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Flavors: From Pasture To Plate

Lynn Donaldson

What is the beef about steak? At the table, with fork and knife in hand, do we really know and appreciate the food before us? In this program, we journeyed to the American Fork Ranch in Two Dot, Montana located under the Crazy Mountains to travel from pasture to plate.

With my producer Jackie Yamanaka, I attended the inaugural Raising the Steaks: 2016 Environmental Stewardship Ranch Tour. About 40 people, mostly ranchers, learned about how the health of rangeland, streams and creeks, and wildlife interplay and influence successful cattle ranching.  

Raising cattle with respect and attention produces delicious beef on the plate.  I talked to rancher Lon Reukauf who lives north of Miles City on Cherry Creek Ranch, and a long time Montana Stockgrowers Association and National Cattleman’s Association member, and Annie Evjene, the co-ranch manager of the American Fork Ranch.

Credit Lynn Donaldson
Executive Chef Eric Trager, left, of Old Piney Dell talks to rancher Lon Reukauf, right, during a break from the tour at the American Fork Ranch.

Raising steak begins early according to Reukauf,  “All this process actually starts before the young animal is conceived. Its called prenatal nutrition so you need to make sure that the mom is in really good shape and has a very complete diet and has good enough physical condition to handle the elements. It is the winter before the calf is conceived.”  

Reukauf continued, “The calf is conceived in the summer, born the following April. The nutrition of that calf and the vaccination programs are really important at a very young age. A lot of the quality is  formed when that calf is at a very young age, or even before it is born.  The nutrition of mom and the calf determines the marbling that you desire,  not  the waste fat.”

As with growing produce, the production of cattle follows the seasons, “We do not have nutritional challenges in the early summer when the calf is very young,” Reukauf pointed out. “They move cattle to fresh pasture. Different pastures get used at different times during the year.”

To accomplish the ultimate flavor, Reukauf said, “Grass finishing is more of the art and it's important  that the animal is harvested off of grass when the green period is beginning. It is a very narrow window this far north.”

A cow’s life cycle begins with birth followed by weaning from its mother’s milk. The calf continues to grow by grazing on grass and pastures. At this point, the calf can be auctioned off, or earlier, after weaning.  Mature cattle can move to feedlots or feedyards to be fed a balanced diet of roughage, grain and local renewable resources such as potato peels or sugar beet tops. Once a cow reaches market weight of about 1200 to 1400 pounds they go to the packing plant.  

Credit Lynn Donaldson

  Reiterating what makes a good steak, Annie Evjene, co-manager of the American Fork Ranch, exclaimed, “I feel we are taking good care of the land which in return is helping us take good care of our cattle and raise a good product for our consumer.”

We grow good beef in Montana, but how easy is it for chefs to get locally sourced products into their restaurants? Jackie Yamanaka talked to 25-year veteran Executive Chef Amy Smith from the Grand Hotel in Big Timber, and Aaron Brittingham from Montana Ale Works in Bozeman.  

Smith lamented, “In Big Timber and in Montana it is a challenge.” Her preference, “I like grain-finished beef. All beef is grass fed in the last 30 days. I will get things from local ranchers. On the menu I want a consistent product so you can come here in the winter or  summer and get a consistent product.”  

Sharing that she served fifteen tenderloins last week which requires eight cows worth of beef, she explained that it is “Impossible for local producer to come up with that product. I would love to support the local ranchers. We are supporting them enough in the amount of beef that they serve. The more beef that people eat the more everybody has to produce.”  

When asked about the concept of farm to table, gate to plate, and pasture to plate, Smith responded, “It’s a lovely concept. If you are lucky, and live in an area that is able to do it, go for it.  But in our situation it is a challenge.”

Credit Lynn Donaldson
Sirloin Steak Salad

  At Montana Ale Works in Bozeman, Executive Sous Chef Aaron Brittingham talked of acquiring locally sourced products, “We’re a very large restaurant and there is not quite enough in Bozeman to supply us with everything we need.  We try to work with local farms and ranchers to get higher quality produce and meats. Put our money back into the local economy.”

