#50 - Steaks Is High

If you have ever spoken to me for more than six minutes, it’s very likely that I have mentioned to you my love of CostCo. I have a deep and abiding passion for CostCo that is so great I have trouble containing it all within my body. I am an Executive Member at Costco, which is the top level of membership, but if they had a higher tier, I would sign up for that without even inquiring about the benefits. If I had a real job, I would gladly orchestrate some kind of arrangement whereby 90% of my money would be directly deposited at CostCo and in exchange I could just flash my membership tattoo and take whatever I wanted from the warehouse.

For me, shopping at CostCo is not an errand; it’s an event. I plan days around going to CostCo. Before I buy anything anywhere other than CostCo, I ask myself, “Should I wait and buy this from CostCo?” I bought my car from CostCo.

The CostCo here in Madison is brand spankin’ new—it only opened about two months ago—and I think our household has probably experienced about a 14% upturn in quality of life since that glorious day. Of course, mastering the CostCo lifestyle takes some planning and, sadly, it’s not the right fit for everyone. It takes time to extract the greatest benefits from a CostCo membership, and if you don’t practice restraint, CostCo can burn you.

I feel sad whenever I see someone who’s lost a bout with CostCo. CostCo doesn’t mean to hurt anyone. CostCo is a beneficial, but very powerful entity. Like the sun, or a strong medicine, CostCo is a force for good, but too much CostCo, or CostCo in the wrong hands, can be harmful.

The best place to spot people who’ve been burned by CostCo is in the parking lot. Peer into people’s carts and it’s easy to identify the things they came to buy, and the things they ended up buying.

See that guy over there? Check out his cart. He’s got diapers, milk, frozen pizzas, Luna bars, a telescope and a two-pack of wetsuits. Yep. He lost his head and now he’s paying the price. He’s going to feel that in the morning.

Because I have such a healthy respect for the power of the ‘Co, I consider and reconsider just about everything I buy there. There are certain items I restock on every time I go CostCoing: the baby green salad mix, Pellegrino water (the mercifully non-stingy cousin of Perrier,) milk, toothpaste, paper towels. Whenever we run out of any of these items, I head to the ‘Co to replenish. This roster of auto-buy items is extremely exclusive, and I am judicious about making changes to it. I flirted for months with the large, $20 hunks of authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano before taking the plunge. (If you store it properly, it’s a home run.) Recently, however, I made my boldest ever addition to the Master List: Big Beef.

I have been fascinated by CostCo’s giant, unbutchered, cryovaced packages of beef since I first entered the faith three years ago in San Diego. CostCo, if you haven’t been, sells everything in enormous sizes. So, where at a supermarket you could buy one ribeye steak for $8.99 per pound, at CostCo, you can buy five ribeye steaks for $6.99 per pound. The tradeoff being that while you’re paying less, you’re buying more. The essential question you must ask every time you buy food from CostCo is, “Will my small family possibly be able to consume all this before it goes bad? And furthermore, will we be left stoically cramming the last 12 pounds of plums down our gullets in a frantic attempt not to waste them?”

Because I’m aware of how tragically easy it might be to find oneself making, say, portobello mushrooms, the focus of every meal for a week, I’ve always gazed longingly at, but resisted purchasing, the massive sides ‘o beef on sale at the meat counter. CostCo sells uncut beef shoulders, strip steaks and ribeyes in 10-30 pound vacuum-sealed packages for below even the low, low prices they charge for butchered beef. Where you’d pay $6.99 per pound for four individual New York strip steaks, if you buy the entire 15-pound strip and butcher it yourself you pay only $4.99 per pound.

As a guy who relishes his role as chef de cuisine at Maison Connolly—not to mention one who is lavish and attentive in his appreciation of fine beef—I was attracted to the obvious benefits of getting quality meat at about half of supermarket cost. What I wasn’t sure I could do was 1. Butcher what looked like about a quarter cow, and 2. Store all that meat without it deteriorating into mealy undeliciousness.

However, on a recent trip, the discovery of a very manageable-looking 14-pound hunk of strip steak converged with the appearance of my tax return in the ol’ savings account, and I finally pulled the trigger on a Big Beef buy. Driving the meat home, I was in a full-on paroxysm of buyer’s remorse. Could I possibly do justice to the promise of this meat? Or had I violated my own rules and flown too close to the sun?

When I got the beef home I immediately sliced open the package and laid it out on my board. It was an intimidating hunk of flesh to say the least, and I stood over it for some time steeling, not only my knife, but my nerves.

The meat was soft, and as I probed it gently with my fingers, visions of oblong, impossible-to-cook-evenly, money-wasting steaks filled my head. To improve butcherability I then made a very wise decision: I put the beef in my freezer. I checked the meat frequently as it chilled and after 90 minutes it had reached a welcome firmness without freezing. During this time, I also plugged in and cleaned out an unused fridge in the basement.

