Farm to Fork

The first meal my husband, Scott, and I shared was a sloppy bowl of Hamburger Helper I made in a $10 pan in the community kitchen of Little Hall in Auburn. We sat cross-legged on my twin-sized bed and ate off plastic plates. “Poor college student lunch, ” we called it.

For our first real date, he suggested we make tacos at his place. Then we fried chicken. We grilled steaks, cut our own fries and perfected roasting asparagus in the oven. We watched old Julia Child episodes, and I learned to deglaze a pan and flip an omelet. Before I knew it, I fell in love twice – with Scott and with cooking. So when we decided to commit to eating local grass-fed beef only two weeks after our move to Mobile, I was excited for the culinary adventure, but sweaty-palmed and anxious at the same time. We had purchased a quarter of an entire cow.

“Where are we going to put all this meat? What if it doesn’t taste good?” I nervously asked Scott, as we drove to Hastings Farm in Bay Minette. “Why exactly are we doing this?”

Meeting Randall Hastings in person relieved my apprehensions. I felt I was visiting a grandparent. We sat around his kitchen table near a stone fireplace and whiled away three hours in conversation. When we stepped outside and ate blueberries from a bush, stuffing ourselves and giggling like children, the place and the person seemed as familiar as a homecoming. I know my farmer, just like I know my hairdresser or mechanic. Who can say that these days?

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I knew Hastings was doing something different when I found his farm online, but as he told us his story, I realized that he is really a pioneer. He is a man going backward in time, while the rest of the world can’t seem to advance fast enough.

Going Organic

Six years ago, Hastings’ wife of 35 years passed away, and he threw himself into a project the couple had long dreamed about: making his land certified organic and earning a living in the grass-fed beef business. “People told me over and over, we just can’t do organic in the South, ” he says. “And I’d say, ‘Well my grandpa did it. Why can’t I?’”

The major distinction between grass-fed and conventional cattle is how quickly they are fattened and what they are fed. While grass-fed cows eat straight from the pasture for three years, conventional cattle eat grass for about a year and are then sold. For four to six months, their meals contain mostly grain, like corn and soybeans. They are given antibiotics to prevent and treat infection from lesions that form in their stomachs from eating an unnatural diet. This successfully fattens the cattle quickly, providing the marbling and fat content consumers demand at a low cost. After the cows reach the desired weight, they are sent to a processing facility.

Hastings, once a successful conventional cattle farmer and agricultural chemical salesman, makes it clear that he appreciates the traditional beef industry’s power to feed so many people at a low cost. The system has positives and negatives, but he acknowledges it is absolutely necessary for feeding the world’s growing population. “All I want to do is provide an alternative product for those who are interested, ” he says.

Uncomfortable with some aspects of the cattle industry, especially the lack of supervision from regulatory agencies, the use of growth hormones and antibiotics, and the condition of farmland across the U.S., Hastings decided to try to raise his cows solely on grass. This meant he would change the breed of cattle he raised and keep each calf on the farm for three years instead of a few months. It was a huge investment with a high risk. But after years of experimenting with genetic selection and breeding, Hastings and his sons, Randy and Jody, successfully earned organic certification for 456 acres. They have about 200 cows grazing the land, which is not treated with chemicals, pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. The cows are never vaccinated, given antibiotics or growth hormones. And they never leave south Alabama. Hastings is the only certified organic grass-fed beef farmer in the area, and the product he’s selling is completely different than the beef that I grew up eating.

Healthier Choice

Grass-fed beef has low fat levels and high omega-3 fatty acids, which are beneficial to cardiovascular health. It also has a lower level of dietary cholesterol and contains more cancer-fighting antioxidants and vitamins than beef finished on grain. Eating grass-fed beef is more like eating salmon than eating conventional beef.

