After two years into an on-going quest for the country’s best beef–involving research, field-work, and numerous tastings–we’ve been able to distill our findings into five key factors that produce the highest-quality beef.

 

Pasture

Grain-fed conventional beef yields beef with uniformly bland flavor. If grain-fed beef were beer, it would be Budweiser: very predictable but fairly uninteresting when compared to craft beer. Grass-fed beef, by contrast, yields meat with expressive flavor, full of complexity–every bit as unique as the land on which it was raised. Like wine, pasture-raised beef has terroir: the ability to taste the geography in food (and drink).

From the first bite, my palate sang praises…The delicate crunch of the caramelized exterior was perfectly balanced with the lightly earthy flavors of the rarer meat beneath…distinctive notes of black walnut and warm oak leaves, a bouquet of orchard grass on a sunlit day (Forrest Pritchard in Gaining Ground with a forward by Joel Salatin, on tasting his first grass-fed beef)

MaturityA 12-year old Scotch is good. But a 15 or 20-year Scotch is even better. The maturity of a steer or cow at harvest affects the quality of its beef, for as the adage goes, “Age imparts flavor.” This is why Mr. Mark Schatzker, author of Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef, makes this recommendation:

 The most important question to ask is age at slaughter. For flavor reasons, be wary of steak from a cow younger than 20 months.” (“Having a Cow About Steak Quality”, The Wall Street Journal)

Heritage breeds have maturity built into their genetics–they grow slowly, which gives them an unfair flavor advantage.

BreedAfter millennia, farmers have distinguished certain cattle breeds as producing exceptional beef. These farmers have also played a role in developing the beef breeds. For the past 100 years, however, the conventional beef industry has selected breeds on their ability to yield more beef, quickly. They have further enhanced that yield through the use of growth hormones, this, to the detriment of quality and flavor. Focus on those cattle breeds that history has shown to provide beef of the highest caliber, breeds like the Highland, Red Poll, Shorthorn, and others.

‘Quantity and quality are two opposing goals,’ [Temple] Grandin pronounced, neatly diagnosing the central problem of today’s meat industry. It didn’t matter how quantity was cranked up—hormones, genetics, drugs—there was always a price to be paid in quality.” (As Quoted in Steak: One Man’s Search for the Tastiest Piece of Beef, Schatzker)

Craft
Raising beef on pasture is really an art-form requiring an expertise that comes with time. Look for seasoned farmers who have been at it for years, whose expertise of land and livestock consistently translates into exceptional beef. Look for newer farmers who stand on the shoulders of giants, employing time-honored traditional farming practices that have consistently yielded superior results.
Dry-Aging The country’s finest steak houses dry-age their beef. Why? Dry-aging tenderizes meat while concentrating and enhancing its flavor. A week to 14 days of dry-aging is good, but if you can get it look for beef dry-aged at 21 days: a rare find, indeed!

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

 What if I told you there was a job that had the thrill of seeing life and death everyday…

a job that could provide some of the tastiest meals on the planet, a job that would replace your gym membership and perhaps keep you more fit, and a job that would leave you with the most entertaining stories to share at social events and family reunions.

Would you be interested?

Well… I sure am. That job is the job of being a farmer. When I grow up, I’d like to be a farmer.

And I’m not talking corporate. I’m talking small farming. My dream: Garden. Fruit Trees. Herbs by the back door. Milking goat. Bunch of chickens. Bee hives and Highland cattle out back. My farming friends have told me I don’t know what I’m talking about (aka: rethink your pretty picture) but that is where those challenges and difficulties will make THE BEST stories to tell at parties and to the grand-kids. Such as the pig escapee and the cow falling into the feeding trough (Whit, I am still having a hard time picturing how that one was possible). This is my dream. I am working on convincing my husband.

Why Farm?    Three reasons:

1. I want to eat the best food- I want it to taste good and feel good. And when you’re picking your own zucchini off the vine or getting your eggs from Two Sparrows Farm (our friends Dan and Whitney Belprez’s farm) there is so much more motivation for cooking and creativity.

