Regional Dining Guide

‘Meat’ You at the Holiday Dinner Table

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Wondering what foods should dress your table this holiday season? Our resident experts share a few tips on selecting the perfect cut of meat.

Rosie Burd (left) shows off her holiday cooking, alongside her 4-year-old daughter, Isabelle, and mother, Nina Salamone. (Tom Clabough photo)

Rosie Burd’s holiday dinner is steeped in family tradition. When her immediate family members get together to celebrate, they always enjoy a prime rib feast. It’s been that way since her late father, Phil Salamone, co-owned 320 Meats in downtown Rockford in the early 1970s.

“I prepare the prime rib the way my mother taught me. That way I’m assured it’ll be tender,” she explains. “At Christmas, I can remember my grandmother taking one of the meaty ribs to eat, while the rest of the women were putting the final touches on the meal. The meat on the rib was extra tender and tasty; I enjoy eating it that way, too.” Along with the prime rib, Burd’s meal includes lasagna or ravioli, mashed potatoes, green beans, asparagus and corn for the kids. “My mom also prepares a favorite Sicilian vegetable, fried cardone.”

Burd, 37, who lives in Winnebago, usually takes turns with other family members hosting the gathering of 15. “My family and I look forward to spending time together, especially at Christmas, and food is always a big part of that. Meat was a big part of our family meals when my dad was alive. We don’t prepare big family meals as often anymore because everyone is so busy with their own families and work. But at Christmastime, we’re assured that we’ll have the prime rib dinner to look forward to, and, of course, family.”

Perhaps her greatest pleasure, however, is the time spent in the kitchen with her twin sister, Josie Westmoreland, their mother, Nina Salamone, and her sister-in-law, Rosalie Salamone, preparing the extravaganza. Even Burd’s 4-year-old daughter, Isabelle, helps in the kitchen. “Tradition is very important to us,” Burd says, “and I want to pass that along to my daughter.”

Family First

Pete Lentz, owner of 640 Meats in Loves Park, Ill.

Holiday meals often center around a roasted turkey, honey-baked ham or other impressive cut of meat. For smaller gatherings, a bird such as capon, duck or goose – or a small cut of veal roast or pork tenderloin – might just do the trick.

Many families stick with the traditional turkey at the holidays, with all the side dishes, including mashed potatoes, gravy, bread or rolls, green beans and an assortment of desserts.

“A lot of it has to do with tradition,” says Jeff Stevens, owner of Honeybaked Ham, Rockford. “Grandma made it, mom made it, now we’re making it, because that’s what you do during the holidays.”

Specialty Meat Shops

While large supermarket chains offer convenience, they don’t always offer personalized service, especially when it comes to meat. Shops like 640 Meats and Jim & Gary’s have butchers behind the counter, hand trimming and grinding fresh meat daily. At Jim and Gary’s, for example, customers can order whole hog seasoned sausage, or pick up two different types of stuffed pork loin roasts.

Because meat is the staple of any holiday meal, most specialty shops experience a significant spike in business during the next few months. Customers who may not have been in for several months reminisce near the counter, the phones start ringing off the hook and extra staff is called in to handle the demand. “It’s like seeing long lost friends,” Stevens says.

Brad Vander Heyden, Rockford, has been a loyal Honeybaked customer for 10 years. As president of Advanced Chimney Systems, Vander Heyden rewards employees, in part, with a gift of ham for a job well done. Personally, he prefers a Honeybaked ham for the holidays, when his four children, ages 17 to 24, return home. “For me, the holidays are special because our family is scattered around the country,” he says. “Whether age 5 or 20, our kids really enjoy those special times. Our fond memories are centered on those meals and time spent together.”

Jim and Gary Johnson, owners of Jim & Gary’s Meats in Pecatonica, Ill.

Many customers find butchers will take the time to talk to you about where your meat has come from, and which cut is best suited to your needs. Gary Johnson is one such expert. The 66-year-old Johnson was a farmer for most of his life, before he and son Jim, 43, started a meat delivery service 12 years ago. Their business did so well that in 2001 they opened up their own specialty store, Jim & Gary’s Meats, located along Business 20 near Pecatonica.

As the name implies, Jim & Gary’s Meats sells plenty of it, including beef top sirloin steaks, bacon-wrapped filets and New York strip steaks. For specialty pork, there’s baby back ribs, seasoned pork burgers and whole tenderloins. Whole bone-in and boneless sugar cured ham are best sellers these days.

“When the holidays come, people spare no expense,” says Gary, who also sells hundreds of pounds of prime rib roast at this time of the year.

It was 10 years ago that Lisa and Bob Fredrickson first noticed a large advertising sign for Jim & Gary’s on their way to their rural home just south of Stockton, Ill. On their first visit they bought a few pieces of pork and instantly became hooked. Now they stop in at least twice a month, picking up anything from chicken breasts to spare ribs. “It’s the fact that the meat is so much fresher,” says Lisa. “I can say after 10 years of shopping, I never got a bad piece of beef or pork. When you buy from grocery store chains and cook it, there’s a big difference in the flavor, taste and tenderness.”

Christmas is Pete Lentz’s favorite holiday. The 34-year-old is the owner of 640 Meats, in Loves Park, Ill. He started out cutting meat 15 years ago, before buying the shop nearly two years ago. Lentz sees about 50 percent more business over the holidays. In addition to prime rib, ham and beef tenderloin, he sells plenty of specialty items to Swedish customers, including a jellied meat loaf called “press” or “veal sylta,” as well as Swedish meatballs.

Many customers walk in, Lentz says, not only looking for a turkey or a prime cut of meat, but also searching for instructions on how to prepare the meal. Many shop owners offer printed step-by-step directions or are more than willing to answer questions right there at the meat counter. “That’s what we’re here for,” says Lentz, who displays cooking charts for turkey or prime rib during the holiday season.

Fredrickson, like many customers, has grown fond of doing business with the familiar faces who work at small meat markets. “It’s the same people who waited on you 10 years ago that are at the counter still today,” she says. “If I say I want to try something, they tell me how to cook it and I know it’s going to be perfect.”

Selling convenience

Jeff Stevens, owner of Honeybaked Ham in Rockford. (Dustin Waller photo)

Years ago, small markets focused pretty much on selling meat and that was it. But no more. Thanks to dual incomes and less time to spend planning and cooking a large dinner, many families can afford to turn to butchers and specialty shops to help prepare the entire meal.

Heat and Share, a new program recently introduced by HoneyBaked Ham, features 12 different side dishes, including sweet potato soufflé, potatoes au gratin, green bean casserole and Yukon mashed potatoes. “There isn’t enough time any more to make it from scratch,” Stevens says. “This program cuts down on the time, and effort, leaving more time for families to enjoy each other’s company.”

No holiday meal would be complete without dessert. Most shops offer a wide selection: fresh baked pies (apple, peach, pecan), as well as carrot cake, brownies, cookies and even red velvet cake.

Looking for a unique holiday gift idea? Specialty shops offer meal boxes such as a dozen 10-ounce rib-eye steaks or eight bone-in pork chops, a perfect present for the hard-to-shop-for relative on your list.

Let’s face it. For the next few months, it’s all about the food. And our region has no problem answering the question, “Where’s the beef?”

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