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Welcome Home, Big Beef

Taking the grass-fed beef by the horns and cooking it

By Michelle Gienow | Posted 4/28/2010

Grass-fed beef is great. It's better than conventionally produced meat in just about every way: better for the cows, better for the environment, better for the humans who eat it. The only drawback is cost: Grass-finishing a cow requires more time and labor than factory-farmed meat does, and so the price per pound is justifiably higher. Sometimes quite a bit so, sigh.

I feed two hungry little boys on a budget, so most of our humane, local, sustainable meat consumption is in its cheapest form, aka ground beef. Grocery store ground beef is repulsive, but it's also a bargain; I, however, was paying $4.50/pound for grass-fed ground. When an acquaintance announced recently that her father, who raises organic, pastured beef up in Pennsylvania, was selling shares in one of his soon-to-be-slaughtered steers for $3 per pound, I jumped at the chance--until I learned that the minimum purchase was a quarter.

Even one-fourth of a cow is still a lot of cow, and I wasn't sure I could clear enough freezer space to house it. Kate assured me that a standard quarter takes up about the equivalent of two regular coolers or four paper grocery bags worth of room. I inspected my already fairly full upright freezer, did a little mental arithmetic, and committed to purchasing.

A week later my custom-butchered demi-cow was delivered--all 175 pounds of it. We're talking more like four really, really big boxes of beef, and it was so not going to fit. I had to emergency triage the existing freezer contents and eat, compost, or give away about 20 percent of the things I found in there (some embarrassingly elderly--5-year-old Boca Burgers, anyone?) to create space for Big Beef. But space was at last created, and after a great deal of creative wedging and cramming, I was able to fit everything inside. The food in my freezer is now interlocked closely and precisely, like an intricate 3-D puzzle that I have to partially dismantle every time I want to take something out.

But, boy, have I got beef! Besides the heart, tongue, and liver (which, amazingly, the three other cow-sharers did not want), I ended up with an insane amount of meat: steaks, roasts, rumps, shoulders, and 45 pounds of ground. Everything was wrapped in white freezer paper and labeled by cut; some were familiar, but many bore names I had never heard before. Maybe I'm a beef neophyte, but what exactly is an "English arm roast"? (Answer: sort of like a flank steak, but with a round bone in it.) Cube steak I had at least heard of, but never before encountered in my own kitchen. Since I now had 20 pounds of it, however, it was clearly time to get better acquainted.

It turns out that cube steak is sort of the bridge between hamburger and cheap steak--it's cutlets from the harder-working muscles of the cow that would cook up really tough without a little help. You can tenderize one of these cuts either by pounding the hell out of it yourself or having the butcher pass it through a nifty macerating machine that leaves a checkerboard pattern impressed in the meat--hence the name cube steak.

Pretty much every cuisine seems to have a use for cube steak. Latino kitchens marinate it in lime to make bistec palomilla, Chinese cooks turn it into orange beef, and here in the U. S. of A. we do strange and frightening things to it like baking it in cream of mushroom soup to make "smothered steak." However, cube steak is also the basis for one of my favorite Southern, white-trash dishes, and so I decided my very first cube-steak attempt would be to chicken-fry it.

It turned out to be a dangerously easy recipe--dangerous because you probably don't want to be making chicken-fried anything a dietary mainstay. Basically, you dredge each cube steak in seasoned flour, then in beaten egg, and then again in the flour, frying it until brown on both sides in about half an inch of oil. Then, here is the trick: You reduce the heat, cover the skillet and cook for four to five minutes until the cube steak is done through--kind of like braising, only in hot oil instead of stock.

After all the steaks are cooked, you then, in a lovely gesture of economy, use the leftover dredging flour to make a quick cream gravy. Serve the steaks with mashed potatoes and a generous pour of pan gravy: Three bucks a pound never tasted so good. Here's the recipe:

Chicken-Fried Steak With Cream Gravy

Ingredients:

1 pound cube steak (or 1 round steak, pounded with a mallet until all your stress is alleviated)
1 egg
1 1/2 cups plus 4 tablespoons milk, divided use
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon paprika (optional)

Directions:

Put flour on a pie plate or other broad, shallow dish.
Beat egg with milk in a second pie plate.
Sprinkle seasonings on steaks.
Dredge the steaks in the flour, then in the egg, then again in the flour.
Heat enough cooking oil (I used peanut oil) to fill a skillet 1/2 inch deep; heat oil until a drop of water pops and splatters (be careful).
Using tongs or a long-handled fork, gently place each steak into the oil--work in batches if necessary so as to not crowd the steaks, lest the coating get soggy.
Fry until golden brown, turn, and brown the other side.
Turn heat to low, cover the skillet and cook four to five minutes until steak is cooked through.
Remove from oil and drain on paper towels.
Pour off all but about 2 tablespoons of oil, trying to keep all the crunchy bits in the pan with the remaining oil.
Heat over medium flame.
Sprinkle 3 tablespoons of the left over dredging flour into the pan, stirring it into the oil until it turns light golden brown.
Gradually stir in 1 1/2 cups of milk, keeping the spoon moving constantly and mashing up any lumps with the edge of the spoon.
Once all milk is incorporated and the gravy begins to bubble, turn heat to low, and keep stirring; after a few minutes, the gravy will begin to thicken.
Cook and stir until thickness is to your liking, and then taste to see how much salt and pepper is needed.

(If gravy doesn't thicken, sprinkle in more flour 1 teaspoon at a time. If it gets too thick--cream gravy is supposed to be thick, but you don't want gravy pudding--loosen it by adding a little more milk while stirring over low heat).

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