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 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!

City Pickers

In a move that would have shocked my 10-year old self, we have become a family of berry-pickers. What feels like a lifetime ago, I loaded up my 3 1/2-year old and 1-year old (my third child still a proverbial twinkle-in-the-eye), and drove to a farm about 20 miles outside of Athens, Georgia to pick strawberries. We returned each year, eventually adding blueberries to the list. Then we moved to Indiana, and for the past three years I’ve loaded up the car and driven half an hour to a berry farm on the north side of the city, once again in pursuit of short-lived farm-fresh berries.

Because that’s what you have to do when you live in a city. To pick berries, you have to load up and drive to the country.

Unless, of course, you don’t.

I could hardly believe it when an article in last week’s Indianapolis Star profiled a blueberry farm in the middle of one of the most strip-mall-plagued areas of our city. A mere 10-minutes from my house. As if that wasn’t enough to shock the berries out of my jam, the farm is also organic.

This city, I’ll tell ya. It has yet to cease to amaze me.

So last week I loaded up an 8, 6, and 3 year old, and made the very short drive to Driving Wind Blueberry Farm. We were the second car to pull up when they opened at 9am on a hot morning, hats on, buckets at-the-ready.

My kids. Minus the 3-year old, who could mostly just be expected to not pick pink berries — my kids were champions of picking. They attacked bushes independently, picking them almost entirely clean of ripe blue berries. After 45 minutes of picking, we had about 7 pounds, had picked a whole row, and had just enough time to pay and chat up the owners a bit before I had a full-fledged heat-induced trifecta-meltdown on my hands (I guess my genes finally kicked in).

And these berries. They are the best blueberries I’ve had in recent memory. Sweet, juicy, completely addictive by the handful.

We’re freezing most of them — using them all through the year in muffins, on pancakes, and in smoothies. But I experimented this week with a blueberry frozen yogurt (tastes like a frozen sweet-tart! recipe below), and have plans for a grain-free tart in coming days.

I almost didn’t post this story, because it ends with bad news for the locals: the farm is just about picked out. The shrubs are not yet mature, only 3 feet high, and the demand for the crop far outweighed supply. This weekend, the facebook page offered appointments for two final picking days, and I snatched one up as soon as I got the message (at time of posting, there were still spots available!). But even if you live near and don’t get to pick, rest assured that next year the shrubs will be an additional foot tall, with more plantings in the works. Pond-irrigated, bee-pollinated, organically-grown blueberries, up to 6 eventual acres if plans hold up.

Just what a city needs.

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Recipe: Blueberry Frozen Yogurt
(naturally-sweetened, GAPS-adaptable)

: makes about 1 quart
Adapted closely from a recipe in The Perfect Scoop, by David Lebovitz

The yogurt is richer when using Greek yogurt, or strained yogurt. To make your own strained yogurt: line a colander with a very thin tea towel or several layers of cheesecloth. Nest into another bowl, and pour 3 cups yogurt into the colander. Cover with a plate, and let sit on the counter or in your refrigerator for 4-6 hours. The thickened yogurt should reduce by half, giving you the amount needed for this recipe. If desired, store the leftover liquid in the bowl (whey) in a jar in your refrigerator for up to 6 weeks — it can be used for lacto-fermentation or in smoothies for extra probiotic boost.

This recipe can be made legal for the GAPS diet by using 24-hour yogurt.

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups plain whole-milk yogurt, greek yogurt, or strained yogurt (see note)
  • 3/4 cup mild honey
  • 3 cups fresh or frozen blueberries
  • 2 tsp fresh lemon juice

Instructions

  1. In a blender, combine the yogurt, honey, blueberries and lemon juice. Blend until smooth. If desired, pass the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer to remove seeds.
  2. Chill completely in the refrigerator, then freeze according to your ice cream maker’s instructions.

Copyright © Katy Carter, 2012.

 

Ode to the English Pea

I had not known you
except from a plastic bag,
poured out from a hole
cut in the corner with scissors.

My children stopped me there,
preferring you frozen,
Popping each icy kelly pearl into discriminate mouths
after discarding the shriveled.

But today little hands
instead of picking through a frosted pile,
pulled apart pods,
bags of the garden.

They learned what it takes to get a single pea.
And we tasted you for the first time fresh,
steamy dressed in butter and salt,
eating the work of our hands in quick delight.

On regrets

I could have ridden a watusi today.

I don’t know what stopped me. Maybe it was the massive horns. Maybe the way the watusi looked at my shyly, almost sweetly, and I just couldn’t imagine putting her out that way.

Actually — no, I know exactly what it was. It was my mom-ness, my holding-things-together-ness. It was my needing-to-know-what’s-next-ness. My awkward-ness.

It was fearful-ness.

Fearful of what? you might rightly wonder.

I have no idea. is my unacceptable answer.

All of this bucket-list-mucking (confession: I don’t really have a bucket list to muck — perhaps this will spawn an all-out intervention?) happened at a place called Bison World, north of Indianapolis. You can read all the details of my visit in next week’s NUVO — but in short, it’s a farm that raises grass-fed bison (and other “pets,” such as the ride-worthy watusi — not the one pictured above), and sells the meat locally, or anywhere else in the world. The farm was beautiful, the bison majestic, in that dusty, fly-covered sort of way.

We grilled bison burgers tonight, and their praises were sung far and wide. Much more tender, much less gamey than I expected. There’s a future for ground bison in our deep freezer, even if my golden opportunity for watusi-riding is now firmly in the past.

There’s a life lesson in here somewhere.

Oh, right: grab the bull by the horns.

 

 

On choosing a farmer’s market

To market, to market!

It’s that time of year again — summer farmer’s market season. While we in Indianapolis are abundantly blessed with a wonderful Winter Farmer’s Market that gives us access to local food from November through April, many towns only have them in the summer season. Our warm-weather markets will be starting up next weekend (we had a single weekend past with none, and I began showing withdrawal symptoms by mid-afternoon Saturday). It seemed a good time for a post to get everyone ready for fresh, local produce shopping.

But not everyone wants the same thing out of a farmer’s market, right? And some cities have lots of markets to choose from while others have just one option. I’ve caricatured a few different types of shoppers below, with tips on finding the best market to suit each of their needs.

  • Just looking to support something local rather than a big box store, plan to visit occasionally.
    If this is you, then you might just want to hit up the market closest to you. Make a walk or bike ride a part of the trip, and you’re getting your exercise at the same time you shop. It’s a win-win. Take a good walk through the whole market, making notes of prices before you buy — that way you’re sure to get the best deal from your very first visit. Make friends with your favorite farmer, and she might hold a quantity of hot-ticket items on a day you know you’ll be behind the crowds.
  • Wanting to try and get most of your produce at the market, eat more seasonally, and transition away from the grocery store as much as possible.
    You’re gonna really want to get to know your market options. Start first with one closest to you, but if it’s not large or diverse enough you might want to try others around town as well. The bigger the market, the bigger the price competition and potential diversity of offerings. You might even consider shopping at more than one market to get the best items (I shop at two markets every Saturday!)
  • Concerned with buying local, but also prioritizing organic and/or sustainably-farmed.
    This is where you need to be prepared to research all market options, and ask lots of questions of the vendors. Some farmer’s markets have across-the-board standards for vendors (our market in Georgia required all produce sold to be sustainably-farmed, so we knew that anything we bought was going to be chemical-free). Some only require that produce be produced within a local radius, and others still have no requirements at all. So you’ll want to pay attention to signs that say “chemical-free” or “sustainably-farmed,” and don’t be afraid to ask questions on top of that (many vendors will not be “certified organic” even though they are growing food organically — this is simply because certification is a time-consuming and expensive label to garner).

