Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Tag - 7 Strange Things About Me

Jenna at Food With Kid Appeal (@KidAppeal) has tagged me! The general idea behind "Tag" is to help great people discover blogs worth reading and I have several folks to introduce you to, how exciting. But first, I'm to tell you several "strange" things about myself.

To be honest, I find it awkward to invite people to learn more about me. But I really, really want to change the meat industry -- I want people to be able to find and support ranchers and truckers and slaughterhouse workers and butchers and others who do the right thing. Please consider joining my cause, and definitely look up the folks I'm tagging below - they are worth your follow.

1. Having encountered a few of them, I believe in ghosts. Have never (knowingly) seen one but have definitely felt their presence. Each time, there was at least one other person who shared the experience. Life is interesting that way.

2. Just out of college, I literally put words in the mouth of The Vice President of the United States (George Bush, Sr.). Was asked by the head of the Economic Policy Council to boil down a 30-page document into three bullet points & put on index card. The VP was to announce that the US was filing an unfair trade case against Japan for their business practices in semiconductors. He read the card verbatim on live TV. I learned a quick lesson in diplomacy – the word “retaliate” was a no-no. Ooops!

3. A New York Times journalist misquoted my boss in a prominent article on US-Japan trade relations. I was not only there during the interview but I had it on tape. The newspaper would not correct the record. Became a skeptic then and there.

4. Arrived at a staff meeting and the big boss says, before we start, I would like to know which one of you was written up in The Washington Post Federal page. All 20 people look at me. Much to my surprise, my recent promotion had been announced right next to a story about then-Senators Robert Byrd and Kit Bond. Big boss was upset – said I got more coverage than he – this was THE place to be in that paper. Called the reporter to ask what happened. He asked what I thought. I said “Slooooowwww news day in Washington.” I think I heard him fall off his chair, that it was! Lesson in the power (serendipity?) of timing.

5. Moved to Toronto from San Francisco, sight unseen, in November. I must have been in love. Still am, fortunately.

6. First car I ever drove was a scaled down Model T that had a lawnmower-type engine. I was around 4 years old. Second car was a 1928 Buick Roadster, I sat on my father’s lap and steered while he worked the double clutch. Might have been about 10? I love to drive.

7. I was a pom-pom girl in high school. Tried to make up a dance to the Grateful Dead. Settled for the Rolling Stones.

And so now I tag the following:

ChezUS and not just because Denise has the same Coach purse but because she is a lovely person and a genuine food maven, self taught since she was a wee little gal. Check out her post on Montana beef to see what she's all about. And encourage her to have her favorite food critic, Laudalino, bring his voice to the blog.

Cooking By The Seat Of My Pants a delightful food blog by a guy named Jerry who is a passionate, caring work-from-home dad who juggles multiple blogs (including a beautiful one about his autistic son Lil 'B) and an online t-shirt shop. His wife is in the military so they're currently living in Texas, though he's from the SF area. He keeps asking me if I've had Longhorn beef which, sadly, I have not. At least not knowingly.

Coconut & Lime is the work of Rachel Rappaport who delights us with her own completely original recipes. I'm wondering when she's going to bundle them into a cookbook - wouldn't that be great? Check out her recipe for homemade dog treats, they look delicious. For your dog, of course.

Wild Idea Buffalo is new to me, discovered via Twitter and @CurlyBill. Raising pastured buffalo to regenerate the prairie grasses. Great example of how livestock can actually nurture the land and environment. Some day, I'd like to try their meat - never found buffalo (or beefalo) raised on grass-alone.

Food Woolf from Brooke Burton, a screenwriter and one very cool cat who I had the great pleasure to meet in Los Angeles last week at one of my artisan steak tastings. She and fellow blogger Leah (see below) blew me away with their knowledge of food, food politics, and wine. I would love to spend a week following Brooke around, maybe some of the magic will rub off on me. I'm just a simple Grillmeister, lots to learn.

Spicy Salty Sweet is as full of energy as the creative genious behind it, Leah Greenstein. This funny lady is a wine buyer (she favors barnyard to fruit bombs) and farmer's market addict. She has her finger on the pulse of the food community and rumor has it that she and Brooke are about to share their secrets in a whole new and exciting way. Follow them!

The White on Rice Couple Todd & Diane have to be two of the nicest, most interesting people I've met in a very long time and they have one gorgeous blog. As someone who has long wanted to learn "Asian" cooking, it was a thrill for me to have the two of them show me how to make hand made Vietnamese spring rolls. And Todd grew up on a cattle ranch and has a dad that whispers to horses, so I also get to learn more about how to raise great beef.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Lessons From Argentina, Walking Away from GrassFed is Bad

Allan Nation, the man when it comes to pastured finished livestock, blogs about Argentine farms in a perfect storm situation. I encourage you to go to this page and choose "Click Here for Allan's Blog" and read the short note entitled "Argentine Farming In Melt-down."

If you don't have time (it's a really short, easy read) the basic issue is this. Traditionally, Argentine ranchers rotated their grain crops with grassfed beef every few years. This allowed the ranchers to grow grain without the use of added nitrogen as the cattle naturally fertilized the pastures in the off years.

