Beyond Beef Basics: Grass Fed, Grain Finished & More

When I see grass-fed beef in local markets, I imagine cattle grazing in a pasture. Those animals were living the good life, I figure, so I feel better about eating them.

As with many things, I discovered, the reality often is very different.

All cattle graze at some point. “Even in conventional feedlots, the diet is usually 15% roughage of some sort (ground hay, silage, straw, etc.),” says Jim Gerrish. As owner of American GrazingLands Services in May, Idaho, he advises producers on environmentally sustainable grazing operations.

Obviously, buying beef isn’t as simple as I thought. These are some questions to ask yourself.


Is it grain fed?

Conventionally produced meat is fed grain, often in overcrowded feedlots, because it’s a cost-effective way to produce beef. Grain-fed cattle require less land than grass-fed animals, and they mature more quickly. The meat is well marbled with fat, which makes it tender, and many consumers like inexpensive, juicy meat.

I enjoy inexpensive, tender meat, too. But there are downsides to consider. The fatter animals become on grain, the more calories and saturated fat there are in the meat. Cattle also often get sick on a grain diet and must be treated with antibiotics. Widespread use of preventative antibiotics in livestock has contributed to antibiotic resistance in humans, and earlier this week the FDA called for limiting agricultural antibiotics to therapeutic use.

Is it grass fed?

Grass-fed beef is popular among conscientious omnivores since it’s the animals’ natural diet. It’s healthier for humans too. Grass fed beef is lower in calories and saturated fat than grain-fed meat yet higher in healthy fats like conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and omega-3 fatty acids (same goes for dairy products made with milk from grass-fed cows). Since grass-fed beef is leaner, you’ll want to avoid overcooking it; rare to medium-rare is the way to go. Marinating helps tenderize it, too, as I did with this Grass-Fed Beef Bulgogi.

The USDA’s voluntary Grass Fed Marketing Claim Standards specify that animals have a diet of forage, but that doesn’t guarantee they graze in a pasture. “It opens the door to animals raised in a feedlot, fed harvested forage, given antibiotics and growth hormones, and labeled ‘grass fed,’” says Patricia Whisnant, DVM, owner of Rain Crow Ranch in Doniphan, Missouri, and president of the American Grassfed Association (AGA).

In 2009, the AGA debuted the American Grassfed certification to guarantee animals are raised on forage, in pastures, with no antibiotics and under humane conditions. The program includes third-party audits by Animal Welfare Approved.

But grass-fed, pasture-raised beef is expensive to produce. It requires plenty of land to accommodate cattle’s grazing needs, and animals take longer to mature. That means it costs more on the plate. Beef tenderloin is about $14 per pound for the conventional, grain-fed stuff while grass-fed, pastured beef is at least twice that.

What role does organic play?

The USDA National Organic Program’s new Access-to-Pasture Rule sounds great because it specifies that all organic ruminant livestock must actively graze in a pasture during the grazing season in their location.

Does that mean organic beef is grass-fed, I wondered? Sort of. Turns out, the new rule is open to liberal interpretations. “Grain can equal up to 70% of the diet,” Whisnant notes.

“A farmer could keep the stock in the feedlot for two days and then turn them out [to pasture] for one day, and continue that sequence year-round,” Gerrish explains. “The product of this would have essentially the same body composition profile of an animal continuously [fed grain] in the feedlot.”

How is it finished?

This is a livestock term that refers to how animals are fattened 90 to 160 days before slaughter, whether on grass or grain.

Grass finishing was standard until the 1950s, when grain finishing became the cost-effective norm. However, calories and overall fat in the animals’ tissues rise during grain finishing whereas grass-finished beef is lean.

When it comes to buying beef, you have to decide which factors are most important to you, and what you’re willing to pay. If you want beef from cattle that has never nibbled grain, look for meat with the American Grassfed seal. If the health advantages of grass-fed are your main concern, a grass-finished product may satisfy.

My choice: Buy the pricier grass-fed beef but enjoy it in smaller portions and cook it with finesse.

Grass-Fed Beef Bulgogi

Bulgogi means “fire meat” in Korean and is the name of a beef dish in which paper-thin sliced meat is soaked in a flavorful combo of soy sauce, black pepper, ginger, rice wine, and pureed fruit. In this version, readily available pureed kiwifruit stands in for traditional Asian pear to help tenderize the lean grass-fed beef. To make the beef easier to slice super-thin, pop it in the freezer for 30 minutes. If you don’t feel like firing up the grill, you can stir-fry the beef. Serve in lettuce cups with short-grain brown rice. We also love it on warm tortillas with a dollop of Fiery-Sweet Peach Salsa.

Make Your Dishes Do Double Duty for Better Leftovers

One of the My Nourish Mentor crew mentioned during a session on meal planning recently that she loved the tips for getting creative with leftovers … especially now that summer’s here. I agree. Whether it’s the heat or just wanting to squeeze every little drop out of these long days, I’m less motivated to start meals from scratch every night of the week. So I look for ways to make the dishes I do cook do double duty.

double-duty-summer-leftoversI mentioned three ideas for getting creative with leftovers at Thanksgiving. Here are three more geared towards summertime:

  • Plan ahead and make extra. While the piece on Thanksgiving leftovers is about using up what you already have, in summertime you have to be a bit more deliberate. Especially if you’re grilling, double the amount so you’ll have leftovers to work with. Alberto’s Marinated Grilled Asparagus, for instance, makes great picnic fare the next day.
  • Think cool. Odds are when you do cook,  you’ll eat your dinner hot off the grill (or out of the sauté pan). But flip the coin, too, and think of how the leftovers would shine when chilled. Like tossing these Spicy Sweet Shrimp in a fresh Glass Noodle Salad the next day.
  • Season boldly. It’s one thing to have leftover steak (yawn). Entirely another to have a Spice Rubbed Skirt Steak to star in South of the Border Steak Salad with Grilled Peppers and Corn Salsa. Boldly flavored foods bring personality to reimagined leftovers later in the week, keeping your meals from being just ho-hum.

What are your favorite “take two” ideas?

Glass Noodle Salad with Spicy Sweet Shrimp

Holy smokes, this Asian noodle salad is yummy! And ridiculously easy to pull together, too, especially if you have extra Spicy Sweet Shrimp on hand–or substitute other leftovers, like Mahogany Grilled Chicken. Packed with flavor yet light and refreshing, this noodle salad is a go-to, one-dish healthy dinner.



Granita, granita!

The first time I made granita I was in fourth grade. We were putting together a “cultural” cookbook and potluck lunch, and I pulled China and Italy out of the hat. After much deliberation, my Mom and I settled on Choo Choo Rice and Lemon Granita for the spread.

granita-postI don’t remember much about the Choo Choo Rice, but I do remember being enamored with granita. Who knew I could make my very own snow cone in our freezer with nothing more than a fork? My tastes have grown up since then, but my adoration of granita remains.

Granitas are a great way to show off seasonal fruits and herbs, and incredibly refreshing—whether as a palate cleanser in between courses, as a mid-day pick me up, or for dessert—in summer heat. Here are three simple steps to making your own:

Step 1 – Make a Flavorful Base – Granita is mostly water mixed with a little sweetener. Where it gets fun is in the juices and infusions you use to flavor the base. I love to use fragrant herbs, like the lemon verbena down below and different variations of basil, but zests and aromatics like ginger also work well. Blood orange makes for an especially colorful granita. You can really get creative here. Just bring the water and sweetener (honey and agave syrup work just as well as sugar) to a boil. Then turn off the heat, stir in the juice and flavorings and let steep for 30 minutes.

Step 2 – Strain and Chill – Once the mixture has steeped, strain the liquid into shallow pan and chill in the freezer for an hour.

Step 3 – Scrape it Into Granules – After an hour, the mixture will begin to form ice crystals. Use the tongs of an overturned fork to scrape the mixture and separate the granules. Freeze for another 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the consistency you want your granita to be, scraping two or three more times to keep the mixture nice and fluffy.

While water is the most common liquid to use, I’ve also been wanting to experiment with buttermilk and wine. What’s your favorite flavor of granita?

Enhanced by Zemanta

Lemon Verbena Honey Granita

Granita is a super-simple summer dessert or appetizer that’s simply a frozen mixture of water, sugar and other flavorings. I planted a lemon verbena in our garden right near our Adirondack chairs simply because I wanted to be bathed in its heady fragrance whenever I was chilling out. And then I made this granita and fell in love with the plant even more. If you don’t have lemon verbena on hand, try lemon thyme or lemongrass, or just add the zest of another lemon.


Peach Primer: 5 Ways with Fresh Peaches

I hail from California, which is the top peach-producing state. But it took a detour to Birmingham, Alabama, deep in the heart of Dixie, for me to fully appreciate the versatility of this stone fruit. There, residents take pride in Chilton County peaches, which are abundant, sweet, and fragrant. Come summer, the fruit fills local farmers’ markets and roadside stands. Chefs work them into menus, from salads to barbecue sauce to pies, crumbles, and ice cream.

peach-primer-postChoosing Peaches

Wherever you live, peaches are abundant now, so choose the best you can find. Ripe fruit should be heavy for its size, soft (but not mushy) to the touch, and smell sweet and slightly floral. Peaches fall into two categories: early-season clingstones and later-season freestones. With a clingstone, the flesh clings to the pit for dear life. To remove the pit, halve the fruit, twist the halves apart, and use a paring knife or spoon to loosen the pit so you can pull it out. With a freestone, you can halve the peach and the pit will pull away easily.

Using Peaches

There are lots of ways to use peaches. By June, the weather in Birmingham would be stinkin’ hot and humid, and I found cool refreshment in the peach margaritas poured at the bar at Little Savannah. (The recipe is a closely guarded secret, so if you ever find yourself in Birmingham in summer, you’ll need to make a pilgrimage to get one.) In the meantime, here are five more ways to make the most of your peaches:

  • In a salad: Slice peaches over arugula and toss with balsamic vinaigrette. Sprinkle with a little goat cheese.
  • On the grill: Halve and pit peaches; brush the cut sides with a little vegetable oil. Put them cut-side-down on a hot grill, and cook until tender. Top with honey-sweetened Greek yogurt and chopped, toasted almonds.
  • Baked in dessert: Substitute 4 cups chopped, peeled peaches and 2 cups fresh blueberries for the fresh cherries and cranberries in our Cherry Almond Crumble (omit the dried fruit).
  • To drink: As I discovered in Alabama, peaches do well in libations. Substitute peach for watermelon and mint for basil in our Watermelon-Basil Agua Fresca. Add a splash of tequila if it has been a long week.
  • As a condiment: I got a little homesick when living in Alabama, so salsa was my favorite way to use the annual bumper crop of peaches. A light supper of salad, quesadilla, and fresh peach salsa made me feel a little more at home in Dixie.

Fiery-Sweet Peach Salsa

The heat of the jalapeno and bite of the red onion play nicely off the subtle sweetness of the peaches in this summery salsa recipe. Serve this peach salsa with just about anything grilled, from pork and chicken to salmon. Or if you’re like me, pop open a cold beer, rip open a bag of tortilla chips, and dig in! I like my salsa caliente, so I leave the seeds and stems in the chile pepper. To tame the heat, discard the stems and seeds.




The Case for Choosing

This weekend, I was flipping through the latest Food and Wine when something decidedly unappetizing caught my eye. “Be An Uncompromiser!” the ad’s headline shouted, and in the text below: “Enjoy the Best of Both Worlds. The makers of Pepcid Complete understand the importance of never having to choose.”

Never having to choose? Hm. I see things a bit differently.

Whether we like or not, I believe our lives are an endless string of choices and that our fate is largely the ripple effect outcome of those choices. I’d even go so far as to say that our choices—whether what to make for dinner or which house to buy—are what define us, and I can point back to the precise moment that cemented my theory.

Ten years ago, on our way home from an extended road trip to Costa Rica, Christopher and I made a stop in Antigua, Guatemala. From the first rumble of cobblestone beneath our tires we were smitten with the town. Quaint earthen buildings in playful colors like turquoise and watermelon pink line the streets, and bougainvillea covers ruins of mansions and palaces and cathedrals. All this in the shadow of three stunning volcanoes.

Antigua Guatemala Santa Catalina archway 2009
Image via Wikipedia

That day, we took a walking tour of the town with Elizabeth Bell. Under the eaves of a centuries-old municipal building, she told us that nearly 70% of Guatemalan children don’t attend school, simply because the books and uniforms (which are mandatory) cost what would be the bulk of a family’s income.

That night, on the way back from dinner, we passed a woman with her three children begging outside our inn. Normally, we’d walk by with a wrinkled brow or, if we were feeling generous, give some money. But that night, for some reason, Christopher got down on the sidewalk and played with the kids. Their mother and I laughed so hard we were leaning on each other’s shoulders as the kids tickled and climbed all over the giant stranger.

A few hours later, we were awakened in the middle of the night by the innkeeper pounding on our door. Our truck had been broken into. We ran out, half-awake, and found that someone had broken the window, reached in and grabbed one bag before being scared off by the alarm.

The rest of the day was a blur. We spent the morning filling out forms in the police station and the afternoon driving through Guatemala City searching for someone to fix our window. But what stands out for me is our lack of immediate reaction. We could have cussed out the innkeeper. We could have accused people on the street. We could have written off Antigua, and Guatemala altogether, and headed the next day for the Mexican border. But, for some reason, we didn’t.

It turns out that Christopher and I were both thinking the same thing: the junk in our “catch-all” bag—the one that had been stolen—was worth enough to put a family of children through school for a year … children like the ones Christopher had been playing with the night before.

So we made a choice. An eyes-wide-open, go against the norm choice.

We decided to return to Antigua and, rather than try to recoup what had been stolen, give an equivalent amount back to the country and the people that had touched us so deeply in such a short period of time. Looking back on that choice now and how profoundly it has shaped my life still stuns me. If, 10 years ago, Christopher and I had “not chosen” and just gone the usual route of angry indignation, my life now—and the lives of at least three others—would be nowhere near as rich as it is today.

The Rest of the Story

We remembered that Elizabeth had told us about an organization on the outskirts of Antigua that helped impoverished children and their families through education, skills training and health care with the support of sponsors and we thought we’d start there. When we got to the campus I expected to see shame in people’s faces, as we tend to see here when people are standing on a welfare line. But it was just the opposite. These people exuded pride and strength and resolve.

As we learned more about the program, it made sense. Common Hope wasn’t about doling out to those in need—nearly everyone in the country was in need. It was about empowering those seeking to change their circumstances and holding them accountable during the process. We signed up that day to sponsor Rene Antonio, a 6-year-old boy being raised by a single mom, and met him and his family the next day. There were a lot more laughs, and hold-my-gaze-and-search-my-soul silences, and hands squeezed tight that expressed whole-hearted gratitude. Rene truly became our godson and our families extended parts of each other.

That was ten years ago. Rene is now a handsome 16-year-old boy who, with his mother’s and grandmother’s support and sacrifice, is still in school and thriving. (He wants to be a doctor, and we’re confident he will be … and you can bet we’ll be at his graduation!). We were there 3-1/2 years ago the day his family’s house was built; a one room cement home they earned through many hours of sweat equity on the Common Hope campus.

mayraThrough the years, our passion for the people of Guatemala grew. Five years ago, we committed to support a young woman named Mayra, the daughter of the village leader and a force to be reckoned with in her own right, through college. People tell us how lucky she is, but truthfully, I’m the one who feels lucky; I often feel carried by Mayra’s persistence and determination. To pursue her dream, she has to deal with racism, pre-dawn walks down a mountainside to the bus, having to balance studies with helping family grow food for their sustenance AND caring for her son on a daily basis. In my life, Mayra and Rene are more than inspirations; they’re tangible reasons to get over whatever I’m brooding about and take one more step towards my goal.

