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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Full Circle

It was my first calving season at the farm and I was so excited to experience this part of farm life.  Mark and I stood outside of the cattle shed, talking about what - I don't remember.  We had come out this April morning to check on the ladies and had found nothing happening.  As we stood there chatting something caught my eye.  In the mud and muck, wedged under the fence, I saw the movement of a pig-ish nose.  My mind scrambled to figure out how we could possible have a pig in the cattle shed!  Which of our neighbors raises pigs?

"Mark, what is tha...?
Is that a...?
Oh my Go...!
It's a calf!"

Walking closer to get a better look, I realized that this pig-sized and pig-nosed animal, completely submerged in the mud and muck of the cattle shed and wedged under the gate was not an escaped pig but, in fact, a newborn calf.  Mark rushed in and carried the calf to drier ground.  I ran for towels and buckets of warm water.  Mama was nowhere to be seen. After cleaning up the calf the rest of the herd became curious and every one came to sniff and check it out.  We determined that mama was Maudine.  This was her first calf and she didn't seem to have any interest in tending to him.  Covered in mud and manure, its nostrils packed with the same, perhaps the scents that would normally trigger the mother/calf instincts were still dormant.

We spent frustrating hours trying to bring mama closer to her calf in the hope they would recognize each other.  By the afternoon, baby still hadn't fed and we were wondering if we would be hand-raising this one.  Daily care and bottle feedings sound like a sweet and wonderful thing to do but the reality is that it is a major commitment of time and resources and many farmers would choose to cull the calf rather than take this on.  For us, with full time jobs off-farm, this would have been an exceptional challenge.  Luckily, this wasn't a choice we had to make.  Once we had Maudine and the calf separated from the herd in an isolated portion of the barn, the calf finally attached and we breathed a sigh of relief.  Actually, after hours of worry, I'm sure I sobbed my relief more than sighed.

The calf grew well and we named her Lola.  All of the year's females would have L names but Lola ended up being our only girl, the only calf from the season who would be sold as a breeder rather than raised - unnamed - for beef.  One day, standing in the pasture watching the herd, one of us (I don't remember who) noticed that there was something very wrong with Lola.

Lola had balls!

By this time Lola was Lola and he kept his name.  Lola was one of the "Naughty Boys".  Every year there are a few who have no respect for fences.  They get out and wander the property, sometimes wander down the road, at times even visiting the neighbors.  For as much trouble as they cause - walking through my gardens and causing strangers to stop in at all times of the day and night to let us know "your cows are out" - these naughty ones become our favorites.  The naughty ones are the ones we interact with daily.  They curiously check out the bonfire, drink from the bird bath, and munch the long grasses that border the yard as we go about business as usual.  Generally more socialized and friendly than the rest of the herd, they are especially calm and easy to work with.  They trust us and we trust them.   It doesn't take long for them to learn the routine and when we tell them it's time to go back inside the fence they amble down the driveway and through the gate easily. At times, we just let them stay out and wander as long as they are safe on our property and not close to the road.  Some of my best photos are of these naughty ones because there is open landscape in the backround, no fences.

I always try to be there when the butcher comes.  As difficult as it is, it is important for me to be there, even more so this time.  If you are cringing and withdrawing at this point, be assured.  Our butcher is quick.  The animals are not frightened or in pain.  One instant they are grazing peacefully in their home pasture,  the next they are gone.  I have watched before.  It is always difficult.  But it's important.  Lola's life, like the lives of all pasture raised livestock, was  important.  He fed in the pastures, encouraging deep rooting of the pasture grasses, which anchor the topsoil and decompose to provide nutrients to the soil.  His hooves tilled the earth with each step.  As he walked he fertilized the land.  With his death this one cow will provide enough beef for a full year for our family and friends.

This is the point where I want to go off on a pre-emptive rant about the impact of vegetarianism on the environment but that's not what this is about.  We all have the right to believe as we will and we can all find plenty of Google-searched charts and studies to back us up.  Instead, I will allow myself to feel the sadness of their deaths of Lola and the other two steers.  I will recognize the importance of their part in a much bigger picture and I will give thanks and gratitude for their lives.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Slow and Low: How to Cook Grass Fed Scottish Highland Beef

I remember the first time I grilled steaks from our cows.  They were horrible.  Really, truly horrible.  I cooked them just the way I always did my grass fed steaks, on medium high heat for just a few minutes on each side, enough to sear the outside and leave the inside perfectly medium rare.  Overcooking a good steak makes it tough, right?  So I couldn't understand why these steaks were so tough!  Someone suggested that grass fed meat is just going to be tough and I could marinade it in Coca Cola or Sprite to help break down the fibers.  It seems this is a common practice to which I say, "UGH!  Why bother with good quality meat in the first place?" I could also make my roasts in the crock pot in a plastic roasting bag for easy cleaning (along with BPA , phthalates, and other plasticizers) with a packet of meat marinade (aka chemical shit storm).



