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”

The (chicken) House that Tim Built

There are two questions people tend to ask when they find out we have chickens:

Do they smell?
Are you saving money on eggs?

I was surprised by the first question, because I’d noticed no odor at all from our chickens. I’m not sure if it’s the way we’re keeping them (in a coop with a large run, vs. in a shed or some other closed environment?) or if somehow chickens have garnered an entirely unwarranted reputation for stink — but our chickens don’t smell bad. Not even during that week that Tim was out of town, when I dutifully kept the girlies fed and watered and closed up at night, but failed to scoop the poop from the coop.

Scoop the poop from the coop. Say that three times, really fast.

(made you do it.)

Does having chickens save money on eggs? Probably not much. Especially if your initial investment includes purchasing or building a coop (you can buy them locally built, or order some uber-hip ones online) which can run anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars (check this “urban chicken residence“). Once your chickens have a place to lay their head eggs, they just need to be fed — and depending on type of feed, it’ll cost $15-30 a month for four chickens.

Our coop was designed and built by my big-picture-gifted, detail-challenged husband. He rounded up free-cycled materials, so our coop ended up costing about $75 (plus his time, which he assures me is worth mountains of cash). The frame was built using old shelving from an auto-parts-store-turned-urban-culture-center:

He said it was like playing with a grown-up-sized Erector Set — he just fit the pieces where they needed to be and bolted them together. My favorite part is the ladder, which was a shelf for oil filters in a previous life. Next up was adding the walls, roof and windows:

The particle board and trim pieces were leftover from DIY projects, and the windows and roofing were extras given to us by friends. I had randomly bought a box of cedar shingles at a yard sale about a year ago — we have them on our house, and I figured it didn’t hurt to have extras (classic thought-pattern of a hoarder) — so we decided to get matchy-matchy with house and coop.

At night, the chickens roost in the coop, and during the day they have access to a run. We close the run off each night with a sliding gate, since it’s not adequately wrapped underneath with wire to prevent dig-under predators (no one wants to wake to an early-morning bloodbath in the ol’ backyard). We can open the top hatch of the bump-out to feed them, and there’s a side door that opens to give us quick access to eggs in their laying box.

(I should note that one of my favorite things is accidentally opening the door on a chicken in the laying box. It has the same feeling as walking in on someone using the restroom — and the chickens react in a similar manner, warbling an embarrassed complaint.)

It’s not chic, not magazine-worthy. But it fits well in our not-huge backyard, looks like it goes with the house; the chickens seems happy (would we know if they weren’t?), and Tim followed our general life philosophy of spending as little money as possible.

The thing about chicken coops — there are about as many variations of them as their are houses. If you’re local to Indianapolis and are thinking about keeping chickens, I highly recommend seeing a variety of coops in action at Tour de Coops, on September 16. I went with a friend last year, and it was the first time I seriously considered having chickens. A fun way to see many coop varieties, first-hand, and be inspired to think about what could work well in your space.

(And if you go, take a whiff at each coop, and report back any smellage. Gotta know if our birds are anomalies.)

Interested in keeping chickens? Is there something I’ve not covered that you’ve been wondering about?

 

 

 

Ferment Friday no. 3: Kombucha

I have converted my family into a tribe of kombucha-lovers.

Well, all of them except the tallest one. He claims to be wary of the scoby. I can’t imagine why, it’s not creepy at all — I only get warm fuzzies when looking at it.

But, wait. Did I lose you at scoby?

The word, or the photo?

Ok, so let’s just pretend you didn’t see that, and back up a bit.

Kombucha is a cultured tea beverage. A culture, or SCoBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria & Yeast) is used to ferment sweetened black tea (green tea and yerba mate can also be used, but caffeine and sugar are both necessary to feed the yeast). The culture forms a “mat,” or in the words of my kids, “that ewwww! creepy thing that OH MY GOSH YOU’RE TOUCHING IT eeewww!! sits in the tea.”

The drink has been around for thousands of years (via China and Russia), and is known for its detoxing properties and probiotic benefits. It’s slightly fizzy, and has a pleasant sweet-tart flavor (most sugar is converted during culturing, and from what I’ve read the caffeine is also greatly reduced in the finished tea). You can buy commercially-produced kombucha for about $3-$4 per 16-oz bottle — or, you can make it at home for about $1/gallon.

…..aaaaaaannd in case you don’t want to do the quick math on that: that’s about TWENTY-EIGHT DOLLARS versus ONE DOLLAR. My kind of savings.

What do you need to make kombucha at home? You need organic tea, organic sugar, filtered water, a gallon jar, and a scoby.

I bought a scoby online a couple years ago from a very reputable source. I then set out to make my kombucha in the dead of winter. This plan? Bad. Idea. Jeans.

Kombucha likes warmth. In fact, this winter, I might invest in a little electric warming mat for my kombucha jar (thought about trying to rig this thing to do it, it’s cheaper than the official ones). So, lesson #1: if you’re buying a scoby online, I recommend starting it before the cold of winter sets in.

