How did you get involved in cooking to begin with? Was it something you learned to love early on or did you come to it later?
I come from a family of 4 boys, so there was never any “cooking is for girls” when I was growing up. My mom encouraged us to help her cook, and my dad had a few specialties that he made (like grilled cheese and tomato soup). Early on, we started the tradition that my brothers and I made dinner on Mother's Day. It was usually a big elaborate mess that dirtied every dish and pan we owned.
When my wife and I were first married, I was still in school, and we had no money at all, so we didn't go out. She was a home economics major, and was interested in trying new foods, so we started cooking as a form of entertainment. Both our mothers are wonderful cooks, and gave us many great recipes. However, Jean and I began to wander off the beaten track, and try variations and substitutions with recipes. Today, we really don't use recipes that much — we have certain favorites that we make over and over, but they are never exactly the same. One of my favorite challenges is making a meal of “musgos” (open the refrigerator and take out everything that mus' go... and figure out how to use it).
Why is it so important to have the right ingredients?
Not only is it important to have the right ingredients, it's important to start with “ingredients” period. “Ingredients” are things like a cut of beef or lamb, a chicken breast, carrots, an onion, etc. A lot of recipes call for “a can of mushroom soup” or “a box of yellow cake mix” or something similar. I feel that if it comes in a box, it usually isn't your best choice. When you start with the most basic ingredients, you will usually have a more nutritious and healthy meal, and it will taste better and cost less! (This being said, I don't want to be a “food snob” like some of my friends call me...) I don't make my own mayonnaise, and since we use a lot of garlic, I usually buy those jars of minced garlic you find in the produce section rather than keeping a bunch of whole cloves.
How did you learn about grass-fed meat?
I am unique among all the patrons of U.S. Wellness Meats. You could say I came to grass-fed meat by dumpster-diving. I own a photography studio (www.coonrodphoto.com) in Quincy, Illinois — just across the Mississippi River from the farms of US Wellness Meats. Early on, John (Wood) came to me to photograph cuts of meat for their website. Since then, I have probably provided 90% of the pictures on this site. When you photograph food, it gets handled quite a bit, so obviously you can't package it up and put it back on the shelf, and it just seemed like such a shame to throw away such beautiful pieces of meat, so... what else could I do but take them home and cook them? As you browse the online store on www.uswellnessmeats.com, you can assume that shortly after whatever picture you are looking at was taken, it was eaten by my family.
Why is eating grass-fed meat different? How does it affect your cooking? Is it just about health? Or is there more to it than that?
At first, as I mentioned, we started eating grass-fed meat out of convenience, but as I worked with John and talked with him, I became a convert. To me, the whole notion of eating meat that comes from animals that live as they were intended to live instead of crowded into feedlots, standing knee-deep in muck seems like a smarter way to eat. I'm not really a “health-food nut” — I eat whatever looks good to me, but I do like the idea of knowing where my meat came from.
I can definitely tell a difference in taste and quality. To me, the difference in the beef is subtle, but the difference in the lamb and poultry is pronounced! I have never liked lamb — always thought it tasted “funny”... but since being introduced to grass-fed lamb, it is one of my favorites — I really love it! As far as chicken goes, there is no comparison with store-bought birds. The free-range are larger, juicier, and WAY more flavorful.
Cooking grass-fed beef is a little different, due to the leanness. I gave some grass-fed steaks to a friend and he tried them and told me he really didn't like them as well as corn-fed. I know that he is used to the typical American style of highly marbled beef, dripping with fat, and I'm sure he cooked his grass-fed meat to dryness.
Since grass-fed meat is definitely leaner, you do have to cook it a little differently. With steaks, I like to make sure they get plenty of resting time. Before cooking, I usually use some sort of rub, even if it's only coarse (Kosher) salt and fresh ground pepper, and then let it sit for a time — 30 minutes or so — to come up to room temperature. Even though my wife is true to her mid-western farm roots and likes her meat (ugh) well done, grass-fed steaks need to be prepared a little less well-done than you would prepare the same cut if it were full of fat. After cooking, it's important to let the meat “rest” for about 10 to 15 minutes before you cut into it. This makes for a juicier steak (I have no idea why...). If you have the time, it's always great to marinate grass-fed steaks. There are lots of bottled marinades available, but you can't go wrong with my favorite method: One half soy sauce and one half... er... something else. (I'll explain.) The actual marinade is this:
- Mix one half soy sauce, one half wine, and a generous amount of minced garlic. (The actual measurements depend on how much meat you have — you want enough to cover the meat) Put the steaks in a plastic zipper bag and pour in the marinade. Squeeze all the air out of the bag and kind of squish the meat around so it's all covered in liquid then stick it in the refrigerator for a few hours, or even overnight. Make sure you put the bag in a big bowl in case it leaks.
In reality, my wife and I don't drink alcohol so we don't, as a rule, have any wine on hand. (Sometimes, we get wine as a gift from people who don't know that we don't drink so we use that. I'm sure that they would be horrified to know that their nice gift of wine got used to soak a steak in, but to my way of thinking, it is the best use there is). If I don't have wine on hand, I have been known to substitute almost any fruit-based liquid I can find; apple cider, cranberry juice, pomegranate juice... almost anything, as long as it isn't super sweet. If it is sweeter, just use more soy sauce, and less juice.
For grass-fed roasts, my preferred method of cooking is technically a braise. Braising is like roasting but with a little liquid in the bottom of the pan. You can use water, but my favorite is V-8 juice. Season a roast with salt and pepper, then put it in a big roasting pan with onions, carrots, celery, and potatoes and pour about an inch or two of V-8 (or tomato juice) into the bottom of the pot. Cover and put in a low oven for a few hours...nothing better!
What are the most important keys to success for the home chef?
Willingness to TRY. I hear lots of people who say they don't cook and it seems to boil down to (get it? boil... cook...) the fact that they are afraid to try. “What if it doesn't turn out?” Well, frankly, it's highly unlikely that you will produce anything that is actually poisonous, so even if it isn't perfect, you could probably still eat it. If not, chalk it up to learning what not to do and try again.
What is the most helpful tip that you can pass on to fellow home cooks?
Instead of learning “recipes”, concentrate on learning a few basic techniques and then broaden your range. (“range”... another one!!!)
What is your favorite recipe (using a grass-fed meat)? What would you prepare with it for the perfect meal?
Wow. Picking a favorite is impossible... but I’ve included something I whipped up last Saturday. (see recipe)
What advice do you have for families in the kitchen? And for encouraging everyone in the family to eat the same meal?
My wife and I are now empty-nesters, as our younger son just graduated from college and has gone to work in Chicago, but from the time our 2 sons were born (well actually, from the time we were married) we have simply made it a priority to always sit down at the kitchen table and eat a meal off of a plate. When the boys were little, we made it an extra high priority, and as they got older, there was never really a question of not eating together as a family. Now that they are both out working and living on their own, I'm proud to say that they are both very good cooks, and both enjoy preparing and eating interesting meals from scratch.
Eating together as a family has been incredibly rewarding and looking back, I can see how important it was to all of us.