Last year, many looked at soaring grain prices and sold off their cattle to switch to grain-only.

Well, grain prices have dropped and it now costs more to grow the grain crops than the crops are worth. Combine this with some odd-sounding government policies to keep domestic beef costs artificially low and you have a real problem.

Allan doesn't come right out and say this so I will. Pasture finishing livestock can make soil healthy and reduce carbon footprint (and even sequester it). We should be encouraging this and remember this point when others suggest instead that we should stop eating meat altogether.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Next Artisan Butcher - New Reality Show?

Great article out of West Cork, Ireland, about traveling artisan butchers.

Why might this matter?

One of the first things I learned while becoming an official Beef Geek (aka The Steak Lady): You can do everything right on the farm but the moment that cattle walks onto a truck, a lot of things can go wrong.

First, no sharp corners, no slippery ramps, no cattle prods or yelling. Spooking cattle is not only ethically wrong, it = tough, dark, dry beef. No kidding, stress directly impacts taste and texture.

And bruises hurt and also ruin the beef - the bruise shows in the meat and has to be cut out.

Second, at the slaughterhouse itself, very special care must be taken. Cattle are herd animals, they're okay with their group but you cannot introduce them to another herd in the yard. A good slaughterhouse will be specifically designed to minimize stress and likely come with a stamp of approval from Temple Grandin.

Bottom line: one of the most important things that influences taste and texture is low-stress handling.

Now these totally cool traveling artisan butchers in Ireland offer a fabulous solution for minimizing stress. The slaughterhouse comes to the farm, no trucking needed. There are a few pioneering folks trying to do the same thing here in North America, but I think what's intriguing is that these folks are real butchers - they know how to age and cut beef, too.

How might we support these folks? I say we should create a new reality show, America's Next Artisan Butcher!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Just What Is Angus Beef - Part 2

By the way, that black hair gene is pretty dominant. In other words, most cattle crossed with a Black Angus will come out 51% or more black haired.

Some estimate more than 80% of cattle in North America could qualify.

Intrigued? Here's a bit more (linking to Just What is Angus Beef - Part 1).

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Just What Is Angus Beef - Part 1

The answer might surprise you, especially if you're a wine aficionado.

To be marketed as Black Angus* beef, the USDA requires one of two things:

  1. The cattle must have at least 50% provable Angus genetics -or-

  2. Have at least 51% black hair

There are some minor exceptions but for the most part, the good folks on the slaughterhouse line can check each cattle’s papers as they pass on by, call in CSI to do a DNA test, or eyeball the hair color.

By comparison, a US winemaker must meet three criteria in order to label his or her wine as a particular varietal, such as Cabernet Sauvignon.

  1. Grapes from a designated appellation (i.e. Napa Valley) -and-

  2. At least 75% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes -and-

  3. The entire 75% grown in the designated appellation

Now, I think most people would agree that said wine with 25% Merlot grapes would taste different than said wine with 25% Pinot Noir grapes.

So with wine, at minimum, place, grape variety, %’s matter.

Heck, wine drinkers have been known to argue mightily over vintages that come from the same appellation and grape variety but are grown in different pockets of that appellation. Have you ever read the Squires / eBob board (as in Robert Parker)?

Why wouldn’t we celebrate the fact that 50% Black Angus – 50% Limousin beef might have a different flavor and texture than 50% Black Angus – 50% Hereford? With the right paperwork, they’d both qualify as Black Angus. But they'd surely taste different. Especially if they were fed different diets in different regions.

I for one think it would be great to have folks be arguing as passionately about beef origin and style as they do about wine.

Why? At minimum, if we actually know what's on our plate, we can choose the style of beef we like best.

Even better, the very best beef -- artisan beef -- comes from producers, truckers, and butchers who raise cattle in low-stress, clean, drug-free conditions.

It's the next logical step in the move to support natural and organic, humanely raised meat.

* The Certified Black Angus program is more stringent than the USDA criteria. You can check out their additional requirements, here.

ps The cattle in that photo are 75% Black Angus - 25% Limousin cattle from Peace Valley Ranch in the Hills of the Headwaters region in Southern Ontario.

pps Special thanks to three charming gentlemen on Twitter @mmWine, @eljefetwisted, and @randyhall for helping me find the wine criteria from the Tobacco, Tax, and Trade Bureau.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Why Does Filet Mignon Cost So Much?

Don't be shy, this is a really good question.

Take a look at this photo of a whole tenderloin, compliments of Australia Produce.
Notice that it's shaped like an elongated cone - starts big at one end and tapers almost to a point. And the big end has this, well, flap thingy thing.

Now look at how Filet Mignon aka tenderloin steaks are typically cut.

That's right, to get the pretty round steaks we're used to seeing in fine dining establishments the rancher can lose as much as 50% of this meat - the tenderloin tips and that flap - to trim!

Trim usually ends up in hamburger meat, which we expect to be really inexpensive.

A talented, conscientious artisan butcher can salvage the two ends by making tenderloin tips or bacon-wrapped Filet Mignon.

If you want unbelievably tender meat for a beef bourguignon or stew, or love the idea of combining bacon and steak together, look for tenderloin tips and bacon-wrapped filet mignon / tenderloin steaks from top quality farms and ranches.

