Still looking for a good New Year's resolution? Have I got a doozy for you — a way to make life healthier for the planet, for animals, and for yourself
It's easy: Resolve to eat more steak.
Okay, maybe it's not quite that easy. Still, if you're among the growing number of people who are uneasy about the effects of industrial agribusiness, but you're not really the type to head down to the food co-op for some organic kale, there's a surprisingly large number of outlets selling what we might call, for lack of a better term, progressive beef. If you're used to thinking of steak as an artery-clogging guilty pleasure, think again. A steak can be good for you, good for the environment, even good — well, relatively speaking — for the steer.
The vanguard of progressive beef is the grass-fed category. Although the term "corn-fed" has long been associated with classic Midwestern heartiness, cows aren't supposed to eat corn, or any other grain. They're ruminants, which means they're supposed to eat grass out in the pasture. Corn has become our primary cattle feed mainly because government subsidies have made corn so inexpensive, even though it makes the cattle sick. That's why corn-fed steers require so many antibiotics and other chemical supplements. "Grass-fed beef is good for the environment because the cows fertilize the pasture with their manure," Bill Kurtis, the television newsman who also runs the Kansas-based Tallgrass Beef Company (tallgrassbeef.com), said. "It's also good for small ranchers. And then there are health benefits because we don't use hormones or antibiotics. Did you know 75% of all the antibiotics produced in America go to livestock?"
For years the knock on grass-fed beef has been that its flavor is inconsistent. But Mr. Kurtis's steaks ($12.49 for a 10-ounce sirloin strip) are better than most supermarket beef and can hold their own with what many butcher shops sell. They don't have much marbling — the small pockets of intramuscular fat that are the traditional barometer of grain-fed beef quality — and as a result they don't have the buttery tenderness of the best USDA Prime beef. But they're plenty juicy, and they have a robust, beefy flavor.
"The demand is there," Mr. Kurtis said in his familiar sonorous tones. "I could sell a billion dollars worth of grass-fed beef if I had it."
One reason he doesn't have that much of it is that grass-fed cattle aren't in peak slaughter condition during the cold-weather months because they're drawing on their internal fat and energy reserves. Mr. Kurtis combats this problem by getting some of his winter beef from farms in the South, but Niman Ranch (nimanranch.com), the California-based cooperative of about 600 small farms and ranches, prefers to start its cattle and grass and then finish them on corn.
Bill Niman, the company's founder, is a longtime evangelist for the cause of progressive agriculture. "After great flavor, our primary concern is the animal's wellbeing," he said. "We also believe in small farms. They're better for rural communities, and they avoid the huge concentration of animal manure, which turns what should be a valuable byproduct into a pollutant."
Although Niman Ranch is best known for its pork, the company's hormone- and antibiotic-free beef is spectacular. Niman supplies my favorite restaurant steak in the city — the 48-ounce ribeye at Convivium (68 Fifth Ave., Brooklyn, 718-857-1833) — and the firm's mail-order steaks ($50 for two 12-ounce strips) have a nutty complexity that consistently ranks among the best I've ever tasted. If you're looking for beef you can feel good about, this is a win-win.
Beef that makes you feel good is one thing, but what about beef that's good for you? The latter may seem like a pipe dream, but not according the folks at HeartBrand Beef (heartbrandbeef.com). They don't just avoid hormones and chemical additives — they claim their steak is actually a heart-healthy food.
HeartBrand sells super-premium beef from Akaushi cattle, a Japanese breed that provides meat similar to Kobe. The steers are fed a mix of grass and corn and are genetically predisposed to intense marbling. This provides magnificent juiciness and tenderness, a buttery flavor, and, according to HeartBrand, cardiovascular benefits.
"The Akaushi has a tremendous concentration of monounsaturated fats, so you have more beneficial fatty acids," HeartBrand's vice president for production, Dr. Antonio Elias Calles, said in a recent phone interview. It got a lot harder to follow after that, as he began talking about triglycerides, conjugated linoleic acid, protein structure, and lots of other things that are tough to understand without a biochemistry degree. (HeartBrand's Web site has some charts and graphs that spell things out in somewhat more decipherable terms.)
The bottom line: HeartBrand claims its steaks will lower bad cholesterol and raise good cholesterol. The idea of steak as health food may seem preposterous, but similar claims have been made for Spanish Ibérico ham, which also has an extremely high degree of intramuscular fat. And as Dr. Calles points out, the Japanese routinely eat the world's fattiest beef, yet they have a very low rate of heart disease.
Healthful or not, HeartBrand steaks are meltingly tender and extremely flavorful. And at these prices ($60 for a 14-ounce strip), they'd better be.
It's not yet clear whether any of these companies will break through beyond the niche category. But given America's increasing fascination with boutique food brands and healthful eating — as evidenced by everything from the popularity of books like Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" to Wal-Mart's decision to carry organic produce — it's not hard to envision companies like these giving rise to a new way of thinking about steak.
"Beef has long had the image of the rugged cowboy," Mr. Kurtis said. "But now it's going to be the young mother shopping at Whole Foods, wanting what's best for her children."
And let's face it, with spinach and green onions the most dangerous foods of 2006, steak really is the safest way to go. I'm making my resolution right now.