Day 41–Farmhand Foods Meatbox

Meat in a box. When we began our journey almost 7 weeks ago, I wasn’t sure what resources were available to our family other than what we could find at the farmer’s markets (and that was more than I though also!). What a wonderful coincidence that I saw a tweet from @farmhandfoods for a winter meat box. Meat in a box sounded strange, but in the spirit of adventure, we thought we would give it a try. I promised an update on our experience, so here it is!

Farmhand Foods of Durham works with NC pasture-based beef and pork producers who have a commitment to sustainable livestock production and who raise antibiotic and growth hormone free animals that are pasture-raised and pasture-fed. After doing a bit of research and reading their online protocols, I found that Farmhand Foods is a highly reputable organization with a sincere passion for improving food supply options. Founded and operated by two smart women–Tina Prevatte and Jennifer Curtis, Farmhand Foods also works with small-scale, inspected processing facilities that practice humane animal handline and care. Together with Sales and Distribution Manger Drew Brown, Farmhand Foods connects pasture-based farmers with the consumers who love their products throughout the Triangle area. I really love their business model and commitment to having a sustainable food system.

But back to the meat box. When we ordered our box in January, I wondered if it would be an affordable addition to our budget. We ordered three boxes (Jan, Feb, March) and each box worked out to $45. Each box includes three different cuts of meat–a braising cut, a grilling cut and a roasting cut. Two of the cuts are beef and one is pork. I’m not positive, but I think our first box was about 8-10 lbs of meat, which is a decent amount of food for three people!

We just finished the last of our January box for Super Bowl Sunday, and I think we all agree as a family that it was a great choice. Our January box included two meaty beef shanks, a large skirt steak and a 3 lb. mini boneless ham. The beef shanks were braised for an Italian ragu and they were, quite frankly, amazing. The skirt steak was very flavorful and surprisingly tender (I think I had confused skirt steak and flank steak, but skirt steak is much, MUCH better). And the ham, which we roasted with a local honey and mustard glaze, was so darn good that I dreamed about it. Really. I have never had ham that tasted so good.

Each cut of meat provided more than one meal for our small family (the ham alone provided at least three meals), so were able to work it into our weekly budget very easily. The meat tasted a lot better than store-bought, was healthier for us, and provided us opportunities to experiment with new recipes and cooking methods. All in all, we deem this experiment a success. And we can’t wait for our February box, which arrives next week!

This is all to say, that if you are in the Research Triangle area, Farmhand Foods is a high quality resource that we recommend. If you aren’t in this area, I would encourage you to find out if something similar exists near you and to give it a try. You just might be pleasantly surprised!

Day 35–Grain Fed or Grass Fed–Is There a Difference?

Is there a difference between grain-fed and grass-fed beef or is it just marketing?

Our family is not a statistically representative sample by any means, but in our 5 weeks of eating locally produced, grass-fed, grass finished beef and pasture-raised pork, we can say that yes, there is a definite and pronounced improvement in taste with the pasture-raised animals. So, is it just a taste issue? I recently read a wonderful article “Grass Fed vs. Feedlot Beef: Is There a Difference?” by Gail Nickel-Kailing in Good Food World (www.goodfoodworld.com) and she graciously gave me permission to share some of it with you. For the entire article, go to http://www.goodfoodworld.com/2012/01/grass-fed-vs-feedlot-beef-whats-the-difference/. Here are some interesting points:

Studies have shown that an animal’s diet can have an impact on the nutritional content of the meat on the consumer’s table. Grass-fed meat has been shown to contain less fat, more beneficial fatty acids, and more vitamins and to be a good source of a variety of nutrients. According to a study published in the Journal of Animal Science in 2009, eating grass-fed beef provides many benefits to consumers(3):

  1. Lower in total fat
  2. Higher in beta-carotene
  3. Higher in vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol)
  4. Higher in the B-vitamins thiamin and riboflavin
  5. Higher in the minerals calcium, magnesium, and potassium
  6. Higher in total omega-3s
  7. A healthier ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids (1.65 vs 4.84)
  8. Higher in CLA (cis-9 trans-11), a potential cancer fighter
  9. Higher in vaccenic acid (which can be transformed into CLA)
  10. Lower in the saturated fats linked with heart disease
Lower Fat – Meat from grass-fed cattle is much lower in fat, and therefore lower in calories. A 6-ounce steak from a grass-finished animal has almost 100 fewer calories than the same sized-piece from a grain-fed animal. If, like the average American, you eat about 67 pounds of beef a year, switch to grass-fed beef and you’ll save nearly 18,000 calories a year.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids – Omega-3 fatty acids are fats that are essential to human health. Sixty percent of the fatty acids in grass is omega-3, which is formed in the chloroplasts of green leaves. Grass-fed cattle can contain as much as two-to-four times more omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed animals.

