The freight train that is the slow / local / sustainable / organic / community-supported food revolution continues to barrel ahead into the consciousness of Houston food lovers.
A recent visit to several of Houston's farmer's markets found them bustling with vendors and customers alike with an outstanding selection of produce, dairy and meats.
Additionally, prominent Houston chefs are starting to find their "local food" religion by offering daily or weekly menus based on locally-sourced ingredients. Monica Pope at t'afia, a long-time proponent of local ingredients, offers a wonderful prix-fixe lunch every Friday based on seasonal and local ingredients.
This past week I visited the Houston Farmer's Market at Rice University. In addition to sourcing the usual fresh, local produce, this visit was primarily meant as a foray into locally grown meat. The meat vendor, Georgia's Texas Grassfed Beef, offered a wide selection of beef from cattle born, raised and (ahem) ended in Waller County, Texas.
According to their producers, pasture-raised and grass-fed cattle are superior to their feedlot-raised and grain-fed cousins in several important ways.
Grass-fed beef is significantly leaner without sacrificing taste (so they say). Grass-fed cattle require less antibiotics (many producers of grass-fed cattle never use antibiotics, choosing to cull diseased animals instead). And most significantly, grass-fed producers can recite a laundry list of nutrients that exist in their cattle such as conjugated linoleic acid and omega 3 fatty acids.
Hey I was sold. Time for a taste test. Georgia's set me up with a 12 ounce bone-in beef rib steak.
The first thing you notice is that the color, density, sheen and surface texture of the uncooked flesh is similar to raw tuna steak. Much less marbeling than you'd expect from a typical beef steak. An interesting taste test would be to compare-contrast a dish of tartare or carpaccio using grass-fed vs. grain-fed beef.
I seasoned the steak simply with salt and pepper. Due to the lower fat content in grass-fed beef, it is recommended to cook it at a lower temperature. I seared one side of the 1" thick beef in a skillet for about 3 minutes and then finished it off in a 400 degree oven for another 3-4 minutes. It cooked quickly to medium.
Time to dig in.
I don't have alot of experience with grass-fed beef but if this is typical the difference is striking. The main difference is that the texture of the cooked beef is more granular, coarser, and mealy. Contrast that with grain-fed which is more fibrous, marbelized and stringy.
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Perhaps unexpectedly considering the lower fat content, this was still one of the juiciest steaks I've ever cooked.
As far as taste goes, without the overwhelming flavor of fat that our tastebuds have been conditioned to crave, the subtle flavor of the meat itself starts to make an appearance. Aside from the quintessential "beefy" flavor of the meat, there are notes of nuttiness and sweetness. And although I may be imagining this, there seemed to be hints of hay and alfalfa. One interesting observation is that the caramelized bits of fat on the grass-fed beef seemed less flavorful than on grain-fed steaks.
All in all, my experience with grass-fed beef was very enjoyable. I'll need to do alot more taste testing to establish a final conclusion on which, if any, is better. It's a tough job but somebody's got to do it.