At a visit to one of his three grandchildren’s elementary schools, Hastings discovered most kids throw their hamburger patties away because they don’t taste good. Then a state government official told him most of the ground beef in school lunches comes from Uruguay, not Alabama. Hastings tried to sell his beef to the school system, but that process was quite difficult, and he was unsuccessful. He still has hope that one day he will be able to provide children in Baldwin County with quality, local beef.

Until then, families across the Gulf Coast who buy his beef provide him with plenty of inspiring stories. They are confident in what they are feeding their children. Because the beef stays on one farm and is processed slowly and carefully at a USDA-inspected facility in Dothan, Hastings' customers are not concerned with food poisoning, recalls or any other risks. They know their farmer. They know where their food comes from.

Cooking With Grass-fed Beef

Back home, Scott and I inventoried. We had enough bones to make stock for a thousand soups, 17 steaks, 14 1-pound packages of stew meat, 40 1-pound packages of ground beef, the liver, the heart, the tongue and an oxtail.

Our first bites of steak were unlike any other meat we’d eaten. The flavor was robust and beefy, and I wasn’t relying on A1 or Dale’s to enjoy it. I was relying on the hard work and dedication of a man devoted to providing the best beef around.

Raising cows the grass-fed way is old fashioned. Before the 1950s, all beef was produced this way, but as the demand for beef rose, the feedlot system became a more practical option.

Finishing beef on grass takes more time, but it often produces higher quality meat and is more healthful. Similarly, preparing recipes that take more time and effort can produce better meals. These recipes, along with grass-fed beef, may not be practical for everyone, but they serve as a reminder that preparing food isn’t always a chore — it’s an adventure.

Spicy-Hot Burgers

Because grass-fed beef is so lean, it helps to mix in vegetables to keep the burgers moist. Adjust the amount of peppers to make them as spicy or mild as you like. (Be sure to wear gloves when handling the peppers.) Caramelized onions, mushrooms or roasted bell peppers are smart, juicy patty toppers.
2 pounds ground grass-fed beef
3 cloves minced garlic
1 fresh jalapeño pepper, seeds removed and minced (hot)
1 poblano pepper, seeds removed and minced (mild)
1 habanero pepper, seeds removed and minced (very hot)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon ground cumin

1. Preheat the grill, creating a hot zone as well as a cool zone. 
2. In a large bowl, combine ingredients. Mix well and form into patties.
3. Oil the grill grate. Place patties onto hot zone and sear on both sides. Then, move patties to the cool zone.
4. Cover and cook for 5 minutes on each side.
5. When burgers are flipped, top with caramelized onions or roasted bell peppers to enhance the moisture of the burgers (optional). Makes 8 burgers.

Stovetop Grass-Fed Beef Steaks

These are flavorful enough alone, but if marinating, do so at least 2 hours before cooking time.

marinade (optional)
2 grass-fed beef steaks
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
salt and pepper, to taste

1. To tenderize meat, wrap steaks in plastic wrap and gently pound with a mallet, or use a needle tenderizer.
2. Brush the steaks with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Sear steaks on both sides.
3. Reduce heat to medium and cook for 3 – 5 minutes on each side, until meat reaches 5 – 10 degrees below the desired temperature: rare (120 degrees), medium rare (125), medium (130). Use a meat thermometer to avoid overcooking or undercooking.
4. Add half a tablespoon of butter, salt and pepper to each steak, and cover with foil. Allow steaks to rest for 10 minutes in skillet. Meat will continue to cook after it is removed from heat.
5. While meat is resting, place plates in a warm oven. (A cold plate will draw the warm juices out.)
Serves 2.
*To grill, follow the same process setting up hot and warm zones on grill. Sear both sides and finish on warm zone.

Beef stock

Much of what we bought when we purchased a quarter of a grass-fed cow was bones. The only thing to do with all those bones was to make beef stock — lots of it. Bones go bad quickly, so make sure you store them in the freezer or make the stock almost immediately. Making the stock takes several hours, and the aroma of the vegetables and the beef simmering is heavenly.