At the same time, a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids has been linked with an increased risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, allergies, depression, obesity, and autoimmune disorders. A ratio of four to one or lower is considered ideal, Grain-fed beef has a much higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids than wild game or grass-fed beef. In grass-fed beef the ratio is approximately 2 to 1, while the ratio in grain-fed beef is more than 14 to 1.

More Vitamins – In humans vitamin E is linked with la lower risk of heart disease and cancer. Meat from grass-fed cattle is higher in vitamin E.; as much as four times higher in vitamin E than meat from feedlot cattle.(4)

Rich source of CLA – Meat from grass-fed animals is the richest known source of “conjugated linoleic acid” or CLA. Grass-fed cattle have been found to produce 2 to 5 times more CLA than cattle fed high grain feedlot diets. In laboratory animals, a  diet containing even a small amount of CLA greatly reduced cancerous growths.

The full article provides citations for her information and those are pretty interesting as well. The article and our own preference for the taste of pasture-raised beef and pork reinforce to us that we would rather eat a smaller portion of meat in our diet and have that meat be of higher quality that fill up on higher fat, cheaply produced meat. Whatever you decide for your family, it is interesting to note that even what animals eat influences how they affect our own bodies!

Day 23–Beautiful Braised Beef Shanks

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Our January meat box from Farmhand Foods (www.farmhandfoods.org ) included two large and meaty beef shanks from one of our local farmers in Efland (about 40 minutes away). I have to say, I have never even considered buying beef shanks, let alone how to cook them. So, this was another learning experience in our journey–not only buying locally produced meat and vegetables, but also being open to new ways of cooking. As it turns out (and you may know this already), beef shanks are a braising cut. That is, they are a bit tough and need long, slow cooking to break down the meat and produce a tender result. Since this was one of our chilliest weekends, it was perfect timing for slow cooking (and it also meant that I had more time to watch the NFL playoff games :-).

I found a recipe that sounded promising on epicurious (LOVE this website and app) at www.epicurious.com for a beef and sausage ragu. I tweaked it a bit and am including my version below. Mainly, I reduced the amount of meat, upped the level of vegetables in the ragu and reduced the overall liquids to make a thicker sauce for pasta and polenta. It is AMAZING. Not only did the final product taste delicious and tender, but my entire house smelled like I had Super Chef visiting. Yum, yum and YUM. I could actually eat this out of a bowl by itself.

So, if you’re in the mood to try something new and make the most out of a less expensive cut of beef (especially if it is locally produced and hormone/antibiotic free!), give this a try!

Beef Shank and Sausage Ragu (12 servings)

  • 3 tsp. fennel seeds
  • 3 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 lb. Mae Farm Italian sausage, casing removed
  • 3 1/2 lbs beef shanks with bone
  • 2 large onions, chopped
  • 3 cups of chopped organic carrots
  • 2 cups of organic mushrooms
  • 1 bunch of organic kale or other greens
  • 2 28 oz. cans organic whole tomatoes with juice
  • 1 small can organic tomato paste
  • 1/2 bottle dry, red wine
  • 6 large cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 tsp. organic dried Italian spices
  • 1 tsp. dried crushed red pepper
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  2. In a small skillet, toast fennel seeds over medium heat for about 2 minutes or until fragrant. Set aside.
  3. Heat 2 Tbsp. of olive oil in an oven proof pot and add sausage. Brown in pot for about 10 minutes, breaking up chunks with the spoon. Using a slotted spoon, remove from pot and put aside in a large bowl.
  4. Add 1 Tbsp. oil to pot. Sprinkle beef shanks with salt and pepper. Add to pot and brown at medium high heat for about 6 minutes on each side. Transfer to bowl with sausage.
  5. Add onions, garlic, carrots, mushrooms and greens to the pot and sautee until brown and tender, about 10 minutes.
  6. Return beef shanks and sausage to the pot along with any accumulated juices. Add tomatoes with juice, tomato paste, fennel seeds, spices to pot. Bring to simmer.
  7. Cover pot and put in oven. Braise 2 1/2 hours until beef is very tender and falling off the bone.
  8. Transfer shanks to a cutting board and remove meat and dice. Return diced meat to the pot and simmer on stove for about 10-15 minutes to thicken and reduce the sauce.
  9. Skim fat off the sauce (I actually cooled the sauce, put it in the fridge and skimmed the fat off the next day.)
  10. Season with salt and pepper.
  11. Serve over pasta, polenta or bread.

Day 7–The Winter Farmer’s Market part 2

We are a carnivorous family. Actually, we are ominovores, but we like our veggies with some animal on the side, and I probably have the only child who called bison jerky “meat candy.” (Apologies to my vegetarian friends, but that’s how we roll).

