Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Where's the Beef? Tracking Down Free Range, Grass Fed, Hormone Free Beef

I like eating meat. But the recent, disturbing news report about downer-cattle coming into the food supply didn't engender confidence that what's available at local markets is always healthy. Being an alarmist doesn't help, but it's good to learn more about available alternatives.

One of the benefits of starting this web site has been hearing from people who email me recipes and their own food-stories. In response to my posting about buying affordable meat, a colleague from United Hollywood, John Jabaley sent in a note about his experience buying beef directly from an organic rancher. Here's John's account, together with his family's recipe for Bolognese Meat Sauce.

from John Jabaley:

We typically order every year and get a quarter of a cow for ourselves, sometimes just for ourselves and sometimes we'll split it with other families.

I found the farm around four years ago when my wife, Erika, read "Fast Food Nation" and asked me to read it as well. At the time she was a "fishetarian." Though I was mightily swayed by the book, I wasn't willing to give up beef. So I started looking outside the big food chain.

When you google it, it becomes apparent pretty quickly that there isn't enough rain in Southern California to raise free range grass fed, hormone free beef. Lake Tahoe and Northern California are the closest places that have enough space and rain to support that kind of ranching. Chileno Beef finally popped up after more searching than I thought would be necessary, so I called them. The owner, Mike, happened to be coming down to L.A., so we bought a quarter with another family. Two weeks later, I met him in the parking lot at the Tam O' Shanter in Los Feliz.

I brought 60 pounds of beef home, which raised some eye-brows, but Erika soon came to the decision that she wouldn't sit idly by as the kids and I enjoyed free range, grass fed beef. We were astounded by the difference. It is lean and actually has flavor, not so much as say bison or venison, but more than the corn fed hormone addled stuff you get at most grocery stores, and of course at a third of the price you pay for the same thing at Whole Foods.

We have bought as much as a whole steer, which we split with 3 other families. We all like the flavor so much, that one of the families wasn't getting through all of their allotment, so they split their quarter with another family. Because it comes frozen, the meat lasts quite a while, but if we were to buy more than a quarter for ourselves it would sit too long before we finished it. We have a separate freezer and it fills two shelves and half the door.

Since that first time, I started to drive up to the ranch to pick up the beef. It's a bit of a haul, since it's north of San Francisco, but worth the drive. Even adding in the cost of the gas and lodging, if you spend the night, you end up paying under 5 bucks a pound.

Another wonderful thing about the ranch is that Art Ibleto is the butcher. You pick up the meat at his place where he also sells all kinds of handmade pastas.

You have to be very careful with the roasts as there is not a lot of marbling, but they're delicious if done properly: rub them with olive oil salt and pepper, heat a cast iron skillet until it smokes, brown them, throw the whole thing in a medium oven until rare. The ground beef makes the most amazing Bolognese.

Bolognese Meat Sauce

1 lb. ground beef
3 celery stalks, washed, chopped
1 large onion, peeled, chopped
4 large carrots, washed, peeled, chopped
3 ½ cups roasted tomatoes, peeled, chopped or canned Italian whole tomates
1 6 oz. can Italian tomato paste
½ cup red wine
1 teaspoon olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil, seasoned with sea salt and pepper, add the ground beef and crumble in the pan with a fork. Saute until browned, then remove and drain on a paper towel. Drain off excess fat. Saute the celery, onions, and carrots until browned, add the tomatoes, tomato sauce, and ground beef. Simmer on a low flame for 30 minutes. Taste and adjust the flavors.

If it's too thick, add the red wine. Come to think of it, add the red wine anyway. Continue cooking until the sauce is thick enough. Don't eat it the first night. Refrigerate it. It's better the 2nd day.

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