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Seasonal simplicity

November/December 2017 California Bountiful magazine

Butcher's secrets for low-key but memorable meals


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More online: Eric Veldman Miller's recipe for braised pork shanks "osso buco"


Craft butcher Eric Veldman Miller chats with a customer at his shop in Sacramento, where he dispenses advice on all matters meat. Photo: © 2017 Bryan Patrick

Last Christmas, butcher Eric Veldman Miller ended up without his customary roast. In the seasonal spirit of giving, he turned over his own holiday headliner to a customer who forgot to order hers.

"It's just what you do. They are good customers," he said, then added with a smile, "I'm sure they enjoyed that roast."

A Christmas without a roast: an irony for the owner of Sacramento's V. Miller Meats, a specialty butcher shop that's vintage in both style and substance. It's the kind of place where you can stop in to pick up some meat and walk out with a head full of knowledge about how to make the most of your purchase.

Chef and culinary instructor Veldman Miller has told the story more than a few times of the fateful bite that brought him to butchery: One exceptional bacon-laden breakfast sandwich in New York launched him on a marathon tour of butcher shops. But that's only the final chapter of his origin story. In truth, the start of his journey came much earlier.


Veldman Miller offers a variety of cuts to fully utilize the whole animal, including pork ribeye, above. Photo: © 2017 Bryan Patrick

California calls

Veldman Miller can trace the start of his food career back to an influential dinner at a Crested Butte, Colorado, restaurant with the people who would become his in-laws. At the table that night, over three servings of roasted red pepper soup, food took on new meaning for the then-20-something.

"There were sparks going on. I'd never tasted anything like that," he recalled. "Before that, nothing about food was memorable."

The Colorado native spent the next few years experimenting with food, traveling, and dabbling in French fare with his future mother-in-law, trying out different dishes. He enjoyed learning about sophisticated preparations and exotic ingredients, but even after attending a Napa Valley culinary school and working in celebrated California kitchens, it was still the simplicity of good food made well that captivated him.

After falling in love with that bacon sandwich while visiting his brother in 2013, Veldman Miller apprenticed himself to a Massachusetts specialty butcher shop for an immersive stint. He then returned to California to open a craft butchery of his own in 2015. A sense of place informs his work at his Sacramento shop. He said he believes California's weather and the easy accessibility of fresh products has a profound impact on the way we eat.

"In California, we are so lucky to have access to everything year-round," he said. "Production doesn't ever shut down here, and you can see the seasonality in the meats."


Josh Lacey hoists freshly pressed sausages, above. At top right, house-made pancetta is braided prior to being wrapped around pork or pork iiver pate. Veldman Miller works with local family farms to bring cuts of pasture-raised meats, such as the beef shank, Brazilian picanha and tri-tip at bottom right, to his customers. Photos: © 2017 Bryan Patrick

A new butcher on the block

V. Miller Meats stands on a renovated street corner, nestled near the city's diverse suburban neighborhoods. The butcher shop feels both modern and vintage: outside, honey-hued wood and modern lines are topped by a vibrant red-dot sign. Inside, hand-chalked boards boast the day's offerings. The shop bears the distinction of being the only head-to-tail butcher in the region, utilizing every edible part of an animal.

Veldman Miller has made the kind of elaborate meals that grace the glossy covers of fancy food magazines, but prefers to approach food with simplicity, he said. His persona is straightforward, approachable, humble. He often gives center stage to California's bounty: "When you use food that's in season, you don't really have to do much to it," he said.

As the holidays near, Veldman Miller is sought out as much for his confidence-building advice as for his inventory, but his directives don't include long lists of ingredients or complicated techniques.

"I ask how (customers) will prepare it, what will they serve it with, and then help them with the right instructions," he said.

Veldman Miller's commitment to giving good advice leads him to unconventional lengths. He purposely cooks food incorrectly so he can learn the problems and guide his customers accordingly.

He said his goal is to help customers elevate their meal to memorable status without wasting hours fussing with pricey ingredients and elaborate preparations. He said he believes that holidays are for family and that celebratory meals can be just as festive without having to include only expensive, time-consuming dishes.

"For the holidays, it's all about cooking time and maximizing the meal," he said.

His advice is to cater to several tastes by offering a dueling-meats or mixed-grill concept that calibrates cooking time and shortens the host's time in the kitchen.

"You want to sit around and enjoy it with the family," he added. "You don't want to be comatose after eating a big meal that you stressed out about all day."

Veldman Miller displays enthusiasm for his craft and satisfaction in having learned it well.

"I wake up every morning, and this is what I want to be doing. I just do this to make me happy," he said with a shrug and a wistful smile. "It just so happens that it makes other people happy too."

Christy Heron-Clark

Recipes

Braised pork shanks "osso buco"


Sausages play a key role in Veldman Miller's "mixed grill" meal. Photo: © 2017 Bryan Patrick

Mix it up

Impress guests at your next fête with help from butcher Eric Veldman Miller, who dispenses tips and recipes to his customers alongside their purchases. He said a "mixed grill" main course is one of his favorite ways to cook for a group. The dish adds a wow factor to a meal, but is deceptively simple to prepare.

Your selection of meats can match your individual taste, but to serve six people, Veldman Miller usually starts with a small beef roast of about 2 pounds or a 1 1/2-pound flat iron steak, rubbed with salt and pepper, plus smashed garlic, if you wish. Then he adds four chicken leg quarters, seasoned with salt, pepper and "usually something spicy." Finally, he adds a selection of sausages that can be sliced and served—typically one mild, one spicy and one smoked. He rounds out the meal with assorted fresh vegetables, such as zucchini, eggplant, red onion, red pepper and sliced sweet potatoes, brushed with olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper.

Then, the whole shebang heads to a hot oven. Veldman Miller recommends starting the roast or steak first at a high heat.

"Then lower the heat to medium-high and throw the chicken and veggies on at the same time," he said. "You can easily move the meats around so that everything is cooking evenly."

When the beef has reached desired doneness, remove it from the oven first and allow ample time for it to rest before slicing. Next, remove sausages, and then chicken, when done. Remove the vegetables from the oven last, so they're still hot when you serve.

"The trick is to have all the mix come to the table at the same time," Veldman Miller said.


Photo by Shutterstock

Simple tipsĀ for easy holiday meats

Holidays are notoriously hectic, but they don't have to be, according to Sacramento butcher Eric Veldman Miller. It's possible to make meals that still leave time to enjoy your seasonal celebrations, he said. His instructions are simple: Start with fresh cuts of meat and in-season ingredients, and be sure to follow a few easy tips to coax the most from the meat.

Let it rest
Pull meat out of the refrigerator about an hour before you plan to cook it. Set it on the counter and let it rest and warm up. This step makes for a more evenly cooked and tender finished product.

Just add salt
Use basic kosher salt to season meat prior to cooking. More elaborate salts impart different flavors, and that shouldn't happen during the cooking process, he said. Before serving, season meats to taste with specialty salts and seasonings.

Get ready
Make sure your grill or oven is set at the right temperature and give it time to properly heat.

Practice
Learn to cook less-expensive cuts of meat, and then move on to more expensive ones.

Read it right
Get a digital instant-read thermometer for checking the internal temperature of the meat. This is the one tool that can help you turn out perfectly done meals.


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