Face it, the meats at most local chain supermarkets are roadkill. Plumped with antibiotics, hormones, and pesticides and raised in crowded pens ankle-deep in their own manure, they lead short, unhealthy lives and periodically pass on their bad health to eaters (Mad Cow, E. coli, etc.). If supermarket beef has any USDA grade, it’s Select — and a lot of it is ungraded, because the growers don’t want to pay the USDA to confer a bad grade officially. Neither tender nor flavorful, it’s not much fun to eat, either: Supermarket meats and chickens remind me of that old cult film Repo Man, which included a scene in a grocery that displayed cans generically labeled “Food.”
San Diego is drastically lacking compared to San Francisco, New York, or Chicago, where a lot of the “better” markets have live butcher shops — expats of those cities typically suffer horrible food-culture shock when they start shopping here. True, select supermarkets in upscale neighborhoods (e.g., Whole Foods, Jonathan’s, Harvest Ranch in North County, the Coronado and East Village branches of Albertson’s, occasionally the Hillcrest Ralphs) carry some USDA Choice beef, and even a few Prime pieces, while at Whole Foods you may find a pretty good selection, including “natural beef.” But in most neighborhoods, fat chance!
And have you ever rung the bell at a supermarket meat case to rouse a live butcher in hopes of getting the all-gone weekly special (sold out in the first two hours) or a special cut (say, a rack of lamb)? Lotsa luck. Eventually somebody will show up to tell you no.
When I was a yard-ape at the end of the Neolithic, butchers were really butchers, and they were better. Mom bought Tide at the new A&P in our neighborhood but bought meat from the friendly guy at the local butcher shop. She’d flirt or haggle to get the best meat at the lowest price, she’d have fun doing it and often actually get what she wanted — and it tasted like real meat. (As a grown-up, I’ve noticed that a lot of butchers, regardless of their looks or builds, are oddly sexy — perhaps their profession inclines them toward sensual pleasures, including flirting and haggling.)
To my joy, this backward way of life is starting a resurgence here, with the four “live” butcher shops discussed in this piece. Iowa Meats (owned by the same Cohns as the Cohn Restaurant Group) and Siesel, which recently joined the Cohn empire, are both reliable old-timers, while Home Grown Meats and Cowboy Star are brand new. All offer the joy of buying “live” from craftsmen whose artisanal medium is meat, whose knife skills are awesome, and whose wares are the best. But they offer many more products than the friendly guy on Flatbush Avenue: If they don’t carry something regularly, most can special-order it for you and have it in a day or two, and that “something” can be as exotic as lamb tongues (delicious cooked Persian-style — gently poached and swathed in a saffron cream sauce), calf liver (so much milder and smoother than beef liver, wonderful in a sauce of sweet wine and golden raisins), or brains (ready for a sauce of brown butter and capers), or even springtime baby billy goats (cabrito) to be marinated in olive oil, lime juice, and cilantro and grilled over mesquite.
(As a footnote, the larger Asian groceries in Kearny Mesa and Talmadge also have skilled live butchers with huge meat cases and live fish tanks; they’re not great on deluxe beef cuts, but they can be fabulous on birds like duck, squab, and the Asian version of poussins and nearly every possible part of the pig.)
The newest and potentially most exciting of the butcher shops is Matt Rimel’s Home Grown Meats in La Jolla, because its specialty is locally raised grass-fed beef, all of it from a family-run ranch on Palomar Mountain.
But even to mention the phrase “grass-fed” is to plunge into controversy. Much of the extraordinarily tasty, tender beef you get at steakhouses in Baja (such as El Nido) is primarily grass-fed in the state of Sonora, then dry-aged at length at the restaurants. Argentine beef, admired the world around, is totally grass-fed. When Argentines come to the U.S., they find our beef fatty and insipid — but we Americans love our fatty, mild beef, and that means corn-fed. Nearly all American beef, from low-grade supermarket hamburger to USDA Prime Porterhouse, comes from cattle that, in the last months of their lives, are crowded into feedlots and fed great quantities of corn mush.
This practice grew more widespread, starting in the 1950s, when the U.S. government encouraged the wartime chemical-munitions industry to convert to making fertilizers and agricultural pesticides. Simultaneously, the government started subsidizing commodity crops (corn, soybeans, wheat, rice). This meant that the grain could be artificially fertilized for faster growth and sold for less than it cost the farmer to raise it. Where earlier in the century many family farms practiced mixed agriculture, raising both livestock and food crops (the manure fertilizing the pastures that fed the livestock, in a perfect circle of harmony), the new policies encouraged specialization in one or the other, as well as the growth of gigantic corporate-owned monoculture farms and ranches. As Betty Fussell writes in her new book Raising Steaks, The Life and Times of American Beef: “Cheap oil created cheap fertilizer which created cheap corn which created cheap beef.”
But there’s a problem: Cattle can’t digest corn. It gives them — oy! — such a case of gas! Not only do the cattle risk serious disease from this artificial diet (it’s like feeding a kid nothing but Hostess Twinkies), but their belches and farts (not to mention manure pollution in the confined areas where they’re raised) are causing ecological catastrophe: The United Nations says that the livestock industry is responsible for more greenhouse-gas emissions than the entire global transportation fleet. Turns out, corn-fed Bossie on the feedlot toots more than a Hummer with a road-raging driver.
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.”
I asked Stan Glenn, boss man at Iowa, if they carried any grass-fed or “natural” beef. “We don’t carry any grass-fed beef. If you go on our website section on beef, it talks about the four elements needed for great beef…And grass-fed beef is missing one of those elements, proper feed. Proper feed means feed with a high sugar content. Grass fed beef can be good, but when you’re dealing with the volume we deal with, the consistency is not going to be there. At Homegrown Beef, they have 200 head of cattle. When I order our prime rib for Christmas, it will take 300 head of cattle just to supply our Prime grade rib roast and another 200 head of cattle for our Choice. That’s just for Christmas! So to get that quantity of grass-fed beef, let alone quality, would be for us technically impossible.”
They do carry some natural beef, such as Meyer. Their meat arrives broken down but not yet aged. They wet-age it on-site and dry-age the New York steaks and occasionally the prime ribs. “Generally what we do is vacuum-age for, say, 21–30 days and dry-age for an additional 14 days. We vary on that. If we happen to be running out, we’ll cut the vacuum-aging and extend the dry-aging. The average is about six weeks.” Customers can special order for extra aging. But the extra work in aging ribs isn’t welcome — unlike New York steaks (aged on the bone, but with the bone removed before sale), the bones of a rib-roast are integral to the cut, and they require cleaning off every 2 days to remove bacterial growth.
A few years ago, I did a “cheap steak” survey. The overall flavor winner was Turf Supper Club’s rib-eye — a Choice cut bought from Iowa Meat Farms — beating out the Cohns’ own Strip Club, which offered beef from a commercial jobber.
Chef Victor Jimenez of Cowboy Star, a downtown restaurant with a small attached butcher shop, takes the diplomatic middle way when it comes to corn-fed versus grass-fed beef. His shop carries both, along with American Wagyu beef from Snake River Farms in Idaho. He and butcher Bill Bonis buy most of the beef in primal cuts that have already been aged — most of it wet-aged, but some cuts dry-aged. (There’s no space on the premises for an aging room.)
“I guess there’s a new romance going on for the old, traditional butcher shops,” says chef Victor. “The response from the public has been really positive. It’s been fun being able to carry meats in the traditional way and to talk to people face to face. We’re not here to educate the public, but we like to make people aware of the difference between our meat and supermarket meat. I think some of the supermarket meats even use old dairy cows — the USDA will even grade dairy-cow meat so long as the cow has never had a calf. Meat from dairy cows doesn’t have the same taste or texture as a steer.”
I asked him to discuss the differences between corn-fed and grass-fed beef, from a chef’s viewpoint. “The grass-fed beef is leaner and it cooks faster, so the cooking time has to be adjusted or it will dry out,” he said. “I grew up eating corn-fed beef in America, and I didn’t have a chance to try grass-fed until a few years ago when I was traveling through South America and I got to Argentina. At first I thought they were overcooking the beef because I was getting a different flavor. [“They were overcooking it,” I interjected. “All through Argentina, I kept asking for it cooked azul until I was blue in the face, and the best I could get was medium.”] It has a stronger, more pronounced flavor, and it’s a little bit dryer. As an American, I love the feeling you get when you eat a good, aged Prime steak, the coating on your mouth of the fat. But I learned to appreciate both flavors of beef.”
PRICES AND PORTIONS
Corn-feeding cattle is already an unsustainable mode of agriculture, given its ecological destructiveness. As the price of corn rises (now that some of it’s going into fake ecological fuel), and the price of oil-based fertilizer rises — and if we get serious about global warming before melting icebergs swamp the San Diego harbor — it seems likely that our current methods of raising cattle are on the way out. Short of feeding cows Soylent Green, we may eventually see a return to raising cattle more naturally than we do now. I’d guess that in 50 years, the cost of meat will be a great deal higher, and the mode of raising it will have changed. Steak will be a treat, not a routine, but it will be very good, nutritious steak.
