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SPECIAL ISSUE: GRILLING

A new blaze of glory

From 'natural' to 'grass-fed,' specialty beef has arrived. It's time to put it to the test.

May 21, 2003|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

MEMORIAL Day arrives: Break out the barbecue grill and give it a good cleaning. Run to the grocery for a couple of steaks. Light the fire and start the meat. Smell the smoke. But then comes the downfall -- the steaks are dry and flavorless. An anguished cry erupts all across the nation, "Whatever happened to beef?"

But fear not: The world of meat is changing. Just as grocery-store tomatoes have expanded from a few dull, standard types to a bright rainbow of choices, so too is the selection of beef beginning to blossom today.

Call it the boutique-ing of beef.

You can find meat that is branded by a single company, such as Coalinga's Harris Ranch. There is beef like that from niche meat pioneer Coleman in Colorado, which is billed as "natural" -- a phrase that is popular but legally means only that it has been "minimally processed" with no artificial coloring added.

There is organic beef, which not only has been certified to have had no hormone or antibiotic treatments but also has been fed only on grasses and grains that have been raised organically.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 23, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Specialty beef -- A list of specialty beef purveyors in Wednesday's Food section mistakenly identified Prather Ranch as a supplier of grass-fed beef, as it is erroneously described on its Web site. Prather Ranch beef is actually a supplier of certified organic beef.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 24, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Specialty beef -- A correction that ran Friday for a Food section story about specialty beef said that Prather Ranch beef was erroneously described as "grass-fed" on its Web site. The company's products -- which are certified organic -- are actually incorrectly described on a retail Web site that sells the beef.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 28, 2003 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Specialty beef -- A list of specialty beef purveyors in last week's Food section mistakenly identified Prather Ranch as a supplier of grass-fed beef, as it is erroneously described on a retail Web site. Prather Ranch beef is actually a supplier of certified organic beef.

There is American beef from imported breeds, such as French Limousin, Italian Piedmontese and Japanese Wagyu. And there is good old American Certified Angus.

Boutique giant Niman Ranch has made its reputation by harvesting beef that is more mature. At the same time, other places are trying for better beef by going back to their roots -- selling prime grades that have been dry-aged.

And then there's the new carnivorous cutting edge, the most extreme beef -- grass-fed, which has a flavor that is so different it might even be shocking to traditional meat lovers.

A steak test

The taste of the meat -- and the best approach to grilling it -- varies with the philosophy behind it. At Niman Ranch, the cattle are slaughtered as much as a full year later than is customary. This results in meat that makes no compromises. A Niman flank steak purchased at Trader Joe's had a deep, beefy flavor and a texture that was dense and chewy, which is not to say tough.

On the other hand, a dry-aged prime New York strip from Bristol Farms could not have been more different. The strip was a paragon of old-fashioned steak values: so tender it cut like butter with a flavor that was subtle but complex. When grilled over moderate direct heat to medium-rare, it developed a crust so lovely and evenly browned that it almost looked as if it had been fried.

Wagyu, the variety of cattle used for Japan's famed Kobe beef, is so richly marbled that every cow must be the bovine equivalent of a sumo wrestler. A Wagyu chuck steak purchased at Torrance's bustling Mitsuwa Marketplace had a mouth-filling flavor that seemed to last forever. Even cut three-quarters of an inch thick and cooked over a fairly hot fire to medium-rare, it was somewhat chewy.

That is to be expected: Chuck is not the best cut for grilling. At Mitsuwa, it is usually sold sliced either medium-thin for quickly grilled yakitori or extremely thin so it will cook with only a quick swish in the hot broth of shabu-shabu. Wagyu also developed a better crust during cooking than anything but the dry-aged prime.

Mitsuwa also carries Certified Angus. A Spencer steak had the cut's characteristically loose and somewhat chewy texture and was clearly not as well marbled as either the Wagyu or the prime. Consequently, the flavor, although deep and beefy, didn't linger on the palate the way the other steaks did.

Far and away the most distinctive steak of all was a New Zealand grass-fed rib-eye from Whole Foods Market. It tasted almost as if it came from another animal -- the intense gamy character of lamb married to the deep bottom notes of beef. It was very lean, with almost no marbling, so it required careful cooking.

At Whole Foods, the rib-eyes were cut what seemed to be ludicrously thick -- between 1 1/2 and 2 inches. But this turned out to be perfect. Cooked over indirect heat (most of the coals pulled to the opposite side of the grill), this grass-fed steak took about 20 minutes longer to get done, but it stayed moist despite its lack of marbling. However, it still didn't have the long finish of the other steaks.

As you might suspect, none of these boutique steaks is inexpensive. Expect to pay around $12.99 to $13.99 a pound for most and as much as $25.99 for the dry-aged prime.

Rise of the small rancher

In addition to the search for flavor, there's another reason for the explosion of interest in boutique beef -- economics. It turns out that the only people more dissatisfied with the state of the modern beef industry than meat lovers are meat ranchers.

After decades of consolidation, four companies sell more than 80% of the beef in America. This has created an economic trickle-down effect that has resulted in tighter prices and less profit all the way down the line.

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