Active preparation time: 15 minutes
Inactive preparation time: 6 hours

7 pounds beef bones, sawed into 2-inch pieces
1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
2 cups chopped onions
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped carrots
2 cups red wine
20 peppercorns
5 garlic cloves, peeled
5 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried leaf thyme
1 1/2 gallons water

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. 
2. Place the bones on a roasting pan and roast for 1 hour.
3. While the bones are roasting, chop all the vegetables. Remove the bones from the oven and brush with the tomato paste. Lay the vegetables over the bones. Return to the oven and roast for 30 minutes. Remove roasting pan from the oven and deglaze with the wine, scraping the bottom of the pan for browned particles. 
4. Put this mixture in a large stock pot. Add the peppercorns, garlic, and herbs. Season with salt. Bring the liquid up to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Cook for 4 hours.
5. Remove from the heat and skim off any fat that has risen to the surface. Strain the liquid and discard the bones. Place in labeled zip top bags in the freezer; will store for up to three months.

French Onion Soup

The best use for the homemade beef stock I've found is French Onion Soup. This recipe calls for so few ingredients, and the quality of the stock is extremely important. You can use any combination of stock and water, depending on your preference. I like to use 1 1/2 quarts (6 cups) of stock and 1/2 quart (2 cups) water.

Active preparation time: 1 hour
Inactive preparation time: 40 minutes
Total time: About 2 hours

1 1/2 pounds or about 5 cups of thinly sliced yellow onions
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoons olive oil
A heavy-bottomed, 4-quart covered saucepan
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar (helps the onions brown)
3 tablespoons flour
2 quarts boiling brown stock, canned beef bouillon, or 1 quart of boiling water and 1 quart of stock or bouillon
1/2 cup dry white wine (Chardonnay) or dry white vermouth
Salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons cognac
Rounds of hard-toasted French bread (toast in oven at 325 for 20 mins, drizzling with olive oil halfway through).
1-2 cups grated Swiss or Parmesan cheese

1. Heat butter and oil in the saucepan over medium low heat. Add the onions and cook slowly in the covered saucepan for 15 minutes.
2. Uncover, raise heat to medium and stir in salt and sugar. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes stirring frequently, until the onions have turned an even, deep, golden brown.
3. Sprinkle in the flour and stir for 3 minutes. Off heat, blend in the boiling liquid. Add the wine, and season to taste. Simmer partially covered for 30 or 40 minutes more, skimming the fat off the top of the liquid occasionally. Correct seasoning. Set aside uncovered until ready to serve. Then reheat until simmering. Just before serving, stir in the cognac. 
Note: A variation is to place the toasted bread on top of the liquid, sprinkle the cheese on top and bake for 20 more minutes, and then place under a broiler for 2 minutes to brown the top lightly.

Julia Child's Boef Bourguignon

This recipe is definitely not one you'd want to make on a weeknight. It is tedious and long — so wear your cushioned shoes, because you'll be standing in the kitchen for a while. If you enjoy cooking, however, it is a joy to prepare. This is a fantastic recipe to practice chopping, time management and correcting seasoning, all of the culinary essentials. Having been the first dish featured on “The French Chef, ” is is now known as the quintessential Julia Child recipe. Making it not only produces a dish that is sure to impress guests or family members, but it is also one of the greatest confidence boosters in the life of a home cook — after it comes out of the oven, you'll find yourself asking, “Did I really just pull this off?”

To save some time, you might consider doing all of the chopping and peeling the pearl onions the day before. Another set of helping hands also decreases the preparation time. Set aside an afternoon for this recipe. Preparation time will vary depending on how fast you can chop, and inactive cooking time will be at least four hours.

