On a Thursday afternoon, I rolled into El Cerrito Natural Grocery asking the question, “What’s for dinner?” I picked up cabbage, lettuce and a variety of fruit. I wondered over to the meat counter. The butcher offers natural, organic, and sustainable meats. They had skirt steak on sale and I thought, “Where’s the beef?”
In 1984, Wendy’s aired an advertisement that made the phrase “Where’s the beef?” a part of American culture. In the commercial, Wendy’s complained that its humble “Single” burger had more beef than McDonald’s Big Mac and Burger King’s Whopper. The phrase “Where’s the beef?” has entered mainstream culture as a way of criticizing a person or situation–to say that they are sadly lacking. The phrase has also come to equate quantity with quality. Bigger is better.
When Carl Jr’s plops down the Six Dollar Burger with 1/2 pound of beef, 54 grams of fat, and 890 calories, a better question for today might be “How much beef?” For a few people, the answer to “how much beef?” is none at all. And they may just be right. But for most people “how much beef?” is entirely too much. A combo meal adds greasy fries and a sugary soft drink. Since the bun adds even more sugar. The combo meal weighs in at about 1500 calories–about 75% of all the calories for an entire day. We have come to think that the feeling of being satiated with a lot of food is the same as being satisfied with good food.
I wonder if people have begun to mistake the flavor of spices and marinades for good tasting beef. It’s possible to ruin a good piece of beef with a marinade, but many people don’t even know it. So many people are eager to brag about their marinades that they forget that a marinade is supposed to enhance the flavor of beef, not replace it. I have had pieces of meat turned to mush by excessive marination only to watch other diners lick their chops. I’ve also had meat that managed to taste bland despite copious amounts of sugary, salty, fat laden marinades.
The meat industry has managed to find better and better ways to produce more meat at an increasingly cheaper cost. The food industry covers the flavors of cheap beef by pushing spice packets and pre-packaged marinated beef. Michael Pollan in his search for the answer to “What’s for dinner?” in “The Omnivore Dilemma” notes out that without the spices applied to a McDonald’s burger, the beef patty tastes nearly flavorless. Pollan states that meat in a McDonald’s hamburger (or any other fast food chain for that matter) often comes from either a burned out dairy cow or another industrially raised cow.
Industrially produced cattle put an unprecedented strain on the environment. According to Michael Pollan, cattlemen feed their livestock antibiotics along with the corn because eating corn is unnatural for cows. The antibiotics are necessary to keep the abnormally high number of bacteria in the stomach under check–causing the bacteria to become more and more tolerant to our most important drugs. The cows also create an enormous amount of manure which, instead of ending up as fertilizer, ends up in a toxic cesspool often poisoning water sources and creating dead zones at the end of rivers.
An excessive consumption of beef, or by today’s standards a normal consumption of beef, can cause a number of diseases. The Nutrition Action Health Newsletter states that if any single food caused the most damage to the American diet, ground beef would be a prime contender. This evaluation includes the misinformation about how much fat ground beef contains, the amount of saturated fat in beef, and the likelihood that e. coli resides in the ground beef. Yet ground beef consists of 76% of the beef sold in restaurants and 45% of the beef sold in the market.
With all this information floating around in my head, you’d think I’d skip beef altogether. I don’t. I do see beef more like a treat than a staple. I see most beef as almost in the same category as ice cream. It’s party food. I typically eat vegan or vegetarian for breakfast (coffee is vegan, thank goodness), vegetarian for lunch, and a small portion of meat for dinner. This approach to consuming meat is how many Americans ate meat before the explosion of cheap industrially produced meat. And the way that many people around the world still eat.
David Tanis in his book “A Platter of Figs And Other Recipes” focuses not on recipes but on ways of thinking about food. Good food comes from quality ingredients. The natural grass diet of cattle gives beef a rich, distinct flavor. The methods used in raising cattle on a grass diet at places like Niman Ranch can actually help the land. The cattle graze on the grass, leave manure to fertilize the grass, bugs grow in the the manure, birds eat the grubs, and birds leave even more nitrogen rich fertilizer when they defecate. Some believe that humanity can sustain this more natural approach for the foreseeable future.
According to the web site of Eel River, an organic cattle rancher, grass fed beef also has a better nutritional profile. Grass fed beef has up to four times the amount of omega-3 fatty acids. Grass fed beef has nearly twice as many naturally occurring vitamins as grain fed beef. Pastured cows also have less fat because they get more exercise and aren’t force fed grains. Even if you kept the same amount of beef as the average American in your diet, you could cut out over 17,000 calories from your diet by switching to 100% grass fed beef. Even better, switch to grass fed beef and cut your consumption of beef down to only a few times a month and you could lose a substantial amount of weight.
According to a Time magazine article “Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food”, less than 1% of meat produced in America fits into this organic and sustainable category.
Looking at the grass fed beef, I bought a small portion of the lean skirt steak, marinated it and served it on a whole wheat bun from Alvarado Street with a cheerful mound of healthy coleslaw. The mound of coleslaw and the whole wheat bread easily made up three quarters of the food consumed. Since cabbage and whole wheat provide a large amount of fiber, the meal guaranteed a feeling of satiety as well as satisfaction.
Enjoy beef as an accent to your meal with whole grains and plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, not as the exclusive main attraction
I adapted the Bourbon Marinade from Bruce Aidell’s “The Complete Meat Cookbook”. I cut back on sugar and salt because it’s just not needed. I also adjusted the other ingredients to let the beef shine. I only marinated it for 15 – 20 minutes on each side. That’s all that’s needed. Any more, and it could get soggy. One key to a tough piece of meat like a skirt steak is to cut it across the grain before serving making each bite an easy to chew delicacy.
Jack Daniel’s Marinade
3 Tablespoons of olive oil
1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard
4 Tablespoons of Jack Daniel’s
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 Tablespoon Katz red wine vinegar
1 Tablespoon A-1 sauce
2 Tablespoons brown sugar
1 clove garlic
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
No Mayo Coleslaw
2 medium carrots
1 sweet gravenstein apple
dash of salt
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 Tablespoon Katz sauvignon blanc vinegar