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Sometimes the Grass is Greener

About a half an hour south of Notre Dame, Indiana, is Grass is Greener Farm, a husband and wife operation on the plains of the Hoosier State that raises heritage livestock and poultry: beef, lamb, pork, goose, chicken, and turkey.  The farm’s name plays on the idiom which observes that, from the outside, we humans are tempted to view others’ lives through “rose-colored glasses” but, really, things aren’t as rosy as they seem. It’s a clever name for the farm since the assertion being made is that, actually, things are better here.

Hearing good things about the farm from more than one breed association, I was excited to meet John and Toni Rowe–the farm’s owners–with whom I spent the better part of a warm, breezy afternoon a couple weeks back. When I arrived at Grass is Greener, John was grilling sausage. Forsaking lunch for the time being, he, his wife, their daughter Hannah, and I jumped into a utility vehicle and began moving from one part of the farm to the next.

We began with their herd of Red Poll cattle, which were just recently put out to pasture after a bitterly cold and long winter. In a moment of blissful silence, one could hear only the sounds of the warm wind and the cattle ripping and crunching on the lush pasture grasses. The Rowes use rotational grazing and give their herd a 100% grass-fed diet. Their veterinarian, who visits numerous farms, marvels at the health and vitality of their herd, a testament to the quality of the beef they raise.

Their chickens are raised on the same pasture as the cattle, using a system made popular by Joel Salatin. In this system, the birds are sequestered to a specific area of the field–chicken coop and all–by large, portable containment units that act as screens. This allows chickens to graze on pasture in the open air while they are kept safe from outside predators (and from flying away). When they’ve sufficiently picked through an area of the field, the unit (and chickens) are transported to another part of the farmland.

The hogs are fed a diet of GMO-free corn (grown by the Rowes themselves), a salad of pasture-grasses, and whey. The Rowes and I pulled handfuls of herbage from a dense pasture area–buckets-full–and tossed the nutrient-dense greens to the swine. After more than an hour in the fields, it was time for the Rowes to return to their lunch and for me to say goodbye. Before leaving, I purchased some ground of Red Poll beef, ribeye steaks of the same, and Red Wattle pork chops–along with ground pork.

While I could hardly wait to get home to try the samples of Grass is Greener heritage meats, I also couldn’t resist a rendezvous with an old priest-friend of mine in Notre Dame, through which I would pass on my way back home. The University in the summer has all the feel of a well-manicured garden or even a private golf course for those of noble parentage; it is lush and serene. My host, Fr. Michael, and I dined at the newly renovated Morris Inn, a sort of clubhouse for Notre Dame alumni. Dinner was a Reuben sandwich washed down with a tumbler of Scotch. Leaving the Inn, we enjoyed the waning hours of the day on the shores of St. Joseph’s lake, gazing across the water at the Golden Dome which glowed softly in the pinkish-gray light of the evening sky. For the outsider looking in, you’d see two good friends catching up over Havana cigars with rye whiskey at the ready. You might be tempted to think, “Boy, that’s the life.” And you’d be right.

Golden Dome

Steak of the Forest

Steaks of the Forest

Somehow we managed to retire (relatively) early this past Saturday night which enabled us to enjoy a leisurely Sunday morning pancake breakfast, accompanied by a nice quiche. Between sips of coffee, Erin suggested an adventure for the day: morel foraging. Two years ago, I had picked up some morels at the Farmers’ Market near our home and have taken to describing them as “the steaks of the forest”: earthy and meaty, they are the stately kings of fungi. Elusive, they carry a mystique about them, as well as intrigue: those lucky (or skilled) enough at finding them guard their finds as a fisherman his hole or a prospector a vein of gold.

Our quarry grew, so we heard, in old apple orchards. Fortunately, Kent County is Michigan’s apple country. We chose an orchard which had been around for more than a century, skirted its perimeter without finding anything, and began to follow a narrow path into the woodlands that boarded it. Truth be told, I had no expectations of finding anything. Peering into the woods on either side of us, I surveyed the bases of the trees. For a half an hour or more: nothing. And then, we almost stepped on two morels encroaching on the footpath. Looking around now further into the woods, several more presented themselves. We greedily plucked them up, looking around us to make sure that no one was watching. All told, there were 11 morels gathered. They were tucked away in pockets, hidden from the view of prying eyes as we made our way back to the car.

Later that evening, in the golden hour of the day, we cooked up the morels in a white wine cream sauce with fresh rosemary. The table was set on our front porch, too nice of a Spring day to eat indoors. Appropriately, these “steaks of the forest” were served alongside ribeye steaks of Red Poll beef and New York Strip Steaks of Highland beef with braised spinach. From start to finish, it was one of those rare days, one of those perfect days, one of those golden days that cannot be planned, only enjoyed. A rare find, indeed!

