Monday, June 19, 2017

The Ultimate Guide to Grilling Grass-fed Burgers

When I wanted to get some advice about grilling the best grassfed burgers at home, I turned to my friend Lynne Curry, who literally wrote the book on cooking with grassfed beef. (Her book, Pure Beef: An Essential Guide to Artisan Meat with Recipes for Every Cut, has just been rereleased should you want a copy.) Fortunately she had just written a post about burgers on her Forage blog, and I asked if I could share it with all of you.

At last, it’s grilling season!

(I know you have already cleaned the old ashes/ grate of your grill, filled the propane tank and checked the lines if you use gas or purchased plenty of hardwood charcoal—right?)

In celebration, I’ve compiled everything I know about grilling grassfed burgers. For a quick primer, check out my previous posts on perfect grassfed burgers:

5 Quick Facts for Perfect Grassfed Burgers at Home, Part 1
5 Quick Facts for Perfect Grassfed Burgers at Home, Part 2

Here’s what’s included in this post:

What's Different About Grass-Fed Burgers

By now, you’ve certainly encountered grassfed ground beef wherever you shop. And maybe you’ve even made the switch because of the reasons I touched on in Part 1—namely the traceability and quality of grassfed beef.

Caramelized onions…heavenly!

You feel good about buying grassfed beef for your backyard barbecue, but how confident do you feel about grilling it? I’m here to help.

Most important to me is that the beef I buy comes from animals raised for their whole lives on pasture. And it supports family farms, not factory farms.

Maybe for you it’s the composition of good fats and the overall nutritional profile of grassfed over conventional beef. Whatever your reasons, grassfed beef is a completely different animal when it comes to grilling.

Here’s why.

The Lean Factor

Every cut of grass-fed beef is more susceptible to overcooking simply because it is extra-lean. Ground beef from pasture-raised animals is typically 85 percent to 90 percent lean, far less fatty than the 70 percent lean meat many burger connoisseurs recommend.

A burger that fits the bun is essential.

Less fat means that there’s less insulation to protect the proteins and baste the meat internally. So how do you grill a juicy grassfed burger?

Some home cooks blend egg, milk and bread crumbs into their ground grass-fed beef as insurance against dryness. Shredded or diced cheese, sautéed vegetables and minced pancetta are other mix-ins that can help protect the burgers from heat and keep them juicy.

Since I prefer my hamburgers to be 100 percent grass-fed beef, I do nothing but season them well with kosher salt just before cooking.

And I cook them over high heat, but more on that in a moment.

How To Form Hamburger Patties

Many recipes caution that over-handling ground beef will make hamburgers tough. This warning can cause cooks to barely form patties at all, resulting in scraggly, lumpy burgers that don’t fit the buns.

Grilled to perfection.

The truth is that the grinding process forces beef through a die cutter and minces every strand of connective tissue, making the meat tender enough to eat raw à la steak tartare.

The key is to handle the ground beef just enough to shape it without compressing it like a meatball, and without melting the fat with the heat of your hands. If you prefer, you can use a jar lid or one of the burger molds on the market.

I like to form the patties a few hours before cooking (but I do not salt them until I’m ready to cook because the salt will draw out the moisture.).

My ideal hamburger is 1/3 pound of meat (about 5 ounces) shaped into a uniform disk about 1 inch thick. I make it wide enough to fit within the bun, roughly 5 inches.

Now, the one sure way to make your burger dry is by pressing on them with a spatula while grilling and squeezing out all the juices. But again, I get ahead of myself.

Over-Handling Versus Under-Handling

Keeping that fat intact is key to a tender and juicy burger. So if you handle the ground beef for too long and it starts sticking to your hands, then your burger will be compromised.

I’ve realized that shaping hamburgers is a lot like making pie dough. People have been warned for so long about not overhandling the dough that they tend to underhandle it. So they end up with dry, raggy-edged pie crust.