But reading the blogs, papers, websites, books, etc., it is clear that our mass produced food supply–especially our meat production–is out of control and often dangerous. When the government (after quite a long lag time) has to tell some meat producers NOT to inject ammonia into meat to keep ecoli at bay, you know there is trouble.

Happy pigs at Mae Farm

So finding high quality, locally produced meat is essential to our journey. We agree that eating less meat that is of higher quality is a good tradeoff. I’ve blogged about Farmhand Foods already and Whole Foods is a good, albeit expensive source as well. On my recent trip to the Farmer’s Market, though, I found that several local meat producers, including Mae Farms of Louisburg, NC (maefarmmeats.com) had set up shop. What a great find!

Mae Farms raises hogs, cattle and chickens on pasture, humanely, and with no antibiotics, growth hormones or animal sourced food. In fact, Mae Farms sells to Whole Foods, but at the Farmer’s Market you can get the same products for a bit less. In talking with the folks at Mae Farms, I realize what a treasure we have in North Carolina (and you probably have this in your state, too). Small production farmers who want to producde high quality food and maintain a lifestyle they love. I purchased some barbeque they made as well as bacon and fresh eggs. Can’t wait to try them next week!

Day 5–No Local Veggies at the Local Grocery

Example of an American grocery store aisle.

Although the area of North Carolina where we live is primarily high-tech and business/government oriented, most of our state remains agricultural. It makes me happy that I can drive 20 minutes outside of Cary and find family run farms that still produce vegetables and livestock. In fact, North Carolina is a primary regional producer of sweet potatoes, strawberries, peaches, corn and tomatoes. North Carolina is also home to two regional grocery store chains–Lowe’s Foods and Harris Teeter. It’s not a huge leap to think that our NC grocery stores would carry NC products, right?  

With our new dietary challenges in mind, I recently visited our local Lowe’s Foods grocery store to see if in fact I could find locally produced vegetables, meat and agricultural products. I was hoping to find that I could purchase at least some local food products at my local grocery.

As I wandered through the produce section I wondered why Lowes sells collard greens from South Carolina when we produce them here? Same for sweet potatoes. In the produce aisle, I did not find one item produced in our state, but I found several produced in Mexico or Peru. I gave up on the meat section, which has no source information at all. I did find some agricultural products (grits, corn meal) and processed food products (barbecue sauce, hot sauce), but other than that, I came up empty-handed.

So, I asked a Lowes employee who looked official (wearing a tie and carrying a clipboard), why that is. He explained that the company as a whole has contracts with specific producers that ensure they have a “good selection at an affordable price.” So where do all the products we produce go? He also mentioned that some stores, including one in a nearby town, have displays of locally produced products, but that the manager of my particular Lowes had not chosen to do that. Then, very interestingly, he also mentioned that his family doesn’t buy their vegetables at Lowes or any other grocery store. They use a produce co-op hybrid called The Produce Box, which sources only from NC farms that use sustainable and/or organic farming practices. Hmmmm. Curious.

My plan this week is to write to Lowes and ask them to consider contracting with local, sustainable farms or to at least put a state symbol or some other marking so consumers can find what local products there are more easily. For a grocery chain that plays up its home town roots in advertising, this shouldn’t be a huge stretch. We’ll see…

Day 3–Finding New Sources for Sustainable Food

Salers Cow. Milk and meat from cows and other ...

We are big believers in shopping our local farmer’s markets and we are lucky to have 3 to choose from. Unfortunately, two of them only operate April-November and the one that is still open doesn’t have a lot to choose from this time of year. So, on the positive side, we are beginning our journey at the most challenging time of year and it can only get better from here. On the down side, we are starting our journey at the most challenging time of year!

I’ve found some bright spots though, and one is a relatively new group in Durham, NC, called Farmhand Foods. They connect North Carolina pasture-based livestock producers with individuals, restaurants and retailers. They source only from farmers who raise their animals humanely, on pasture, without antibiotics, added hormones or animal by-products.

Best of all, they are offering a Winter Meat Box for January, February and March with pickup locations around the Triangle area. Each box contains three different cuts of meat (2 beef, 1 pork), with a total box weight of about 7 lbs.

Doing the math, each box is $45 and at 7 lbs. we’re paying about $6.50 per pound of meat. A lot compared to the grocery store, mass-produced meat, but a lot less than the average price at Whole Foods.

So, we signed up, and will pick up our first box on January 19. I’ll work the cost into our weekly budget and report back on the quality and overall value of the meat we get. If you are interested in Farmhand Foods, I’ll add a link to the sidebar.

What do you think? Is it a ridiculous amount to pay for sustainable, locally produced meat? Or would you think it’s worth it? I do believe we will be eating less meat as a result, which is not a bad thing either. Would love to hear your thoughts!