can see why. Packed with collagen and interspersed with fat, when cooked long enough in a moist environment they produce some mighty tasty morsels. The collagen contributes to a rich and satisfying sauce. Oxtails are still reasonably priced but because they contain so much bone you'll need at least a pound per person (see recipe).In my house oxtails are always served on the bone. Sure they're messy but we love to suck the soft and silky meat off the bone. We always provide big cloth napkins so cleaning up is no problem.Some fancy French and Italian chefs have gotten carried away with oxtails. Some chefs actually bone the oxtail before cooking it (no mean task), then wrap the resulting thin flap of meat around a savory stuffing; they tie it,cook it and serve beautiful round slices at the table. I've also seen oxtail deboned after cooking, packed into a terrine and cooled. It gets sliced, rewarmed and presented in its own sauce over a bed of pureed potatoes. A lot of work as well.By the way, oxtails do not come from oxen. Oxtails are tails from steers. The term "ox" is a leftover from our English heritage, when beef often was ox and the terms were interchangeable.A lamb shank is the last 6 to 8 inches of the fore or hind leg. If you ask for shanks at most markets, they'll be from the foreleg. Those from the hind leg are usually sold attached to the leg of lamb. One shank is usually a sensible portion for most people. The butcher at the Arlington Meat Market in Kensington cuts enormous 1 1/2-pound-plus shanks from the front legs -- enough to feed two people.Like oxtails, lamb shanks are rich in collagen and interspersed with fat. Cooked properly, the meat turns out rich and silky soft. Like other cuts of lamb, lamb shanks have an affinity for exotic spices like curry and Moroccan spices. I like to slice them in 2-inch chunks across the bone and serve themas you would osso buco, which is usually made with veal shanks.

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