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Archive for the ‘Grass-fed Beef’ Category

My boyfriend picked up Jennifer McLagan‘s excellent Bones: Recipes, History and Lore a little while back and the cover photo of a couple roasted marrow bones, complete with parsley salad and marrow spoon had been taunting me from the kitchen table ever since.

While it is now terribly in vogue among a certain kind of gourmand to seek out the funkiest of meats (“duck fries”, i.e. duck balls, from Incanto anyone?), I haven’t laid a finger on anything more adventurous than chicken liver in ages. So we picked up some marrow bones from Drewes’, determined to give it a shot, and cooked them up the other night after a lengthy stay entombed in the freezer.

It turns out that they’re extremely easy to cook, but just require a little planning. Marrow bones must be soaked for 12-24 hours in a few changes of water to leech all the blood out of them. I’m not sure what would happen if you skipped this step, but I wasn’t going to take any chances. Who knows what old, mouldering blood trapped in a cow leg tastes like. Here’s what they looked like when they came out of the water bath, pale and bit ghostly:

You’d think that after having to soak the bones for ages, cooking them would also be a production. But it wasn’t. It took about 15 minutes in the oven at 450 for them to cook through – although in all honesty, we left them in for a little too long and the marrow started to actually melt and flood out of the bottom of the bones. So I’d recommend checking on them periodically and pulling them when you can put a toothpick into the center w/ no resistance.

Marrow is tremendously rich – it tastes kind of like a steak distilled into butter that’s made out of beef – so it’s a good idea to have some bread and something sharp and peppery or mellow and sweet to eat with it. We ate ours with rounds of toast, an arugula-fennel salad and roasted beet soup to cut through the fattiness.

And not to sound like a broken record here, but I’d also like to point out that bones are just about the cheapest thing you can get from your local purveyor of pastured beef. Some meat CSA’s even toss them in for free with your meat share. Of course, with all the high-end restaurants clamoring for them as well, that may not be true in San Francisco or New York.

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The way I see it, we can have our meat two ways. We can buy from a small producer who saddles up his horses to go check on his herd:

or we can consume anonymous meat from a feedlot:


Photo from Cathy Dowd’s flickr stream of a feedlot in Dodge City, KS

Now that the Farm Bill is up for debate in the Senate, it would seem that there is an opportunity for everyone who eats to decide which of those two production methods should prevail.

Or is there?

A little while ago, I posted some comments the above-pictured rancher had regarding changes to the meat inspection laws pending in the Farm Bill. Here’s some follow-up from the same rancher. Clearly, he doesn’t regard the renewal of this legislation as anything but background noise:

The (regulation regarding) proximity to state borders occurred to me the first time — that’s where we are, after all, 10 miles from the New Mexico line (in Arizona). We don’t enroll in ag. support programs and we’re relying entirely on our own means to transport our stock and meat to customers. There are a couple of items here: you mention needing to cross state lines because of distance to USDA slaughterhouses; that’s live animal transport?; you propose that the Farm Bill is the fastest way to fix the laws; and that the meat distribution system is broken.

 

Hmmh: if there IS a meat distribution system in this country, we’re not in it. Do I have to buy a ticket? We pay our own gas, we buy tires by the truckful, and we wear out vehicles at an alarming rate. But we don’t need Federal help. As to USDA slaughterhouses: I think I mentioned that we don’t need one. The State of Arizona has its own sanitary laws and undertakes the obligation to maintain a healthy food supply; we are inspected and validated by them, but only within State jurisdiction. New Mexico does the same, ditto California; it’s a nuisance if you happen to live on the line like we do, but it’s not insurmountable, and the reason for it is to allow each state to do its job. We don’t need to find a USDA slaughterhouse.

 

What puzzles me is why people think the Farm Bill will fix the laws…? The Farm Bill does nothing except subsidize agriculture; it has nothing to do with law — except possibly in the sense that large corporations who benefit enormously by their eligibility for Farm Bill subsidies also exert a lot of influence on lawmakers. I’m willing to hold my nose, but the only way I see to fix the Farm Bill is to get rid of 98% of it.