One thing that many people don’t realize is that some markets pretty much let anyone sell anything — a vendor could go buy produce anywhere, and sell it as their own. They’re not necessarily being dishonest — they’re just not advertising that they didn’t actually grow the food. And in most cases, their produce is sold at the same price as the farmer a few booths down who grew everything himself and did so without using chemical pesticides. It definitely pays to ask questions of your farmers — and the best ones are more than happy to talk about their growing practices (they usually have signs advertising those practices as well).

If you live in Indianapolis, you can look here for a comprehensive list of options. If elsewhere, you can give farmersmarket.com a try, though I believe they can only show locations that have registered on their site.

But the most important thing is to enjoy getting out of the house on a Saturday morning, shopping outside, and supporting something local. Most markets open around 8 am so you can beat the heat in the heart of summer — and the vibe is always much better than the produce section of your local Kroger. Grab a cup of coffee, put on a hat, and make it a regular part of your weekend.

Honey (a persuasive argument)

honey-dripping

I’ve been going through a lot of honey lately. We’ve always used it for random things — our granola is partially sweetened with honey, and I use it in bread-making. My kids love it on their sandwiches and toast, and there’s nothing better for sweetening herbal tea in winter. But since I started the GAPS diet, it’s the only sweetener I can have (outside of the natural sugars found in most fresh and dried fruits) — so our consumption has doubled.

Honey is a classic example of the expression, you get what you pay for. Last fall, honey made headlines when it was discovered that large portions of the stock on US grocery shelves was likely obtained illegally from China — and could be contaminated with lead and antibiotics, or laced with artificial fillers. It’s apparently difficult to regulate the sources of large honey producers, which makes it easy for the honey cartel (only mildly tongue-in-cheek) to get away with selling a contaminated product & labeling it as pure.

Since it’s virtually impossible to know the source of honey on the shelves, why not play it safe and buy local honey straight from a farmer (or local grocer who can vouch for them)?

I’ll pretend I’m back in high school debate class and outline some points of my persuasive argument:

  • Local honey is actually honey. From actual bees.
  • Local honey can possibly help combat seasonal allergies. The medical evidence on this is sketchy (though people swear by it), but you can at least be assured that fake honey from China won’t help them at all, and might make them worse.
  • Local honey tastes better. If you prefer mild honey, go for clover (if clover isn’t produced in your locale, your health food store likely sells a regional version).
  • You can usually only buy raw (unpasteurized) honey locally/regionally. Raw honey has retained beneficial enzymes to aid in digestion — a thin layer spread on bread actually starts the digestive process for you.
  • Buying local honey helps keep a farmer in business. Those bees are helpful to your environment in ways more than simple production.

The cheapest way to buy it is in bulk — I buy it by the gallon ($35-$40, or around $5/pint) and even once split a 5-gallon bucket with friends ($3.50/pint). But if you don’t use it quickly enough, you could be faced with that ultimate frustration: a big batch of crystallized honey. I wrote a post last year that included a remedy for that problem, but since that process can be risky (I cracked two mason jars and lost 2 quarts of honey), prevention is the way to go.

Honey crystallizes fastest when stored at temperatures between 55° and 63°F — and in my kitchen in winter, the temps easily go down to that range at night. Last winter, I was voicing my frustrations to my honey farmer, and he suggested I freeze it. Freezing honey preserves its enzymes, protects it from crystallization, and is easy to do with a little extra space in your freezer.

honey-jars

The honey doesn’t freeze into a solid block — it more has the consistency of hardened taffy. When I buy a gallon, I immediately divide it into four quart canning jars, letting every last bit drip from the container. One quart jar stays out for use, the rest go in the freezer.

I’m feeling pretty good about my persuasive argument at this point (it helps that I don’t type “um,” — whereas if I was saying all this in person I would have uttered the word no less than 200 times). If you have a plastic honey bear in your pantry, perhaps labelled with the words “Great Value” (and really, who among us hasn’t?), have I convinced you to give a finger to the cartel and try local?

If so, I’ll be forwarding your answer to my high school debate coach. She should probably know that, though it took 20 years, her efforts were not in vain.

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This post was linked up to Simple Lives Thursday.