Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Great Cow Acquisition, i.e., Cow Trek 2007

I was reading the new issue of Gourmet magazine this week, and there was an article ("Raising the Steaks") about Kobe and Wagyu beef. According to the author, Kobe beef is not all it's cracked up to be or at least the mythology of the happy cows has been seriously smudged.

I've always bought into that whole mythos that Kobe cattle live a better life than I do--good food, beer, and daily massages--that's the life for me. However, according to the Gourmet article, Kobe cattle have it no better than veal calves, and they have to endure it longer...up to 3 years. In contrast, American-raised Wagyu, which are bred from Kobe stock, are sort of living the life we thought their Japanese brethren were living. (The one thing that doesn't change about these cattle, whether Japanese- or American-bred is the price, which is pretty darn steep.)

At work, there are some folks who are into eating organic and healthy, and they buy meat from a little college in NC, Warren Wilson College and the Warren Wilson College Farm. Warren Wilson College has a "triad" principle: Academics, Work, and Service, with the work and service portions of the program involving work/service at the college and surrounding communities. It sounds like a really cool place to go to school. (I probably would not have thought that when I was actually in college, but it's my history and I can revise it if I want to!) (And, end sentences with prepositions, too!)

Some of their courses of study are agriculturally based, and the students run a mixed crop and livestock operation. It's educational in nature, and is managed as a working farm committed to sustainable farming practices. They raise cattle and hogs, which are sold as meat each fall. They raise the grains and feed for the cattle and swine, and use no hormones or antibiotics. The cattle are "finished" on grass, which according to the college's brochure, makes for better beef that just plain grass fed.

"Raising our herd on pastures is better for the animals and for the environment. Beef from grass-fed cattle has also been proven better for your health. The natural “salad bar” on which our steers graze builds meat that is lower in total fat and calories yet abundant in good fats like omega-3 fatty acids and CLAs, a cancer-fighting fat. The meat also contains higher levels of a variety of antioxidant vitamins. For the final 100 days the Black Angus steers and heifers are separated and “finished” on dairy-quality alfalfa/grass pastures. This elevated nutritional plane makes the difference between grass-fed and grass-finished."

(And, it's only $5.00/pound if you buy in bulk!)

This concept intrigued me, and I got the info from our resident guru of nutrition, aka our corporate recruiter, who is very into eating healthy! You can buy cow in quarters, halves, and wholes, and I knew that even a quarter was going to be a whole lot of meat for The Man and I, even if the poodles were allowed to help out. So, I talked it over with K, who has a couple of strapping young men in her family and could probably put this bulk purchase to good use. We decided to split a quarter cow between our families to see if we liked it.

Because, not only was it going to be a lot o' meat, we were going to have to travel about 7 hours round trip to get said beef, because it was in another state!

So, one crisp Saturday morning in November, I showed up at K’s door with my giant cooler in tow. We loaded up her van with a few more giant coolers and headed off to NC in search of the cow of our dreams. K was intrigued by the whole “grass finished” concept, because she is originally from the Midwest and like her beef to be of the “corn-fed” variety. (I’m pretty sure that’s what I’m used to as well.)

We drive and drive and drive, because the processing facility/butcher shop is of course in the middle of nowhere. Seriously. It’s in the middle of a field.

Pulling up to the cinderblock building that houses the butcher shop, I’m kind of disappointed. I think we were expecting some sort of fanfare or something, because of the whole adventure of getting the cow. Instead, we are greeted by 3 college students at a folding table, who look up our name and tell us how much we owe. We pay, and another guy trundles out a cart with boxes full of white paper parcels.

We most definitely brought too many coolers.

¼ of a cow, or at least our cow, is about 88 pounds…which, after fabrication, fits pretty well into one large-ass cooler (the kind you can put a small body in). There were about million 1-lb packages of ground beef and some steaks, stew meat, some roasts, and some beef ribs, all of it frozen. It really was rather anti-climatic after we put the meat in the cooler…the whole process took the grand total of 20 minutes, thereabouts. And, we’d driven 3.5 hours for this?