I find this all very vexing. On the one hand, it seems obvious that the best way to support small farmers and ranchers is to buy what they produce directly from them – not by picking up your phone and calling your Congressman, who, in any event, is probably either indifferent or on the take from the agribusiness lobby. On the other hand, we all go to grocery stores and most of us don’t live on farms or ranches. Which means that if we realize that we’re out of milk at 10pm, we might just nip out to the corner store to pick up a quart, even if it happens not to be from say, Strauss Family Creamery. So much as it would be great if all the distortions the Farm Bill creates were to disappear, it is much more likely that it’s not going anywhere. As long we can’t drop the bomb on the Farm Bill, the pragmatic thing to do is to try to wring as favorable an outcome out of the debate as possible so that grocery stores aren’t packed to the gills with processed food manufactured with subsidized commodity corn. Right? Or not?

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The stove is well-loved, *not* just dirty, all right?

OK, so admittedly, that is not a picture of beef. Instead, it’s a picture of the first step in the long process of beef stew and ultimately, beef stroganoff. I picked up a gorgeous chuck roast from Marin Sun Farms over the weekend and wanted to try slow-cooking it instead of just browning it, shoving it in the oven and eating it rare, which is what I usually do.

So the first step was making a decent vegetable stock to stew it in. I love making vegetable stock because it’s an opportunity to take all the stuff you’d normally discard (or compost, for that matter) and turn it into something tasty. I’ve found that as long as you have the basics in there – carrots, celery and onions or leeks – it doesn’t matter what else you add as long as there is a great heaping pile of vegetable matter and you cook the living hell out of it. This one had the aforementioned basics, plus leek tops, cranberry and fava bean shells, kohlrabi peels and tops, beet stems and peels, chard stalks and onion skins. Basically, you throw it all in your stockpot and then add water to about an inch or so above the pile and let it simmer for a couple of hours. For some reason, it seems as though something magical happens at about the 2 1/2 hour mark – the liquid goes from having an inchoate watery-green taste and develops a deep, rich vegetable flavor. Here’s what you end up with after about 4 hours of cooking:

I strained all the spent vegetable matter through a sieve and discarded it, having yielded about 5 quarts of stock from a pile of stuff most people would normally toss.

Next, I put my chuck roast, two medium-sized onions and 6 cloves of garlic into a stew pot and filled it with vegetable stock and about 2 cups of red wine. When I opened the package of beef up, it looked and smelled like a rosy, delicious meat-gasm. Here it is, uncooked, in the pot:


BEEF, up close and personal

After about 3 hours of simmering, the meat was fall-apart tender and the cooking liquid was just redolent of beefy goodness. I let it cool over night, stuck it in the fridge and when I took it out the next evening to prepare, a thin layer of fat had solidified at the top. This I cracked off and mixed with some flour to make a sauce thickener. When it was reheated, I added quartered potatoes and a small red cabbage, also quartered, to cook in the stew juices. I know it must seem insane to spend 7 hours cooking one meal, but the thing to remember is that most of that time is spent sitting around, doing other stuff and popping over to the stove occasionally to stir.

Of course, there were leftovers. I turned those into beef stroganoff, which is a really easy way to use up beef leftovers. It basically involved shredding the beef, reheating it in the stewing liquid and then adding some sour cream and dijon mustard to taste, and then serving it over egg noodles. It made me feel triumphant in a 1950’s home-ec kind of way to transform my two-day old chuck roast like this.

I’d also like to add that this whole rigamarole is probably the most economical way to enjoy grass-fed beef, since chuck roast is one of the cheaper cuts you can get other than hamburger, which sells out more quickly. I totally understand the sticker shock that comes with sustainably raised/natural/organic/grass-fed etc. meats, but do not freak out and go buy feedlot beef from Safeway instead (“Rancher’s Reserve”, my ass)!!! Just get a brisket or a chuck roast and you’ll be good for a while. This one yielded 6 meals.

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The Ethicurean recently posted an item chastising Sen. Barbara Boxer of California for threatening to block the Farm Bill in the Senate if it were to include a provision allowing state-inspected meat to be sold across state lines. Soon, feathers were flying in the comments section and they had to re-consider their position.