They're not only inexpensive, when they come from artisan beef ranchers, they taste amazing. Plus, buying them helps artisan beef producers stay in business.

Beef Tenderloin on Foodista

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Grass-Fed Beef & Droughts Don't Mix

A lot of people have asked me why grass-fed (what I like to call grass-only) beef is more expensive, given that the ranchers / graziers don't have to give the cattle growth hormones or preventative antibiotics to improve their, er, ability to get big fast.

Well, that's one of the points, grass-only beef takes longer to get to the delicious stage - typically 24 months vs. 12 to 14 months for commodity beef. For a farmer, it's kind of like working really hard but not getting paid until 8 months later.

Here is one more reason: grass is not only seasonal, it's really fickle.

And a long drought can be devastating.

If you raise beef cattle and there's no green grass during your growing season (which varies around the country), you either need to 1) rely on dried grasses or fermented dried grasses (aka silage), 2) sell your calves and/or 3) unbenownst to me until I saw an article by Terence Chea via AP , sell your cows to a feedyard or slaughterhouse.

A few years drought = no dried grasses.

Guys, it takes a very long time nurture a female calf into a calf-producing cow. (As I understand it, minimum 2 years and that's after a 9 months gestation period.)

And cattle finished on dried grass or silage will taste different.

My best wishes for a good, balanced rainy season to the good people raising and processing and aging natural and organic beef in California and environs.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

How To Have a Successful Artisan Steak Tasting

My company's advocacy arm, The Artisan Beef Institute, held a fabulous steak tasting extravaganza with Jaden Hair aka SteamyKitchen a few weeks back. A lot of folks are wondering now how to have their own artisan steak tasting parties.

Okay, moment of shameless self-promotion, try one of our Discover Beef Experience Artisan Steak Taster Packs from The Oliver Ranch Company! We'll send you steaks from 4 specific natural or organic beef ranches, each representing a different breed, growing region, diet, and aging technique (some dry-aged, some wet-aged). You'll also receive a copy of our Artisan Beef Institute tasting guide and tips on hosting a home tasting.

Compare ranches, see which you like best, order more of your favorite. Voila!

Now, if you'd like to go it alone, that's fine! Please just follow these guidelines to make sure your artisan steak tasting is just that. Consider this a cheat sheet for success.

First rule of thumb is to only use steaks or burgers from known producers! These are our minimum standards.

  • Specific ranch or producer group (source-verified).

  • Single breed or cross-breed.

  • No added growth hormones (steroids, yuck!).

  • No preventative antibiotics (if they can't keep healthy without 'em...)

  • All vegetable diet, no funky stuff in there like stale chewing gum.

  • Treated gently on farm, in truck, at yard (if relevant), & at slaughterhouse.

  • Dry-aged or wet-aged for at least 14 days

  • Bonus points: certified organic, humane, grass-only diet, holistic.

You can try this with commodity beef, too, from your supermarket or butcher (this is how I did it the first time 3 years back). However, please note that you might set yourself up for disappointment. Why? Because they don't keep track of where the beef is from let alone its breed, diet, etc.

Why does this matter? Just like with wine, different breeds raised in different regions on different diets taste different. You need to know what's on your plate. Otherwise, you won't be able to repeat the experience!

Plus, isn't it better to support the farms and processors who DO do the right thing?

Know what's on your plate.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Beef Industry Needs To Focus On Consumer

This headline's from today's www.CattleNetwork.com. What a great idea!

Let's see if the recommendations, from marketing specialist, Tad Schroeder, make sense. He starts with 5 errors the industry makes (my comments in italics):
  • Defensiveness about criticism. "All that does is feed the fire." A tad vague, no comment.

  • Too much secretiveness. "We need to be open and honest about what we're doing." Could not agree more. Tell us exactly what's on our plate and how it got there. See this for a start.

  • Camouflaging through labeling gimmicks. For example, Schroeder said, "The word 'natural' in the meat case means almost nothing." Hallelujah!

  • Assuming "consumers are stupid." "They're not stupid. They're very savvy, and they have lots of information." And I'm trying to make them smarter.

  • Scare tactics. Eh?

And follows with 5 tips:
  • Give 'em what they want.

  • Show and tell our story.

  • Invest in new technologies that are aimed at consumers.

  • Coordinate and share information within the industry, rather than keeping it secret for what may be a short-term competitive advantage that hurts the industry in the long term.

  • Give 'em your 800 number." Encouraging consumer feedback sends the message, "I'm proud of this. Come talk to me about it."

Hmmmmmmm... These are a little vague, so let me try.

This is what we care about.

  • We care about supporting good farms and workers.

  • We care about protecting our families from bad stuff in the beef.

  • We care about happy cows.

  • We care about keeping our environment clean.

  • We care about great taste and texture.

Bottom line: Tell us exactly what's on our plate, where it's from and how it was raised and aged. Then let us decide if we want to buy from you or the other guy.

Finally, do not snooker us into believing that USDA Prime tastes better than Choice or Select. Admit it, marbling is just one factor. Different breeds raised on different farms on different diets and aged with different techiques will taste different from each other - even if they score the same USDA grade. And this is a good thing, my gosh, imagine tailoring different beef styles to each individual's personal taste buds!