The very best way to get a scoby is to find a friend who’s making kombucha. The scoby’s multiply, or add new layers, as they culture. You can just separate the layers and give them to a friend to start a new batch. The scoby I have now was given to me by a friend in my culture club — and it makes the best kombucha I’ve ever tasted.

If you’re concerned about home-brewing safety, as I am — simply invest in pH strips or a pH meter. Kombucha is safe to drink at a pH of 3-4 (3 is ideal), which is the right acidity to prevent extra bacterial growth but not so acidic to hurt our tummies.

In case I’ve not sung the praises of kombucha enough:  this is, by far, the lowest-maintenance cultured product that I make at home. It only requires making a gallon of sweet tea every 1-2 weeks (depending on how fast your tea is culturing) and bottling the finished tea.

Still unsure? Go by the health food store and buy a few jars of GT’s plain kombucha (only drink about 1/3 of a jar per day). You’ll be hooked in a week, back here, desperate for information on how to make your own.

Mark. My. Words.

(This, from the woman who still hasn’t gotten her unbelievably stubborn husband to drink it. My next plan includes resorting to incessant mockery, for his “fear” of “icky things.”)

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

Kids’ power smoothie

Sometimes, it feels as though 90% of my energy on any given day is spent figuring out how to get as many nourishing foods into my kids’ bodies as possible, given their standard-fare pickiness, a limited budget, and their battle-weary mom.

Another 5% is spent doing the laundry.

I don’t know if you’re keeping up with the math, but that leaves 5% of my energy for doing things like brushing my teeth, showering on occasion, keeping up with social media, and watching my library-loaned copies of Lark Rise to Candleford (a BBC period-dramedy chosen specifically for its solid escapism capabilities).

I’m not (always) bitter, just constantly surprised by how much energy it takes to feed kids well. And looking for better solutions.

Thankfully, last spring I landed on an easy, sure-fire way to get loads of good probiotics into the bellies of my kids: the smoothie. We’ve been enjoying them all summer, but school starts Monday (!) — and my goal is to pack them full of friendly gut-flora, daily, year-round, to give their immune systems that much-needed school-year boost.

The great thing about smoothies? You can sneak things into them. Things like greens, kombucha (a how-to-make-your-own post is coming soon!) beet kvass (a lacto-fermented beverage made from beets — great for the liver, not-so-tasty for the kids), or brain-boosting fish oil (tastes like lemon!). I like using probiotics from multiple sources — yogurt, kefir, kombucha, and a powdered kids’ probiotic supplement — to get as much variety as possible in beneficial bacteria.

If you want a protein boost, you can add a spoonful of nut butter (almond and cashew butters are more neutral in flavor than peanut butter). For constipated kids, grind some flaxseed and throw it in (1 tsp should do). And my personal favorite for getting some extra brain-boosting fats? A quarter of an avocado makes the smoothie thick and creamy, and you can’t taste it at all.

The best part of all? No complaining. At afternoon snack time, when my kids hear the blender running, it’s like a Pavlovian reaction — they come to the table, ready to drink. It keeps them satiated until dinner, and gets those good bugs into their adorable little bellies.

Leaving me just enough time to switch out the laundry, check twitter, and change out of my pjs before dinner.*

* Of course I’m kidding. I’m totally done with laundry by dinner.

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Zucchini-corn fritters (gluten-free)

I like petite zucchini. There’s just something about the scale of a giant summer squash that seems, I don’t know, wrong. I know it’s not wrong, that this is just some silly subconscious preconceived notion about what should be the limits of squash growth, something probably covered by Freud in one of his texts. But reasoning with myself on this does no good. I will fish out the little guys from the bin at the farmer’s market, loving them for their convenient circumference and polite volume of seeds.

But of course, I also won’t turn down a big specimen, not when offered one from a friend’s garden.

Which is what happened a few weeks ago — my in-laws came through town, and I was handed a large zucchini, fresh from their vegetable patch. I brought it home with gratitude, and within a few hours had it shredded down to the perfect amount for making up a batch of zucchini fritters. I had leftover grilled corn cobs in the fridge to use up, with the challenge of making this batch grain-free. The skillet was heating up as I was stripping the corn of its kernels.

I ended up using the fritters as a base for dinner — one that involved sautéed kale and an over-easy egg on top. But several inspirational recipes included dips of sour cream cut with a little lime juice and spiked with chopped chives, or creme fraiche (easy to make at home). The sweetness of the corn (with a smoky component if you use grilled) perked up the texture and flavor of my usual standby fritter. My kids rejected them outright, so that left me with about 10 fritters all to myself over the next day or two — which I had no problem consuming, they were that good.

Good, and able to clear my conscience of squash discrimination.

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For this recipe, it can help your knuckles if you have a food processor — this one is my favorite. You’ll also do well to have a good pre-seasoned cast-iron pan.

 

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This post was linked up to the Seasonal Recipe Roundup: Zucchini at GNOWFGLINS.