The backstory on beef
The majority of cattle raised in Virginia are destined for an out-of-state feedlot where they will join the ranks of the numbered animals that are processed, shipped, and eaten around the country. As recent films and books have illustrated, commercially raised beef is one of the most troubling elements of our current food system; cattle are crowded into pens and fed overstock corn and soy, then dosed with antibiotics and slaughtered in assembly-line fashion. The notion that beef is harmful to our bodies is true only to the extent that the health of our commercial cattle has been compromised and manipulated to serve the beef industry itself.
Here in Central Virginia, there are a number of farms producing top-quality beef on pasture, and making that beef available locally. These lucky animals live and eat outdoors, grazing on mixed grasses and high-quality hay. In addition to being leaner and more flavorful than its commercially-raised counterpart, pastured beef is nutritionally superior in every way—it contains up to four times the Omega-3 fatty acids of commercial beef, and is an excellent source for the powerful antioxidant CLA (conjugated linoleic acid).
The succulent smell of locally pastured beef, layered with tender vegetables and spiked with wine and fresh herbs, will make it a pleasure to find yourself in the kitchen… and long-simmered braised and stewed beef dishes will improve with age, so use your biggest pot and look forward to leftovers for lunch.
Braising and stewing
The economical way to enjoy locally pastured beef is to shop for tougher, less expensive cuts from the chuck (upper front shoulder) and round (rump). Cattle that roam outside develop strong shoulder muscles, which translates to tougher meat—the upside to this dilemma is that tougher muscles offer the most robust flavor. Braising and stewing are two similar preparations that will make a modest amount of meat feed a crowd—and knock their socks off with flavor.
Both braising and stewing require moist heat and a long cooking time. Braising begins with a large, whole cut of meat that is browned on all sides, doused with broth or wine, and cooked in a covered vessel until the meat is fork-tender (pot roast would be the classic example). In contrast, stewing requires that the meat be cut into bite-sized pieces prior to browning, but also necessitates a long, “slow and low” cooking time.
In your kitchen, make it a rule to allow local beef to come to room temperature before cooking it. In the case of braising and stewing, that meat should also be dry so that it browns completely (rather than steaming). Choose a large, heavy pan with a lid (like a 7-quart Le Creuset dutch oven) and let the oil heat until it is nearly smoking. Once your meat is browned on all sides, capitalize on the flavor that has stuck to the pan by deglazing with a flavorful liquid such as wine or broth. This liquid becomes the base for your beefy sauce, and can be augmented with vegetables, fresh herbs, tomatoes, and even a dash of steak sauce or Tabasco. Control the amount of sauce by lidding the pot (to keep all the liquid in) or setting the lid ajar, which will allow for slow reduction and thickening.
The laws of supply and demand work even on a steer—local tenderloin ranges north of $24 per pound because each animal only has two. Short of memorizing the diagram in your favorite meat cookbook, assume that as price diminishes, poundage available per animal and cooking time both increase. Therefore, the economical way to enjoy the flavor and health benefits of pastured local beef (and other meats) is to select more plentiful, less expensive cuts, and put more time into preparing them.
Our kitchen columnist, Lisa Reeder, is a chef and local foods advocate and consultant. Read more about her at http://alocalnotion.wordpress.com.
Budget-friendly beef cuts for stewing and braising
Front upper shoulder; $7-8 per pound
Rump; $5-8 per pound
Brisket and Shank
Front lower shoulder/chest and upper portion of front leg; $6 to $10 per pound
What you’ll need
Larger cuts (2-3 oz. per person, plus some leftovers!)
How to cook it
Brown and braise whole with liquid; cook covered in oven; add vegetables in last hour
What to ask for
Chuck: Arm roast, shoulder roast, blade steak
Round: Bottom round roast, eye round steak
Brisket: Whole, flat cut
What you’ll need
Small pieces (1-inch squares, 2-3 oz. meat per person, plus some leftovers!)
How to cook it
Dredge in seasoned flour; brown in batches; cook stovetop in liquid with vegetables; uncover in last hour to thicken
What to ask for
Chuck: Short ribs
Round: Round tip, eye round
Shank: Cross cut shank