Thursday, February 26, 2009

Holy Steer!

Lately FOTL has been sneaking out of his squalid, too-small digs to do a little hobnobbing. The other night I had an opportunity to try some artisan beef from small producers who treat their animals humanely and lay off excessive grain feeding.

First things first: As we learned during the evening's panel discussion, it's steer, not cow. Eat an old cow and you may not want steak ever again. Also, it's not just about the marbling. Many factors go into a good cut of beef. Try to get aged beef, either wet-aged or dry-aged. My notes from the evening suggest that the dry-aged had a stronger, more adventurous flavor, at least on this particular night.

The tasting was an eye-opener. Just as wine varies by grape and terroir, beef varies by breed and feeding grounds. These steers munched native grasses for the most part (some were "finished" with moderate amounts of grain), yet the difference in taste and texture was considerable. One had very tender, cut-with-a-butter-knife flesh, while another was much chewier; one was reserved, almost classic in taste, while another was gamier, with a long finish and an earthy, almost fungal flavor.

Thanks to Jason Wilson, owner-chef of Crush, for his skilled presentation and remarkable intermezzos to go with the steak—and to the indomitable Traca Savagodo, aka Seattle Tall Poppy, for her gracious hosting and Gladwellian connectivity talents. In total, we tried three different cuts (sirloin, New York, rib-eye) from four different varieties, all of it delicious.

So, what did I do the very next day? Yep. Rushed right out and bought some more beef to conduct my own taste test. I was surprised—amazed, really—by the prices. Organic and grass-fed beef have recently come way down in price, at least where I shop, and are now priced competitively with the factory-farmed beef at the supermarket. I talked to the butcher about this and she said there was a concerted effort underway to challenge Big Ag. That's good news.

I bought two New York strips. One was an organic grass-fed cut from Eel River Organic Beef in Northern California ($7.99 per pound). The other was an organic cut from Country Natural Beef ($10.99 per pound). The grass-fed meat was a paler red (not a bad thing, as we learned the other night, since those deep red steaks you see in the conventional supermarket are sometimes sporting a chemically-enhanced coloring) and it didn't show as much marbling; it also cooked quicker than the other cut for some reason, and so the taste test was somewhat foiled, as was my usual kick-off-the-cowboy approach to doneness, much to Martha's delight.

Now, there is a foraging angle to all this. Every year around this time I start to get the shack nasties something terrible in anticipation of spring. One of my favorite rites of the season is the morel hunt, but for now all I can do is stare at the dried specimens in my big mason jars from previous seasons—and then grab delirious handfuls to rehydrate for Steak and Morel Sauce!

Steak with Morel Sauce

I've written about morel sauces before, here and here. Really, there's no end to what you can do with morels and steak. After making the sauce a couple times you'll realize all it takes is a little improvisational brio to whip together an elegant and very tasty sauce every time, no matter what ingredients you have lying around. On this occasion I used dried morels reconstituted in water, a splash of red wine not exceeding half a cup, beef stock, and just a touch of cream.

2 steaks
2 oz dried morels (about 2 dozen)
1 shallot, finely chopped
2-3 tbsp butter
1/2 cup red wine
1 cup beef stock
1 tsp fresh thyme, chopped
2 oz heavy cream
salt and pepper

1. Rehydrate morels in hot water, just enough to cover. (Crush a few into bits before adding water.) Salt and pepper steaks and allow to come to room temperature.

2. Pre-heat over to 250 degrees. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in skillet over medium-high eat and cook steaks, a few minutes per side according to taste. Remove to oven to keep warm.

3. Add shallots to skillet—and another tablespoon of butter if necessary. Saute a minute or two, then de-glaze with red wine. Add mushrooms and their liquid and reduce.

4. When liquid is mostly evaporated add beef stock, thyme, and a few tablespoons of heavy cream. Sauce should remain dark. Reduce and pour over steaks.

A final side-note on the artisan beef tasting: One of the most important things I've learned while circling the sun is you just have to ask. Turns out one of the ranchers in attendance (she calls herself a "grass farmer") lives on a lower stretch of one of my favorite salmon rivers. I asked her if she would accept a bottle of whiskey or a bag of mushrooms if I knocked on her farmhouse door one fall day with flyrod in hand. She said yes. That's terroir I can't wait to visit.


dp said...

I'm splitting a quarter local grass-fed beef with a friend, to be delivered this Sunday. I can't wait!!! I can already tell it's going to be the highlight of my weekend :-)

If we could get NY strips here for $7.99, we'd eat steak every night! The only two places to get grass-fed beef close to me charge $14.99 normally. $12.99 on sale. As such, we stick to the "cheaper" cuts (although still flavorful) and save the more luxurious cuts for special occasions. Sigh.

Peabody said...

I can't believe you ate beef so quickly again. I haven't touched red meat since. ;)
Looks delish with the mushrooms.

Anonymous said...

YUM - I am so bummed I missed this event.

I think the cooking time difference is down to the composition of the fat - grass fed has more O3s, which makes it cook faster (or something like that.. Skagit River Ranch was telling me a while ago).

Lovely looking sauce BTW.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

A morel sauce is just the thing for the shack-nasties. I serve it with venison whenever I have either morels or venison...Too bad you live where it actually gets cold enough to have them. I am heading out looking for mushrooms manana...

Brilynn said...

I absolutely love morels, this looks awesome!

Langdon Cook said...

Darlene- I did a quarter steer a couple years ago. Get yer meat cookbooks out! It's a long haul. Hope you have the freezer space.

Peabody - I'm a glutton for punishment!

Matt - That makes total sense. We talked about the O3s and O6s from a health standpoint. Now I know what to expect from a kitchen perspective.

Hank - Good luck out there! Should still be some winter chanties, hedgehogs, and black trumpets down your way.

Brilynn - Thanks for stopping by. You're at the right place--morel lovers need this recipe tattooed on their brainpans.

Anonymous said...

One, "shack nasties" is now in my vocabulary of snappy sayings, and two, I am completely jealous of your jars of dried morels--mine were gone ages ago. Looking forward to being a more prolific picker this year.

I absolutely LOVE your blog.

Donovan said...

Is this the same sauce you made for Carolyn and I last summer? It was yummy and now I can make this myself once I get some morels. I enjoy beef, but am concerned with the sustainability of it, it is nice to see people coming up with humane and sustainable ways to provide it.