Steak & Morels 1

Lockhart Family Farm

Why Heritage Chickens Are Slow For More Reasons Than One

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared as a Blog Post on Slow Food USA’s blog. It is used here with the author’s permission.

We live in a period of fast food, especially fast meat; only not in the way you think. Livestock is now bred for rate of growth and economic return to the expense of animal health. The desire for exercise along with protection from the elements (i.e. feathers) has been bred out in exchange for meatier birds. Taking these natural protections out of animals has made antibiotic laced feed a necessity to protect from disease in “stock” conditions. Heritage animals, on the other hand, come from pre-industrial breeds and maintain their natural instincts and ability to thrive outside. Often it is these very characteristics that led to their decline in popularity.

The Cornish Cross is America’s most common meat chicken accounting for over 95% of the market. It has defined what we expect, when we purchase chicken at the store. It reaches a dressed weight of 4- 5lb with large breasts all in just 5 weeks. These birds are bred to live in large scale confinement operations and grow at such a rapid rate their bones struggle to keep up with their weight growth. Many of these birds spending the last days, and even weeks, unable to walk, and if kept alive past 5 weeks suffer from heart disease, respiratory failure, and joint damage. A report published by the University of Bristol found that almost 90 percent of meat chickens have leg problems.

Despite these downsides, customers expect a large breasted chicken forcing even organic farms to raise the Cornish Cross. However, many studies show that despite being “free-range” they rarely use the additional space and perches made available to them largely due to their weak bone structure. To address this problem, a large number of these “pastured” Cornish Cross chickens are kept in outdoor confinement pens which are moved twice daily. I should put a disclaimer in now that although I dislike this breed, many farmers who I hold in high esteem and respect, raise these birds, due to their cost effectiveness.

Here on the Lockhart Family Farm, in Woodford, Virginia, we specialize in raising Heritage Ark of Taste pigs and turkeys, and are committed to finding a way to sustainably raise heritage chickens. But like most farms, we would struggle to meet the costs of raising heritage chickens because customers expect big breasts and a low price tag. It costs us $4.65 per lb. to produce these birds to 20 weeks, before paying us a wage. To make a wage, we would need to charge $8-$10/lb.

Plymouth Barred Rock Hen credit TimVidra dot com
Tim Vidra – www.timvidraeats.com

Although customers may be willing to pay that for an Ark of Taste turkey bought once a year, very few households would willingly pay it for a chicken. The added cost is largely due to extra time a farmer keeps the bird. A heritage chicken takes 3-5 times longer than a Cornish Cross before processing. What the customer should know, however, is the slower growth develops richer flavor and more dark meat. The healthier bones makes for far better broth. Don’t take my word for it, you can read a review of one of our Ark of Taste chickens trials at Tim Vidra Eats.

In June, Slow Food USA is hosting the first Slow Meat gathering, bringing together 100 policy experts, food system practitioners and Slow Food leaders from across the country to begin to identify practical points of intervention to address some of these issues. More than anything though, consumers need to buy these breeds. Not only are they healthier animals, but eating them is the only way to save them. You can find Ark of Taste producers near you by visiting localharvest.org.

Lockhart Family Farm Sign

Josiah Lockhart is the Executive Manager at Lockhart Family Farm, a family owned and operated farm in Caroline County, Virginia. [They] focus on raising high quality rare and heritage breed pigs and poultry in a natural woodland environment. [Their] Animals are free-ranged with supplemental non-gmo grain. [They] sell direct to customer and to a number of restaurants in the Richmond and Williamsburg area.

On a related topic, please see “Starbucks’ Pricing For Meat”.

Norman Rockwell Prayer

The Family That Eats Together…

With a father who was the head chef at Duba’s Restaurant, the presumption voiced by friends and strangers most often was, “I bet you eat really well at home”. Well, that’s true: we did eat really well growing up–especially on Sundays, and those were special meals (often a steak dinner). But, really, Mom did 99% of the cooking. My father, who worked six days a week–all day–would come home to shower, have dinner with the family, and then head right back to the restaurant for the dinner rush. He might cook on special occasions (Easter, Christmas, and maybe on summer vacation, but that was about it). But, oh, the meals we enjoyed the other 99% of the time!

