On choosing a beef farmer

Well, it’s that time of year again. The deep-freezer is empty of most everything except a few jars of frozen stock and the organ remnants of last year’s beef quarter that I’ve never gotten around to trying to serve my family (heart or liver, anyone?). We’re transitioning from a summer of grilled brats and fresh-vegetable-heavy dinners to the wonderful season of hearty soups and stews, roasts and meatloaf. In other words, we’ve gotta get that freezer filled back to capacity with a fresh beef quarter.

I’ve had a few conversations with friends in the past few weeks, wondering: where is the best place to purchase freezer beef? Well, we’re making that decision again, too — and the answer to that question basically comes down to three factors that must be placed into some sort of priority rubric: type of beef, flavor, and price. Every family will end up with different priorities, often weighing different preferences within families (what we must contend with in our house, though my husband admits I get final vote since I cook it all). Not to mention finding a local farm who can meet your priorities once they’re set. It’s not an easy task — but once you find a solution, the money saved is well worth the effort.

  1. Type of beef
    We’re not talking breed, though that might be important to you (watusi, anyone?) — we’re talking about what the cow ate. Was it grain-fed, grass-fed, or grass-finished? Here’s the breakdown of what those mean:

    • Grain-fed beef has been raised on soy and corn. This makes for quickly-growing steers that end up with lots of extra fat. For many of us westerners, this is the beef we grew up eating — it’s the flavor we’re used to. The drawback to this type of beef is that research shows that it’s not a very healthy beef. Cows aren’t supposed to eat corn — they are ruminants, designed to eat grass. When fed grain regularly, they are often more likely to get sick, and that can mean more antibiotic use.
    • Grass-fed beef eats grass its entire life — 100% grass-fed is never given grains at all. This means leaner beef, but also many more micro-nutrients and a heart-healthy balance of omega-3s-to-omega-6s (grain-fed beef has no omega-3s at all). A farmer who chooses to feed grass-only is often also very conscientious about not using hormones or antibiotics, as well as giving the animal good, natural living conditions.
    • Grain-finished beef ate grass for a portion of its life, but was finished on grain to add fat. This can be a fantastic option for those wanting the benefits of grass but the flavor of grain. But be careful: there is no regulation for what “grain-finished” means. A local farm in Indianapolis that sells to many markets is labeled “grain-finished,” but when I called the farm I was told that the cows spend just 8 months on grass, and then about 14 months on grain — so almost 65% of their life on grain (perhaps they should use the term “grass-started” instead?).
  2. Flavor
    This is also dependent on what the cow ate while roaming the earth — and will likely play a part in your decision.

    • Grass-fed beef is much leaner than grain-fed. Often this is given as the sole reason that grass-fed is healthier: fat is bad, so less fat means healthier. I actually believe that it’s more the chemical make-up of the fat that’s still there (see info above re: omega fat ratios), and often wish our grass-fed beef had MORE fat. Grass-fed can be more difficult to cook for this reason: fat means flavor and moist texture, and there is less of it.
    • Grass-fed beef can have a slightly gamey flavor. This depends on the grasses it ate, and a single farm’s beef can taste different from one year to the next.
    • Grain-fed beef will often have more classic fat marbling, which again is what our western palates are accustomed to.
  3. Price
    This is often a huge part of the decision. And what a range it is!

    • Grain-fed beef portions can be unbelievably reasonable — I’ve heard prices ranging from $2-$3/pound of finished beef.
    • Grass-fed beef, on the other hand, can be twice as much. The lowest price I’ve found for 100% grass-fed beef was $5.70/pound, which is what we paid last year. Grain-finished beef is often cheaper, but again — ask how long the cow was on grain.
    • One last note on price: figuring out price per pound can be SO VERY CONFUSING. Many farms tell you a price/lb for “hanging weight.” Which can look deceivingly low — just $3/pound or so. But the hanging weight is much higher than the weight of the animal once processed — so that $3/pound can easily become $5/pound once the beef is processed. Ask the farm how to accurately estimate the price per pound of processed and packaged meat.

In my ideal world, I would find a local farm that truly “grain-finished” their beef — as in, let the cow eat grain only for the last few weeks of life. We have not found that yet in our area — and so I instead have opted for 100% grass-fed options. But they are very pricey, and my larger half wasn’t so crazy about the flavor (objection overruled, but here’s hoping we can all be happier with the flavor this go-around).

Have you bought a beef quarter? If so, what are your preferences, and have they changed since the last time you filled your freezer?

Grocery Budgeting, 101: The Basics

In another life, I was a teacher of fresh, eager college students. For most of my very short teaching career, I had the immense pleasure of teaching a group of fiercely-talented burgeoning designers — the kind of kids you really didn’t have to teach at all. They were competitive and eager, which made it easy to come into class the first day and tell them that if they did enough to get by in my class, they’d make a C. That B’s and A’s were hard work, and I wasn’t giving them away (insert my scariest mean face, pretty much the opposite of this one in the Indy Star where I was caught at DigIN with food falling out of my open mouth).

This is how I approach the subject of grocery budgeting, too. There are levels of how much work you can do — and the fantastic thing about living in our plush western world is that you can choose how much you want to do. This goes for me, too — and on any given month, I make anywhere from an A+ to a resounding, thud-like F! when it comes to staying within our food budget.

So, today: the bare minimum. Do these things alone, and you’ll be facing solidly in a direction of staying within your real-food budget.
Continue reading “Grocery Budgeting, 101: The Basics”

Grocery Budgeting 101

The first time I had a grocery budget was during the summer of 1992. I was in summer school, living solo in a dreary on-campus dormitory. I had a mini-fridge, a microwave, and a set amount of cash in my bank account that had to last all summer. I would go to the grocery store on Sunday night, and buy my food for the week: my budget was $20. I remember apples, tuna fish, and bagels as regular items on a list that rarely changed due to its budgeting and belly-filling dependability.

A decade later, I had graduated to a full-sized refrigerator and started a family. It was a few years after I’d been managing the cooking, grocery-shopping, and most household budgeting that I realized one day: a college degree in home economics really does sound useful.

(I should admit to not previously having much respect for that line of study. I never even took Home Ec in school — to me, it was a semester of brownie-making and apron-sewing. And those things were so… simple. Who needed a class to learn how to make brownies when you can just follow instructions on the back of a box? said my 14-year old know-it-all self.)

But trying to keep a family fed with nourishing food that’s as high-quality and local as possible on a limited budget is really bleeping hard. It take time, knowledge, organizational skills, flexibility, and resourcefulness.

Anyone who says it is easy is lying through their teeth.

I did a little blurb at a cooking class last week, taught by my friends Alex & Sonja at A Couple Cooks. My assignment was to talk a bit about budgeting and feeding a family. Only a few of the almost 20 students actually had children — but many of the budgeting tips I offered could be helpful to anyone, not just those feeding larger households. This is a subject that comes up often in conversations with friends — how do we stay in our grocery budget and still eat well?

To have that conversation, we should start with a question: what’s a good amount to spend on groceries? In conversations with a random assortment of friends, I’ve discovered that families in what I would consider to be similar economic lifestyles have a vast range of grocery budgets. On the low end, a married mother of two has a budget of $450/month (that’s about $28/person a week, a good 20 years after my poor-college-student-summer budget of $20/week). And I have plenty of friends who spend $800/month or more for families of five.

Michael Pollan, in his book In Defense of Food, points out that, in 1960, Americans spent 17.5% of their income on food. Today, we spend just 9.9% (you can see the whole quote in this post, where I first publicly sighed over the ubiquitous grocery budget). As a culture, we expect to spend less and less on food, any yet we are also less and less healthy. The stats beg some questions, both culturally and individually: what should be our goal when it comes to providing food for our family? What should we sacrifice in order to eat well? In what battles do we stand firm and hold our ground (because we can’t win them all)?

Fully realizing that this is not a one-size-fits-all topic: over the next couple of months I plan to share a few of the practices we’ve put in place to get the most for our food money. But I would love for this to be a conversation that carries over to comments and Facebook — so think about your own grocery-buying habits, your budget if you have one, and your priorities when it comes to feeding yourself and those in your care. The more tricks we have up our sleeves, the better job we can all do when it comes to bringing home the (literal) bacon.

So today, I ask: what is your priority when it comes to setting your current food budget?
………………………………………

Ready to tackle the basic steps that will help keep you in-budget? The next post in this series covers them!

No way. Whey.

You may have noticed that there’s a lot of mention here, in these parts, about whey.

No, it’s not the protein powder. It’s the stuff of Little Miss Muffet.

You remember her — she sat on her tuffet (questionable action), eating her curds and whey.