2. I am called to be a good steward of the earth. Right now, we lay waste to the earth whether it be through the beef/corn/wheat industry or non-shade grown coffee or our consumption of plastic. Every time I consume these things, I am a little part of the problem.  Through (organic) farming, I want to sustain ably live. And let’s be honest, I have a smidgen of that “save the world” complex.

3. I want to share. I want to share the abundance of the earth. I want to have a table where all are welcome and none leave hungry.

But farming isn’t for everyone.

So frequent the farmer’s markets, get connected to farms (visit them!), find stores like Nourish (on Weathly Street), get a milk share (raw is the best), become part of a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), go explore orchards.

And what do you do if  you cannot afford local, organic, organic/local food?

First off, let me say, our budget is tight too… but there are ways. And unfortunately too many people are going hungry in a country that wastes enough food to feed them all.

What you can do: Become part of an (urban) community garden (or help build one). My friend Charlie is a ring-leader in this area. Learn how to can (that thing your grandmother used to do and many country folk still do). Many times in the fall you can find produce (the imperfect or abundant crops) for lower prices- buy it in large quantities and then can or freeze it. Learn how to container garden- whether on your roof, balcony, or back-yard. Some lettuce can be grown through our Michigan Decembers! Start with small things like herbs or (my favorite) tomatoes. By even growing or canning some of your own food… there will be months when you have just enough extra grocery money for that Heritage burger or another farmers’ pork.

In conclusion, CHOOSE one thing you can do to eat better (and usually that also means one more thing you can do to ease your footprint on the planet). DO ONE THING. Once you’ve mastered that, learn something else.

What am I going to do? Convince my dad to let me keep a pig on his property, visit farms this summer and learn skills, grow lettuce, herbs, and tomatoes, can LOTS of stuff, check out community gardens in GR, pick fruits at orchards… and Jeff’s going to learn to butcher.

meandleaves

Erin Duba

Bacon and ham moves from the abstract to the concrete when you butcher a pig, and butchering a pig is exactly how I spent the better part of the morning last Friday. And, at times, I really butchered it such that an appreciation for the art of butchery was engendered by the whole experience.

The pig carcass, a heritage Red Wattle, was picked up whole and brought to an industrial kitchen in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. After laying the carcass out on the work table before us, the knives and cleaver came out, assembled in a row like the instruments of a medieval executioner (or surgeon). The first order of business was removing the head with its bloodied toothy grin (which may have been more of a snarl).

Next, the leaf fat was peeled neatly out from inside of the pig (it comes out quite easily). Located near the kidneys, this is the highest grade of fat and the healthiest of the three types of fat found in pork. Leaf fat, when rendered into lard, can be extremely high in omega-3 fatty acids (perhaps more so than even salmon). This is especially true when it comes from heritage pigs which have been allowed to graze on roots and pasture grasses. Once the leaf fat is rendered into lard, it becomes a prized baking ingredient. Personally, I can’t wait for our next batch of waffles where we’re ditching the Crisco in favor of lard. A similar move was made years ago when we switched from margarine to butter.

The leaf fat removed, we set to carving the pig into primals, the segments from which the individual cuts come. And from these primals came the pork chops, the rib racks, and the pork belly–which is being cured as of this writing and will eventually become bacon. After deciding against making prosciutto out of the hams, we put them into a brine. If everything goes according to plan, once brined they will be rubbed and smoked for the classic holiday ham–just in time for Easter. The scraps went into the grinder and came out ground pork which will become sausage links for Sunday brunches and barbeque grilling sausages for the Spring and Summer.

Though, at times, my work was a bit of a hack job there’s something very satisfying about the early stages of hands-on learning: respect for an ancient trade and knowledge set (that of the butcher) and the thrill of new territory (the inside of a pig). It’s the sense of being a boy again.