Same is true with the burgers. Try this:
  1. Shape nicely uniform discs of ground beef while keeping contact to a minimum. I use a scale to portion the ground beef. But if you have a one-pound package of ground beef, it’s easy to eyeball it into thirds for 1/3-pound burgers, or fourths for 1/4-pound burgers.
  2. Then take each piece in your hands and press it while spinning it around like you’re making mini-pizza about 5 inches wide and 1 inch thick (okay, a very thick mini-pizza).
  3. Put it on a plate and use your thumb to make an indentation in the center so that when the patty expands during grilling, it won’t blow up into a burger ball. I have witnessed too many burger balls at backyard barbecues, and it’s a sad sight.
Now, how long did that take? If it was less than one minute, you’re safe from over-handling but still have an actual hamburger patty, not a blob of ground beef.

And now that you have your burger patties ready to go on the grill, here's how to cook them to perfection (plus toppings that will put them…well…over the top)!

All photos courtesy Lynne Curry.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

In Season NW: Summer's Upon Us—Berries & Veg Aplenty

"Strawberries strawberries strawberries!" are the words spilling out of Josh Alsberg's mouth when I ask what's going to be appearing on his shelves at Rubinette Produce and on farmers' market tables. First are the June-bearing—"Hoods! Seascapes! Albions! Shuksans!" he chants—followed by the ever-bearing varieties with two harvests, one in early summer and one in the fall. To say this guy is excited this time of year is indeed an understatement; he virtually vibrates with anticipation of the fruit and vegetables that are about to cascade in from local farms.

Hood strawberries.

When I asked about the cherries I was seeing at local supermarkets, he scoffs and spits out "California" as if he just bit down on the pit in an unripe specimen. He emphasizes that unlike the last two years, the harvest this year is trending back in the normal direction because of the wet, cool spring we've had.

Cherries lookin' good!

Like a good farmer, Alsberg doesn't tempt fate, so he hedges his bet when saying that, assuming rain doesn't come at the wrong time and ruin the crop, it looks like the supply of cherries this year will be robust. Look for Northwest varieties from local farms to start appearing in the next couple of weeks and for them to be in good supply—Alsberg stops to knock on a wood crate—through August.

Blueberries and raspberries.

Cane berries—starting with raspberries, followed by marionberries, loganberries, tayberries (a blackberry-raspberry cross), boysenberries, silvanberries (or sylvan blackberry)—will start trickling in now but really get going at the end of June and early July. In mid-July look for gooseberries, jostaberries and currants, along with blackberries (thorned first, then thornless) going strong through August.


As cherries bow out, peaches—be still my heart!—will roll in sometime in mid to late July, with August being their time to shine. Also in August are the sun-loving melons, grapes, figs, plums and prunes that will keep picnickers and preserves busy. When I ask if that'll be all in the fruit category, Alsberg declares, "I'm never done talking about fruit!"

Tomatoes? Yes, please.

But when I force him to look at other seasonal crops, he somewhat reluctantly turns his attention to tomatoes, corn and cucumbers, with the first sweet red globes of the earliest-ripening varieties appearing at the end of June (thanks largely to hoop houses) with local sweet corn starting in July and cukes of the lemon and Persian persuasion getting started at the end of June.

Multicolored cauliflower.

Leafy greens that are so fresh they practically leap into your basket are happening now, with Little Gems at the top of my personal list, but look for spinach, pea tendrils, fava greens and fava beans now, with string and pole beans following close on their heels. Spring onions are plentiful now, too, with new crop potatoes trickling in and the denser brassicas—cabbages, broccoli and cauliflower—scheduled for the end of June through the summer.

Before you lock in any of those dates, though, be like a good farmer and accept that the weather is going to do what it wants to do. So hope for the best and maybe knock on some nearby wood.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Need a Vacation? Take Your Mouth to Portugal

I love to travel, but sometimes it's just not possible to jump on a plane and leave the world behind for a week or three. That's when I start planning for a foreign vacation right in my own back yard, with rosé chilling in a tub in the dappled sunlight beneath our oak tree and myriad plates of tapas like this one from contributor Jim Dixon of Real Good Food.

Portuguese Marinated Carrots

These are often served with drinks as a petisco, the Portuguese version of a tapa. Cut three or four carrots into roughly half inch slices (I split them lengthwise, then slice crosswise) and cook them in well-salted boiling water for about 10 minutes. You want them just barely tender, not soft.

While the carrots cook, make the marinade by stirring together a tablespoon of honey or sugar with a couple of tablespoons of Katz Sparkling Wine vinegar [regular white wine vinegar works, too], then adding four tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Toast a couple of tablespoons of cumin seeds in a dry skillet for a few minutes until they're aromatic and just starting to brown.

