Is meat "back?"
The pragmatist is likely to answer that question with another one.
"Did it ever go away?"
Though the consumption of red meat in this country slipped noticeably during the last two decades, it was still 114 pounds per person last year, with beef the volume leader at 63.7 pounds. (Chicken and turkey totaled 62.5 pounds.)
That's a lot of meat, especially considering the widespread attempts by diet and nutrition revisionists to reduce Americans' fat consumption during the 1980s (dubbed the "cholesterol decade" by some who follow the politics of food).
Recently, the stigma on red meat has lessened. With a wave of nostalgia for "comfort" foods sweeping the land, many Americans have acknowledged they still pine for a juicy steak now and then and are going to steakhouses for special occasions. As a result, the steakhouse category has become the fastest-growing segment of the restaurant industry.
But dining at home on "meat and potatoes" these days does not necessarily mean eating a stereotypical Heartland American meal circa 1952.
For one thing, in the '50s salt and canned black pepper constituted the main -- if not the only -- seasoning added to meat. Today, bland is boring and even the kitchens of those who rarely cook are full of spice and condiment jars.
The demand for variety is a factor too. The rotating weekly family menu that might offer a roast of beef or pork every Sunday and cube steak on Wednesday is no more. The roast and the steak are likely to appear irregularly and wear a different ethnic or regional garnish each time.
Most important, perhaps, our perception of time has changed. Speed is of the essence to cooks who work long hours out of the home or have infants underfoot. So, in a curious reversal, we now go to restaurants for the homey, long-cooked meats of yore (along with the mashed potatoes), and imitate short-order diner cooks at our own stoves.
Occasionally, though, on a weekend perhaps, a home cook will buy a bargain-priced, easy-to-prepare cut such as lamb shanks and endure the long, slow cooking it requires.
As for the meats we eat now, sausage is popular. Not the all-beef hot dogs and pork links of the '50s, but sausages made from turkey and chicken or blends of meat, with exotic flavorings.
These are not served in a white-bread bun. Instead they turn up in sauces for pasta or toppings for designer pizzas.
Pork, with its new slim image (but still containing significant quantities of fat and cholesterol), is moderately priced, offers very good value, and cooks much faster than it once did. Pork takes wonderfully to seasonings and sauces from all corners of the globe, and readily available boned cuts are easy to prepare.
Beef, though, remains king. But we have learned to consume less of it, have come to realize it goes farther and costs less when it is cut into slices instead of being served in a single huge chunk.
So, for modern meat-and-potatoes people, three recipes are included here -- a beef stir-fry and a simple frying-pan preparation for boneless pork chops.
This recipe, adapted from "Chinese Seasons" by Nina Simonds, can be cut in half to serve 4. Although the recipe calls for a cup of oil, which yields extremely tender fried meat, only about 3 tablespoons is absorbed by the meat.
Stir-Fried Beef With Leeks
2 pounds eye-of-round roast or flank steak (chilled almost to the point of freezing)
5 tablespoons soy sauce
4 tablespoons rice wine
4 teaspoons Oriental sesame oil
1 tablespoon each: sugar, cornstarch
2 teaspoons Chinese black vinegar
1 cup safflower or corn oil
6 cloves garlic, very thinly sliced
5 cups shredded leeks, rinsed thoroughly, drained well
cooked rice or Mandarin pancakes for serving
Remove any fat or gristle from the meat. Using a sharp knife or cleaver, cut the very cold beef, across the grain, into paper-thin slices. Cut slices into strips 1 1/2 inches long by 1 inch wide.
Combine 3 tablespoons of the soy sauce, 2 tablespoons of the wine, 1 teaspoon of the sesame oil and sugar in a bowl. Dissolve cornstarch by mixing it with 1 tablespoon cold water and add to the bowl. Add meat, toss lightly and marinate in refrigerator for at least 1 hour.
Drain beef, reserving any marinade. Return marinade to the bowl, then add remaining 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 2 tablespoons wine and the vinegar.
Heat a wok or large, heavy skillet and add the safflower oil. Heat the oil until very hot (about 400 degrees). Add half the beef strips and stir-fry, tossing constantly, until they change color. Remove and drain well on paper toweling. Reheat the oil and repeat with the remaining beef. Remove all but 3 tablespoons of oil from the pan.
Reheat the oil until very hot; add the garlic and leeks. Toss lightly until the leeks become slightly limp. Add the sauce mixture and cook briefly until boiling. Add the beef; toss to coat over high heat. Remove to a platter; serve with rice or Mandarin pancakes.
Per serving: 275 calories, 13 g fat, 60 mg cholesterol, 710 mg sodium, 14 g carbohydrates, 27 g protein.
This recipe is adapted from "The American Table" by Ronald Johnson. If you are watching your fat intake, substitute low-fat milk or evaporated skim milk for the cream; however, the sauce will not be as thick.
Pork Chops With Onion Cream Sauce
4 boneless center-cut pork chops, cut 3/4 -inch thick, 4 ounces each
salt, freshly ground pepper, paprika
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2/3 cup chopped green onions with part of tops
2 tablespoons minced parsley
1/2 cup beef or chicken broth
1/2 cup whipping cream, creme fraiche or milk
parsley sprigs or chopped green onions for garnish
Pat the chops dry. Combine about 1/2 cup of flour and liberal amounts of salt, pepper and paprika in a paper bag. Add the pork chops and shake until they are coated all over.
Heat the oil over a medium-high flame in a skillet large enough to hold the chops in a single layer. When hot, add the chops and cook them, turning once, until golden on both sides.
Pour out the fat from the pan. Sprinkle the green onions and parsley over the meat, then pour in the broth. Cover and cook over low heat for 20 minutes, or until the pork is tender but not dry. Add broth if necessary.
Lift the onion-covered chops onto warm plates. Add the cream to the pan and cook, stirring, until the sauce is smooth and thickened. Pour sauce onto plate; top with chops and garnish with parsley sprigs or green onions.
Per serving: 330 calories; 22 g fat; 115 mg cholesterol; 165 mg sodium; 5 g carbohydrates; 27 g protein.