If you have any doubts, please call me, I will send you an artisan steak tasting kit to prove it.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Now That's What We're Talking About

Thanks to Wordle (visit them!), we're able to see what I've been talking about. Really hoping that others will join this conversation and help us change the world of beef as we know it.

ps Need to get Steak Tasting in there more often :-)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Artisan Steak Tasting Goes to Tampa!

Okay, meat lovers and sustainability advocates, it's time to change the world.

After three successful steak tastings in the San Francisco area this summer, we're taking The Oliver Ranch Company's Artisan Beef Institute(r) "Provenance of Beef(tm)" program on the road.

First stop was Tampa, Florida, where Jaden Hair aka SteamyKitchen helped gather fellow food writers and enthusiasts for a tasting of 6 different styles of natural or organic artisan beef. Read her hilarious and insightful write up, also part of www.FoodBuzz.com 24/24/24 blog series. (That's her photo, too, she's amazing.)

Other than the delicious beef, the big hit of the evening was our tasting guide. Host a steak tasting in your home and you'll soon find that we just don't have a lot of words to describe a steak. Beefy, meaty, juicy, tender, and maybe gamy come to mind but not much else.

Also, your beefy might be my gamy, which can be very confusing.

So the guide is meant to help you evaluate which style of beef you like best -- which ranch or combination of breed, growing region, diet, and aging technique appeals most to your taste buds and why.

While we're not quite at the Robert Parker or wine wheel stage, nor do we want beef to be as complicated as wine, we'd love to share our tasting guide. Just email me carrie [at] oliverranch [dot] com.

We'll also send you the tasting guide with any order from our main marketplace, The Oliver Ranch Company (www.oliveranch.com).

How will this change the world?

Truth is, simple labels such as grass-fed or grain-fed or for that matter USDA Select, Choice, or Prime don't come close to telling you what the beef will taste like or how tender it will be, let alone whether it will suit your personal palate.

While marbling is important, flavor and texture can also vary considerably by breed, growing region, diet, age of cattle, the particular husbandry protocols of the rancher or lot operator, low stress handling, and the aging technique (if any) used by the butcher.

The industry doesn't want us to know all this stuff matters because they want to keep things simple for themselves.

But if YOU know it and YOU find it important to know what style of beef is on your plate and who raised it and how, then we can collectively support ranchers or processors with best practices.

We get cleaner, more flavorful, even personalized meat. Ranchers can stay on the land. Workers can have safer jobs. The land can get healthier.

It's a win-win-win no matter how you look at it.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Putting Some Pasture Into Organic Milk

Okay, another off-beef post. According to the Washington Post, the USDA may be closing an unfortunate loophole / gray area in the organic regulations for milk.

The new requirement, in the proposal phase, would require that dairy cows be allowed to graze on pasture for about 1/3 of the year. Now, presumably, that pasture must be technically organic.

Sam Fromartz seems on board, which sounds good. A step in the right direction (think: not all climates can support year-round pasture grazing).

Okay, on a beef-related topic, Mac Magruder and now Amazin' Grazin' in Florida seem to be onto something. They are selling younger cattle finished on pasture on a combination of cow's milk and pasture or cow's milk only and selling the beef as (genuinely) naturally raised veal. I am trying to learn more about this as I will not eat veal unless it's served to me in such a situation where refusing would be very rude. I can't abide with crate-constrained, anemic calves being served up as a specialty food. But maybe I can support Vitellone, Vitello, and Vitellini, raised with care.

Know what's on your plate.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Okay, Let's Talk Pork!

No, not pork barrel. The good and tasty kind.

I don't know nearly as much about how to properly raise pork but I do know enough to be at least a little dangerous. And it's fun to find good stories, such as this one about the Flaherty family in Iowa.

Same as with raising beef cattle, breed, growing conditions, diet, and generally low-stress husbandry and proper slaughter can make a huge difference in taste and texture. Indeed, because of the way pigs digest their food (only one stomach vs. a cattle's four), the finishing diet can have an even stronger influence than with cattle.

Some key things to look for when buying pork.

  • Outdoor raised.

  • Appropriate breed/crossbreed for growing region.

  • Pink meat. Sorry, pork is not the other white meat, that was engineered.

  • All vegetarian diet. And no weird stuff e.g. human leftovers, garbage, cookies.

  • Certified humane. Not a must but preferred. I prefer AWI standards (Animal Welfare Institute).

And talk to the farmer or brand folks and find out if anything special was added to the finishing diet. For instance, some of the world's most famous pork forages acorns in the forests in Spain.

Finally, give your farmer feedback, good and bad, so they can continue to improve.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Dear Supermarket Manager

Mexico, Canada, or the United States" is not a helpful answer when I ask where your beef comes from.

C'mon, give me a break.

Are your inventory systems (and those of your suppliers) really that lame?

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Melamine On A Plate Near You?

What won't we stop at in the pursuit of cheap food?

Experts are now worried that melamine, a "toxic industrial chemical," may have been used in a wide spectrum of Chinese-produced foods shipped to consumers across the world.