One 6-ounce piece of chunk bacon
3 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
3 pounds lean stewing beef, cut into 2-inch cubes
1 carrot, sliced
1 onion, sliced
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons flour
3 cups red wine, young and full-bodied (like Beaujolais, Cotes du Rhone or Burgundy)
2 1/2 to 3 1/2 cups brown beef stock
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 cloves mashed garlic
1/2 teaspoon thyme
A crumbled bay leaf
18 to 24 white onions, small
3 1/2 tablespoons butter
Herb bouquet (4 parsley sprigs, one-half bay leaf, one-quarter teaspoon thyme, tied in cheesecloth)
1 pound mushrooms, fresh and quartered

1. Remove bacon rind and cut into lardons (sticks 1/4-inch thick and 1 1/2 inches long). Simmer rind and lardons for 10 minutes in 1 1/2 quarts water. Drain and dry.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
2. Sauté lardons in 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a flameproof Dutch oven over moderate heat for 2 to 3 minutes to brown lightly. Remove to a side dish with a slotted spoon.
3. Dry beef in paper towels; it will not brown if it is damp. Heat fat in casserole until almost smoking. Add beef, a few pieces at a time, and sauté until nicely browned on all sides. Add it to the lardons.
4. In the same fat, brown the sliced vegetables. Pour out the excess fat.
5. Return the beef and bacon to the casserole and toss with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.
6. Then sprinkle on the flour and toss again to coat the beef lightly. Set casserole uncovered in middle position of preheated oven for 4 minutes.
7. Toss the meat again and return to oven for 4 minutes (this browns the flour and coves the meat with a light crust).
8. Remove casserole and turn oven down to 325 degrees.
9. Stir in wine and 2 to 3 cups stock, just enough so that the meat is barely covered.
10. Add the tomato paste, garlic and herbs. Bring to a simmer on top of the stove.
11. Cover Dutch oven and set in lower third of oven. Regulate heat so that liquid simmers very slowly for 3 to 4 hours. The meat is done when a fork pierces it easily.
12. While the beef is cooking, prepare the onions and mushrooms. Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons butter with one and one-half tablespoons of the oil until bubbling in a skillet. Add onions and sauté over moderate heat for about 10 minutes, rolling them so they will brown as evenly as possible. Be careful not to break their skins. You cannot expect them to brown uniformly. Add 1/2 cup of the stock, salt and pepper to taste and the herb bouquet.
13. Cover and simmer slowly for 40 to 50 minutes until the onions are perfectly tender but hold their shape, and the liquid has evaporated. Remove herb bouquet and set onions aside.
14. Wipe out skillet and heat remaining oil and butter over high heat. As soon as you see butter has begun to subside, indicating it is hot enough, add mushrooms. Toss and shake pan for 4 to 5 minutes. As soon as they have begun to brown lightly, remove from heat.
15. When the meat is tender, pour the contents of the Dutch oven into a sieve set over a saucepan. Wash out the Dutch oven and return the beef and lardons to it. Distribute the cooked onions and mushrooms on top.
16. Skim fat off sauce in saucepan. Simmer sauce for a minute or 2, skimming off additional fat as it rises. You should have about 2 1/2 cups of sauce thick enough to coat a spoon lightly. If too thin, boil it down rapidly. If too thick, mix in a few tablespoons of stock. Taste carefully for seasoning.
17. Pour sauce over meat and vegetables. Cover and simmer 2 to 3 minutes, basting the meat and vegetables with the sauce several times. Serve in casserole, or arrange stew on a platter surrounded with potatoes, noodles or rice, and decorated with parsley.

Where to Buy it

Hastings Farm •  40701 Pine Grove Road, Bay Minette. 937-8728.
Fairhope Health Foods • 280 Eastern Shore Shopping Centre. 928-0644.
Virginia's Health Foods • 3952 Airport Blvd., Suite B. 345-0494.
Windmill Market • 85 N. Bancroft St.  Fairhope. 517-5444.

text by Jill Clair Gentry • photos by Dan Anderson • illustrations by Kelan Mercer

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