Now, I’ll stop here, and admit that the first time I made mozzarella cheese (no eye-rolling — it’s remarkably easy, I’ll tell you all about it sometime), and realized that I was actually stirring a pot of of two ingredients that completely flummoxed me during my formative Mother Goose years, I was delighted. But that delight quickly fell way to further confusion, because the whole point of cheese-making is that you remove the curds from the whey — you don’t eat a bowl of them together.

Now that I’m thinking about this again, I’ll probably lose sleep tonight.

Anywhey.

See? There’s no end to this.

So what is this mysterious liquid of Miss Muffet and her curious arachnid? Whey is the liquid that separates from milk solids when making yogurt or cheese or other cultured dairy products. When making cheese, this separation occurs in dramatic fashion when acid is added to the milk. With yogurt, it requires a little more time, and often requires straining (though sometimes yogurt separates on its own in the container — that liquid in your yogurt cup? yep — it’s whey). It’s full of enzymes, beneficial bacteria, and lactic acid — and is good for digestion and nutrient absorption.

Whey is used in all sorts of lacto-fermentation. Many folks put it in their cultured vegetables — I use mine in bread-making, overnight-soaking of grains and legumes, fermentation of fruits and homemade mayonnaise, and lately in making beet kvass (a fermented beet beverage, my new favorite). I always have whey in my refrigerator — which is pretty easy to do, since it lasts in a jar for about 6 weeks.

One of the greatest things about whey-making day is the byproduct of this method: yogurt cheese. It’s the consistency of cream cheese, though more tart — and with a little honey, vanilla, and cinnamon added, it makes a fantastic probiotic dip for fruits and crackers. I have at least two children who gobble this stuff up — and the third gets mocked by the whole family when she doesn’t. It’s fun times.

Oh, and greek yogurt? It’s nothing more than strained yogurt — just like what we do here in this process (you’d just stop after the first straining step, when the yogurt is very thick but still creamy).

So get off your tuffet and give this a try. Helpful hints: my favorite cheesecloth is this brand — and I’ve been using and washing the same cut-off 18″ square now for about 6 months, so it’s worth the tiny extra investment. Also, if you’re not into sweet dips, then by all means just use some chopped garlic, fresh herbs, and sea salt for a lovely savory dip. I’m sure Miss Muffet and her voyeuristic spider would approve.

 

[amd-zlrecipe-recipe:7]

[amd-zlrecipe-recipe:8]

 

 

How I live grain-free

There’s a recurring conversation I’ve been having for almost a year now. It goes something like this:

Me: Oh, thanks for offering. I’ll have to pass on that lovely cookie/cake/sandwich, because I’m on this diet where I don’t eat any grains.

Normal person: Oh, you mean like gluten-free?

Me: Well, yes — but a step further. I don’t eat any grains at all, which means I can’t eat most “gluten-free” foods. In fact, I don’t even eat rice.

Normal person: NO GRAINS AT ALL? Oh em gee, what do you eat? No pasta, no bread, no RICE? I wouldn’t last a day on that diet.

And, you know, I get it. It is unorthodox, for sure — and I was totally one of those people who said I could never go gluten-free, much less grain-free. But, here I am. With the exception of a cheat bite here and there (and my now-allowed single piece of sprouted-grain Ezekiel bread each day), I’ve been grain-free and starchy-vegetable-free for almost 9 months. How do I do it? And more specifically, how do I do it when the rest of my family still eats many of the things I don’t?

Well, there are a few tricks up the hungry, resourceful sleeve of the grain-averse. Here are a few of my go-to replacements for things that were once our staples:

  1. Squashes: great replacement for pasta
    The beloved squash, both winter and summer varieties, has been my flavor vehicle for countless meals over the past year. One of our favorite winter-time meals is a Classic Italian Meat Spaghetti Sauce. When I make a batch, I cook a pot full of pasta for my family, and roast a spaghetti squash for myself. The sauce tastes just as good on squash as it does on pasta (a good douse of olive oil and salt is in order).  In summer months, zucchini serves the same purpose. One of my favorite ways to eat it is by steaming zucchini ribbons (recipe below) — last week I had the ribbons topped with pesto, chicken, and fresh cherry tomatoes for a light and filling dinner (but olive oil and good parmesan are also elegant toppings).
  2. Cauliflower: a good substitute for rice or potatoes
    Cauliflower is another non-starchy vegetable that can mimic a classic. A shepherd’s pie is legal for my diet if I use puréed cauliflower in place of the mashed potatoes (with butter and salt, my husband couldn’t even tell the difference). For dishes that call for rice (like our beloved Coconut-Lime Fish Curry or Red Lentil Curry) I mash steamed cauliflower with a fork until it’s a similar consistency as rice.
  3. Greens: replace almost anything
    I’ve discovered that you can go a long way with simple “meal salads.” I’ve long relied on grain salads as lunchtime workhorses — so these days I just throw everything on top of a big pile of lettuce greens instead. Nuts, seeds, fermented vegetables, cubed chicken, avocado, boiled eggs — this is a king salad that will keep you full until dinner. Greens are also the solution for taco night — my family reaches for taco shells, and I fill my bowl with greens.
  4. Grain-Free Crackers: keep a stash on-hand!
    I’ve been known to sneak a baggie of my Grain-Free Crackers into a dinner party or book club. I don’t want to miss out on that cheese plate or dip, and a cracker certainly helps. I also love these for a quick lunch of smoked sardines or egg salad — the crackers give the exact crunchy vehicle necessary in dippy situations.

