Beef from “Happy Cows”

14 Apr

Those of you who know the BBQ, Esq. family know that Mrs. BBQ, Esq., is a seafood eating vegetarian. Her journey from carnivore to vegetarian began not for reasons of health, but rather, out of her concern for animal welfare. She heard, or saw, one of the expose’ pieces about the very worst practices in beef processing and decided she could not support an industry that treated animals in the way described in the report. We have had many discussions about the meat and poultry processing industries and we have largely agreed to disagree, but earlier this year, I conceded that I would attempt to locate a supplier of pasture raised, grass fed (and possibly grain finished), anti-biotic free beef, what I dubbed as beef from “happy cows.”

She is not crazy about the final journey any animal makes from “happy cow” to medium rare rib-eye, but she feels better knowing that my rib-eye was not raised in warehouse like conditions in which SOME commercially raised beef may be produced. I’m not taking on the whole commercial beef industry thing, and I’m not getting political or anything. I just want to eat a good steak and make Mrs. BBQ, Esq. feel a bit better about what I eat.

Well, the path to Happy Cows was not as easy as it might sound. Despite seeing many beef cattle roaming many pastures as I drive around the State of Alabama, figuring out how to get one of those frolicking bovines onto one of my grills proved to be rather difficult. I searched the CSA sites and Googled “pasture raised” and “grass fed” cattle.

Finally, I found http://www.freshfully.com – a virtual CSA promoting Alabama meat, seafood and produce and emphasizing sustainably-raised and organically farmed products.

I purchased a small quantity of beef – a couple of rib eyes and t-bones – from an Alabama farmer. The beef wasn’t cheap, but I had prepared myself for that and was willing to pay more than the going rate for commercially produced beef (which is high enough these days in and of itself). Today I went to pick up the beef and to say I was disappointed was a bit of an understatement. The rib-eyes were about 8 oz each and were thin. The t-bones were not available so the farmer substituted a package of strip steaks that were quite thin (I’m contemplating how I am going to cook those) and tossed in a dozen farm fresh eggs to even up the deal. I am guessing that the eggs might be the best part of the acquisition.

Leaving the farmer’s market, I saw a sign for “Holmestead Beef,” “Holmesgrown in Perry County, Alabama by J. Cooper Holmes.” I decided to see if the beef Cooper and his wife had for sale was more visually appealing that what I had purchased earlier. Turns out, it was! I ended up purchasing a pack of two, inch and half thick bone-in rib-eyes. For the record, on my patio, an inch and a half is the appropriate thickness for a rib-eye steak. Much more pleased with this purchase – and with the personable Mr. and Mrs. Cooper – I headed home, contemplating how to respectfully prepare these nice looking steaks.

I thawed the steaks and decided that, because they were grass-fed, with less of the visible marbling that we all are accustomed to in rib-eyes, I would use a little bit of briny-like Dale’s Marinade and then dry that off and season with Greek seasoning – one of my favorite steak seasonings.

I decided to cook on one of the Weber Kettle grills on the patio using good old-fashioned Kingsford charcoal. I opted for the kettle instead of one of the ceramic cookers and natural lump because Mrs. BBQ, Esq., had pressure washed the patio and the grills had not yet been restored to their usual locations. Still, there is nothing disgraceful about a Weber One-Touch Gold mounted in a table and Kingsford charcoal. Adding a couple of chunks of Pecan for flavor, I lit a chimney of charcoal and when ready, spread it out over half of the charcoal grate for two-zone cooking.

Because the steaks were cut to an appropriate thickness, I decided to do a reverse sear cook. I cut the top and bottom vents down to about one-half to get the temperature to stabilize at about 350. I put the rib-eyes on the cool side of the grill, closed the lid – and had a Jim Beam. I like the reverse sear technique because it yields wonderful results on appropriately thick steaks and because it allows ample time for a beverage, or perhaps two, while the meat is roasting on the cool side of the grill.

After about 20 minutes – or one beverage – the steaks were just topping 100 degrees. I removed the steaks to a platter and let them rest, opened the bottom vent on the Weber and let the temperature come back up to well over 400 degrees as the oxygen hit the briquettes.

When the coals were once again glowing red and the fire was hot, I seared the steaks over the hot coals for maybe two minutes a side, or until it “felt right” and a peek at the steak showed that the surface of the steaks was nicely charred to a deep mahogany (but not black) color. The meat temperature when I took the steaks off the grill was just barely over 120 degrees.

I usually will take thick steaks to 125 degrees internal temperature, figuring the internal temperature will continue to rise by between 5 and 10 degrees after they go to the platter. Because this was grass-fed beef, I wanted to get them off the grill a bit sooner so they would finish at a lower temperature than conventional beef. My theory was that the lower fat content would require a lower finish temperature to keep the beef from being dry and chewy.

The rest was pretty close to 10 minutes while I finished up some par -cooked red potato wedges on the grill and cooked a fillet of Scamp Grouper from my favorite fish monger (The Snapper Grabber) for Mrs. BBQ, Esq.

So, what was the verdict? I also cooked a nice Certified Angus Beef (“CAB”) USDA Choice Chuck-Eye steak as a “control steak” to compare to the grass-fed, pasture-raised steak. The rib-eye turned out amazing! The steak was a perfect medium-rare degree of doneness from one side to the other, with absolutely no bands of gray or brown at the edges of the steak. The flavor was different from the CAB control steak. The grass-fed steak had a more intense taste, with overtones that could be described as “nutty.” The tenderness was on a par with the CAB steak and the Greek seasoning worked just as well on the Holmestead Beef rib-eye as on the CAB steak. The combination of the cooking method, seasoning and the meat itself made this one of the best steak dinners of the year!

To be sure, the texture and flavor profile is different than that of a USDA Prime or Certified Angus Beef Rib-Eye, but it is no worse, just different. I won’t go to these steaks exclusively – I couldn’t afford to do that and eat as much beef as I do and I’m not thrilled with the possibility of eating less beef – but I suspect that I will order a nice steak or two from the Holmes family to pick up at Pepper Place a couple times or so a month and will look forward to and enjoy each of those steaks!

Here is a picture of the finished product. The Holmestead steak is on the left; the CAB “control” steak is on the right. There is a second Holmestead steak under the first one – that will be lunch tomorrow!

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