The power of a food memory. When James Frei travelled to Buenos Aires, Argentina ten years ago to teach English, little did he expect to return to the US with a new dream and food obsession: Grass-fed Beef.
“The conventional wisdom at that time was that beef was bad for you,” he recounted. “Imagine my surprise to discover Argentina’s love affair with beef. It was everywhere, in so many different forms and consistencies, and tasty too. The biggest surprise? How healthy everyone was, especially compared with the average American you’d find back home with the typical beef-centric diet.”
The experience threw all his preconceptions about beef out the proverbial window. Fascinated with the realization that beef could be both tasty and healthy at the same time, he conducted an experiment upon returning to the States. He paid top dollar for a premium Angus beef steak and he prepared it for dinner with his parents. They were blown away by the taste, but he wasn’t. It was nowhere close to the quality and flavor that he had in Argentina.
Out of this discontent, Pampero Ranch was born in 2005, with the sole objective of producing high-quality beef. He and his wife Cynthia, now raise about 150 cows – a mix of Longhorn and Beefalo – half of which are raised for market, while the rest are used for breeding.
“I’m only interested in producing quality beef that is both flavorful and healthy. That’s why I started with the Longhorns. It’s the best-tasting beef around, in my opinion,” said James. “Plus, despite their horns, they’re actually really sweet, docile animals and we love having them around. This is why we keep a few of them on our property while the majority of the herd graze in Orland and Dixon on our friends’ ranches.”
Elaborating on the health benefits of Longhorn and Beefalo meat versus conventional Angus beef, he said, “When it comes to beef, healthy options are not just about being ‘grass-fed’ or ‘organic’, but about the breed of cow. Because of their genetic make-up, Longhorns and Beefalo cattle generally have less fat to begin with, as compared to your average Angus cow, grass-fed or not. And less fat means a healthier beef option.”
The family lives on Cynthia’s parents’ 10-acre plot in Sunol, CA with a stunning view on the hills of the East Bay. About 14 solar panels currently power the six-person household and there are plans to install more solar and, possibly wind panels, to power an on-site well that will irrigate the pasture for chickens to graze on. There’s a modest vegetable and herb garden on the Southern end of the property which was replete with corn, zucchini and tomatoes when I visited last October.
“The Longhorns are bred on a pure grass diet while the Beefalos’ winter diet are supplemented with alfalfa and grass hay to compensate for limited pasture in the colder months,” James continued. “Our friends up North – one of whom is our business partner – share our values about treating animals humanely and giving them access to pasture. All the same, we drive up every few weeks to check-in on our herd, say ‘Hi’ to the cows and pitch in wherever our friends need help.”
A Silicon Valley engineer during the week, and Farmers’ Market vendor on weekends, Pampero Ranch’s existence is largely built on the relationships James has forged over the years. Besides his partnerships with friends in Orland and Dixon, a live-in farmhand manages the day-to-day farm affairs (feeding the chickens, letting the cows out to pasture, basic fence repairs, etc). Even the relationship with their current butcher (who is Halal-certified) has stood the test of time.
“We decided to go Halal because it ensures a humane kill and we have many Islamic friends. Also, there are very few USDA-approved meat-processing facilities in California, so there are not that many places for us to ‘shop’ around,” James said. “In our experience, we’ve found that the longer you work with the butcher and build a relationship with them, the better the products. We believe we’ve found the best butchers and are loyal to them.”
In 2010, Pampero’s offerings expanded to include eggs, pastured chickens and turkeys. Already convinced about the quality of the beef that we tried, we signed up for their Chicken CSA that would guarantee one chicken a month at a discounted price of $5.50/lb for pastured, organic chickens. With our first chicken of the season weighing in at a hefty six pounds, we had no lack of poultry in our diet for the whole year. Between the two of us, one chicken ensured at least four meals for a whole week: first roasted with vegetables, then shredded and tossed in a salad, mixed with mayonnaise for a sandwich spread, and finally, the bones used for chicken noodle soup. Recession cooking indeed!
Looking ahead, more CSA-type plans are on the cards, again, based on partnerships with other like-minded farmers (for both meat and vegetables). Ultimately though, James and Cynthia’s long-term dream is to purchase a plot of land large enough for them to consolidate their animals – cows, chickens, turkeys – in one place.
During our visit, we started chatting about the cuts of beef that typically appear on the Frei dinner table. While it’s tempting to imagine a cattle farmer dining on rib-eye or a filet mignon everyday, the contrary is true.
Given the popularity of these steaks, the family is often left with the bone-in (oxtail, shank, back ribs) or cheaper cuts, like chuck steak. James excitedly shared his tips on preparing this typically chewy cut of meat: the trick is to tenderize it as much as possible with a tool like this, then pan-sear the steak, covered, for about two minutes on each side. The technique has convinced M to add this cut to our shopping list, especially as it’s a richly-flavored piece of meat.
For this post, however, I’m going to leave the chuck-steak-experimenting for another time, and instead share a recipe for Braised Beef Shanks. Also widely regarded as tough and chewy, the best way to transform this messy, unglamorous cut of meat into gourmet deliciousness is in slow, slow braising in the dry heat of an oven.
And I mean s-l-o-w. But think about the reward that awaits at the end of it – a hearty, comforting, spoon-tender beef stew, with dollops of bone marrow oozing its way into a rich, thick sauce.
Braised Beef Shanks (adapted from The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking)
Serves 2 generously
This recipe is based on the classic Osso Bucco Milanese, considering that both recipes call for thick slices of shanks. In this version however, I’ve used a mild red wine (Rioja) instead of white wine, to match the shanks’ robust flavor. The meat is also cooked much longer to fully tenderize every single muscle around the bone so that the final dish can be eaten with a spoon.
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 large carrots (about 10 oz total), diced
5 celery stalks, leaves and ends trimmed, diced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 garlic cloves, minced
½ cup olive or vegetable oil
2-2 ½ lbs bone-in beef shank rounds, 1-inch thick
Salt and pepper
About 1 cup of flour
1 cup red wine
1 cup chicken or beef broth
1 can (28 oz) canned whole tomatoes
5 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
5 stalks of fresh parsley
1. Preheat the oven to 350F.
2. In a large oven-proof pot, stir together the onion, carrot, celery, garlic and butter over medium high heat for about 5 minutes until the onion is translucent. Create a well with the vegetables by pushing them to the sides of the pot to make space for the meat to come later. Set aside.
3. Prepare the shanks for browning: you may, if you wish, secure each round of shank with a piece of kitchen twine. It’s going to come off midway while the shanks cook in the oven, but I find that this helps preserve the shape when you brown it in the skillet, making for a neater process.
4. Pat each shank dry then lightly season both sides with salt and pepper. Set aside.
5. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium high heat, and dredge each shank through the flour, shaking off any excess. Do this right before placing the shanks in the skillet, otherwise the flour will turn soggy. When browned, transfer each piece into the pot with the vegetables, standing them on their edges.
6. Deglaze the skillet with the red wine, scraping any remnant pieces in the pan, and add it to the meat and vegetables.
7. After the wine has been added, set the pot over medium high heat. Add the broth and the tomatoes and their juices, breaking them down with the back of a wooden spoon. Add the thyme, bay leaves and 3 stalks of parsley, bring everything to a boil, then cover the pot and transfer it to the preheated oven.
8. Bake in the oven, covered, for 3 hours. You may wish to check the pot every 45 minutes or so, to ensure that the meat is 3/4 covered in liquid or to turn the pieces over for even cooking.
9. After 3 hours, check the meat for tenderness – at this point the meat should be falling off the bone, but depending on personal preferences, it may still be too chewy for some. If this is the case, return it to the oven for another 45 minutes or so, or until the meat reaches your desired level of doneness.
10. Finely chop the remaining sprigs of parsley to garnish each dish, if desired. Serve the meat and its sauces with your preferred choice of carbs – we devoured ours with a side of garlic mashed potatoes (recipe follows).
Garlic Mashed Potatoes
For 2 hungry people
1 garlic bulb
5 yukon gold potatoes (about 1 lb), peeled and cubed
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
Salt and pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 450F. Wrap the garlic bulb in foil and roast for 20-30 minutes, until the cloves are soft and pop out of their skins. Mash together the roasted garlic cloves with the butter and set aside.
2. In a medium saucepan, add the potatoes, 1 teaspoon of salt and enough water to cover by an inch. Bring to a boil, then let the potatoes simmer, uncovered for about 15 minutes or until fork tender. Drain and return the potatoes to the saucepan.
3. Add the garlic-butter mixture and start mashing the potatoes to incorporate until you get a smooth consistency. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm.