Grass-fed steers, in contrast, are free of antibiotics, artificial hormones and pesticides for the simple reason that they don’t need ’em — they’re living the life they’re naturally designed for. They’re at no risk of Mad Cow because they’re not cannibals — nobody’s sneaking ground cow spines into their feed. (Mad Cow? Remember how upset Oedipus was when he discovered he married his mother? Imagine how mad he’d be if he found out he ate her!) Nutritionally, their meat is closer to buffalo than to industrial cattle — it’s much lower in fat and calories (about as fattening as a grilled skinless chicken breast), low in bad cholesterol, high in mineral nutrients. The problem is getting it to turn out as tender and toothsome as our favorite corn-fed USDA Prime “heart attack on a plate.”
Restaurateur Rimel (he owns both Rimel’s Rotisserie and Zenbu in La Jolla) is the grandson of a North County rancher and has been a hunter and a fisherman since his youth. He prizes the pristine, intense flavors of creatures living wild, or raised as though they were living wild. But if you want succulent, well-marbled beef, you can’t rely wholly on grass: During the final few weeks, you have to pen the cattle up (so they can lounge around like Mae West saying, “Peel me a grape”) and feed them something a little richer. In this case, it’s alfalfa, a grain they can enjoy and naturally digest.
“The main thing is, we want to produce our own product,” Rimel says. “The cows lead a really nice existence on Palomar Mountain. They live in a beautiful place, all they do is eat and sleep. The essential thing is, cows are made to eat grass. They don’t need all those antibiotics and chemicals. And the health benefits are amazing — it’s like eating fish. Our cattle are all grass-fed, and after they come off the meadows, we feed ’em straight alfalfa, to tenderize them. Our grass-fed is Choice. We’re getting gorgeous marbling on alfalfa, and that’s what they’re made to eat! My goal is to get Prime from grass-fed beef. You can get ’em there by feeding them out longer on alfalfa. I’m putting the grass cattle-rancher back in the business. It’s a sustainable deal. We’re still carrying natural Choice and natural Prime, but my goal is to replace them all with grass-fed in four to five years — carrying corn-fed beef is against my religion. Our rib-eyes have about 30 percent less fat than the Prime, but they’re terrific — leaner, more texture, more flavor. Grass-fed filet mignon is unbelievable — it’s tender, but it’s got all the flavor this cut usually lacks.”
I asked where the meat was slaughtered and whether it was segregated from commercial cattle (which might be carrying E. coli and other diseases). The cattle go to a small facility in L.A. that serves only two other beef companies, both of them natural, and even so, Rimel’s staff personally stand watch to make sure there is no adulteration. Furthermore, the ground beef isn’t ground there, it’s ground back at Home Grown, with no possible adulteration. (That means you can probably cook those burgers rare!)
“One thing that separates us from other grass-fed meat companies is that some of them freeze everything,” says Rimel. “We are a very small operation, we process weekly. And it’s every dime going to San Diego County except the gas we burn going to and from L.A.” When the meat comes back to town, the special treatment continues. Today, most beef is “Cryovac-aged,” that is, wrapped tightly in plastic. It’s a cheap process and doesn’t take much space, and there’s no loss of weight in the beef. This tenderizes the meat but does nothing to improve the flavor. In contrast, dry-aging meat is costly: the meat shrinks (from evaporation of water and blood, and then from the trimming required to pretty up the surface), and the flavors intensify. “We’re dry-aging everything,” Rimel says. “We take everything out of the cryo-packs and dry everything at least four or five days, usually eight to ten days, and it makes a world of difference! All the excess water and blood seeps out, so you end up with pure meat. We’re kind of going back to old-time meat. You can taste the difference.” I asked if a customer could request longer aging. The answer is yes, at no extra charge.
Prices are quite high, of course, as they are for the best products at all four butcher shops — but chefs get 30 percent off. Paul McCabe of L’Auberge Del Mar tasted the ground sirloin, raved about it, and is now using it exclusively for burgers at his restaurant.
IOWA MEATS AND SIESEL MEATS
Midwestern corn-fed cattle are America’s main source of Prime and Choice grade beef, and that’s what is sold at Iowa Meats and Siesel Meats.
After interviewing the idealistic Rimel, talking with representatives of Iowa Meats can seem a little like chatting with a really nice Darth Vader. Courteous, pleasant, and intelligent, they stand firmly for the American way of beef — and frankly, I love a well-marbled American steak as much as anybody else.
The company’s highly educational website lays out their basic philosophy of beef: “There are four elements necessary to produce tender and flavorful beef. The first three have to do with the animal itself, and they are youth, inactivity, and proper feed. ‘Meat’ is muscle. The more it is used and the longer it is used, the tougher it becomes. So, the animal needs to be young and inactive.
“The ‘marbling’ in beef is the result of being fed grains with a high sugar content, such as corn. This intramuscular fat is what gives it the rich flavor and is an indication that the animal was, in fact, inactive.…
“The final element is ‘aging.’ Natural enzymes act to both tenderize the meat and develop complex flavors. All of our beef is properly aged an average of 30 days. Most of it is done by using the ‘wet’ method of aging in vacuum-sealed bags. We do, however, offer some steaks that are produced by the old-fashioned, ‘dry-aging’ method.”