Small packing houses like this one, in Winkelman, AZ have been dying out since the 1970’s

This storm in the blogosphere teapot got me to wondering about our meat inspection system, so I turned to the most knowledgeable person I know for his perspective. Eric is an Arizona rancher and small beef producer whom I was privileged to get to know through the WWOOF program. Here’s what he has to say about it:

To me, the whole situation is government gone amok. We’ve always objected to a Farm Bill in any form; even a child can see the gaping ethical holes which are the reason the bill gets written. It’s a classic, maybe THE classic, example of why good intentions make bad laws. “Here– the Federal government, as your magnanimous ruler, will now give away a huge amount of money. Undoubtedly, you small, poor farmers will benefit the most.”

 

Undoubtedly.

 

Don’t know if you’ve noticed that whenever huge amounts of money are lying around, the cost of administering same seems to increase exponentially, and also the number of administrators? (My favorite example is the World Bank, whose sole job is to make the poor, less so. Hundreds of billions of dollars later, World Bank owns vast swaths of downtown Wash.D.C., has thousands of the highest-salaried staff on Earth, all of whom frown continuously in concentration as to how best to administer to the poor. Far as I can tell the poor are just as poor as ever, but the World Bank structure sure isn’t…I was witness to a lunch-hour [catered] farewell party for one of the clerical staff in the East Africa Bureau, that cost $15,000) (Probably took up an office collection.)

 

We don’t need a Farm Bill. We need the gov’t to get off the backs of the people trying to make a living. The whole issue of cross-state shipment is one of regulation of interstate commerce, not health. Guess what Boxer’s up to? She’s trying to keep competition out of California’s meat markets — and for good reason. Even OUR little packing house can outcompete California’s producers, as long as there are enough regulations in CA (there are) to prevent them from producing efficiently. More regulation.

 

More to the point: why in hell do we need to ship meat across state lines? There is no place in the US, including Alaska, that can’t produce meat. The Big Boys, IBP, Tyson, etc., have been working very hard since 1973 to change that. They bought up nearly every independent packing house in the Midwest; I wondered about it at the time. They want US consumers to pay whatever it takes, to ship meat wherever it needs to go, INSTEAD of just buying it from the farm down the road, and they have been pushing very hard for USDA “health” regulations that just incidentally are ruinously costly to anyone not processing a thousand head a day.

 

Health: the State is where the responsibility lies; not the Feds. We just went through quite a scene with the Az. Dept. of Ag., all the way through a meeting with State reps. and senators, to get Ag. to meet their own mandate. They have tended to follow the national trend: small meat processors aren’t worth the State’s time to inspect, and by refusing to inspect them they have tended to go out of business: problem solved!

 

…not quite. I personally take meat inspection VERY seriously thanks to my training (editor’s note: Eric holds degrees in Range and Wildlife Science and in Veterinary Science and has many, many years of raising and caring for animals under his belt), and also believe the State is correct in assuming responsibility for public health. It turns out the budget allocation for meat inspection has been administrative. The inspectors have been more than willing to inspect the small plants, but their administrators have been trying to cut back their time so they can’t. Paul (his son), Sarah (Paul’s wife) and our local state representative brought the ADA down with a crash; and for the time being, at least, small meat processors in Arizona will have the inspections they have needed. (Don’t imagine that battle is over; the Big Boys’ game is vast and powerful; for now we’re just under the radar.)

 

Fresh meat is one of the commodities that should address a local market. In Arizona we can produce meat as good as any on the planet, as long as local demand justifies it — which is done with dollars, not regulations. It makes no sense healthwise or economically, to ship meat any significant distance. There is probably a struggling meat supplier already there if you bother to look.

 

Having lectured you half to death, let me sum up:
1. Get rid of the Farm Bill and any scallywag in Congress that supports it. Where do you think IBP gets the money to squash independent producers?
2. Get rid of the burden of Federal health regulations. Note that it’s the Fed-inspected plants poisoning thousands, not the little farm down the road.
3. Buy your meat as locally as you can; get to know the local producers and support them.

Now there’s something to chew on.

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