From GREG ATKINSON
Not long ago, I spent a day at a ranch in Central Texas where my father grew up. One of his childhood friends was showing us around his section of grazing land. Bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush were blooming, and along the horizon, a small herd of cattle stood in silhouette against the clear blue sky punctuated with puffy white clouds.
“I’m leasing the land now to a fellow who’s raising grass fed beef,” explained my father’s friend. “He wants to keep it all natural.” As we walked, my Old Man and his friend shared memories of their childhoods during the Great Depression when their parents worked at the nearby cotton gin.
“Do you remember the burgers?” my father’s friend wanted to know. “I used to ride my bike from the cotton gin into town to buy hamburgers for the crew. They charged a nickel apiece, but if I could get five other guys to order one, the burger joint would give me six burgers for a quarter and I could keep one for myself. Those hamburgers were the best-tasting things in the world.” My father agreed; nothing like ‘em. “Beef just tasted better then.”
I couldn’t help thinking that the cheap hamburgers these guys enjoyed as kids were “all-natural,” that is free from steroids and antibiotics. In those days, grain was too precious to waste on animals that could forage for themselves. Ranchers allowed the beef to reach a certain age, then they rounded them up. And, although no one called it that, the beef was, for all practical purposes organic.
During the decades that followed, large-scale industrialized farming would change the face of beef production. By the 1960s, “Factory Farms,” would replace the old home on the range model with a system that resulted in increased animal stress, air, land, and water pollution, unnecessary use of antibiotics, and other pharmaceuticals, and social changes like the loss of small family farms and more low-paid farm workers. Fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers were employed to grow more grain to feed animals that were confined instead of being allowed to roam free. Ultimately, the system resulted in beef with less nutritional value – and less flavor.
Replacing the natural diet of wild grasses with grains, specifically corn, lowers the nutritional value, and the quality of meat and dairy products. Compared with natural meat and dairy, products from animals raised in feedlots contain more saturated fat, more total fat, more cholesterol and more calories. “Conventionally” fed beef also has less vitamin E, beta-carotene, vitamin C, and two health-promoting fats called omega-3 fatty acids and “conjugated linoleic acid,” or CLA. The new factory farm standard, which ironically came to be known as “conventional,” yielded beef that presented other health risks.
Animal byproducts, such as ground bones were commonly used as a calcium supplement. The practice was banned in 1997 when it became clear that Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis or “mad-cow disease,” could be transmitted through another contaminated animal. Conventional (not natural) growers still routinely use “milk-replacers,” typically made from cow’s blood. Cattle are naturally vegetarian, and feeding them the ground bones or blood of their kindred is, to most consumers, repugnant.
Since USDA standards for organics were established into law, any beef labeled organic qualifies as all-natural and free from antibiotics, steroids and animal byproducts. And, if the law is read by the spirit instead of by the letter, then cattle raised for organic beef must spend a significant part of their lives grazing on live grass. Ongoing conversations between the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and the USDA will help determine how much time is spent grazing. When grain is in the feed of organic beef, the grain must be organically grown.
Walking through that pasture in Central Texas, I thought about trying to explain all this to my father and my friend. But, these guys have been around for a while and they don’t need things explained to them.
“I figure if this fellow wants to raise natural beef on my pasture, that’s just fine,” said my father’s friend. “And I’ll tell you what. I haven’t tasted beef this good since we were kids.”
Twenty-first Century Hamburgers
The key to great hamburgers is paying attention — first to the source of the beef, then to the way it’s all prepared and assembled.
1 1/2 pounds organic or naturally -raised ground beef
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Canola oil for the grill racks or frying pan
Homemade hamburger buns (see below) or organic store-bought buns
4 tablespoons mayonnaise, or to taste
Tomato slices (about 2 per hamburger)
1.) Preheat a grill or a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Just before cooking, rub the cooking surface with oil.
2.) Divide the hamburger meat into four equal portions and flatten each piece into a disc about 5 inches in diameter. Do not knead the meat or otherwise over handle it, but do take care to form neat edges on the discs by pressing the rim between thumb and forefinger to make tall sides. This will prevent the patties from shrinking too much and give them a nice shape. The center of the patties should be a little thinner than the edges.
3.) Season the patties generously with salt and pepper and grill them or cook them in a dry skillet until they are well-browned on one side and beginning to ooze on top, about 2 to 3 minutes. Turn the patties and cook on the other side until they are just cooked through, about 2 minutes more.
4.) Spread the bottom of each bun with Mayonnaise or your favorite spread, pile on tomato slices and lettuce leaves, then plant the cooked hamburger patties on top and finish each hamburger with a top bun.
Homemade Hamburger Buns
When you go to the trouble to find really great ground beef to make your own hamburgers, then it only makes sense to serve them on the best possible rolls. These rolls take the cake.