The greatest ripple effect of that day’s decision, though, came three years ago in the form of Noemi de Leon Huber … our daughter. When we decided to adopt, there was not even the inkling of a question that it would be from Guatemala. Three years ago today, Christopher and I returned to Guatemala a fourth time … to bring Noemi home.noe-on-plane

I’d love to claim that I’m a naturally saintly person who always makes compassionate, giving decisions like the one ten years ago. But I’m not. And I don’t. But the power that this single choice has had in shaping my life has inspired me to try to be more thoughtful in my choices more often.

What does all this have to do with NOURISH Evolution?

Everything. Because if we talk about reframing our view on fats, but still think eating “light” versions of mayonnaise and peanut butter will make us healthier, then it’s all for naught. Because if we suggest smart sustainable seafood but you feel, deep down, that your decisions really don’t matter anyway, then why bother? Deliberate, purposeful choices are at the core of NOURISH Evolution—what we write about, why we write about it and who we try to be.

So, to the “Makers of Pepcid Complete,” here is my case for choosing:

The maker of NOURISH Evolution understands the importance of being deliberate with your choices, and of being aware that the ripple effect outcome might well outweigh the scale of the original decision. We realize that we always have to choose, whether we’re doing it purposefully or not, and we try to make each choice be one that makes us better people and leaves the world a better place.

Which view do you live by? … It’s your choice.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Sandra’s Guatemalan Pollo en Jocon

“Hola, Lia. I promise you more to come but here is a recipe of a chicken in tomatillo sauce typical of Coban in Guatemala. It is called Pollo en Jocon (pronounced, ho-kon) and is traditionally served over rice, with warm corn tortillas. It is a stew, so you serve it in bowls–the rice in the bottom, then spoon the sauce all over it. I hope you like it. I particularly hope your darling little girl enjoys it.”

~ from Sandra Gutierrez, The Culinary Latinista™, food writer and cooking instructor


20 large tomatillos, cleaned of husks, rinsed and dried
1/2 large yellow onion, sliced into thick slices
2 green onions
1 green bell pepper, quartered
1 plum tomato
4 garlic cloves, unpeeled
2 Serrano chiles
1 bunch cilantro (about 3 cups, packed)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 (3-4 pound) chicken, cooked, deboned and shredded (about 7 cups) * [see below for instructions]
1/2 cup reserved chicken broth (from cooking chicken)

Set a dry skillet—preferably cast iron—over high heat. Working in batches, add the tomatillos, yellow onion, green onions, bell pepper and plum tomato, roasting them until they are charred all over. Set them inside a large bowl, as they are readied.

Roast the unpeeled garlic, making sure to char the skins well. Peel the roasted garlic and place the roasted pulp with the other vegetables. Roast the serrano chiles on all sides, remove the seeds and stem, and add the chiles to the vegetables.

Working in batches, puree the roasted vegetables and the cilantro in a blender until smooth, adding enough reserved chicken broth to help you along.

Heat the oil in a large pot on medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the tomatillo sauce and stir well. You should hear a sizzling sound when the sauce comes into contact with the oil—watch out for sputters. Lower the heat and simmer sauce for 2 minutes. Add the cooked chicken and the remaining chicken broth, stir well, and simmer the stew for 15 minutes. Serve over steamed white rice.

Note: the stew can be completely prepared ahead of time, chilled, and re-heated before serving. It also freezes beautifully for up to 2 months.

Serves 6

* Lia’s note on cooking the chicken: Place the chicken in a large pot with two scallions and 2 smashed cloves of garlic, and cover with cold, salted water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat (it will take a while) and skim off any foam that has risen to the surface. Then lower heat to medium-low (it should still be bubbling, but not very vigorously) and cook for 50-60 minutes, the legs and wings should come off easily when grabbed with tongs. Remove the chicken (reserving the liquid), let cool enough so you can handle it, then remove the skin and bones and shred the meat.