Recap: food and chemical industry folks in China have been found to have knowingly included melamine as a protein-booster in pet food and in feed for dairy cows. While scientists can't fully explain why, the chemical can cause kidney failure - oh, and death - in humans and pets.

At minimum these actions were morally bankrupt. But does it stop there?

Apparently not. According to the New York Times article (free subscription required), local officials are said to have commented that melamine "has been used for years in fish feed." Now, there are investigations into whether it's also being used to supplement feed for livestock including pigs and chicken. And in vitamins.

Okay, that means I've probably eaten melamine-laced food from China. You, too.

Now, I suppose it's possible that the source of this information is not unbiased. For instance, maybe some other food company would benefit if the spigot of cheap food from China were turned off or slowed.

And if you talk to enough people in the meat production industry in North America you know that lots of disturbing things go into animal feed here in a desperate attempt to keep prices low.

But I for one have stopped buying any food items from China. That is, at least I think I have. Come to think of it, manufacturers are not required to list the source of the multitude of ingredients that go into our packaged goods and probably livestock feed, too.

At minimum, no more edamame (that's right, look at the label).

Know what's on your plate.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

A Welcome Headline

Looks as if a lot of very large and influential companies (including Hain, Smithfield, and Campbells) are saying NO to meat from cloned animals.

This is great!

Though why is it I'm learning this from an Australian food news source?

Thursday, September 18, 2008


The FDA annouces a new "legal framework" with regard to genetically engineered animals and their use in food or to incubate/develop medicines for humans.

The framework is meant to "resolve such questions as whether the altered animals are safe for human consumption and pose no serious environmental risks."

According to the New York Times (free suscription required), examples include cattle that can resist mad cow disease.

What, so we can go back to feeding them cattle?

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Provenance of Beef - Let The Steak Tastings Begin!

Sometimes dreams do come true, and this one was mine.

60 people were on hand - we sold out twice! - as we formally launched our Artisan Beef Institute to the public in tandem with the highly regarded Commonwealth Club of California's 3rd Annual "How We Eat" series.

In the planning for nearly 3 years, The Artisan Beef Institute's(r) "Provenance of Beef(tm)" series combines an interactive expert panel discussion and comparison steak tasting.

Now mind you, this wasn't about tasting different cuts of "Choice" or "Prime" steaks. Designed to appeal to those seeking to support great ranchers and sustainability, this was something entirely new, was one heck of a lot of fun, and as one guest commented, "made me smarter about beef than anyone else I know, how cool is that?!"

The evening began with an interactive expert panel discussing how individual ranchers, butchers, and chefs influence the taste and texture of beef to create connoisseur quality on the plate.

Then, participants were taken through a blind taste test of four different “styles” of beef from different natural ranches, each representing a different breed, region, diet, and aging technique. Guests were encouraged to use a brand new tasting guide developed by ABI (let's face it, meaty, beefy, juicy, and tender pretty much sums up our vocabulary when it comes to beef).

Q&A with members of the panel follows along with a full four-course meal, including wine pairings from Napa’s Atalon Vineyards.

Importantly, panelists stressed how low stress management techniques and sustainable land management aren't just the right things to do, they contribute directly to beef flavor, quality, and texture. (I argue that connoisseur quality beef is by definition raised with care and respect.)

The main takeaway? Relying on USDA Grade or labels such as organic or grass-fed is not enough. No different than with wine, to enjoy genuinely natural or organic, connoisseur quality beef, you need to know the source and to know the details of what is on the plate: the breed, diet, growing region and the husbandry, harvesting, processing and aging techniques.

The other fun takeaway? I just love this as I’ve seen it anecdotally over three years of blind steak tastings but this was a big enough crowd to gauge the statistical probabilities.

When asked to vote for their favorite, the scores were evenly distributed between the four ranches / beef styles.

So there you have it: There is no such thing as the perfect steak!

But there IS a perfect steak for you.

Here are the styles we tasted. Three are in our marketplace www.oliverranch.com and the other, from the fabulous Mac Magruder in Potter Valley, CA, can be found at Café Rouge in Berkeley, Woodlands Market in Kentfield, and on the menu at Oliveto in Berkeley.

  • Dry-Aged Charolais, grain-finished, Elliott & Ferris Families, Front Range Region, CO

  • Dry-Aged Black Angus-Shorthorn Cross, grass-only, Mac Magruder, Potter Valley, CA

  • Wet-Aged Wagyu-Angus Cross, grain-finished, Kobe Beef America, finished in Holdrege, NE

  • Wet-Aged Holstein-Friesian, grain-finished, Bob Beechinor, Bakersfield, CA

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Equity in Humane Treatment

Meating Place (free registration required) annouces today that the USDA is expected to announce new (draft) regulations requiring those vendors who participate in the federal commodity purchase program (e.g. National school Lunch Program) to be able to prove they treat livestock humanely.

Shouldn't this apply to all USDA approved facilities? Does it already?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Yes, But How Does It Impact Flavor?

This probably isn't fair but I'm going to say it anyways.

Now that higher grain prices have make it more expensive to finish beef cattle on corn and other grains, The University of Arkansas has a new facility dedicated to R&D (research and demonstration in this case) on alternative feed ingredients for cattle. According to a press release from the Southwest Research and Extension Center, ingredients being evaluated include "distiller's grain and other byproducts of bio-fuels production, corn gluten, rice bran, cotton seed cake, soybean hulls and hominy from corn milling." They are testing the ingredients in feedyard environments and as feed supplements for cattle on pasture.

I am all for efficiency.

But if they're not already doing so, I really encourage the team to consider the impact on flavor and texture, not just weight gain, marbling, yield and costs. All these things matter but they are not the only drivers of taste and quality and sometimes, other factors should come into play.

At minimum, let's start thinking about beef as food, not throughput.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

When The Beef Crumbles

Sorry, it's been a while since my last update. But then today I see this headline in Meating Place: "Chatel Farms launches new beef crumbles." (free subscription required)

Apparently, "beef crumbles" are flash frozen ground beef pieces that come in resealable packages. They are ready-to-use, you don't need to thaw them before using the crumbles in your favorite dish.

At first pass, my thought was, are we really that pushed for time that we can't crumble our own ground beef when making, say, Hamburger Helper or even a scratch recipe?

Wearing my industry hat, I also thought, are these simply the scraps left over in the machinery when ground beef bricks or patties are made? An efficient use of otherwise unusable beef? Or yet another potential food safety hazard from mixing together meat from many different cattle?

I dunno, one would certainly save time using these "crumbles." (Cute name, BTW.) Defrosting ground beef can take some time. Also, unless it was professional blast frozen before it made it to your freezer, ground beef doesn't freeze particularly well at home; ice can form during the slow freezing process and lead to watery meat when thawed.

A quick search shows beef crumbles have been around for a few years (Tyson had them in 2004, proving I still have a lot to learn about beef!). Will have to reach out to others and learn the scoop as to how these came about. Intriguing.

Chatel Farms is a brand name for a privately held beef processor in Augusta, Georgia (the company's site says it's the largest privately held fully-integrated beef processing facility in the Southeast.)

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Song Has Begun

Can you see it? Look closely.

Hint: It's THE harbinger of Spring.

Okay, here's a close up.

Indeed, it's a beautiful Robin, the very first of spring, seen on Monday, March 24th in the tree outside my home. While there are still several feet of snow on the ground, this happy bird was telling us, look, spring has arrived, get out and celebrate!

What a cruel irony that the weather today looks like this! (Yes, that is snow falling.)

ps We're grilling up some beautiful Ontario spring lamb, anyways.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Too Much Anxiety

Because I read a lot of blogs on food and occasionally write a related one myself, just about every day I learn about someone anxiously trying to make intelligent decisions about what food to feed him or herself and family. Buy local? Organic? Grass-Fed? Vegan? What is my carbon footprint?

I am personally thrilled that this conversation is taking place and believe it will eventually lead to a more balanced playing field, resulting in better tasting, better quality, even personalized food for consumers, recognition and more equitable financial rewards for top-notch producers, and a cleaner environment.

What troubles me is the tone I see emerging from all sides of the debate, a sometimes subtle and sometimes overt air of self-righteousness or moral superiority.

Most of us are pretty new at this and many haven’t yet entered the discussion. People need to feel safe while they learn and make decisions. Plus, there is so much information about food and health, much of it conflicting or emphasized at the the expense of others by one group or another to support their own bias.

Let’s cut people a little slack and act as mentors to each other rather than critics. Transparency and courtesy are a great place to start.

Jay from TheLinkery in San Diego set a perfect example in his response, titled "The Opposite of Universal" to a blog by the founder of WoolyPigs, farmer Heath Putnam, in a blog titled "The Opposite of Universal." Heath had expressed a few counterpoints to the local food movement that proved relatively, er, unpopular. In short, he expressed disappointment that his hand-crafted heritage pork had been turned away from some restaurants or markets because it wasn't deemed "local" enough (he is from Washington, he speaks of some restauranteurs in California).

In my view, what's inane is eating raspberries from California in Toronto and then seeing raspberries from Toronto for sale in California later the same week. Jay takes the conversation to a new level by providing a definition of local that transcends geography and instead supports the idea that eating local means eating food that "comes from somewhere, that introduces you to someone." I like that kind of thinking.

Anyone Know How To Fix That Image?

Why won't the photo in our logo area above align to the left? It used to look just fine but now, well, it's off to the right. If you can help, I'd be grateful :-)

Here's the original photo - 75% Black Angus, 25% Limousin (pregnant) cows from Peace Valley Ranch.

Aren't they gorgeous?

Sunday, March 9, 2008

What's The Point If You Can't Have Fun?

Well, I'm going to be a bit honest here... While my friends in the San Francisco area were enjoying 75 degree weather and enjoying their local farmers' markets, we were busy digging ourselves out from yet another snow storm. Working on breaking a 1939 record or so I hear. We had a blast with our neighbors, who called to say we were all snowed in (thanks to a mean-spirited plowman who left a 3 1/2 foot ridge of ice at the foot of our driveways), let's get together an eat whatever's in our refrigerators. It was hilarious. They brought two pasta appetizers (gnocchi with blue cheese sauce, spaghetti al forno), we had wet-aged Black Angus NY steaks with a balsamic thyme shallot sauce topped with buttermilk battered onion rings plus a green salad with toasted pecans and avocado. For dessert, we had homemade caramel-poached pears on vanilla ice cream. Not bad, eh?

The problem was that we also drank 4 bottles of wine and half a bottle of Grey Goose vodka (neighbor Ron's favorite). Somewhere into the second bottle (and after a lovely shaken martini), I was deep fat frying the onion rings. Unfortunately, I was apparently using a pot that wasn't deep enough for the festivities. Peanut oil spewed out of the pan and onto the stove and floor (and our clothes). Ever the calm one in an emergency, I simply stated "I'll go get the fire extinguisher" to which my husband said, "It's not going to catch on fire." Two seconds go by and.... Whooof. The whole stovetop is aflame. We tamped it down without the extinguisher, what a mess. We're still laughing about it today (while we all shoveled out yet again after another foot of snow).

Tonight, I think we'll have, hmmmm....

Bananas Foster!

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Great Steak - Even When Your Grill is Buried in Snow

Okay, a bit of a departure, let's have a little fun.

The problem? A friend in the San Francisco area said it was raining this winter "like he should build an ark....".

In the meantime, we had a related problem. (Yes, I was the one that left the cover off overnight. Found 2 weeks later and 20 feet away after a thaw.)

The Solution? The cast iron pan and this fabulous recipe.

Sugar and Ancho Rubbed Steak with Blue Cheese Tossed Salad

2 NY Strip Loin or Rib-Eye Steaks, at least 1" thick, preferably Dry-Aged*
4 T Demerara or finely ground Turbinado (brown) sugar
1 1/2 t. fresh cracked Black Pepper (Tellicherry if you have it)
1 t. Kosher or Sea Salt (medium to heavy grind)
1/4 t. ground dried Ancho or Chipotle Chili (optional)

Bring steaks to room temperature and pat dry with paper towel. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Combine the sugar, pepper, salt, and ground chili and press onto both sides of each steak. Do this right before cooking to prevent the sugar from turning syrupy.

Heat cast iron pan on medium high. (An ovenproof non-stick pan will also work, though you may not get as good a crust on the steaks.) Sear the steaks on one side until you get a nice brown crust, about 5 minutes. Flip the steaks to brown the other side, about 2 minutes. If steaks are thicker than 1" thick, finish them in the oven using the same pan. Best served rare (120 degrees F).

Note: Turn on your fan, the steaks can smoke quite a bit. Also, do not touch the brown sugar coating as it gets very hot as it caramelizes.

Remove steaks from oven and let rest on plate or carving board for 5 minutes. Angle slice. Serve with a tossed green salad ideally topped with good quality blue cheese, red or yellow grape tomatoes, and a warmed olive oil, red wine vinegar vinaigrette.

* Of course I recommend steaks from The Oliver Ranch Company marketplace, but no matter, look for a genuinely natural (esp. no growth stimulants) or organic steak from any trusted source. We find this recipe particularly sublime with dry-aged beef but it's also great with beef that's been wet-aged at least 14 days.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Extending the beef

The Beef Check-Off's Beef Innovations Group just announced 5 new cuts of beef, all from the Chuck. All but one appear to be new names for existing cuts. Terminology in the beef industry is pretty unappealing from a consumer perspective. Shoulder Clod, anyone? Rump Roast? So I'm okay in principle with creating new, more attractive names for existing cuts.

But why in the world would one of the new cuts be called "Delmonico"? This "new" Delmonico appears to be the same as the cut formerly known as the Chuck Eye Steak. In addition, Delmonico is already used to describe at several other cuts.

  • A very thick boneless Top Sirloin (from Delmonico's restaurant in New York, from the Short Loin Primal)
  • A Club steak (T-bone with no tenderloin, from the Loin Primal)
  • A boneless Rib-eye (from the Rib Primal)
  • A boneless New York Strip Loin aka Kansas City Steak aka Ambassador steak... You get the picture.

The new Delmonico is from the Chuck Primal.

Just to illustrate how absurd this really is, take a look at this image. Do you suppose the next Delmonico will come from the Round Primal?

Anyways, I'm personally interested to try the Chuck Eye Steak aka Delmonico as from the description, it sounds relatively appealing. The Denver Steak, too. And it would be great if these new cuts do as well as the Flat Iron steak (Top Blade), which is a delicious and great on the grill.

But I really wish the new name were something other than Delmonico. It's confusing at best.

FYI, the other cuts are as follows.

Denver Steak: Seems to be a genuinely new cut, I am waiting to hear back from our trusted butcher.

America's Beef Roast: When rolled and tied, seems to be the same as the roast currently known as the Chuck Eye Roast.

Country Style Beef Ribs: Same beef as America's Beef Roast but cut into small portions that look a bit like ribs. No bones.

Country Style Beef Roast. Not sure what this is, cutting instructions aren't available on the Web site.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Should USDA Reduce the Number of Inspectors?

MeatingPlace.com had a story last week that caught my eye. The USDA is testing a video analysis tool (registration required) that would replace human graders in slaughterhouses. Today, USDA inspectors visually observe a beef carcass and assign a grade, e.g. Prime or Choice. The logic is that a machine will be more objective than a human grader.

