Saturday, October 20, 2007

Grass-fed Beef: Sustainable and Satisfying

When I moved back to Rhode Island from Philly in 2006, one of the things I was worried about was: will I be able to get grass-fed beef?? Counter-intuitively, despite the fact that I lived smack in the middle of Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, about as urban as you can get, I could literally walk outside my door and have my pick of meat and poultry purveyors—at least, on Tuesday and Saturday, when the farmers came to the Square and set up on the sidewalk. Although I was moving to a farming area when I returned to Rhode Island, I just wasn’t sure that Little Rhody, always a bit behind the times in that endearingly provincial way, would be up to speed.

Not to worry. Turns out that Don and Heather Minto of Watson Farm in Jamestown have been raising grass-fed animals since 1980. The source of that commitment is a fervent belief, grounded in knowledge and experience rather than ideology, that grass-fed is just plain better, in every way: better for the land, better for the farmer, better for the animals, and better for the customer. I can certainly attest to the latter. I find grass-fed beef to have a cleaner taste and richer flavor than conventional beef, and to have superior texture and cooking properties, whether I am making rib eyes or hamburgers. In particular, it yields far less water than meat that has been frozen for long periods in order to make its way from industrial production to your supermarket.

While grass-fed beef is generally leaner than industrially raised beef, it is not, as I have heard some complain, either gamey-tasting or tough. One key is in the cooking: grass-fed beef, in my experience, should be cooked at slightly lower heats, for shorter times, than conventional beef. But the taste of grass-fed beef may depend greatly on the way it is raised. Don Minto’s beef is completely grass-fed and grass-finished on small lots. Through a system of adjustable fences, he moves his cattle to a fresh paddock every day, so that they are always eating new, nutrient-rich grass, and the pastures they’ve eaten on can recover for a future, high-quality feeding. Some farmers keep their cattle on a single large lot, where they eat grass of ever-diminishing quality, and cattle may be put out on grass only prior to slaughter or other portion of their time. Don’s animals are never in a barn; they live in the fields, and they are healthier and happier for it.

Another element in achieving optimal, and consistent, taste and texture is the breeds themselves. Don learned this after doing everything possible to improve the grass quality, and still being unsatisfied with the meat. Realizing that the cattle themselves were the weak link, he has steadily converted his herd over to Red Devon cattle, a heritage breed that is one of the oldest breeds of beef cattle, and considered to be one of the best for grass. Since their arrival on American land, most likely with the earliest settlers, breeders have been improving their genetic characteristics as hearty, economical, ideal grass feeders, as have farmers in other parts of the world where grass feeding makes sense. The practice of increasingly selecting and breeding for the right genetic characteristics to do well on local grass and yield the qualities consumers want from their beef is continued by today's farmer's, including Minto.

That is, Minto is matching his animals to the land. He is convinced that this approach is the future of agriculture, for several compelling reasons. First, it is sustainable, using far less energy, and far less labor, while simultaneously improving the land through sound management practices. It eliminates the risk of diseases such as mad-cow. It yields healthier meat: high in omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid, lower in calories, total fat, and saturated fat. And of course, it tastes better, like the beef of your childhood (because it is the beef of your childhood). There’s demand for it.

The combination of attractive economics to farmers and attractive benefits to consumers is producing what Don calls, no pun intended, a grass-roots movement away from industrial toward sustainable local animal farming. Don is instrumental in this, through speaking and selling his special stock both here in Rhode Island and around the country. Sale of the meat itself remains local. The Mintos sell their beef at the Coastal Grower's Market in Saunderstown, and off-season through direct order, under the label Conanicut Island Grass-Fed, allowing them to complete that link from the land to the consumer.

Naturally, the estimated 6,000 head of beef cattle in Rhode Island will never be converted to all grass-fed. And the lack of a slaughterhouse in the state, requiring long drives to Pennsylvania or Vermont for slaughter and butchering (soon to be cut down significantly when a dormant Massachusetts slaughterhouse re-opens), may be seen as a barrier by some farmers to convert to grass-fed production for local sale. Nevertheless, not only Red Devons but also Scottish Highlands and other happy heritage grassfeeders have found homes on Rhode Island fields. There is an expanding and increasingly steady supply of sustainably raised, fine-tasting grass-fed beef, in cuts ranging from steaks and roasts to brisket and burger, and I, for one, am happy.

Clock Chile-Relleno Burger, Rhode Island Style

I am a true carnivore, and while I adore a good steak, preferably a Porterhouse, nothing is so satisfying to me as a good burger. This Mexican-influenced burger was the creation of a former boss of mine, Gary Barrett, who moonlighted at a restaurant called The Clock in Monterey, CA, while working in publishing during the week; I have localized it by using Portuguese Sweet Bread for the roll and a small amount of chorizo in the stuffing. Gary passed away this year, so this is in his honor, as it has been every time I have made this burger since leaving California 22 years ago.

For each hamburger

7 oz. ground beef (not sirloin)
3/4-1 oz good-quality Monterey Jack cheese, cut into small rectangular slices or coarsely grated
2 T cooked ground Portuguese chorizo, well-drained (optional)
1 small roasted and peeled poblano pepper
1 Portuguese sweet bread roll

Mayonnaise seasoned with a little chopped chipotle in adobo (optional)

Through the top, stuff peppers with the cheese and the chorizo, pushing it in with a small spoon. Set aside. Form the beef loosely into a patty about 1” thick; salt and pepper it, and let it stand, loosely covered with wax paper, to room temperature, or at least ½ hour after salting. Grill burger over medium-high heat until medium-rare; depending on your fire and the meat, this should take only 5-8 minutes.

While the burger is cooking, butter and lightly grill the roll. Place the burger on the roll and lay the stuffed pepper on top of the meat. Serve with chipotle mayonnaise if you like.

To roast and peel peppers: Put the peppers on a rack under a broiler, and broil, turning occasionally, until the skin is charred and puckered but not burned. Remove to a plastic bag and steam for a few minutes; rinse under cold water, rubbing off the skin. Gently pull the stem out, with most of the seeds, and rinse the inside with water to remove any remaining seeds. Drain on paper towels.

(Photo of Don Minto with his Red Devons courtesy of URI College of the Environment and Life Sciences)


Trevor said...

That burger is bringing me back to New Mexico and all the green chili burgers! Delicious!

Anonymous said...

I've been eating meat from milking devon cattle from a local farm and I'm wondering if you have the milking devon or the beef devon, they're two different strains of a breed that split somewhere around the 1950's.


Jane said...

Lincoln: Don Minto's cattle are beef Devons, raised for meat.