Sunday, November 24, 2013

marx grass-fed strip streaks

You're used to me reviewing or playing around with ingredients from Marx Foods before, but this is new: they sent me two grass-fed strip steaks (Silver Fern brand, from New Zealand) to try.

Most of the grass-fed steaks I've had were bought at farmers markets from the folks who raised the cattle - mainly in Indiana, where Mennonite-raised beef was easy to come by and not particularly more expensive than supermarket prices. I'm not sure how strictly grass-fed that beef was, however - the cattle were pastured, certainly, and grazed, but their diet may have been supplemented with grain. Grass-fed cattle are cattle raised pretty much the way you picture cattle being raised after a lifetime of westerns, Little House on the Prairie, etc - they forage their food from a pasture in which they're allowed to roam around, as opposed to being fed a diet of fortified, high-starch, high-energy foods like corn and especially grain. Grain-feeding or -finishing cattle fattens them up quickly, so as a result, grass-fed beef is leaner. It also has higher concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid, both of which are good for you - the popularity of omega-3 fatty acids as dietary supplements are the basis for the marketing of flaxseed oil, sea buckthorn products, and fish oil, though their benefits are best reaped from natural sources rather than in supplements.

So. There are a few reasons to prefer grass-fed beef. Grass-fed cattle is generally raised in better and safer conditions than ordinary grain-fed supermarket beef. It is more environmentally conscious, since there are serious environmental (and economic) repercussions to the cottage industry of raising grain for livestock feed. It is possibly healthier. It is definitely leaner, which can be good or bad. It can be hard to make a really great burger with grass-fed beef, for instance, because you need the fat of a good 80-85% lean blend to make a good burger, and grass-fed ground beef is often hard to find in formulations any less than 93% lean, at least in my shopping experience.

A steak needn't have fat to be good, per se, although the definitions of meat grades like Prime and Choice are based almost entirely on marbling -- striations of fat found within the muscle tissue. Marbling helps the meat cook evenly, contributes much of the flavor, and prevents the meat from drying out. So when you cook leaner beef, you need to be more careful about keeping it from drying out - and here, what we mean by "lean" really refers to the degree of marbling more than to total fat, because that strip of fat along the edge that every strip steak has, that's not going to help moisturize the rest of the steak.

Grass-Fed Strip

That said: although there is not a lot of marbling here, I have certainly seen much leaner grass-fed strip steaks than this. I've seen and cooked less-marbled grain-fed strips than this, for that matter.

Grass-Fed Strip

This is an awful photo, but:

I am not a food photographer and have never been interested in blogs that are mainly focused on photos. Food photography is mainly for people who only want to look, not touch. That's why they call it food porn.

The light in my kitchen is very very yellow and there's no natural light, which is why normally I take my photos elsewhere. And why you usually don't get photos of things actually cooking. But anyway, here's how I cooked the steaks: seared simply, with salt (never neglect salt with steak, never) and butter.

Grass-Fed Strip

Brined green peppercorns on top and green beans alongside.

Grass-Fed Strip

I think there's basically two things to talk about in reviewing a steak, because everything else is going to reflect the prep and presentation more than the steak itself: taste and texture.

Caitlin found the steak less tender than I did, giving it a 2.5 out of 5, while I went with 4 out of 5. Strip steak's not filet mignon - it's going to have more chew. The last thing you want is steak that just falls apart, in my view.

We agree on the taste, though, each giving it a 3 out of 5. This is the real problem as far as I'm concerned. You see the fat along the edge there in the first photo. On the one hand, it's just the right amount of fat in my opinion, for fat along the edge. On the other, because this is a strip steak, some of the fat is segregated from the meat by a piece of gristle, so even if you eat fat, you won't eat that bit. The bites of fat I did get were very good - that's tasty beef fat. So the marbling may be an issue here, because the meat itself is very bland, I'm afraid. Even with the butter, the salt, the green peppercorns, there just wasn't much flavor here - were I not writing a review, I would have reached for a steak sauce. There was no objectionable flavor - grass-fed beef has a flavor that can sometimes be more organy (or liver-like) or gamy than grain-fed beef, but that's not the issue here. It was just that it didn't taste like much at all.

All in all, 6.5/10 for texture, 6/10 for taste. Whether or not to recommend this depends on what you look for in steak, and how important the benefits of grass feeding are to you.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

kazakh family loaf

I've had plenty of success with bread over the years, but this might be a good bread for anyone who's had trouble. It seems to be foolproof so far, and has survived any flavor modifications I've made to it, like adding a cup of shredded cheese and cilantro. It's my favorite everyday bread - goes with anything, and lasts a surprisingly long time (I'm honestly not sure how long it takes to go stale, because it hasn't happened to us yet).

I've mentioned it before - when I first started making it, we had it with broiled tomatoes and eggplant confit:

Broiled tomatoes, bread, eggplant confit

The interior is like a good sandwich bread. The exterior looks crusty, but after the first day, it softens up:

Kazakh family loaf

The recipe is from the excellent Beyond the Great Wall, an exploration of the cuisines of the non-Han ethnic groups in China, by Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford.

Kazakh Family Loaf

1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
1 teaspoon yeast
4-5 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup full-fat yogurt. It's important not to use low- or zero-fat yogurt, because the fat is what keeps the bread soft. I use Cabot's Greek-style yogurt, which is 10% fat. The yogurt is the key to the whole thing here.
2 teaspoons salt

Knead the bread and let it rest - I use my bread machine to do the kneading, and then let it rise in the cast-iron pot in which it cooks.

The other key is the cooking method:

Preheat your oven to 385. Lightly dust a large cast-iron pot (you may want to halve the recipe if you don't have a Dutch oven) with cornmeal (I also dust the top of the rising loaf with cornmeal, but that's not necessary). Let the bread rise in the Dutch oven until doubled, and then cover and bake for 40 minutes. Uncover and bake for another 20 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool for half an hour.

Like I said, you can have this with any meal - it's great with tomato sauces, you can sop up stews, you can have it with salad, whatever - and we wind up snacking on it a lot with a little butter or jam or what have you. I had some with pepper jelly the other night, alongside roasted delicata squash and scrambled eggs. Yeah, I know it's a weird combination! It was a good dinner.