This might indeed be true. I personally think that the grading system is a bit too simplistic to truly differentiate quality and taste but it is a good start so consistency is welcome.

Especially in light of the recent Westland beef recall, I'm just not sure that the USDA should be reducing the number of inspectors in house. Perhaps they don't intend to remove the human inspectors but instead reassign them to monitor food or employee safety or animal welfare practices. I hope that they'll consider this opportunity.

I Just Don't Understand

Clone advocates argue that they are developing clones because there is a consumer benefit – more consistent taste and quality.

If this were the case, wouldn’t they insist on the right to label the meat as coming from clones or their progeny, so consumers would know they were getting a superior product?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Why We Don't Need Cloned Meat - Part II

I have created (I think so anyways) some new terminology to describe most beef sold at retail: Zero-Aged Beef.

What does this have to do with cloned livestock? Well, if the Number 1 complaint among meat eaters is tough or inconsistent tasting meat, then proper aging is one half of the solution. (I attempted to summarize the other half in Why We Don't Need Cloned Meat - Part I below.)

Tough beef can be caused by a number of factors, including breed, the specific genetics of a particular beef cattle (think tenderness genes), diet, temperament, and stress (whether natural or man-made). Also, some cuts of beef are just naturally tougher as they come from more active muscle groups. Most beef cuts are indeed rather naturally tough.

One time-honored way to overcome these variables is to tenderize beef by aging it post slaughter. The "traditional" way (pre-1970s as I understand it) is called Dry-Aging. With Dry-Aging, a carcass or certain parts are air-dried in a humidity-controlled cooler for a period of time, most often 14 to 21 days. Enzymes break down muscle tissues, tenderizing the meat. (More details at a later date.)

The "new" way is often referred to as Wet-Aging. In this case, certain parts of the carcass, e.g. the Round or Tenderloin, are wrapped in vacuum-sealed packages and kept in a cold environment for a period of time. While the process is different, the outcome is the same, the beef tenderizes with time.

Unfortunately, both aging techniques are very expensive. A rancher or retailer must carry inventory and storage costs during the aging period. In the case of Dry-Aging, the seller can also lose up to 20% of the original weight of the beef due to moisture loss and the need to trim off the edges, which become dry and inedible.

Because of this higher cost, almost no retailer or food service operator ages beef these days. The end result is Zero-Aged, very often tougher meat.

The cloning companies are correct, they can use genetic selection to optimize beef cattle for tenderness. But ranchers can already use genetic selection for this purpose. It’s not an easy process, can take years to achieve, and is still subject to the whims of nature or Darwinism, but it can be done. I’ll leave the “hows” to a new post.

Dry-Aging or Wet-Aging beef to tenderize beef will not necessarily lead to higher quality or a more consistent taste - see below. But it's a start.

If you do want all three things (consistent tasting, high quality, tender beef) ask the seller questions what steps are being taken to ensure consistent quality, taste, and tenderness.

If you hear something like “We specialize in X breed and get feedback from our processor about each of our cattle and use this to determine which cows and bulls to keep and pair. We also (dry- or wet-) age our beef (a minimum of 7) days,” then you’ll know you’re on the right track.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Why We Don't Need Cloned Meat - Part I

As expected, the FDA approved the sale of food from cloned livestock, declaring that they found no evidence of harm to humans who might ingest the meat.

The cloning companies argue that they are creating clones to meet consumer demand, citing tough or generally inconsistent taste and quality as the Number 1 complaint among meat eaters. By using uniformly high-quality clones as breeding stock, the meat from said livestock will be uniform, too.

We do not need cloned livestock to achieve this result!

The reason that beef taste and quality is inconsistent from week to week (if not steak to steak) is because there are literally dozens if not hundreds of beef breeds raised on different diets in different regions that, as a result, naturally vary in taste and texture. Unfortunately, all this glorious variety gets lumped together at shelf and labeled “beef.”

This is a little oversimplified, but it's as if all red wine grapes grown in North America were crushed and blended together at random, placed in green bottles and sold as “red wine.”

While many ranchers, feed yard operators, or processors raise and finish “sale barn” cattle (a hint is that their herd has cattle of all shapes, sizes, and colors grazing on the same pasture or munching at a trough), there are great producers who specialize in a single breed or crossbreed. The best among these use a carefully chosen diet, practice low-stress management techniques, analyze the performance of their herds over time, and use genetic selection (ideally the natural kind) to optimize for certain characteristics that impact the taste and quality of beef, including tenderness.

The problem is that these outstanding producers RARELY GET PAID for this extra effort!

With an industrialized system set up to maximize throughput to maintain margin, it is simply not considered cost effective to sort cattle at large feed lots or slaughterhouse door, let alone on the shelf.

If we consumers want more consistent quality beef that suits our personal palates or priorities, we have the ability to vote with our pocketbooks and support these top-notch producers. We’ve found a number of them over the past two years and are featuring four in our online marketplace today. There are others. Please seek them out, determine what style of beef you prefer (similar to what varietal of wine best suits your fancy), look for beef that’s been aged (to be addressed further in the next post), and make a purchase.