The air is a bit cooler and crisper, but Fall does not deter me from firing up the grill to make a quick and easy dinner. Whole Foods Market invited me to come to my local store for a surf and turf butchering lesson, so I was excited to go learn some new ways of cooking seafood and meat outdoors. I got great pointers from the staffers who welcomed me to the store and I learned quite a bit about the strict standards that WFM has for the quality of meat and seafood sold in its stores. Here are the highlights of my trip:
1. Butchering whole fish is hard. I was greeted at Whole Foods by Kerry, the Marketing and Community Relations Team Leader, who introduced me to Anthony Marino, the store’s seafood manager and lead fishmonger. We went behind the scenes to the store conference room, which is of course a kitchen, too. Once there, I learned how to filet a small yellowfin snapper and a larger arctic char. As a champion in fish butchery, Anthony made it look easy, but his simple technique was something I knew I could eventually master with practice. (First step – get some sharper knives for my kitchen.)
2. Butchering chickens is slightly less hard than butchering fish. After Anthony, Kerry took me to the meat department to talk to Mike Lanciano, who goes by the awesome nickname “Sharkie.” He’s been cutting meat since he was a teenager and his vast experience showed as he walked me through the many options at the meat counter. We selected two whole chickens and retired back to the conference room/kitchen, where Sharkie taught me how to properly piece a chicken, something I’ve been dying to learn since my past self-taught attempts have left me feeling as I’ve disrespected the bird that sacrificed its life for our dinner. He then halved the other chicken in about .2 seconds by going straight through the spine and I have to admit, I got a little excited.
3. Simple cuts can lead to easy grilling. Sharkie suggested that I take that beautifully halved chicken and throw it straight onto a grill, skin side up, at medium heat, and let it cook for 20 minutes. I didn’t believe it could be that simple, but I’m here to tell you it was. The skin kept in all the moisture, but the grill was still able to invoke its signature flavor through the side that was exposed to the flame. It was juicy and savory and probably the easiest thing I’ve ever done on a grill. I went sort of old school with the fish and simply dusted it with a little salt and pepper, grilled it skin side down over medium heat until the skin was crisp, and then squirted the filets with fresh lemon before serving. Both meals were done in less than 30 minutes. A busy parent dreams of 30 minute meals this good.
4. Whole Foods really cares about the quality of its meat and seafood. Their farmed seafood standards are the highest in the industry and a new wild-caught seafood rating program provides information about the sustainability status of the wild-caught seafood in all store seafood cases. As of 2012, they are no longer carrying any fish that they call “red rated,” meaning that it falls at the lowest level of sustainability. WFM is truly committed to purchasing seafood from the most abundant, best managed fisheries, in the hopes of turning the tide in the direction of greater sustainability. And their meat quality standards are just as strict. A five-step animal welfare rating system rates how pigs, chickens, turkeys, and cattle are raised. Freedom to roam and better diets equal better ratings with the highest label requiring that the animals spend their entire lives on one farm. The result is a large variety of different meats, at different price points depending on their rating, all of which provide some of the healthiest protein options on the market.
5. Quality proteins can still include some good deals. While good meat and seafood does cost more than your average factory farmed meat from other supermarkets, Whole Foods makes an effort to provide opportunities to get great food at a more reasonable price. The bargain bunker that is found near the seafood department in most Whole Foods has frozen portions of fish that are often priced lower than the same product that’s at the counter. And if you’re up for doing your own butchering, a whole fish or whole chicken are actually cheaper per pound than their pre-cut counterparts. If you want the benefits of eating the highest level grass-fed red meat but the price tag is daunting, try a “bargain cut” like a london broil or a sirloin, as opposed to a more expensive steak. It’s still going to cost more than a lower rated piece of meat in the same cut, but the price deferential is minimal considering the difference in taste and quality. Additionally, the house-made sausages and hamburgers come at a great price (as low as $1 per burger!) and are a good way to get a ready-to-cook meal at a nice price. (For more savings tips, read the $100 Whole Food challenge with insider scoop on How to Save Money at Whole Foods.)
As always, the fishmongers and meat department staff are always happy to give their well-informed tips on the perfect cut at your price point. So throw on a sweater, grab a pumpkin beer, and fire up that grill because the season is not over as long as Whole Foods Market is in the picture.