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?

Tomato-corn pie with grain-free crust

A thing I’ve had to truly mourn this year: Tomato Pie.

It’s like summer in a pie plate. Like someone sat down one day and wondered, How can I fit all of summer into this pie dish? And that is what was born. Garden tomatoes, basil, and really good cheese baked into a delicate pie crust.

However, sadly… there is no tomato pie for the grain-free. And while I hear that really good pie crusts can be made gluten-free, grain-free is an impossibility.

But I refuse to be doomed to a life without my own pie plate full of summer. Just had to think outside the box a bit.

I’ve long heard praises sung for this recipe for a Corn-Tomato Pie over at Smitten Kitchen. And while I still don’t believe it’s as good as the pure unadulterated tomato-ness of my classic, it’s still a darned good pie. A bit richer, with its lemony-mayo and layers of summer corn. And as luck would have it — very adaptable to a grain-free crust.

This pie was loved by all but two of my three children. Which in our household means a winner. I’ll be making it again, likely long after I’ve re-embraced grains in my life. It will just be added as a distant cousin to the first and favorite savory summer pie in my repertoire.

If you are still among the grain-consumptive, definitely check out the original recipe (I’ve made very minor changes to the filling in the version below), which utilizes a double-classic pie crust. Otherwise, there’s still time in these weeks before September 22nd for the grain-less among us to get our fill of sunshine on a plate.

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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?

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Old-fashioned Blueberry-Basil Preserves

I love using descriptors like “old-fashioned.” They are completely undefinable (from the time of yore?), and conjure images of everything on the shelves at your local Cracker Barrel.

(In case you’re wondering, other adjectives falling into this category include old-timey, prairie-style, country — oftentimes spelled with a “k” — and grandma’s.)

But I’m coming up empty on finding another name for these preserves. Honey-sweetened, commercial-pectin-free, and lacto-fermented. Seems like the way our great-great-grandmothers likely had to make jam, yes? On the prairie or in the country, no doubt.

My motivations for making them this way should come as no surprise: I’m still not eating sugar, which leaves most jam recipes out of reach — and I’m totally into fermenting things these days. Give me a jar of just about anything, and I’ll stir a little whey into it, let it sit on the counter for a day, and let those good lactic acid bugs multiply (granted, the honey in this recipe probably halts that growth a bit, but they do still grow, according to what I’ve read in Sandor Katz’s The Art of Fermentation — ahem, many thanks to Suzanne for the weekend book loaner! It’s now on my to-acquire list!).

Oh how I heart this jam. The high salt content helps with fermentation but also lends a delightful surprise flavor component to what we’ve come to expect from jam (read: candy-sweet). Simmering the berries with honey helps bring out their natural pectin — so once chilled, the jam really does jelly up (though some liquid does remain). I’ve recently been allowed one slice of Ezekial bread each day on my diet, and don’t think every one of those precious slices hasn’t included this jam, since the day it was ready.

Old-fashioned, somewhat near a prairie. I think I’ve found my kountry urban calling.

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Blueberry-Basil Preserves (lacto-fermented) on Punk Domestics

Ferment Friday, no. 1: beets

These days my life seems to revolve around finding various items at the farmer’s market, sticking them in a brine, and watching to see what happens.

You know, when it’s not revolving around sleeping, or finding highly-educational and physically-beneficial activities for my summered children to do all day, or feeding painfully-nourishing foods to those worn-out children, or eating bon-bons.

Because what could be more fun than fermenting random things? And sharing those things on Fridays?

So a mini-series it will be. Ferment Fridays. Not likely to happen every Friday, but you know, when it happens.

What’s with fermentation, anyway? Well, it was the original method of pickling — vegetables were dry-salted or brined, and therefore preserved for longer storage (through winter, in some cases). Meanwhile, as often happens, that preservation made vitamins and minerals more readily available, and increased the levels of lactic acid bacteria (bugs that are good for your gut). While the process doesn’t leave the veggies with the same intense punch of a vinegar (or “fresh”) pickle, they are still sour, sometimes quite pungent.

It took me a while to transition from a taste for fresh pickles to fermented pickles. But I’m there now, and loving it.

Today’s feature: fermented beets.

This is my second attempt at fermenting beets (not to be confused with pickling beets) — the first involved shredding the roots, making a relish. But these slices are crunchier, with the ultra-clean flavors of orange and ginger (see recipe note). I love these on salads, with eggs, or eating straight from the jar.

Only slightly more labor-intensive than other pickles because you shock them in boiling water first. But totally worth that extra five minutes.

Because, really. What’s five minutes in a world where ferments are happening?

 

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Fermented Beets with Ginger & Orange on Punk Domestics

Honey-rosemary ice cream (dairy-free)

Remember my grain-free strawberry-rhubarb crisp from a couple weeks ago? The one that fooled people, in its grain-free-ness? Well, this is the ice cream that went on top. The ice cream that fooled people in its dairy-free-ness.

There was a lot of fooling going on that night.

I’m not just into culinary trickery for grits and shins — though it is all selfishly-motivated. I want to eat yummy desserts. And so I try my hardest to make them, using ingredients I can eat while on my wacky diet. Sometimes, it works out, and I actually make something amazingly delicious. Which of course I then want to hoard in a dark corner of my basement share.

I have no idea why this ice cream works so well — I’ve made other coconut-milk-based frozen concoctions that are good, but something about this one was simply near-perfect. Maybe it’s because the honey and rosemary don’t fight with the coconut, don’t try to overshadow it — they just dance with it. The texture is as creamy as you can get without including the milk from a cow.

