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I was thrilled to be asked to judge a Kitchen Stadium battle between Bobby Flay and Viet Pham, as they are two of my favorite chefs in the country. I was even more thrilled when the Chairman revealed that the Secret Ingredient for the challenge was to be ground meat. It may seem like an ingredient that is hard to elevate to Iron Chef levels, but I was certain that in the hands of these two accomplished chefs, my fellow judges and I were in for a real treat. I was right.
What is ground meat?
As the name suggests, ground meat is animal flesh that has been minced, once or twice depending on the use, and then mixed with onions, spices or herbs. It can then be shaped into such things as hamburgers or meatballs, cooked “loose” in meat sauces or even eaten raw (with caution). The most popular ground meat used in the United States is of course beef, but chicken, pork and turkey are also commonly available as are some more exotic meats such as venison, elk and even bison. Traditionally, grinding was a way of making tougher, cheaper cuts of meat easier to prepare, and while this is still generally the case, you can now find many butchers and restaurants grinding expensive parts of the animal for more premium dishes.
Where does ground meat come from?
Ground beef may seem like such a quintessentially American ingredient, with over 40 percent of the beef eaten in the United States being prepared in this fashion, however, the origins of grinding (or “mincing,” as it is often called outside the United States) meat date back over 5,000 years to the Chinese. It’s the Mongolians, who shredded beef to make it more palatable, who are credited with spreading its popularity throughout Europe. The first written recipes using ground meat are to be found in the culinary writings of the Roman gourmet Apicius, who devotes one whole volume of his 10 books on cuisine to recipes involving minced meat, including what is now the beloved Italian meatball.
Minced or ground meat can now be found in many cuisines around the world. In India, Turkey and Iran, ground lamb is used to make kofta, a style of meatball that is often served in highly spiced gravies.
In Scandinavia, kottbullar, or meatballs of pork and beef, have been a luxury item since the mid-1700s. Today they have become so popular on the menu at a certain Swedish furniture store that over 150 million of them are served every year in the United States alone.
Back in my homeland, the United Kingdom, the popular Christmas treat of mince pies, which now contain a mix of dried and candied fruits, would originally have also included the minced meat that gave them their name.
How do you cook with ground meat?
Obviously the most popular uses of ground meat include the hamburger and the meatball. I like to use ground beef clod (a tougher and cheaper shoulder cut) when making hamburgers and I find that using a mixture of ground veal and ground pork makes the best meatballs.
There are now so many varieties of ground meat, however, that it is worth experimenting with some of the recipes you will find from around the world. One of my favorites is keema, which is an Indian dish of minced lamb (or more often goat) meat that is cooked with potatoes and peas. It’s great on its own, but also makes a fantastic filling for samosas.
I have also recently fallen in love with making Polish golumpki, meaning “little pigeons,” which are small parcels of minced pork or beef wrapped in blanched cabbage leaves and then simmered in a rich tomato sauce. It’s a perfect dish for cold winter nights.
Finally, why not try bobotie? It is a South African version of meatloaf made of a spicy ground beef mixture topped with a layer of egg and presents a great alternative to its American cousin.
Where do I buy ground meat?
Of course any supermarket will sell a variety of ground meat, but what they offer is often of very different qualities and contains many ingredients to bulk out the volume.
My advice to anyone wanting to cook really terrific ground meat dishes is to buy a meat grinder and do it yourself. Not only is it much cheaper than buying preground meat, but you can also be 100 percent sure of what will be in the final product. I have done this for years and it makes a world of difference to any dishes you might be preparing.
If all that sounds like too much trouble, I would at least suggest that you find a good butcher who will grind meat to order, so you have some control over the finished product.