Brittingham shared an example of how they have collaborated with Montana Wagyu Cattle Company to serve Wagyu hamburgers. Because the company has no problem selling the higher end cuts such as tenderloin, strip loins and ribeye, the restaurant now takes the ground meat.

In cooking the beef, Executive Chef Eric Trager of Old Piney Dell at Rock Creek Resort in Red Lodge confessed, “I really crave the flat iron. It’s a different cut. It’s affordable for most people. Its really tender and really good flavor.”

In preparing the meat for cooking, Trager provided some examples: For the seasoning, “Salt and pepper, sometimes a little bit of fresh thyme. If it is a well-marbled cut of meat, I will grill it. If it tends to be a little leaner I tend to pan seared it in a little clarified butter. Hotter temperature and sear in the juices. Brings out the strong flavors of the beef itself."

For the various cuts of meat, Trager instructed: For short ribs, he recommended searing the outside to caramelize, followed with slow braising in oven for 4 or 5 hours. Smoked brisket is first smoked in mesquite for 6 hours to be finished braising in the oven for another 6 hours.  With tenderloin, Trager pan sears the meat, seasoning with just salt and pepper and adding clarified butter to bring out more beef flavor.  A rib eye or New York strip is usually grilled.

As far as thickness, Trager said, “The thicker the cut I can get a better temperature on the beef and can taste the full flavor of the beef than a real thin cut."

Executive Chef Mike Erickson from Austin demonstrates the making of Arrechera Sumer Sirloin.
Credit Lynn Donaldson

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  At the Homestead Bed and Breakfast in Big Timber, I sat down with Executive Chef Mike Erickson, Culinary Arts Instructor at Burnet High School Culinary Arts Program. Erickson just co-produced the movie True Beef: From Pasture to Plate. The film highlights Texas beef through the eyes of high school culinary and agricultural students.

Erickson started cooking watching and helping  his mom in the kitchen. These days, students are watching him cook. Though he later went on to receive degrees from the Culinary Institute of America and Johnson and Wales University and has had a long culinary career, he admitted to constantly learning about new foods all the time. But to really learn to cook, Erickson advocated hands-on experience. He especially valued the old art of butchery.

Chef Alan Michaud of the Montana Meat Collective was one of the attendees at the tour of the American Fork Ranch
Credit Lynn Donaldson

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  In Helena, Chef Alan Michaud is laying the groundwork to start the Montana Meat Collective where consumers will have an opportunity to source an animal from a local producer and then learn to butcher the animal into usable cuts and parts.

Erickson advocated, “I think the number one thing is respect the food and respect the farmers and the ranchers.” He concluded, “I thank God every day for the job I get to do. But I would not get to do what I like to do the last thirty years whether it be teaching or cooking without the farmers and ranchers of America.”

Tonight, with fork and knife in hand, as you slice into the meat think about who and how your food was grown to bring each bite of deliciousness onto your plate. We must continue to discover the beef in our steaks.

Stella Fong shares her personal love of food and wine through her cooking classes and wine seminars as well as through her contributions to Yellowstone Valley Woman, and Last Best News and The Last Best Plates blogs. Her first book, Historic Restaurants of Billings hit the shelves in November of 2015 with Billings Food available in the summer of 2016. After receiving her Certified Wine Professional certification from the Culinary Institute of America with the assistance of a Robert Parker Scholarship for continuing studies, she has taught the Wine Studies programs for Montana State University Billings Wine and Food Festival since 2008. She has instructed on the West Coast for cooking schools such as Sur La Table, Williams-Sonoma, Macy’s Cellars, and Gelsons, and in Billings, at the Billings Depot, Copper Colander, Wellness Center, the YMCA and the YWCA. Locally she has collaborated with Raghavan Iyer and Christy Rost in teaching classes.