The Playbook: Finding the Perfect Cut of Meat With Lena Diaz
The Meat Mayor of Fort Greene explains how to pick the best
Lena Diaz runs the whole animal butchery program at The Greene Grape in Brooklyn. Known as the Meat Mayor of Fort Greene, she’ll make sure you’ve got what you need to impress a hot date, throw a taco party for 40, or get weeknight dinner on the table in half an hour. She sat down with Playboy to talk about pastured steers and hard sears.
If someone is new to buying meat from a butcher counter, what advice would you give him?
“Don’t be afraid to start a relationship with your butcher,” says Diaz. That’s particularly important if your local purveyor does whole-animal butchery instead of just slinging steaks. For one, your wallet will thank you. “People buy what they know,” says Diaz, and because your average consumer only knows the name of five or so different cuts of beef, “those tend to be the most expensive because everybody wants those.” If the price of a steak is giving you the meat sweats, think beyond the Porterhouse, ribeye and tenderloin. “That’s like three muscles out of at least 60, you know? There are so many other cuts that are just as good—if not better—depending on what you’re doing and the application.”If you’re not sure exactly what you want, allow your butcher to play meat matchmaker by offering up some basic information. How many people are you feeding? What’s your budget? How much time do you have? Are you confident in the kitchen, or do you usually buy your meat in frozen nugget form? Diaz describes getting to know her customers as “courting.” Be honest, stay open, and FYI, her favorite flowers are peonies.
After you answer your butcher’s first-date questions, you’ll likely have some of your own. Be specific about what you actually want to know. Diaz explains, “People come in and are like, ‘Is this grass-fed?’ Everything is grass-fed. If it’s eaten grass at any point in its life, a cow can be classified as grass-fed.” Instead, if what you’re after is meat that’s been pasture-raised instead of reared in a feedlot, you might ask if the animal is “grass-fed and finished” or “100-percent grass-fed.” And if you’re posing questions about whether beef is USDA Prime, Select or Choice, know that “all that’s telling you is the fat content. That’s it. The grading system has nothing to do with how the animal is raised.” While Diaz’s priorities lie in humane farming practices, “everybody has to make their own decisions about what they prefer. For me, from a taste standpoint, I actually prefer something that has had a little bit of supplemental grain, usually spent grain from distilleries or alfalfa.”
Talk to your butcher about your priorities—whether it’s price, how the animal was raised, what it ate, or a combo of all of the above—and don’t be afraid to be precise with your questions.
How can someone shop more like a butcher?
“If people understood that there’s only two skirt steaks per steer and ate more sustainably, we would put less stress on the environment,” says Diaz. “We should be eating the whole animal." While special occasions call for special occasion meat, for a Tuesday night put those cheaper, more obscure cuts to work. Once again, Diaz wants you to place yourself in your butcher’s capable hands: “I want people to be more open to trying different things. Allow yourself to be guided by a professional.” Let your Instant Pot break down boneless shanks and platanillo like Benson and Stabler break down a recalcitrant witness. Make some bone broth (the trendiness of which, incidentally, has the Cuban/Cantonese Diaz confounded: “My people have been drinking broth every day for thousands of years, and they all live till they’re 90-something and look really good”) using collagen-heavy animal parts like tendons or chicken feet. “Cuts with connective tissue give viscosity to your soups and gravies. Those gelatinous pieces are the best part.” As for ground beef? To shop like a butcher, don’t be afraid of fat. “My ideal ratio is 80/20,” says Diaz. She pauses. “OK, maybe more, but I don’t want to admit to that. Let’s say 80/20. On the record, 80/20.”
IF YOU LIKE...
First cut shoulder steak: full of flavor, cut from where the ribs meet the shoulder; only two or three per steer, so grab them when you see them
Sirloin filet: almost as tender but with a beefier flavor
Bavette (a.k.a. sirloin flap or vacio) if you’re feeding a group; or Oyster (a.k.a. spider) steak if you’re doing steak-for-one