(Makes 1 dozen)
1/2 cup warm water
2 tablespoons or 2 packets dry yeast
1/4 cup organic sugar
1 cup organic milk
1/4 cup canola oil
1 egg plus 1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons kosher salt
5 cups unbleached organic white flour,
plus extra flour for kneading and shaping the rolls
To finish the rolls:
1 egg white
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon water
1/4 cup poppy seeds or sesame seeds
1.) In the bowl of an electric mixer or in a large mixing bowl, stir together the warm water, yeast and sugar. Allow the mixture to stand until the yeast is softened, about 5 minutes, then stir until the yeast is completely dissolved. Whisk in 1 cup of the flour and let the yeast mixture stand undisturbed while you prepare the milk mixture.
2.) Warm the milk in a saucepan until it is steaming hot, but not boiling. Turn off the heat and stir in the butter, egg, and salt. The milk mixture should be warm to the touch, about the temperature of a baby’s bottle. Whisk in 1 cup of the flour, then stir the warm milk mixture into the yeast mixture.
3.) Stir in the remaining flour, one cup at a time to make a very soft dough. Use the dough hook on the mixer, or turn the dough out onto a well-floured countertop and knead the dough, pressing it and folding it until it is very springy, sprinkling on additional unbleached white flour if needed to keep the dough from sticking to the counter. Be careful not to add more flour than necessary or the dough will be stiff and the bread will be heavy.
4.) Clean out the bowl in which the dough was mixed and rub the inside of the bowl with 1 tablespoon of the oil. Put the kneaded dough in the bowl and turn it over once so that the whole ball of dough is lightly coated with the oil. Cover the bowl with a damp, lint-free kitchen towel or with a piece of plastic wrap and put it in a warm place until the dough is doubled in size, about an hour.
5.) Divide the dough into 4 equal portions. Shape each piece of dough into a “rope,” about 18 inches long. Working with one rope at a time, cut each one into 3 pieces (cut six pieces to make smaller Kaiser rolls) and tie each small rope into a knot, then tuck one of the loose ends of the rope into the center of the roll and one underneath. You should have round, crown-shape.
6.) As the rolls are shaped, arrange them on a baking sheet lined with parchment. Allow them to rise until almost doubled in bulk, about 20 minutes.
7.) While the rolls are rising, preheat oven to 350. Whisk together the egg white, sugar and water and brush the risen rolls with the egg wash then sprinkle them with sesame seeds. Bake the rolls until golden brown, about 15 minutes and cool on a rack.
Pan Seared Steak with Wine Seller’s Sauce
West Coast cooks taught the rest of the country that natural foods don’t have to be boring. All natural beef, pan-sautéed with shallots, red wine and parsley are finished with a knob of organic butter to make a smooth sauce. Serve these steaks with a mound of mashed organic potatoes and any line drawn between “natural food” and simply great food will be forever erased.
4 (8-ounce) organic beef tenderloin steaks
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup finely chopped shallot
1/2 cup organic beef broth or homemade brown stock
1/2 cup red wine
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh organic parsley
1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) organic butter
1.) Sprinkle the steaks with the salt and pepper. Put the oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat and when the oil is just beginning to smoke, cook the steaks, turning once, until the surface of each is piece is golden brown, about 7 minutes altogether.
2.) Use tongs or a fork to transfer the steaks to a plate. Toss the shallots in the oil left behind in the pan and sauté until soft, about 2 minutes. Pour on the beef broth and red wine and turn the heat to high.
3.) When the broth has boiled down to about half its original volume, after about 5 minutes, return the beef to the pan along with any juices that collected on the plate. Reheat the steaks in the sauce for a minute, then transfer them to serving plates. Swirl the parsley and butter into the pan juices and pour the sauce over the steaks.
Beef Stir Fry with Broccoli and Shiitake
Chinese are far more likely to eat pork than beef and broccoli is a decidedly western vegetable, and yet this dish is a staple of American Chinese restaurants. It demonstrates how readily good cooks adapt to the ingredients they find at hand. This dish really shines when the beef is all-natural and the broccoli is organic.
2 tablespoons natural soy sauce
2 tablespoons cooking wine or sherry
1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
1 garlic clove, grated on a “microplane grater” or finely chopped
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 pound natural flank steak
2 tablespoons rice bran or canola oil
1 pound organic broccoli, rinsed and cut into 2-inch long pieces
1/4-pound shiitake caps, cut into 1/2-inch slices
1 bunch scallions, cut on the diagonal into 1/4-inch slices
1.) Stir the soy sauce, cooking wine, ginger, garlic, cornstarch and sesame oil in a small bowl and set aside.
2.) Cut the flank steak against the grain into strips no more than 1/4-inch thick then cut the strips into 1-inch lengths.
3.) Heat a 14-inch wok over high heat until a drop of water dances immediately and evaporates in one or two seconds. Swirl the oil in the pan. Add the beef, distributing it evenly over the surface of the wok and let it cook undisturbed for a minute to brown. Add the broccoli and shiitake caps and cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly with a metal spatula or tongs.
4.) Give the soy sauce mixture a quick stir to unsettle the cornstarch and pour the mixture all at once over the beef and broccoli. Toss and cook the mixture for another minute to form a shiny glaze over the vegetables.
Greg Atkinson is author of West Coast Cooking and lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington.