When a vegetarian starts talking about veal crates and mad cow disease, I find it easy to tune out and think about other subjects, such as the...
WHEN A VEGETARIAN starts talking about veal crates and mad cow disease, I find it easy to tune out and think about other subjects, such as the beguiling flavor of pork.
Unfortunately for my bacon-wrapped cocoon of ignorance, some of the most eloquent voices for meat-industry reform are decidedly carnivorous people like Peter Kaminsky. His book, “Pig Perfect,” follows the author on a ham-fueled journey from Spain to the American South, where he is moved to buy his own herd of Ossabaw hogs.
Or take Michael Pollan, whose best-seller, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” frets over industrial food of all kinds, but especially meat. This leads Pollan to buy his own cow, slaughter chickens with a butcher knife and shoot a wild boar for dinner.
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When these guys tell me I need to reconsider my meat-buying habits, I put down my Whopper and listen. I vowed to start buying more organic, local and humanely raised meat. And since I have both the University and Broadway farmers markets within easy reach, I knew exactly where to find it.
But first, there were two issues I’d have to face.
The first issue is price. Meat at the farmers market costs more than at the supermarket. Factory farms enjoy subsidies and economies of scale that small ranches don’t. Pasture land and organic feed are expensive. There’s a good argument that meat simply should cost more, that $5 for a pack of pork chops doesn’t represent the true cost of producing pork.
I know all of this, and I agree with it, and when it comes time to pay $6.50 a pound for chuck roast (which routinely goes on sale for $2 a pound at QFC), I still bristle instinctively.
The second issue is that the meat is frozen. This is partly because of health regulations and partly because a typical small ranch slaughters at only certain times of year. Sure, meat freezes well, and if it’s good meat before it hits the freezer, it will still be good meat when it comes out. But the need to thaw means you can’t take meat home and cook it for dinner that day.
So I reached into a cooler at the Skagit River Ranch stand and pulled out more than $20 worth of that chuck roast. I also bought ground pork, a top blade steak and a pork leg roast from Samish Bay Cheese, and three pounds of oxtails from Growing Things Farm (in Carnation). For two weeks, the only meat I cooked came from the farmers market.
I ground half of the chuck roast and made burgers — hearty, six-ounce, medium-rare burgers. While the burgers were cooking, I noticed a familiar aroma: They smelled and tasted a lot like lamb. Of course — the ubiquitous cryovaced Australian lamb from Costco is grass-fed, too.
The rest of the chuck roast became a goulash with smoked paprika and lots of onions. As is often the case with chuck roast, some pieces were tender and some not. I turned Samish Bay’s wonderful ground pork into Ants on a Tree, a Szechuan noodle dish that’s one of my daughter’s favorites. I brined the pork leg roast in Coca-Cola (recommended in Cook’s Illustrated) and roasted it until it was deeply browned and crusty. I sliced the flatiron steak for beef teriyaki. And I made a delicious oxtail ragu. Oxtail is foolproof, because you can’t overcook it.
Overall, I added about $30 to my grocery budget.
So how was the meat? The most obvious thing I noticed was a beef-pork divide. If you like factory pork, you will find farmers market pork to have more of what you like: more flavor (including a deeply meaty mineral edge that I find very appealing) and more delicious marbling.
If you like corn-fed beef, you will taste grass-fed beef and wonder who stole your meat. Grass-fed beef is leaner, easier to overcook and more likely to taste livery. At its best, it can be very good, but it’s not surprising that natural beef producers like Niman Ranch and Oregon Country Beef (which are not organic certified) have focused on more humane feedlot practices rather than abandoning feedlots altogether.
Buying meat at the farmers market is fun, though. Since selection varies weekly, you may try something new, and you get to hear the story behind the meat. The pigs at Samish Bay Cheese’s farm, for example, are fed on whey, a byproduct of cheese production.
After two weeks of meat eating with a clear conscience, I’m happy to add the market stands to my meat-buying portfolio. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that sometimes you will see me, like a smoker trying to quit, at QFC buying the $2 chuck roast.
Matthew Amster-Burton is a Seattle freelance writer. Betty Udesen is a Seattle Times staff photographer.