It would go well over just about any fruit dessert — say, an Independence Day pie or fresh blueberry tart. Or, on its own, drizzled with a dark-chocolate sauce. How you eat it matters not — it only matters that you eat it.

Eat it, and tell me you are not fooled.

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Recipe: Honey-Rosemary Ice Cream (dairy-free, refined-sweetener-free))

: makes about 1 quart

If you don’t have coconut cream, you can use (1) 14-oz can plus one additional cup canned coconut milk. Use a full can in step 1, and the additional cup in step 4. If you use local, pastured eggs from a trusted source and prefer to use raw yolks, you can forgo heating the mixture to 165º in step 3 (simply heat the honey and milk until the honey dissolves, then whisk in your yolks).

Ingredients

  • 1 can full-fat coconut milk
  • 1 cup (1 8-oz box) unsweetened coconut cream (see note for substitution)
  • 1/2 cup mild honey
  • pinch salt
  • 6″ sprig fresh rosemary
  • 5 egg yolks (see note)

Instructions

  1. In a medium saucepan, combine the can of coconut milk with the honey and salt. Bring just to a simmer (do not allow to come to a full boil). Turn off heat, submerge the rosemary sprig into the milk, cover, and let steep for 30 minutes.
  2. Remove rosemary sprig (discard). Return saucepan to medium heat, and warm the milk until hot to the touch.
  3. In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the egg yolks. Slowly ladle the hot milk into the egg yolks while continuously whisking (a towel placed underneath the bowl helps keep it from moving). Pour egg yolks and milk back into the saucepan, whisking, until combined. If using grocery-store eggs, heat the mixture until it reaches 165º on an instant-read thermometer.
  4. In a large bowl, pour the cup of coconut cream (or more coconut milk). Set a strainer on top of the bowl, and pour the hot milk & egg mixture through the strainer into the cream.
  5. Stir the mixture over an ice bath to cool. Transfer to the refrigerator to chill completely before freezing according to your ice cream maker’s instructions.

Copyright © Katy Carter, 2012.

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This post was linked up to Simple Lives Thursday, via GNOWFGLINS.

Grain-free Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp

The bad news? Strawberry season in Indianapolis is pretty much over (I bought my last quart a couple weeks ago, with nary a strawberry to be seen at this past Saturday’s market — though the raspberries were starting to appear, with blueberries imminent! silver linings abound!).

The good news? You can make this crisp with less-than-stellar berries (i.e., storebought), and it’s still good. And the rhubarb should be flowing freely for many weeks to come (especially if friends have given you an open-garden-policy on the stalks growing beside their garage).

Of course, with a recipe like a crisp, you can substitute whichever fruit or berry is currently in season. Simply adjust the sweetener to the natural sweetness of your berries, and experiment with adjusting herbs and/or spices.

This is one of those rare, delightful desserts that can be made grain-free, and almost no one will notice. It still ends up with the necessary buttery (or not! — dairy-free option is below), crispy topping over sweet-tart fruit. Begging for a scoop of ice cream — we donned ours with my favorite dairy-free version to-date — recipe coming in a near-future post.

Be sure an make this on a night you can share it — it tastes best the day it’s made (though I’ll confess to eating our leftovers the day after, with not a breath of complaint between mouth-fulls).

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Recipe: Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp (grain-free, optional dairy-free, GAPS-adaptable)

: serves 6-8, inspired by this recipe from A Couple Cooks

This recipe can be made legal for the GAPS diet by omitting the balsamic vinegar and starch thickener. The filling will lose a little flavor complexity (try substituting 1 Tbsp lemon juice for the vinegar), and will be very soupy without a thickener. One way to help alleviate this problem is to combine the filling ingredients, let the fruits exude juices, then drain the filling before pouring into the baking dish. After baking, you can also carefully pour off some of the excess liquid.

Ingredients

for the filling:

  • 2 1/2 cups chopped rhubarb (about 3/4 pound, stalks chopped into 1/2″ pieces)
  • 2 1/2 – 3 cups hulled and sliced strawberries (a heavy quart, or 1 pound)
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar (omit for GAPS)
  • 6 Tbsp honey
  • pinch salt
  • 2 Tbsp tapioca or corn starch (omit for GAPS, see note)

for the topping:

  • 1/4 cup chopped shelled pistachios
  • 1/4 cup chopped almonds
  • 1 cup almond flour
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 4 Tbsp butter (sub coconut oil for dairy-free)

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350ºF. Have ready an 8″ square baking dish, or pie plate.
  2. In a large bowl, combine fruits, lemon zest, optional vinegar, honey, and salt. Toss well to combine.
  3. In a separate, smaller bowl, combine the nuts, almond flour, and salt. Using a fork, stir in the butter (or coconut oil) and honey. The topping will be gooey.
  4. Pour the fruit into the prepared baking dish. Using your fingers, dot the topping mixture over top of the fruit, spreading as evenly as possible (some fruit will still be visible underneath).
  5. Bake for 25-35 minutes, until the top is golden and the fruit bubbly. Cool for 15 minutes, or to room temperature. Best served the day it’s made, topped with a scoop of ice cream.

Copyright © Katy Carter, 2012.

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This post was linked up to Simple Lives Thursday, and the Strawberry Seasonal Recipe Roundup, via GNOWFGLINS.