Aspen Times Weekly: Good Kids
November 9, 2015
IT WAS OFFICIAL: After six shared courses served family-style, the diners had morphed into chupacabras. We were "goat-suckers," according to Latin American legend at least, and our buzzed up chitchat following the meal at Meat & Cheese focused on the food — the litmus test of any successful meal.
Lauren Glendenning, editor of The Aspen Times, commented that the meat wasn't as gamy as she'd expected, and I agreed. It was a sentiment shared repeatedly among strangers during the restaurant's third nose-to-tail dinner on Oct. 27: How mild this goat meat was, in everything from an amuse bouche of goat kidney mousse to goat pot stickers with bok choy and charred Napa cabbage slaw to roasted "goatchetta," chopped up and served Philly cheese steak-style on homemade Bolillo buns with a gooey sauce of Avalanche Cheese goat cheddar. Table after table destroyed the displays of goat meat in all its forms, and diners walked away with positive memories.
"The first time I had goat that blew me away, I was driving from Mexico City to Acapulco," says Flip Wise, the butcher who broke down three whole goats from Meat & Cheese proprietor Wendy Mitchell's Avalanche Cheese Company farm and dairy in Paonia. Wise had stopped at a roadside barbacoa pit, where peasant grillmasters roasted whole goats in maguey cactus leaves to serve — bones and all — on platters with fresh tortillas and salsa. "It was unbelievable," he says.
When I mention to Wise that the dishes at the Chupacabra Dinner were not as gamy as we expected, he sets me straight.
"When you talk about lamb, goat, elk, venison, you always hear, 'It's too gamy,'" he says. "I hate that. Gamy is not a description for a certain animal. Gamy is a description for something that was not butchered or cooked properly. When I taste goat I want to taste goat. When I taste lamb I want to taste lamb. In this country, we have corn-fed, watered-down beef. Don't get me wrong, I love corn-finished beef, too, but it has to taste like what it is." Similar to grass-fed beef, goat has a distinct flavor.
I've had goat before, mostly in Indian curry — including the rich goat korma at Meat & Cheese, which was so popular last winter that it will likely return this season — and in Avalanche Cheese Company's fresh and dry-aged sausage. That night at the dinner, though, it became my new favorite protein.
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Contrast this with the mutton I sampled for last week's column on sheep meat's resurgence in the UK and now Paonia thanks to the efforts of Desert Weyr Farm. When I bit into the sweet Italian mutton sausage sautéed with hand-rolled sweet potato gnocchi on the night I wrote that story (making an elaborate meal is my favorite procrastination tool, obviously), I was intrigued…but not exactly salivating for more.
Instead, I couldn't help but think of that one time in college on a snowboarding trip to Vermont with a group of kids I'd just met. One girl, an avid hunter, was tasked with preparing our simple meal of spaghetti Bolognese on our first night in Killington. Before anyone could protest, this chick dumped a Ziplock full of ground deer meat into the pan. Maybe the sauce's tainted flavor was a result of deer cuts that had been trimmed by amateur hunters, but I remember the meat tasting so…rank. I set my plate aside and went to bed with a belly full of Bud Light. My first taste of venison has, quite literally, haunted me ever since.
Since then I've eaten venison sporadically, mostly on tasting menus and at food festivals, but I can't seem to get over it. At the Meat & Cheese dinner, my colleague Glendenning made an astute observation: one bad bite of anything — meat especially — can ruin a meal, and it might turn you off for good. If you've ever slurped a lukewarm, sour oyster midway through a flight of Wellfleets, you know that it can take a while to build an appetite back up. ("Check, please!")
Chefs often face a lofty task: make unconventional foods approachable to diners in the face of misperceptions. "The moment we mentioned goat, people were like, 'Oh, that's not my thing,'" chef David Wang says of hyping the Meat & Cheese dinner. "They assume it's gonna be weird. I don't know if it's because of what goat symbolizes culturally — it's been associated with less than pure things — but the mainstream tendency is to go toward cattle and more convenient proteins."
Wang was introduced to using goat meat at Meat & Cheese; he simply didn't use it at previous jobs — perhaps because it's a tougher animal to deconstruct. "It has a lot of connective tissue, tendons, fat flaps — not the subcutaneous hard fat that you see on the top of a ribeye or on pork belly," he explains. "I learned from doing the Jamaican goat curry that you have to trim all that off. Goat is really lean. Think about how goats run around. The gristle doesn't break down, even with a long braising time. It takes more labor to prepare."
Elsewhere in the world, goat meat is a common and respected protein. Goats are more sustainable — they don't cost much to feed, they're able to live anywhere, and they produce a lot of milk. "Goat costs so much less and has such a smaller impact on the earth than raising cattle," Wang says. "We fed 50 people with two goats."
They used every part of the beasts, too. Wang roasted bones for stock used in the pumpkin soup and to cook rice for the ground goat larhp salad; legs were turned into goat ham for a dish of Salvadoran pupusas with heirloom black bean mole; and goat milk made the silky panna cotta that capped the meal (and which may make its way to Meat & Cheese's dessert menu soon).
Through these events, Mitchell, Wise, Wang, and crew hope to expand folks' palates. That's their goal at the next Meat & Cheese tasting dinner, though it isn't focused on a specific animal. The Street Food celebration on Nov. 16 will present roadside snacks from around the world: Chinese soup dumplings, Japanese yakitori, Taiwanese pork buns, Indian samosas, Italian arancini, and, reprising the recent dinner: barbacoa goat tacos with chile de árbol.
"It's exposing people to other countries that have a huge street food scene. Go to any town in China or Vietnam and you'll get a bowl of pho from a vendor on the side of the road that you won't get here," explains Wang of the foods he'll set out for sharing. "People can graze, enjoy, and talk. That's the most important part: people need to be talking about what's going on."
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