So, we take off around the front of the building to check out the meat market inside. And, man there were some lovely hunks and chunks of meat there. I negotiated with one of the butchers for a 6-pound boneless ribeye roast for our Thanksgiving dinner.

(You’ll be proud that I did not stroke out completely when the price came to $63 for that hunk o’ meat. The Man, on the other hand, couldn’t quite get the fact that we had just driven for hours, bought pounds of meat, and then I was buying more meat? But, it was beautiful meat, and there didn’t seem to be anything like it in the batch of meat we just bought. I did compromise and cut the roast in half, so we could have 2 expensive dinners instead of one…and last week, I saw 3-lb bone-in ribeye roasts at Publix for $10ish per pound and pointed out that I thought we’d gotten the better deal, since mine was boneless.)

When I got home from the great cow adventure, which included a stop at a questionable gas station/convenience, I took out a package of T-bones to defrost for Sunday dinner. (Note to the state of North Carolina: It does not make your state or any other state below the Mason-Dixon line look progressive and part of the 21st century (or even the 20th) when said gas station/convenience store seemed to be stocked entirely with “I’m a Little Redneck” t-shirts. Not a good message about the youth of today…you know, the ones who will be running the country in 20+ years…those youth.)

On Sunday, we grilled the steaks and eagerly sat down for our first bite…which was kinda underwhelming, especially because of the amount of effort we put into acquiring the steaks. The flavor was good, but different in a way I’m not sure how to describe, and they were kinda tough. Which surprised me, because T-bones aren’t normally tough. I grilled them to medium-rare, so it wasn’t a case of overcooking, but they weren’t the best T-bones we’d ever had.

I made spaghetti sauce with some of the ground beef later that week, and we decided we liked the flavor of the ground beef, but I did have to pour off a lot of fat…I’m kinda used to that 90/10 or 80/20 mix I usually get at the store, so that was a bit interesting. I checked in with K about what she thought, and she agreed with me about the ground beef. She said they cooked some ribeyes, and that while they were good, there was practically no aroma from the grilling. Weird. She mentioned that she noticed this lack while standing right over the grill, and she couldn’t really smell that wonderful aroma of steaks on the grill that usually permeates the air and brings every stray dog within 20 miles to your backyard. (I can't remember if the T-bones smelled or not...)

We agreed that it was an interesting experiment, that we’d had fun on the trip (her boys are a hoot!), and that we would probably pass on doing it again. I reserve the right to change my mind after sampling more of the cow bounty in my freezer, but I’m guessing that I probably won’t. (I've got some ribeyes defrosting for dinner tonight, and since it's become subtropical December, I'll grill them and let you know if they have an aroma or not.)

However, I am willing to drive to find some Kurobota pork! Stay tuned for The Wild Adventures of This Little Piggie!


LinC said...

Enjoyed hearing about your odyssey, even if I'm not much of a beef eater. I don't cook much beef because I don't know how to cook it well and because -- lets face it squarely -- I'm too cheap to buy the really good cuts. So Joseph gets a pot roast about once a year and that's it.

J said...

Growing up in the midwest and having grandparents who raised beef cattle, we always got a butchered cow for Christmas. I of course did not appreciate this concept as a kid but do now. Instead I just got really sick of meat sauce over spaghetti, meatloaf, and whatever else we could do with ground beef. I could see myself making the same kind of trip, but you have now saved me the hassle!

BTW, my man has purchased a lovely beef tenderloin for our Christmas dinner when I get home and we are going to try the Emeril lobster-stuffed recipe on Will let you know how it goes.

Garnigal said...

I grew up on a farm and our meat for the year was half a cow and half a pig (the other half went next door to my Aunt and Uncle). Besides being extremely economical (we paid butchering costs only since they were our animals - around $300/animal in the '90's) I've always thought that it tasted better.

'Course, it was grain fed pork and beef - maybe that's the difference?