Drain the carrots and add them to the dressing along with the cumin and a couple of cloves of finely chopped garlic. Chop a nice handful of cilantro and add it; add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. If you can, let this sit for an hour or more. It's not traditional, but I like a little red pepper heat, and if you like things hot, add something spicy, like a pinch of cayenne. (In a few weeks I'll have some of Necton's new flor de sal with piri piri chile at my Activspace store, and it's really good sprinkled over the carrots.)

Serve these with good olives and a nice drizzle of extra virgin. If it's sunny, open a cold bottle of vinho verde and pretend you're in the Algarve.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

When In Doubt, Spritz!

My husband loves gadgets. I tend to think it's a guy thing, like when our neighbor, when faced with a chore, chimes gaily, "Every project has a tool budget!" as he runs off to the hardware store. I suppose women do the same thing, as when my mother would invariably need a new pair of shoes or earrings or a fresh lipstick to dress up for an evening out.

Cassis spritzer.

When a package appeared on the front porch addressed to Dave, I texted him at work and let him know whatever he'd ordered had arrived. He texted back, "It must be the soda streamer!" My first thought, after an involuntary rolling of my eyes, was, "The what?" and wondered where this tall, heavy implement might be going to live in our already crowded kitchen.

All it took to bring me around, though, was when he got home and mixed an Americano, a light little fizz monster that has become one of my favorite summer cocktails with it's ruby red sparkle and sweet-bitter tang. Considering what commercial soda costs—not to mention the salt and other additives it can contain—it seems like a no-brainer to fill up a bottle with tap water and in a few seconds get a perfectly decent bottle of fizziness.

Rhubarb soda.

Got kids? Make homemade fruit sodas with whatever's in season at the farmer's market. Need a refresher-to-go for a summer afternoon picnic or backyard barbecue? Whip up some lightly alcoholic spritzers that won't fill you up like beer or put you to sleep before dessert (or make driving home dicey).

I've been using my homemade cassis and elderflower syrup to make a few simple spritzes (elderflower spritzer, top photo), which are simple to assemble on demand or would make a beautifully elegant pitcher with slices of lemon or mint sprigs.

Cassis Spritzer

Four ice cubes
1 1/2 oz. cassis (homemade or commercial)
1/2" wide strip of lemon zest

Place ice cubes in glass. Add cassis and fill with soda. Stir briefly with bar spoon to combine. Holding zest skin-side down over glass, squeeze gently to release oils and drop into glass.

* * *

Elderflower Spritzer

4 ice cubes
1 oz. gin
1 oz. elderflower syrup (homemade or commercial)
Wedge of lemon
2 mint leaves

Place ice cubes in glass. Add gin and elderflower syrup and fill with sodz. Squeeze lemon wedge and drop into glass. Crush mint leaves with your fingers and drop into glass. Stir briefly with bar spoon.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Meat of the Matter: Upending the Status Quo

This series looks at how one small processor, Marks Meats in Canby, is transitioning from the founding owner-operators to a new generation of ownership under the name Revel Meat Company. This post was developed in collaboration with Old Salt Marketplace, a supporter of Good Stuff NW.

"The first thing to note about Ben Meyer is not his polite Midwestern manners, his oh-so-Portland uniform of stocking cap, flannel shirt and scruffy beard or that he's opened two restaurants in what were then—and still are, to some extent —underserved areas of the city. It's not even that he's been interviewed by the likes of Forbes and the Wall Street Journal wanting to hear about the local pasture-raised beef and pork he features on his menus. The key to Meyer is that this evangelist for whole animal butchery, whose walk-in is chock-full of large cuts of dry-aged beef, spent 10 years as a vegan."

Planning a day's work.

Since the time I wrote those words three years ago for the Oregonian, the scruffy beard has come and gone (and come and gone again), the stocking cap and flannel shirt can vary with the season and his two restaurants are still putting out luscious plates of grass-fed meat and farm-raised vegetables. And this former vegan-turned-omnivore is still intent on upending a system he sees as intrinsically unhealthy for his family, his community and the environment.

"I always say that Old Salt and Grain & Gristle are a food system," Meyer said. "We buy raw ingredients from people and we turn them into all the products that we use, [like] grains that are custom-milled to turn into the breads and contract tomatoes where I give the seed to the farmer and they grow it out for us."

But in his latest venture he's diving deeper into the stream that our food travels in getting from the field to our plates. With partners Jimmy Serlin and Ryan Ramage, his Revel Meat Company is attempting to bring local meat back to local tables, in the process revitalizing a nearly extinct local meat processing industry that enables small farmers to bring their animals to a market hungry for the kind of meat they raise.

Bringing local meat to market.

In the spirit of upending the status quo they tossed around the idea of calling their venture Revolution Meat, or saluting the history of Marks by calling it High Mark Meat, but then Serlin suggested Revel Meat for what he thought of as a gustatory celebration of the best the region had to offer. The name stuck.

An unusual part of this new venture is that Meyer isn't just branding all the meat they process under the Revel Meat banner, regardless of the source. According to a 2015 article, discussing the practice of "localwashing," many large processors, like Carlton Farms in Oregon, buy animals from Canada or elsewhere, bring them to their facility for slaughter and processing, then brand the products with their name. Meyer's plan for Revel Meat is to have the name of the ranch or farm that raised the animals follow the product, whether it ends up as hamburger or sausage or charcuterie, all the way to the consumer.

"My whole goal with all food is getting rid of the smoke and mirrors,"  he said. "We want to make sure that if somebody’s buying it, they know who they’re buying it from, the name of the ranch and where it is. We’re not going to co-brand it; it’s not just going be Revel Meat pork, it’s going to be Payne Family Farms pork delivered by Revel Meat."

Jimmy Serlin, a happy man.

Since Meyer and Serlin are both chefs, they are intimately connected to Portland's restaurant community and have already begun wholesaling their meat products like sausages to some of the city's restaurants. But entering the wholesale business has meant adding layers of complexity to an already complicated process.

In the normal course of running his restaurants, Meyer said, he would talk to his ranchers a week ahead for pork and two weeks or more for beef so that the animals would be in the pipeline to go to the processor. They would then hang for two to three weeks, after which he would butcher and process them for his menus.

With wholesaling, not only does he need to have pork in hand to make the sausage in time to get it to restaurant chefs for their menu, he said, "I now have to plan weeks out to make sure that we have pigs lined up to get them killed, cleaned, hung up, turned into sausage, packaged, labeled and then driven up to the city. It’s just a whole other layer back."

As if that wasn't enough, the partners are adding animal husbandry into the mix, raising their own animals on two parcels of land near the facility. It means working not weeks or months, but years out, he said, with animals on the ground that are slated to come through their process two years from now.

Helping local ranchers thrive.

But even with intimidatingly steep learning curves on multiple fronts, this former vegan never wants to forget that he is responsible for taking the life of a living creature.

"My biggest fear is that you would become callous and not care," Meyer said. It's why he chose to take on the challenge of revitalizing a medium-sized, locally owned slaughterhouse that would serve small farmers and ranchers, rather than scaling up to operate at the same volumes as larger processors.

"You can imagine the level of care when you’re killing 340 head an hour on five different lines," he said. "That’s stunning an animal every 3.2 seconds or something. That is factory work where the cog happens to be a living creature. That is the most mortifying part to me."

"No matter how much love or care you put into the raising of an animal, if that’s how it finishes its life, you’ve broken that covenant with the animal," he added. "That covenant is the most important thing for us. If you break your part of the covenant, then we’re asking that species, this pig or that beef or these sheep or goats, to keep their end without us keeping ours. It’s not fair."

Read the other posts in this series, Rejuvenating Local Processing and Transitioning a Family Business.

Photos by Rich Crowder.

Friday, June 02, 2017

Travels with Chili: The Beach at Bandon & Points South

Known as Oregon's banana belt, our southern coast is almost always guaranteed to have consistently better weather and warmer temperatures than anyplace else on the coast. Dominated by sand dunes and cranberry bogs, with forested hills and craggy, wave-sculpted rock outcroppings, the region is bounded on the north by Reedsport and Brookings on the south. In between are small towns historically dominated by fishing, agriculture and timber, now joined by a tourism boom that has brought new energy, as well as lots of retirees looking for a quiet retreat from busier burgs.

The view out our front window.