The price of the better meats at these butcher shops is, of course, quite a lot higher than ungraded supermarket meat. But the answer to that lies in adjusting down the portion. “Images eat reality, and we feed our hunger for power and glory more than our need for nutrients when we eat steak,” writes Betty Fussell.
The plate-sized steaks you get at steakhouses are more for “flaunt it while ya got it” show than for eating — a power display sized more properly for pure carnivores like the big cats and the macho men doing strenuous daily manual labor (who, of course, can’t usually afford to eat at top steakhouses). But humans became the dominant life-form on the planet precisely because we are omnivores, willing and able to eat a vast variety of foods. (We didn’t start out as mere hunters, but as hunter-gatherers.) For the typical desk-jockey, we are only lions to ourselves when we think we need a pound of animal protein per day — currently, the average American intake.
The proper portion of meat, as we’ve all been reminded too often by the nutritional nags, is about four ounces a day. This means that even if you’re paying $24 per pound for a superb steak, that pound of steak should furnish four meals at $6 per person per meal, if you eat like an intelligent omnivore.
Home Grown Meats /La Jolla Butcher Shop
7660 Fay Avenue, Suite C, La Jolla, 858-454-6328, lajollabutchershop.com.
HOURS: Monday–Saturday 10:00 a.m.–7:00 p.m.; Sunday 11:00 a.m.–6:00 p.m.
PARTIAL PRODUCT LIST: All parts of the steer, including “bull fries” and brains. Grass-fed beef, Prime beef, natural beef. Free-range turkey from Samuel Ranch: Call to order for Thanksgiving as soon as possible. Certified Berkshire (Kurobuta) pork, suckling pig, lambs (including whole ones), and all lamb parts (some by special order). Nitrate-free applewood-smoked bacon slabs (frozen), wild boar bacon, house-made jerky and pâtés, some sausages. Buffalo (aged New York steaks). Goat (baby goat by special order). Rocky, Rosie, and Red-Neck free-range or organic chickens. Muscovy duck. Rabbit. Pheasants, squab, partridge, and quail from Hemet. Veal is currently white, formula-fed Provimi, but they’re trying out a new source for pink, milk- then grass-fed free-range veal (as served at Boulevard Restaurant in San Francisco).
Iowa Meat Farms/Siesel Meats
6041 Mission Gorge Road, Mission Valley, 619-281-5766; 4131 Ashton Street (just off Morena exit from I-5), Bay Park, 619-275-1234, iowameatfarms.signonsandiego.com.
HOURS: Mission Gorge: Monday–Saturday 9:00 a.m.–6:00 p.m.; Sunday 10:00 a.m.–6:00 p.m. Ashton Street: Monday–Saturday 9:00 a.m.–7:00 p.m.; Sunday 10:00 a.m.–6:00 p.m.
PARTIAL PRODUCT LIST: Prime and Choice beef. Certified Berkshire (Kurobuta) pork and regular pork and lamb, formula-fed white veal. Muscovy, Peking, and Long Island ducks. Diestel (free-range) and regular turkeys. Many sausages (including Italian, similar to those at Pete’s Meats). Pork from Iowa, including Certified Berkshire (Kurobuta) from Eden Farms. Nitrate-free applewood-smoked slab bacon (frozen). Wild boar bacon, applewood bacon, Missouri country ham (Burger’s Smokehouse) in center-cut slices or, seasonally, whole. Lambs, occasionally including Frenched racks. Brains and tongues by special order. Free-range Fulton Valley chickens. Free-range Long Island ducks for holidays (for fresh, order in advance by about three weeks). Quail, pheasant, Guinea fowl, partridge, ostrich. Buffalo (rib-eyes, New Yorks, sirloins, aged on-site), New Zealand red elk, Cervena venison. Turducken (made in-house) for Christmas.
640 Tenth Avenue, East Village, 619-450-5880, thecowboystar.com.
HOURS: Tuesday–Saturday noon–7:00 p.m.; Sunday 10:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m.
PARTIAL PRODUCT LIST: Prime Beef, grass-fed beef, Meyer Natural beef, American Wagyu skirt steak. Pre-reduced demi-glace. Sausages, sliced applewood-smoked bacon, nitrate-free Eden Farms bacon slabs (frozen). Lamb loins (boneless rack), other cuts by special order. Bison rib-eyes, bison hamburgers, bison/beef burgers with dry-aged beef. Wild boar (future plans include elk). Fulton Valley free-range chickens. Diestel Farms free-range turkey for Thanksgiving (preorder ASAP). Turducken (order two weeks before Thanksgiving or Christmas), quail, other birds by special order, occasionally pheasant. White Provimi veal and sweetbreads, about to try out pink milk- then grass-fed veal.
