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01.30.08

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Photograph by Carlie Statsky
Rare Indulgence: All hail the return of meat 'n' potatoes, as presented here by the Hindquarter Bar and Grille.

The Meat of The Matter

The back-to-the-pasture movement lets carnivores feel good about themselves again.

by Christina Waters


Vegan, locavore, vegetarian, omnivore-politics makes strange dining partners of us all. And now, in ways unforeseeable just a decade ago, politics is helping to create a new renaissance in, of all things, meat-eating. Not for any single, or simple, reason. Perhaps it hasn't yet become politically correct to eat meat, but it has become a lot less politically incorrect. And for that we can thank pioneers like Bill Niman as well as new "back to the pasture" ranchers like Jim Dunlop of Watsonville's TLC Ranch and David Evans of Marin Sun Farms.

A dish of succulent braised pork with chanterelles created by Ristorante Avanti chef Ben Sims from Dunlop's free-roaming, organic pigs gave me a glimpse of what's at issue. The meat was robust and slightly sweet, the texture sturdy and supple. The chef was inspired. The menu acknowledged the pork's provenance. Visitors can visit the ranch, see the pigs, ask questions and be as convinced as I was when I toured the ranch that these animals lived large and rooted around to their hearts' content. Maybe this is part of why meat is back on the menu.

A quick rewind might help set the table. About 10,000 years ago, when agriculture sprang up across the globe, gregarious animals found that they could survive better in the company of humans. The grain grown on small family farms became feed for domesticated cows, chickens, donkeys, goats, sheep, camels and pigs. A classic win/win situation that helped put milk, cheese and-yes-meat on the table.

So the human diet expanded to include accessible flesh, as well as foraged nuts and berries and cultivated crops like maize, barley, beets and cabbages. Full bellies fueled the expansion of human populations, which in turn began moving their herds to new grazing lands. The price of beef, pork, chicken and lamb went up. Meat became a special occasion food-and most of the week the working classes ate grains, breads and legumes. That "chicken in every pot" usually showed up only on Sundays. Or only on the tables of the rich.

After World War II, First World lifestyles and incomes supported and encouraged the consumption of meats. Inexpensive ground beef and roasts became everyday fare for the middle and upper-middle classes. And with those came high cholesterol, diabetes and obesity. Synergized by the publication of the animal welfare manifesto Animal Liberation by Peter Singer, the 1970s the back-to-the-land movement joined forces with warnings about animal fats and heart health, and voilà! the word "vegetarian" was on everyone's lips. Avoiding meat became not only fashionable, but it also flattered the budgets of those without trust funds.

Can You Say 'Mad Cow'?
Restaurants added meat-free entrees to their menus. Natural foods stores refused to carry any meat or fish or poultry. Books for vegans looking for ways to pump flavor and nutrition into their diet did brisk sales. Just as vegetarians reached philosophical palate fatigue, new medical research came out with the astonishing news that eggs were not bad for us, that lean meats might not lead to heart attacks and that carbohydrates like bread and potatoes were in fact the evil empire.

Call it coincidence, but just as the discovery of mad cow disease and the unsavory details of factory farming and stockyard practices came to light, organic farmers began raising chickens not only for eggs but also for their meat. Looking to the free-pasture practices of Niman Ranch-not to mention the profitability of chops, steaks and roasts bearing the Niman brand-ranchers began putting pigs on their pastures, letting them roam and forage freely before taking them down the road to be slaughtered, and then selling the all-natural, artisan-butchered cuts at farmers markets and small local restaurants. For top dollar.

All of this expands the possible solutions to the "omnivore's dilemma," a term coined by psychologist Paul Rozin, and popularized recently in the book of the same name by Michael Pollan. Centering on the issue of choosing what to eat when you can eat everything and anything, the dilemma seems to have eased, thanks to the growth of traditionally raised, naturally fed and humanely treated animals.

These Little Piggies
"Niman is true to its mission," says Niman Ranch CEO Jeff Swain, en route to a meeting in New York. "There are a lot of 'natural meats' out there using the 'never ever' mantra-that means no added hormones, no antibiotics, no animal products in feed, ever."