When the first of my siblings married (Maureen), Mom created a self-published cookbook entitled We Love to Cook and We Love to Eat! and passed it around to the whole family. As the children of Polish Catholic parents we became familiar with the adage “The family that prays together stays together.” In all my years living at home there was never a dinner that we didn’t eat together as a family, and so there was an additional, unspoken lesson: “The family that eats together, stays together.” In my mind, the publishing of that cookbook was Mom’s way of simultaneously cutting the apron strings and passing on this wisdom to the new family my sister was about to form.

Since Mother’s Day is observed this Sunday, I’d like to honor our Mother by sharing one of the recipes from her cookbook. It’s simple, affordable, and absolutely delicious.

Balsamic Glazed Pork Chops

 

Caramelized shallots and a dark vinegar turn these chops into an extremely flavorful dish.

The Ingredients

4 pork chops (about 2 pounds)

1 t. salt

1/2 t. black pepper

2 T. olive oil

6 oz. small shallots (about 8), quartered and peeled, leaving root ends intact

2/3 C. balsamic vinegar

1.5 t. sugar

The Preparation

1. Pat pork dry and sprinkle with 1/2 t. of the salt and 1/4 t. of the pepper.

2. Heat olive oil in a large heavy skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking.

3. Cook chops along with shallots, turning chops over once and stirring shallots occasionally, until meat is browned and shallots are golden brown and tender, about five (5) minutes total.

4. Transfer meat to plate, then add vinegar, sugar and remaining salt and pepper to the shallots in the skillet.

5. Cook, stirring until sugar is dissolved and liquid is thickened slightly, about one (1) minute.

6. Reduce heat to moderate, then add pork and any juices to the skillet and turn two (2) or three (3) times to coast with sauce.

7. Cook three (3) minutes longer, then remove chops to a plate.

8. Increase heat on the shallot sauce and boil until thickened and syrupy, one (1) – two (2) minutes. Pour sauce over pork.

stone fireplace

Easter, In the Bleak Midwinter

With temperatures in the mid-to-upper 60s last weekend then record-breaking snowfall and cold a scant two days later, these extreme climatic changes are reminiscent of a trip I took with my wife-to-be when we drove from Michigan to Colorado for the Easter holiday.

Our first trip together, Erin and I left Grand Rapids with temperatures in the low 70s. Hitting spring storms in the Chicago area, the temperatures took a slight dip but the weather held until we crested a mountain ridge two days later as we began our descent into Steamboat Springs, Colorado. On that fateful descent, we encountered intermittent snow squalls punctuated by bursts of sunshine and cold, blue skies. Because the alignment of my 1998 Honda civic was out of kilter, the tires would begin vibrating during braking. This caused friction and heat that eventually led to the popping of one of the tires. After twenty-five minutes on the shoulder of a mountain pass being buffeted by winds and feeling the intensity of the high-altitude sun, we were able to roll into Ski Town, U.S.A., in the mid-afternoon. Winter had again descended.

We stayed with former classmates of Erin’s in one of those A-frame, tri-level homes typical of a ski-town. After a day of sipping hot chocolate in a quaint bookstore, tea-tasting, art studios, and beers, we jumped into a Jeep to traverse the rocky dirt roads that took us to Strawberry Park Hot Springs. Surrounded by gray stone and wood, a light snow was now falling but we were basking in the steaming pools, fired to 104 degrees by the deep earth.

As the light was just beginning to wain we piled back in the Jeep to return to the bungalow where we were staying. With only enough time to slip into fresh clothes, we made it to the Holy Saturday Easter Vigil that was  beginning as night descended. A fire was kindled outside the brick church for the opening rites and pierced the frigid night air. A full naive relegated us to the choir loft for the next 2 1/2 hours of the service.

When we returned home, Erin and I prepared a pasta dinner for our hosts and dear friends–something out of a Rachel Ray cookbook found while rummaging through the kitchen earlier that day. The meal was put on the table close to the midnight hour. Dining by the light of a blazing fire, we basked in its warmth as we ate, lingering there over red wine and conversing into the small hours of the morning. I’ve stunned people when I’ve told them that Easter–not Christmas–is perhaps my favorite holiday. This particular holiday, as I recall it four years ago hence, seems to tell the story why.

Strawberry Park Hot Springs

Strawberry Park Hot Springs, Steamboat Springs, CO

Rites of Spring

Typically late to family gatherings (or really any gathering for that matter), my wife and I made good time as we flew east down the interstate to Flushing, MI, for an early Easter dinner. The day was brilliant, filled with sunshine and strong, gusting winds. Leaves were already emerging from the trees after an extraordinarily warm (even hot) March. Upon arrival, the Masters (live from Augusta, Georgia) was on the big screen television in the living room. Read more