Stretching a Great Piece of Steak
A rare to medium-rare piece of cooked steak, sliced thinly, will happily absorb an overnight marinade to repurpose it and change its nationality.
For Enchiladas, Tacos, Tostadas, or Southeast Asian stir-fry: Slice 1/2 pound leftover steak thinly against the grain. Blend a couple of tablespoons of oil (olive oil for Mexican marinade, peanut or corn oil for Asian), lime juice (about 1/2 a juicy lime), chopped cilantro, and chile flakes to taste. Stir in steak, cover, and refrigerate overnight. For Baja-style carne asada tortilla filling, broil about two minutes until browned. Chop crosswise into smaller pieces if desired. (Mix with canned whole beans of choice — not “refried” — and a little grated cheese to stretch portions.) Use marinated meat “as is” for Asian stir-fry, tossing it into the wok or skillet when the vegetables (of your choice) are nearly done.
For Chinese Stir-Fry: Marinate thinly sliced cooked steak in 1 Tb. light soy sauce, 1 1/2 Tb. Shao Hsing rice wine (or dry sherry), finely chopped green part of 1 scallion, and a pinch of sugar, at room temperature for about 20 minutes while you prep the vegetables. Heat about 2 Tb. peanut (or corn) oil, stir-fry a little minced ginger and chopped garlic until garlic wilts, add vegetables of your choice and stir-fry until crisp-tender. Stir in beef. Stir in 1/4 cup low-salt chicken broth, immediately followed by a little more soy sauce and wine (about 1 Tb. of each, or to taste), and then 1 Tb. cornstarch mixed with 1 1/2 Tb. cold water. Stir over high heat until lightly thickened.
Beef Stroganoff: Most all-purpose cookbooks include a recipe. To use leftover cooked beef in small quantities, choose a recipe that includes mushrooms. Brown creminis or “baby bellas” will have more umami (meaty flavor) than white button mushrooms. With grass-fed beef or bison, the best mushrooms are fresh shiitakes. With these meats, you can substitute fresh cream for sour cream, along with a little daub of Hoisin sauce. At the end of cooking, increase heat to maximum and, stirring, cook the cream quickly down to a sauce. Voila! You’re cooking fusion. Serve over noodles.
One of the joys of live butchers is the chance to buy delicious game birds. Quail are versatile and forgiving — use any recipe for Cornish game hens. (Squab and pheasant are rather more challenging.) A delicious bird for special occasions is the partridge. One bird is just right for a romantic dinner for two, if there are additional courses. The following recipe will also work with grouse, pheasant, or squab. Accompany with pilaf, wild rice, or sautéed potatoes. Serve vegetables as a separate course, since nothing should interfere with the subtle, lyrical flavors of this festive dish:
A Partridge in a Pear Sea
Serves 4 big eaters, or 8 in a multicourse meal
6 slightly underripe Bosc pears
1 cup poultry stock or low-salt chicken broth
1 slice orange zest (about 1/2 inch by 2 inches)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
4 partridges (12 to 14 ounces each)
2 Tb. unsalted butter, plus 1/2 cup additional butter cut into small pieces and chilled
2 Tb. mild oil (such as sunflower or corn)
4 medium shallots, peeled and minced
1 Tsp. black peppercorns, whole
3 cups dry red wine (preferably Cabernet)
1 Tb. sugar
1. Preheat oven to 375! F. Peel pears, reserving peel. Halve and core fruit and place in bottom of a heavy, ovenproof, fireproof casserole large enough to hold birds. (An oval enameled or glazed 3-quart casserole is ideal.)
2. In a small saucepan, bring stock to a boil. Drop in pear peels and orange zest. Lower heat and simmer 10 minutes. Strain liquid and reserve.
3. Lightly salt and pepper insides of birds. Pat skin dry and, using kitchen twine only, truss birds. (Tie legs together and loop string around body at wing level to tie the wings close to body.) Heat the 2 tablespoons butter and the oil in a large heavy skillet until foam subsides, and brown birds on all sides. Nestle birds among halved pears in the casserole.
4. Over high heat in fat remaining in skillet, quickly sauté shallots, stirring until tender and slightly browned. Sprinkle shallots over birds. Sprinkle peppercorns over casserole contents. Pour wine, reserved stock, and sugar into casserole and season lightly with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer on top of stove, cover, and place casserole in oven. Bake until birds are tender (about 1 hour).
5. Using tongs or a large slotted spoon, carefully place birds and pears on a heatproof serving dish. Tent with aluminum foil and keep warm in turned-off oven. Place casserole over highest heat and reduce liquid by half until somewhat syrupy, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and stir in the reserved 1/2 cup butter, piece by piece, until blended. Nap partridges and pears with sauce and serve additional sauce in gravy boat.