But Swain contends that Niman still leads the production pack in significant ways. "We also grow our animals on individually owned family farms. Other brands can still be 'natural' and still be factory farms. Niman means open-range, traditionally pastured animals who are unconfined, grown on traditional family farms."

In the 30 years since Bill Niman pampered steers on a small ranch in Marin County, the brand has networked into 650 family farms raising beef, lambs and hogs in a sustainable way. "We move the hogs from one pasture to another, so that their fertilizer improves the soil. It's a closed circle of sustainability," Swain says.

Also easing the consciences of growing numbers of take-back-the-steak carnivores is the notion of provenance. "We have complete traceability of our animals," says Niman's CEO. "We know their parents' stock, and in some cases, even their grandparents' pedigree." Growing animals on small farms means that the cycle of waste, soil enhancement and pasture health is maintained. The messy infrastructure of intensive, large-scale ranching is avoided.

Politics aside, the superior flavor of these hand-raised meats has gained Niman meats access to top menus, including Chez Panisse, Ahwahnee Lodge, Spago, Post Ranch, Mondavi Winery and Zuni Café. And let's not forget the fast-food chain Chipotle, which, with its huge market, has helped drive Niman's growth.

Following the money as much as the ethics of Niman Ranch, farmers interested in creating artisan specialties for discerning chefs are turning to traditional husbandry techniques.And purists looking to lower their environmental footprint by eating locally as much as possible are looking for sources closer to home than Niman's pork farms.

Oh, yes-they're also interested in grass-fed meat. According to the business research group Organic Monitor, the grass-fed meat movement is growing, with over 1,000 ranchers in the United States switching to an all-grass diet in the past five years. This helps small farms stay in the game and compete with large stockyard operations.

Greener Pastures
Niman paved the way for ranchers like David Evans, whose Marin Sun Farms networks with a small group of Marin and Sonoma family-owned ranches to raise grass-fed animals. Here the livestock graze out on the open range and travel a short distance to their final destination on Bay Area tables and kitchens. Evans, a fifth-generation California farmer, not only raises his beef, pigs and sheep on sustainable farms, he refuses to ship his products out of the state. Locally grown meat shows up on local tables.

The results of doing without antibiotics or hormones, allowing for long, natural growth and providing grass foraging means that there may not be the consistency found in mass-produced products. And prices will almost certainly be higher for steaks and roasts that have taken months longer to mature. Steaks finished without the addition of hormones and water will weigh less and cost more--often twice as much as conventional steaks.

Chefs don't seem to mind."It makes such a huge difference," says Avanti's Sims. He's breaking down a quarter of a pig delivered the day before from TLC Ranch, 15 miles south of his restaurant. TLC hogs eat pretty much anything in sight on the Watsonville acres they share with a few cows, some sheep and hundreds of heritage breed chickens. Allowed to grow to their full 350-400 pound maturity, the hogs are taken to a family-run slaughterhouse, dispatched as humanely as they were raised and then sold to restaurants eager to pass along the superior flavor and the culinary ethics to consumers. Sims uses pastured pork in his signature meatballs with pappardelle and his pork chops--"They just fly out of here," he grins.

Like Peninsula restaurateur Jesse Cool, Sims also uses Poulet Rouge chickens. "They're more like a wild breed," he explains. "More muscle development. The meat is incredible, even though at can be tougher and not as uniform as commercially raised chicken." Cool calls the pasture-raised heritage chickens "delicious." Her restaurant uses also beef and lamb from Marin Sun Farms and Niman pork because of her longstanding relationship with Paul Willis, Niman's pork guru, and his work with small family pork farms. A 30-year veteran of local, sustainable and organic foods, Cool is finding "greater access to these meats, and increased local production--which is so exciting."

