Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Satisfying the Inner Beast - With a Steak

      In honor of my spending the last week in Montana, land of clean public restrooms and herds of cattle, let me devote this post to the discussion of red meat. Usually something I try to limit my consumption of, venison hunted last autumn by my dad and free range, grass fed Montana beef from the Bitterroot Valley are exceptions I’m gladly willing to make. 

     I like to think of the steak I’m eating as previously a happy cow (or deer), wandering the open range, munching on grass, toning its muscles for me to enjoy that firm, meaty texture. When I think about it this way, I feel good about eating meat. The animal lived a good life and when it was over, I reaped the benefits.

     In Brooklyn, I’ve found my meat grocer: the Union Market on Court Street. Their beef, lamb and pork products, although expensive, are grass fed and free range. I can see and taste the difference. Their steaks are a deep, meaty red to purple color and much more flavorful than a regular store-bought steak. For Christmas dinner this year, I tried their lamb chops and was not disappointed. They were so tender and flavorful with a rich purple color and an underlying lamby earthiness. Served in a mustard-rosemary sauce, it might have been the best Holiday dinner I’ve ever prepared.

Happy Montana Cows
Photo courtesy of
     I shop at the Union Market because I don’t want to eat a genetically modified, corn-fed cow that spent its life knee deep in its own waste, being pumped full of hormones and even antibiotics to stop the spread of diseases caused by these conditions. I have four main objections to the way most animals are raised as food.  First, I have health concerns with food raised this way. The meat is higher in fat with little muscle density. (Corn starch and other stiffening products have to be added to make it firm. Sedentary, confined animals never develop the muscle tone to create the right texture to their meat so the texture is added after slaughter. Gross.) And fatty tissues store toxins. I don’t want to be taking contaminants in meat into my body. Second, it’s just disgusting. Third, it’s cruel to treat a live thing as simply food. And fourth, it’s illogical to keep animals in conditions that require our intervention with antibiotics, hormones and additives. It just makes more sense to me to stop subsidizing so much corn and feed cattle what they are supposed to eat (grasses, not corn. They can’t digest corn, causing cattle to develop diseases like e. coli). Give them a little space to wander and save time, energy and money spent developing chemical fixes to problems that we created in the first place.

     When I first moved to Brooklyn from Montana, I searched through the local grocery stores, seeking some quality of steak I was comfortable with cooking. I found all varieties of altered, genetically modified, hormone fed meat. With its pale pink to grayish color and squishy texture, the labels are marked with ambiguous phrases like, “No hormones added.” Does that mean to the steak? To the cow? What about color? Cornstarch? Antibiotics?

     Then I found the Union Market. I usually make my rounds first, buying everything I need for a meal at other shops around the neighborhood, and then stop in specifically for meat. It’s not that they don’t have other quality products; it’s just that Union Market is expensive. I can’t afford to buy my other groceries there, but for a good steak, the prices are worth it.  I buy one large steak, sear it and then slice it, providing about four slices per serving.  This also helps to limit cost.

Steam rising from a London Broil
     Back to Montana, cattle country, and my love of red meat: my father is the king of meat (and waffles, but that’s another story). He fills his freezer with half a cow from a rancher he knows personally each year, and hunts. Usually he manages to bring home an elk, but this year he shot a deer, a buck, instead. He butchered it on a table in his kitchen, making steaks, burger and using the less appealing cuts to make lean venison sausages. He sliced and diced while his wife wrapped and taped. Having this assortment on hand, he rarely serves anything else. This makes my usual task when we have dinner, wine selection, relatively easy.

     This trip home, he didn’t disappoint, breaking out the grill, in the snow, for the first Barbecue of the year to char an enormous London broil and several savory venison steaks to perfect temperature, with a smoky crust and tender red middle.

     Not being a grill-master myself, I asked about the charred outside and how he does it.

     “Use a lot of charcoal,” he said.

     I’m used to creating a sear in a frying pan, then finishing the steak in the oven but this technique also applies when grilling. Get the coals really hot, and then place the grate directly over the coals, as close as you can get it, causing the meat to sear, and also, the charcoal to leave that perfect, smoky crust on the steak. In cold weather, the even, high heat is difficult to achieve, so use fresh briquettes, not the ones that have been sitting in a pool of water under a tool bench in your garage.

Carrot Cake
     My dad served this meal with plenty of mashed russet potatoes and red wine, finished with homemade carrot cake and coffee. Delicious as it was, I’m not sure I reached my Montana venison quota for the year. Anyone have ideas about how to ship frozen, raw meat across the country?


  1. Yum-licious! Lovely photos, mouth-watering descriptions of home-grown Montana red meat and cuisine!

  2. Wonderful writing! Quite a tribute to hunter gatherers who turn into chefs. Was the carrot cake made from your father's organic carrots?