Readdressing the now firm hunk, I mapped out the cuts I wanted to make with my knife in the fat cap. First, I decided, I would cut my own “Ultimate Steak.” This was a two-and-a-half-inch thick, monstrous, marbled slab I sliced from the end of the strip. One side, of course, was clean cut from where my knife divided it from the rest of the meat, but the other side was all knobs and crannies and little wisps of fat and flesh that promised to crisp up to a nearly indecent degree of delicious. (You can see my baby on the far left in the picture below.)

Next, I cut out an almost equally ridiculous slab for Joy and Oliver to enjoy on “Ultimate Steak Night.” Cutting the meat wasn’t nearly as difficult as I’d feared. Especially after its repose in the freezer, the meat was about as hard to cut as, say, a wheel of cheese might be. There were no bones to contend with, and, of course, I take maintenance of my 8-inch Shun chef’s knife very seriously.

In the end, the $50 hunk of beef yielded my two “Ultimate Steaks,” two steak-for-two-sized steaks, four individual serving steaks, and one big honking roast. At this point I started to get excited. (I didn’t really plan to write about this purchase. The reason there are so many pictures, and that the pictures are so crappy, is that I was taking them with my phone and picture messaging my brother about my progress.) Looking at what I’d wrought I finally exhaled a little bit. It certainly seemed like I’d knocked down the big shot.

I mean, that roast alone would run you $30 at a supermarket, and you’d be stealing those four individual steaks for $20, so, in essence, in exchange for a little planning and philosophizing, I was getting the two “Ultimate Steaks” and the two steaks-for-two, for nothing!

Of course, if I couldn’t keep the meat in a way that prevented deterioration, I’d be throwing away everything I’d worked for—dishonoring my family and the animal who’d given its life to put food on our table. “Steaks” were high, so I turned my attention to storage solutions.

I’d actually tapped on the window of the butchers’ room at CostCo and solicited the meatcutter’s advice on keeping my meat in prime condition. He advised me that moisture was the main enemy and that I should dry the meat as much as possible before freezing. As I mentioned previously, I’d cleaned and activated an unused fridge in the basement, so I went down there and lay the steaks and roasts on their fat caps directly on the bars of the refrigerator shelf. This allowed air to circulate around the meat to the greatest possible degree and aided in drying. I then said goodbye to my meat for four days.

I checked on my babies periodically during that anxious time, and when they’d dried out considerably (see picture one below) and had just started thinking about becoming funky, I took them out, sealed them up with a $5 ziplock vacuum thingy and put them in the freezer. (Picture two below.)

I reserved my two “Ultimate Steaks,” for dinner that night and grilled them over hickory chunks—no charcoal, just wood. I served them with a grilled asparagus salad and pesto/roasted garlic mashed potatoes.

I built my fire in one corner of the grill and left the opposite side empty. Because a pure wood fire burns hotter and faster than charcoal, I seared the meat to crisp perfection on both sides, then moved it over to the cold side, covered the grill, and let it roast to just past"Pittsburgh rare." (This is a really great term describing a steak cooked very crisp outside and left quite rare inside.) I removed the meat directly to the serving plates, let them rest for five looooooong minutes, then doused them with extra virgin olive oil and sea salt and dug in.

I have honestly never had a better steak in my life.

I’ve been to a lot of great steakhouses: Peter Luger’s, Wolfgang’s, N9ne, Morton’s, Au Boeuf Couronne' in Paris. I also did a story a while back about attending BBQ U, so I got to eat a steak cooked by PBS grillmaster Steven Raichlen. And while I have possibly consumed better quality meat than I had on “Ultimate Steak Night,” I have never had a better all-around steak experience. The sense of ownership and participation in the meal, the fact that I nailed the cooking, the sense that I’d be able to replicate this success, and the fact that I was actually saving the family money all contributed to my net enjoyment.

Take a look back at the picture of my “Ultimate Steak” above. See that little pointy endpiece? Can you imagine how smoky, fatty, crispy that got? I had chills when ate that.

So, in the end, The Great Steak experiment has yielded no less than a significant lump sum improvement in the quality of our lives. I’m now getting custom butchered, dry-aged beef for less than $5 a pound. It’s damn near a superpower.


Ali said...

Well Done, you're an inspiration!

Chris Connolly said...

Moments after I posted this story I got an email from a friend who is the Executive Chef at a massive hotel. He was most amused at how afraid I was of buying bulk beef, but at least he agrees with me about the greatness of CostCo!

"You’re too funny. When we have busy weekends here, we butcher 100 Beef Tenderloins and some 20-30 New Yorks. We usually trim down some of the fat cap. It will help from a massive fire starting up on a hot grill if too much fat burns off, and we then trim down the bottom side as well, but it sounded like you wanted those extra pieces of hang over type meat to crisp up. I buy whole Tenders, Ribeyes or New Yorks from our meat purveyor to get them the cheapest, then bring them home and do what you did. If you eat pork, the Costco whole Porkloin is the best deal going. About $18 and you cut it up into roasts and steaks just the same. I do all of my vending shopping there and have an American Express Card to get cash back every year. I am one of those guys with a pallet cart that is stack up 5’ high with shit."