A Steak in the Future
So given the increasing availability of small-farm pastured, sustainably produced meat, are former vegetarians turning into omnivores? "For sure," says farmer Dunlop, himself a vegetarian for a dozen years. "I was in the same boat when I was in school, and did homework on factory farms and saw the suffering, the incredible stress that these animals undergo," he recalls. "But I started eating meat again once I began raising my pigs." Chef Sims doesn't keep statistics, but he does have the kind of anecdotal evidence that confirms Dunlop's hunch. "Once I started putting Niman Ranch humanely raised meat on our menu a year ago," says Sims, "two friends of mine, both vegetarians for over 17 years, started eating meat again at our restaurant."

And for the CEO of Niman Ranch, the numbers support a resurgence of thoughtful meat-eating. "Our company grew 26 percent last year," Swain notes. "And not just in the Bay Area."

Make That Meat and Potatoes!

Potatoes-members of the nightshade family and therefore related to tomatoes and tobacco--were first cultivated in the Andes thousands of years ago. Until the recent revival of heirloom varieties, the best-known potatoes were russets for french fries, the Red Pontiac and the Desirée for boiled potatoes. Thanks to enterprising seed collectors and entrepreneurs, farmers markets, home gardeners and restaurants alike began harvesting potatoes with names like Yukon gold, French fingerling, highland burgundy, golden wonder, Peruvian blue and Sharpes express. Chefs loved their unusual shapes and colors. Diners craved their earthy, sweet or nutty flavors.

Heirloom or not, the lowly potato is always a love match for meats. Thanksgiving turkey couldn't show up at the table without the mashed potatoes. No Parisian steak would dare be plated without its crisp pommes frites. "I love steak and potatoes," admits Avanti chef Ben Sims. "Ever since I started serving steaks with potatoes gratin, I sold a lot more steak." See for yourself with this classic recipe.

Gratin Dauphinois
(adapted from Julia Child's 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking')
2 lbs. boiling potatoes (Yukon gold or yellow Finn)
Ovenproof baking dish
1/2 clove garlic
4 tbsp. butter
1 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper
1 cup grated Gruyère cheese
1 cup boiling milk

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.
Peel and slice potatoes-place in cold water.
Rub baking dish with cut garlic and 1 tbsp. of the butter.
Drain the potatoes and pat dry.
Arrange half the potatoes in the bottom of the dish.
Sprinkle over them: half the salt, pepper, cheese and remaining butter.
Arrange remaining potatoes over the first layer, and season them.
Spread on the remaining salt, pepper, cheese and butter.
Pour on boiling milk.
Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until potatoes are tender, milk is absorbed and top nicely browned.

C. Waters

Au Juice

Those with red wine allergies are all but out of luck

Only champagne makes sense as a white wine pairing with red meat. In general, big flavors demand big wines. Wine consultant John Locke admits that one could successfully join an earthy blanc de noir bubbly with lamb, where the stone fruit and cassis flavors of the blush champagne bring a great deal to the table.

And, he adds, white burgundy is a good choice as well for duck or chicken, even pork. A dry riesling might be wonderful with these lighter meats, especially an Alsatian, drier-style riesling. And of course you could try a rosé. With beef, Locke still likes syrah. "Or a big, juicy Spanish garnacha, even a barbera, where the acidity is generally a good match with beef." Another great red wine with beef, according to Locke, is the much-maligned valpolicella.

"There are wonderful valpolicellas out there," he notes.

Winemaker Randall Grahm responded that he "would want to go with something that has a fair bit of tannin, perhaps [gasp] something cabernet-based, though a proper madiran would not be out of bounds. For elegance, I would elect a mature bordeaux over California cab. You do need some acidity, after all, but would definitely wish to steer clear from the flamboyantly slutty international style, pace Mr. Parker."

Deciding that bigger is better, I tried my own combination at home. We were taste-testing two ribeyes, one a grain-fed Creekstone Natural Prime and the other an organic, 100 percent grain-fed steak from Sommers. The grass-fed steak was more buttery textured, leaner, unevenly marbled with fat, supple and deep-red. It was delicious in a way that could be called wild. The grain-fed beef had an even, tight grain; the marbling was consistent all the way through. It was more tender, the flavor more of a deep baritone. With the beef, we drank a Châteauneuf-du-Pape powered by grenache and syrah into a voluptuous Rhône classic. A winning combination.

C. Waters


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