But, after gnawing away unsuccessfully for a few minutes I decided to throw them back on the grill for a while and after cooking the steaks to what I would have previously considered incredibly over- done, they were not great, but at least edible.  The flavor was good and they were tender.

Since that time I have had quite a bit of practice and what I have discovered is that the meat from our cows is quite different from even the best quality grass fed beef I used to purchase at the co-op.  It is denser, richer, and not as lean as what you would typically expect from grass-fed  Most cooking sites will tell you that grass fed beef is leaner than conventional beef but this is a generalization.  The amount of fat and the overall texture of the muscle will vary greatly from herd to herd, not only because of different food sources but also because of variance in breed, climate,  and lifestyle of the animals.  I guess our Scottish Highland cows have a pretty laid back life because their meat has some really nice marbling.  The quality and flavor of the fat is different as well.  Even though there is a nice amount of flavorful fat in our cuts, the fat does not render the same as beef from other sources I have used.

To get the most flavor and tenderness out of our Scottish Highland beef I have had to disregard everything I used to know about cooking beef.  Slow and low is the way to go and I cook my steaks to more "doneness" than I used to.  To get a really tender and tasty steak you really need to cook it slowly to medium well.  Otherwise it's going to be tough and fatty.  I know, I resisted too.  Everyone I know who likes their steaks rare or medium rare has trouble with this point but you just have to trust me on this one.
Cast Iron on top of the wood burning stove - yum!

Here are my tips for a perfect steak or roast:

1)  Thaw at room temp before you put it on the heat.  After you have completely defrosted the meat overnight (or longer) in the refrigerator, set it out on the counter for 20 minutes to an hour.  The amount of time you leave it out will depend on the size of your cut.  You will need more time for a 5 lb. roast to come to room temp than a 1 inch steak.

2) Cast iron is best. Stainless steel is an acceptable second choice.  Teflon coated or other non-stick pans?... Nope!

3) Bones add flavor.  When I was pinching pennies I always bought boneless cuts.  Who wants to pay for the weight of a bone?  But a cut of meat with the bone attached will have more flavor than one without.  When you can,  cook meat on the bone.  I save the bones, throw them in a crock pot with water, some cider vinegar , onions, carrots, celery, and a few seasonings and let it cook for at least a day - sometimes up to 3 days. Strain this into jars or just pick out the bones and you have made your own amazing and nutritious bone broth.

2) Always sear.  For steaks, start with a med/high heat and just a few minutes on each side before reducing the heat.  I like to put a layer of salt & pepper on the meat before searing but you could make up a seasoning rub with just about any dried spices or herbs that you like.  For a roast, sear all sides before putting it in the roaster or crock pot, especially on the side with that nice layer of fat.  Let it start to render.  Add a little broth, wine or water to your pan to help scrape up the brown bits and pour that into the roaster.

3) I have had great luck with my steaks in the broiler.  I like them even better than on the grill.  I use a cast iron pan and sear one side on the stove top.  Then I flip the steak and put the pan under the broiler.  My broiler doesn't have a low setting but I can reduce the heat by putting it on the lowest rack, far away from the heating element.  If you like it a little crustier you can always move it higher for the last few minutes of cooking time.

4)  Cooking time varies by cut, thickness, starting meat temp, and other factors.  Don't rely on a set amount of time.  Never walk away from a steak.  Pay attention, check in, and test for doneness by pressing on the steak.  It's firmness will tell you how tender it is.  This might take a little practice to learn how it feels when it's just right for you but, again, too many variables for a one size fits all description.  Please,  I beg you, do not check for doneness by cutting into the steak.  Much of the juices will drain out and your steak will not be as good as it could have been.

5)  Cook slow & low.  This gives the fats time to break down and distribute their flavor into the meat. A higher heat can cause the fibers of the meat to contract, making it tough.

5) Let it rest.  Give the meat a good 10-20 minutes, again this depends on the size of the cut you are working with.  During this time the rendered fats and juices will be distributing and cooling in the fibers of the meat where they will impart their juiciness and delicious flavor.  Don't worry, did you know that new science shows that fat from healthy, grass fed animal sources is good for you?  It is! And it's delicious.  So enjoy!

*Note:  If you are following a favorite beef recipe you might try just dialing back the cooking temp and upping the cooking time a bit.  This has worked for me with recipes from cookbooks and other blogs.  For my first Prime Rib I used a recipe from the Complete America's Test Kitchen cookbook which is, by the way, the absolute best cookbook ever.  Everything I've made from it has been the bomb.  It turned out fantastic but I did cook it on 250 for almost 5 hours.

This handsome fella is D3.