Sunday, January 18, 2009

Ironing out the Beef Situation

Thus begins my first communique involving beef (just as a friendly warning to those who might not be so keen on the idea)...

Beef is a pretty sticky situation in this day and age: Overcrowding, injections of antibiotics and other mystery drugs, fecal run-off, deforestation, e. coli - and on and on. Why would I even suggest eating such nasty stuff, you ask? Well, in my case, my propensity to be iron deficient - and my doctor's admonitions - require that I do so. But the stuff's not all bad, as long as you know what to look out for. Here are a few helpful guidelines:

GRASS FED: Cattle that are pasture-raised naturally subsist on a diet of grass, rather than industrial feed. Mass produced beef tends to be fattened up with soy and corn by-products and kept in tiny pens indoors, away from the sun, with no room to even turn around (thus the need for such excessive amounts of antibiotics). What is wrong with this? Well, for one, it's cruel. Furthermore, Americans eat far too many refined corn and soy products to begin with (high fructose corn syrup, chemically altered soy derivatives, cornstarch, etc. etc.) which is partly responsible for our current obesity dilemma. And what the cow eats, you eat. Thirdly, pasture-raised cows, if they truly are that, are more environmentally sustainable, because
you can't keep thousands of grazing cows on one farm, however huge, meaning there is less fecal matter that runs off into our water systems. (However, the "grass-fed" label can lie: it might mean that the cows are left to graze for only the first few months of their lives, and are henceforth confined to cattle pens - so better yet, look for "grass-finished"). As an added perk, if the farmer adheres to a crop-rotation system, once the cattle have completely trampled and eaten up all the grass, the manure they leave behind can be used as natural fertilizer to grow crops in the very same swath of land, which makes use of the important carbon-nitrogen cycles that for centuries have supported the sustainable use of limited tracts of farmland.

LOCAL: If you can't find grass fed stuff at the supermarket, go to your local farmers market and start poking around there! Since local probably means small (unless you live next door to a big cattle factory), any way you slice it, this beef will have had less of an impact on our planet than the supermarket options. Also, it's fun to get involved in the resurgence of local agriculture and support the fight that these folks have ahead of them against the big-name, US government-subsidized agri-evil-businesses.

ORGANIC: If all else fails, go for organic - an unfortunately increasingly meaningless label. What you'll be getting: beef from factory-raised cattle that never saw the light of day, were fed feed (albeit organic) rather than grass, and may or may not have been shot up with cocktails of drugs during their lifetime. Oh, you thought organic meant drug-free? No sir. Another battle won by the commercial cattle-farming industry and another blow to the USDA's waning integrity.

Okay, now that you're thoroughly disheartened, I'll show you the beef dish I made, which used a grass-fed (I couldn't find grass-finished) lean bottom round cut.
Deconstructed Beef Negimaki

A bottom round cut of beef holds up well in stir fries because it's extra-tough and marbles nicely. This recipe can be doubled, tripled, even quadrupled - just make sure you have a large enough wok or saute pan to pull it off without overcrowding the pan; doing so could leave you with a steamed mush of meat.

- 3/4 lb. piece of bottom-round grass-fed beef, cut into thick slices
- 6 scallions, white part minced and green part chopped (separated)
- 2 tablespoons shoyu (soy sauce)
- 2 tablespoons (brown) rice vinegar
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil

- pinch salt to taste

Start off by heating a large wok or high-sided pan over medium-high heat. When a drop of water will sizzle, lay the beef slices out in the pan. Do not try to move them until the juices have released a bit - otherwise they will stick and tear. (You can judge if they've released by lifting the corner of a piece slightly with a spatula) Flip and continue to cook a few minutes more.

Meanwhile, mix the white part of the scallions, shoyu, rice vinegar, and sesame oil in a bowl and add to the cooking beef. Move around with a spoon or spatula, lowering heat slightly if the scallion starts sticking to the pan or the sauce scalds . Keep moving around until the pieces are all well coated and the sauce thickens a bit, 3-5 more minutes.

Turn off the heat, move pan from the burner, and sprinkle with scallion greens. Serve immediately over brown rice or rice noodles.

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