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The leg meat of the animals we customarily utilize as food is often under-appreciated, misunderstood, and erroneously maligned. A target of American food neurotics, aided and abetted by culinary ignorance and arcane nomenclature, the leg has remained shrouded in fat-phobia and mystery. Let’s jettison the irrationalities and clarify what’s left. Maybe you’ll become a leg-man too.
The first issue we must untangle is the language. Many times the leg is not referred to as the “leg”. If you’ve ever had roast beef, most London broils, round steak, top, bottom, or eye-round roast, veal scaloppini, ham, ham hocks, lamb shanks, or osso buco, you’ve consumed the leg of an animal. All of the beef cuts mentioned above, as well as ham, come from the round, or upper hind leg of the animal. The shank is the lower part of the leg and thus the source for ham hocks, lamb shank, and osso buco, (made from veal shank).
Next is the baseless paranoia running rampant, (pun intended), in our society about leg meat and fat. Beef round is one of the leaner cuts on the steer. Each ounce of round steak has only one gram of saturated fat. One ounce of veal round has only a third of a gram of saturated fat. But it’s chicken legs that fat-phobes usually have a knee-jerk reaction to. Chicken legs are particularly feared because of additional irrational anxieties associated with “dark” or “red” meat. There is nothing inherently unhealthy in the biochemistry that causes some meat to be darker. Red meat is red because of myoglobin, an iron containing protein that transfers oxygen from the blood to the muscles. Muscles which are used more will contain more myoglobin, (since they require more oxygen), and will be redder or darker in color. A chicken uses its legs far more than its breast muscles and hence, they are darker. As for the fat, according to Perdue’s website, four ounces of cooked, skinless chicken thighs have only three grams of saturated fat and a roasted chicken leg only 1.5 grams, so give me a break. If you ask me, the anti-dark-meat camp doesn’t have a leg to stand on.
The last leg of our discussion is deciphering whether a particular meat is tough or tender since this will influence the cooking method employed. Tender cuts of meat, (i.e., less exercised muscles), such as the rib, loin, or tenderloin, require dry heat cooking methods such as grilling, broiling, roasting, and sautéing. Tougher cuts of meat are muscles that receive more exercise such as the legs. They require moist heat methods such as braising and stewing, which facilitate the tenderization of the meat. There are exceptions however, the ideal example being leg of lamb. Because a lamb is an immature sheep, its leg is tenderer than the leg of a cow or pig. Thus you can apply dry heat methods to a leg of lamb as in the below recipe. Chicken legs are also not nearly as tough as their four-legged counterparts and can be cooked by either dry or wet heat methods. Roast beef, from the round, is roasted, but because it is sliced thin, the texture is less of an issue. Cubed meat from the round however, is best stewed. Veal scaloppini, again from the round, is tender due to the animal’s age and because it is pounded thin. It is best sautéed. The shanks of all the four-legged critters however are always tough and must rely on braising for their succulence.
The benefit of leg meat is it tastes great. If cooked right it can be juicy and unctuous. It is also less expensive than many other cuts. Finally, depending on the animal it comes from, its age, and how it is fabricated, it is amenable to a wide variety of cooking techniques and preparations. Get a kick out of this recipe:
This recipe comes from Simply Irresistible: Easy, Elegant, Fearless, Fussless Cooking, by Sheilah Kaufman
Serves 8 - 10.
2/3 cup olive oil
3 Tablespoons lemon juice
salt to taste
freshly ground pepper to taste
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon oregano
3 bay leaves, crumbled
1 cup thinly sliced onions
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
6 - 7 lb leg of lamb, boned, butterflied, and trimmed of fat
For the marinade combine the olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, parsley, oregano, bay leaves, onion, and garlic in a large shallow glass baking dish. Marinate the lamb in the refrigerator overnight or up to three days, turning the meat a few times a day. Preheat your grill or the broiler in your oven. Without drying the meat off, place it on a rack about 4" from the heat in the broiler or on your grill. Sprinkle the meat with salt and broil for about 15 minutes. Turn the meat over, sprinkle with more salt and broil or grill another 15 minutes or until desired doneness. To serve, slice the meat against the grain into thin slices and place on a serving platter. Serve with cooked onions if desired
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