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The kindest cuts

Prepared well, cheap meat develops great flavor

Clockwise from top left: Braised pork; marinated lamb kebabs; braised beef short ribs; poule au pot. Clockwise from top left: Braised pork; marinated lamb kebabs; braised beef short ribs; poule au pot. (Photos by Jonathan Levitt for the Boston Globe)
By Jonathan Levitt
Globe Correspondent / November 12, 2008
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In the meat case, the priciest pieces are also the tenderest. Cuts like chicken breasts, beef or pork tenderloin, and lamb rib chops may be quick to cook and easy to chew, but they're hard on the budget. Cheaper cuts are no less delicious than the top-shelf stuff, they just need more attention. When cooked properly, hard-working meat with more fat and connective tissue can develop deeper flavors and a more dynamic and varied texture than the leaner and lazier muscles. But they do require more time and technique.

At the supermarket, the cheapest cuts include country-style pork ribs, which are more like chops than ribs; beef short ribs, a favorite ingredient of many chefs; lamb shoulder, denser than the leg, but versatile; and the dark or bony pieces on the chicken: drumsticks, thighs, backs, and necks. We went shopping for these, then headed into the kitchen to wring the most from the least.

Country-style ribs are meaty, usually sold on the bone, with plenty of marbled fat. They're perfect in a long, slow braise with hard apple cider. Brown the meat and add onions, garlic, thyme, and cider, then send them to the oven for a couple of hours. While the meat cooks, slide a tray of buttery apples beside them and serve the finished dish with Brussels sprouts and spicy mustard.

Fancy restaurants have taken to braising beef short ribs on the bone, which makes a nice presentation and an intense bone-infused broth. Bone-in ribs are hard to find in supermarkets, and don't forget, you're paying by the pound for the bone too. Off-the-bone short ribs are available everywhere and work just as well. Take your time browning the meat. When it is crusty and golden, place it in a heavy pot with onions, bay leaves, and dried wild mushrooms. Cover everything with good dark beer and let it permeate the ribs for a couple of hours. After you set them in deep dinner plates, spoon gremolata, the Italian garnish of lemon rind, parsley, and garlic, on top.

The classic French poule au pot (chicken in the pot) is simply chicken poached in water. The dish is usually made with whole chicken, but a good budget version includes the bony backs and necks, along with some legs and thighs. Simmer them briefly, then add small yellow potatoes, carrots, turnips, and leeks, and let the mixture cook until the meat is almost falling off the bone. French country cooks serve it with flaky sea salt and cornichons, so you should too.

Lamb shoulder can be tough and chewy, and needs a marinade - we use yogurt and spices - to tenderize it. Then thread the lamb onto skewers and char it under the broiler. The lamb tastes like lamb, which is to say stronger and more farmlike than you may be used to. Watch your grocery bill decrease week by week, and you may decide you like it.

Economizing never tasted so good.

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