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Tips for staying safe when eating raw meat

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When I was quite young, way before I hit my teens and likely when I was still in second or third grade, my mother took me to my doctor, a wonderful pediatrician named Delphine Palm, one of just two pediatricians in Vallejo, where I grew up.

The reason for the visit was my fondness for raw meat, especially beef and lamb. My mother, who would not eat any meat that wasn’t very well done, was afraid of my preference and assumed it signaled some sort of psychological abnormality.

I still remember Dr. Palm’s words.

“Freda,” she said to my mother, “it’s a delicacy in Europe. Leave her alone.”

I kept my head down as I heard the words but my smile could have lit up the entire town.

I’ve been eating raw meat ever since, though I no longer have to steal it when someone’s head is turned. I love carpaccio, which is, very thinly sliced raw beef, sushi, and poke, and I long to try Germany’s pork tartare. I’ve eaten beef tartare, the classic French/Belgian dish of seasoned raw beef in Seattle, at Cafe Campagne, across the alley from the original Sur La Table. I’ve eaten it in Paris, in the South of France, and in too many San Francisco restaurants to name. If it is on the menu, I can’t resist it.

For a while, a restaurant in Yountville was the only place in the North Bay that offered it. I was so excited to see it on the menu that I always ordered it, but was disappointed each time, as it had a sweetness to it that I found unpleasant. I’d try to balance the sweetness with more salt but it never worked. Finally, I asked and was told that the sweetness was from ketchup.

What? And why? I’d never had that anywhere else, or read it in recipes.

Eventually, a friend who is a wonderful chef and I had a conversation. He insisted that ketchup is an essential ingredient in steak tartare. I probably told him he was crazy.

And so, for years, I have eaten steak tartare only at home. And then, a few weeks ago, a friend and I went to the new Fern Bar in The Barlow. Steak tartare is on the menu. I asked our water if it had ketchup in it and he didn’t know, so he asked in the kitchen. No, it doesn’t! he told me and so I ordered it.

It is a delicious version, with just the right texture — not homogenous — and the right spicing, including little crystals of flake salt on top.

The FDA, CDC and countless nutritionists would wag their fingers at me, as they are always warning that rare meat and raw fish are extremely dangerous. Whole cuts of meat and fish, they say, must be at 145 degrees or above to be safe. Burgers and other ground meat must be cooked to at least 160 degrees. Turkey, we are told, must be cooked to 165 degrees, which is guaranteed to give you dry, tough meat. I suppose that is what gravy is for.

Better safe than sorry, they all say, as they base their recommendations on meats from large factory farms and national distributors.

My response is why bother? At those temperatures, most cuts of meat and fish have lost their flavor and their pleasing textures. Stews and braises are the exceptions but those techniques are designed for tougher cuts that need long, slow cooking.

So, how do I keep myself safe? First of all, I know the source of the meats I enjoy. I don’t buy at large grocers or big-box stores. For tartare, I cut the beef by hand. For burgers, I buy grass-fed meat from a single animal or I grind it myself. I eat very fresh fish from reliable sources. I keep everything refrigerated. I clean my tools and my work surfaces. And, I suppose, some would say I live dangerously. Perhaps I do. But I also live deliciously and have never become ill because of my preference for very rare and raw meat.

The name of this dish is inspired by a pub in Cotati that no longer exists. I was a regular customer and they always overcooked the burgers I ordered rare. One day, the cook slapped one down on the bar in front of me and said, “How’s this?” It had been on the grill just a minute per side and it was perfect. They dubbed it a Vampire Burger and I enjoyed it many times.

Steak tartare — raw beef, cut into tiny pieces or ground, and mixed with seasonings and a raw egg yolk — is a classic French dish, with variations throughout Europe and much of the rest of the world. In the United States, we are often warned not to eat rare, let alone raw, meat. These concerns reflect problems with large-scale factory farms, where meat often becomes contaminated. The best defense against such an occurrence is to use meat raised and processed as close to where you live as possible. It is frequently available at farmers markets. If you buy directly from a local ranch, visit a local butcher counter or shop and ask about the source of what they offer.

Vampire Balls

Serves 6 to 10 as an appetizer

2 pounds very fresh steak, preferably grass fed (see Note below)

1/2 - 3/4 pound grass-fed beef fillet

— Kosher salt

— Black pepper in a mill

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 shallot, minced

2 serrano chiles, stemmed, seeded and minced

2 large egg yolks, from pastured hens

2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro

1 baguette, thinly sliced and toasted until golden brown

— Cilantro leaves, for garnish

Using a very sharp knife, cut the beef into 1/8-inch-thick slices; cut each slice into 1/8-inch strips and cut the strips into tiny even cubes.

Transfer the meat to a medium bowl and season with salt and pepper.

Add the garlic, shallot, chiles and egg yolks and mix thoroughly.

Taste and correct the seasoning. Fold in the minced cilantro.

Chill, covered, for one to two hours.

Use a small ice cream scoop or a melon baller to make round balls, setting each ball on a baguette slice as you make it.

Garnish each ball with a cilantro leaf and serve immediately.

Note: I have used bistro fillets, London broil, sirloin steak, and beef tenderloin to make tartare. If the meat you choose has a lot of connective tissue and outside fat, remove it before making the tartare.

Variations:

Mustard: Omit the serrano chile and cilantro. Add 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard and 2 tablespoons minced fresh Italian parsley along with the garlic, shallots, and egg yolks.

Green peppercorns: Use Dijon and parsley instead of serrano chile and cilantro; add 2 teaspoons brined green peppercorns along with the garlic, shallot and egg yolk. Garnish with a few more green peppercorns.

Avocado: Cut 1 large or 2 medium avocados into ¼-inch dice and season it with salt, pepper and a generous squeeze of lime juice. Fold gently into the steak along with the cilantro. Serve atop tortilla chips and garnish with tiny lime wedges.

Olive oil: Omit the serrano chile and cilantro. Use 2 tablespoons minced fresh Italian parsley and 1 tablespoon minced capers (rinsed, if salted). After mounding onto the baguette slices, drizzle a bit of boldly-flavored extra-virgin olive oil on top of each portion.

Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date, including “More Than Meatballs,” from which this recipe is adapted. Email her at michele@micheleannajordan.com.

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