A group of friends was planning a weekend trip to Bandon and invited me to come along, so I jumped in Chili and hit the highway. I've always thought of it as a loooooong way to go, and though it would be too much of a schlep for a day trip from Portland, a weekend is the perfect amount of time for the leisurely four-and-a-half hour drive. Zooming down I-5 to the turnoff for Highway 38 takes you to Reedsport along the Umpqua River through the tiny towns of Elkton, Green Acres and Scottsburg that sit along the southern border of the Siuslaw National Forest.

An elk. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

I'd highly recommend a stop at the Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area just before you get to Reedsport. A heard of more than 100 Roosevelt elk call it home, and they're often circulating in the green grasslands surrounding the interpretive center. Even arriving in calving season, as we did, when the elk tend to be a bit shy of gawkers, we were able to see plenty of these magnificent ungulates. (Hints: Bring binoculars, though you should always have a pair in your car anyway. Also, it's a perfect pit stop with super clean vault toilets.)

Another stop to make in the spring is at the O.H. Hinsdale Rhododendron Garden, just down the highway from the elk viewing station. Late spring is the time to see it in all its glory, and it has special open days from mid-April to mid-May with volunteers dispensing secret rhodie knowledge. These events also feature plant sales, so plant nerds should make plans to drop in.

Some of the "needles" at Bandon.

An additional hour in the car was required to get to Bandon, but it went quickly once I spotted the crashing waves of the Pacific out the passenger window. Prices of house rentals on the south coast are a revelation for those of us used to the sky-high rents charged on the north coast. (Our three-bedroom-plus, very comfortable house that slept eight and overlooked the beach was just over $200 per night. Just sayin'.)

Of course, after several hours on the road the group was ready for some libations and a bite to eat, so we hied ourselves down to Foley's Irish Pub in Bandon's historic town center, making sure to rub the Blarney Stone posted just outside the door. Then it was back to "our" beach for a long walk, where towering needles of rock—collectively called the Bandon Needles—marched from the cliffsides down into the surf.

At Face Rock Creamery.

Other attractions are the Bandon farmers' market on Fridays and Saturdays from May through December, with local vendors sharing coastal produce, crafts and food. The Bandon Fish Market is just down the street with a bounty of just-pulled-from-the-sea fish and shellfish. Find local cheese from local cows at Face Rock Creamery, which revitalized the old Bandon cheese factory after Tillamook bought it, closed it down and moved production to its plant in Boardman.

Fabulous fish'n'chips!

A friend of mine, Dianne Hosford, moved to Port Orford and bought a local landmark called The Crazy Norwegian's Fish & Chips, so I felt obligated—to be honest I was thrilled—to make the half hour drive south to visit her and, yes, sample her menu. Local seafood dominates, as it should, and she buys her produce from area farmers when its in season as well as making all of her desserts in-house. This is old-school café fare that is all too rare these days and makes me pine for places like it closer to home.

Dramatic headlands.

After stuffing myself on fish, oysters, coleslaw and pie (I am a professional, after all), I was relieved when Dianne offered to take me on a walk around Port Orford Heads state park on the north end of town. Wrapped around the Port Orford Lifeboat Station, built in 1934 by the Coast Guard to provide lifesaving service to the southern portion of the Oregon Coast, the stately brick station building has been transformed into a museum.

A steep stairway descends precipitously from the station down to the rocky launch area, which is open to the public part of the year, but we chose to take the trail around the headland with its dramatic views of Port Orford to the south and Cape Blanco to the north. Wild irises and wildflowers were in bloom, and we ducked in and out of the treed green slopes as the ever-present wind whipped the waves far below us.

Redfish in Port Orford.

A post-hike cocktail seemed in order, and Dianne shuttled me to Redfish, a stunningly classy place you'd expect to find in an urban setting rather than a tiny coastal burg, though not many of those would have its spectacular floor-to-ceiling view over the rocky southern coastline. Its sister establishment next door, the Hawthorne Gallery, was closed by the time we wandered over, but peering through the windows I could see that my next trip down I'd have make a point of stopping in there, too.

Packed with beach fires at sunset, long walks at low tide and time for beach reading, this quick taste of the south coast had me pining to do another road trip in the near future. If you have suggestions for more places to visit, please leave them in the comments below!

For other road trip suggestions, check out these previous Travels With Chili.