Believe it or not, I’ve grown so accustomed to these replacements, it will honestly be hard to go back when I wean off my diet. If you currently live grain-or-starch-free, what have I missed? Are there other nourishing, belly-filling foods in your arsenal?

[amd-zlrecipe-recipe:5]

 

Indy Groundwork Conference

Ever heard of the Weston Price Foundation? I’ve mentioned it here, mainly in that infamous post where I take out my soaking-and-fermenting frustrations on one Sally Fallon, the unofficial (or official?) guru of the current national organization.

The short of it: the Weston Price Foundation is an organization dedicated to education and practical application when it comes to incorporating a “traditional diet” into the lives of people worldwide.

So, what’s this “traditional diet?” you might wonder. Well, the best way to think about it is not how our grandparents ate, but likely how our great-great-grandparents ate. Or better yet, our ancestors of a thousand years ago.

The traditional diet incorporates methods of whole food preparation that were the norm for thousands of years in cultures on every corner of the globe. It turns out all of those practices passed down through generations were more than just convenient, they inherently made foods more nutrient-dense and digestible. Lots of soaking of grains, fermenting of everything, and eating animal fats and raw dairy. Cream and fat, topped with butter. It’s like Paula Deen without her need for Novo Nordisk. Because all this food is actually good for you, when the source is of quality.

I incorporate lots of traditional food practices in my cooking — things like my soaked muesli, granola, and bread, along with more recent obsessions with fermentation, didn’t come about accidentally. I’m not a fundamentalist by any stretch — but I believe much of the science behind the methods, and will likely incorporate more practices when I ween off my wacky diet (and hey! there’s a session on that!).

The good news is that there’s going to be a regional conference here in Indianapolis, in September. I am super-excited about this — some of the topics included in the lineup:

  • The Benefits of Animal Foods (Chris Masterjohn, PhD)
  • The Woes of GMO’s (Don Huber, PhD)
  • Food Freedom: Raw Milk in Indiana (a panel of farmers and state representatives)
  • Dangers of Statin Drugs (Stephanie Seneff, PhD)
  • Flouride: The Inside & Outside Story (Dr. Michael Grossweiler, DDS)
  • The GAPS Diet (Dr. Catherine Rupp, MD)

And there will be food! And demos, of fermentation and sourdough!

If you’ve ever been interested in learning more about Weston Price and/or a traditional diet, or if you’re just interested in health topics in general, this will be a great day of learning. The conference will be held Saturday, September 15, from 8:30-5:30, in downtown Indianapolis at the Harrison Center for the Arts. I’ll be there, notebook in-hand, fretting over which sessions to attend (still haven’t figured out how to be in two places at once, I guess that’s why they invented podcasts?).

The early-bird ticket price is $55 — but hurry, you must register* by August 1st for this price (afterwards it is $60-$65, with special pricing available for students and seniors). If you’d like more details on the conference and available sessions, read all about it at indygroundwork.com. If you have more questions, shoot a message my way — I’ll do what I can to get an answer!

* Affiliate links. If you register through these, you are willingly contributing to my stash of canning jars.

 

 

Make your own: sauerkraut

kraut-jarred

Fermenting vegetables can feel like a mysterious, risky thing.

Or, it did to me, anyway. And the first time I did it? I hated the results.

It was back in the infamous days of starting my half-baked adventures with the Nourishing Traditions cookbook. I made ginger carrots, since that’s what Sally says is the fermented vegetable most palatable to the newbie.

She was wrong. I let that quart of lacto-fermented carrots sit in my refrigerator for almost a year, hoping I’d wake up one day and like them. I finally dumped the quart when we moved.

Eating fermented veggies was always a struggle for me — I just didn’t have a taste for them. But when I started the GAPS diet, I was required to eat them with every meal — the probiotic value of those ferments is a huge help in digestion and balancing gut flora. I whipped up my first batch of sauerkraut just before starting the intro diet, and had my first taste during the second week.

kraut-quarteredcabbage

I loved it. Something had changed.

I’m not sure if it was that I was starving to death that first week (blinding hunger will certainly change how things taste), or if it was the fact that I cultured my kraut with just salt, not whey — but I’ve continued to love it, and even crave other fermented veggies as well — dilly carrot sticks and beet relish are among my daily binges.

kraut-slicedcabbage

So what’s the difference between veggies fermented with salt and those using whey (the liquid that separates from yogurt, or leftover from making cheese — I get mine from straining homemade yogurt)? I checked with the experts, the guys over at Fermenti Artisan, to get an answer.

In short, using whey provides for a much quicker ferment. It’s also more consistent, and offers a larger yield (you usually don’t have to scrape off browned pieces from the top because the cabbage ferments more quickly, less susceptible to oxidation). For those guys, selling ferments to the public in large quantities, these things are all important. But for me, since I prefer the flavor of a salt-only ferment, I choose to lose a little cabbage and skip the whey (in case you’re wondering, all of the bacteria in a salt-only ferment comes from the cabbage itself — which is why buying organic cabbage is important).

kraut-bowl

As a bonus, this kraut can be started at home by just about anyone, even if you don’t have whey on-hand. All you really need is organic cabbage, salt, a wooden spoon, and a canning jar or two. A teaspoon or two of your favorite herb seed (caraway, dill, fennel, etc.) will add flavor.

And, of course, an ounce or two of patience. Your kraut won’t be ready for a week, and the ideal time to consume it is after several weeks. So starting a jar means you’ll be enjoying it in about a month (I start a new jar when I get halfway down my current stash).

kraut-pound

If you’re interested in learning more, and are local to Indy, there will be a class on Thursday, April 19, at 6pm at City Market. The class will be taught by the guys at Fermenti Artisan with additional info from Kate Payne, author of The Hip Girls Guide to Homemaking, who’s coming to town for another visit. If you’d like to learn more and are not local, may I suggest a new book written by my online friend Wardeh Harmon of GNOWFGLINSThe Complete Idiot’s Guide to Fermenting Foods. It’s hot off the presses!

Or, if a simple brined kraut will do ya, grab a head of cabbage and get those juices flowing — let me know how it goes!

…………………………………………….

Recipe: Simple Sauerkraut

Ingredients

  • 1 medium (about 2 pounds) head organic* cabbage
  • 2 tsp sea salt, plus more for brine
  • 1/2 tsp caraway, dill, or fennel seeds
  • sliced onions and/or chopped peeled apple (optional)
  • 1 quart-sized canning jar, plus an additional pint jar if necessary

Instructions

  1. Rinse cabbage and remove any browned outer leaves. Using a large chef’s knife, cut the head into 4 quarters, cutting pole-to-pole (this is a great affordable chef’s knife)
  2. Remove the core by cutting at a diagonal along the stem (see photos above). With each core laying on its side, cut thin strips of cabbage.
  3. Place cabbage in a large bowl, and toss with 2 tsp sea salt. Let sit at room temperature (uncovered ok) for 20-30 minutes.
  4. Using a thick wooden spoon or meat tenderizer (a kraut pounder is on my gift list!), pound the cabbage for about 5 minutes to help release juices.
  5. Layer cabbage with optional onions & apples and seeds in a quart-sized glass canning jar. Really pack the vegetables in the jar.
  6. If more liquid is needed, make additional brine water: dissolve 1 tsp salt in 2 cups room-temperature filtered water. Pour this into the jars until the cabbage is covered.
  7. Place lids on the jars, but loosely. Place on a shelf or counter of your kitchen, and let sit for 7 days (it helps me to mark the date on the lid with a dry-erase marker).
  8. Remove any darkened vegetables from the top layer, and transfer lidded jar to the refrigerator. Kraut will continue to mellow for 3 or 4 weeks, but it’s safe to consume immediately. Will keep for several months in the refrigerator.

* Organic cabbage is important, as conventionally-raised cabbage could be bereft of bacteria needed to encourage fermentation.

Copyright © Katy Carter, 2012.

[print_link]