Thursday, October 10, 2013

A Bone Story

KW Farms
San Luis Valley, Colorado
10 October, 2013

For those of you who’ve hunted or raised your own livestock, you know what a key part the butcher plays in laying in your supplies of high quality meat, and how daunting it can be to work with them.   Each meat processor seems to speak their own language.  We’ve been dealing with Mel Jaramillo in Romeo for over ten years and have come a long way together.  For the most part we’ve learned how to communicate.  We still encounter surprises, but nothing like this summer when we had eight lambs and five steers to slaughter and Mel was too busy with 4H animals to take them all.  

We took the animals to four different processors - two in Colorado Springs, one in Salida, and Mel processed one of the steers.  The results were all over the map.  But, the prevailing trend across the entire batch was that no one heeded my request for bones.  Not one of these butchers could understand:  “Marrow, knuckle, shank, oxtail, neck.  If it’s a bone, I want it.”  

For me, bones are why we raise animals.   I love roasting them and scooping out the melting, toasted marrow, which rarely makes it out of the kitchen.  Lately I’ve been making marrow butter,  an elegant addition to the dinner table.  Just blend the softened marrow with butter and some rosemary or other herb - put on fresh bread or potatoes or rice.  Whatever you’d put butter on.  

I love making stock, mystified by the health and wealth of it.  I freeze or can the stock so it’s on hand for cooking and soup making.  Along with beef, pork, and lamb stock, I make fish stock from the seafood our nephews bring us from the Texas Gulf coast.  Other favorites are fennel, parsley, and leek.  Making stock with these is a great way to preserve the goodness of summer for winter soups, sauces, and braises.  If you freeze the stock in ice cube trays it is available in quickly thawed small batches.  You don’t have to plan so far in advance.  

I do this with juice, too, which makes winter smoothies a lot easier and more nutritious.

When we have rain, like at the end of this summer Dennis Lamb, wild food hunter extraordinaire, brings me mushrooms.  My favorite thing to do with these is make mushroom essence.  As with all stock making, there are a lot of ways to do this.  I just simmer the mushrooms in water for at least two hours, then take the lid off and boil on high to reduce the liquid by about half, intensifying the flavor.  Mushroom essence enhances any dish and there is no substitute for it.  It is an honorable use of Dennis’ wild food take.  

Beyond cooking them, I love the aesthetics of bones.  I keep a pile of them in one corner of the compost pile where the critters and sun clean them.   They’re fun to paint and make Dinosaur Land with, or string them up for climbing plants to scale, or make into sculptures, or wind chimes.  They’re simply great to look at and touch.  Bones are good.  I love everything about them.  

Building Bone Town at KW Farms
Of all the foul-ups the meat processors could have come up with, a lack of bones was probably the worst.  I’m not the only one who loves bones.  For many of our customers bones constitute a significant portion of their diet.  In the batch of orders I was filling for our delivery to New Mexico last weekend, there were several requests for extra beef bones.  I was so excited to fill these orders.  We had the newly butchered beef, all stacked up in neat boxes in our new walk-in freezer.  Alas, when I set about unloading the first animal, I found no bones. Beautifully cut sirloins.  Brilliantly rosy ground beef.  Hunky roasts.  

No bones.  

With a fury, I went through every single box.  Five steers’ worth.  Boxes and boxes.  45 lb. boxes which, by the time I finished weighed a ton each.  In the end I had a few lbs. of good looking beef shanks, oxtails, neck bones, and four packages of neatly trimmed marrow bones.  

I hate to have a customer request something special and tell them we’re out of stock.  It’s one thing to be out of tenderloin.  That’s understandable.  There’s about eight lbs. of tenderloin on a whole animal.  Or a hanging tender, there’s even less.  But, bones - one finished steer can have some thirty five lbs. of soup bones, aside from neck and  oxtail.  How can we have soup bones - out of stock?  We have run out of bones before, as we get to the tag end of freezer full of meat.  We have food-savvy customers who order bones and organ meats along with their rib eyes.  

But, we’ve never had bones be a rarefied item in our inventory.  And yet they now are. 

Small operations like ours need to sell the whole animal.  So, we build our twelve and twenty five lb. beef bundles on the proportion of cuts in the animal:  about 25% steaks, 27% roasts, 44% ground, and 4% bones and organs.  Each bundle gets either a bone or organ meat, whichever the customer chooses.  The bones and organs actually make up more than 4% of a steer, but 4% in a twenty five lb. bundle comes out right about one soup bone, or one pack of liver.  A neat package.  

Last night I had a customer come out to pick up a bundle he’d ordered before I discovered my bone crisis.  When he set the meat in his truck he saw there was a soup bone in the bag.  “Oh, Jeeps!  There’s a bone in here for you,” he said to his dog, who was eagerly wagging his tail in the back seat.  

I watched as my customer, my very good, loyal customer pulled out the pack of perfectly formed marrow bones - two in the pack - and cut it open.  He tried to pry off one of them for the dog Jeeps, but the two bones were stuck together in a frozen bond.  “Oh, well,” he said.  “I guess you get both of them.”

“Lucky Jeeps.” I said, wallowing in self-pity, thinking of those boxes and boxes of no bones.  

“Lucky Jeeps,” I repeated and imagined beautiful golden roasted bones simmering with mirepoix, making power broth.  And this dog - what could he imagine?  He wasn’t imagining anything, he was lapping at the frozen marrow, softening it with his leathery tongue, his warm saliva, clamping down on it with his canine teeth.  

I caught myself mid-wallow and realized that I see bones - and meat - just as Jeeps does.  I tend to speak of our cattle production in lofty terms: wah - wah - wah- the benefit of animals to land, if properly managed. The environmental payoff of growing and grazing grass, the superior nutrition for humans.  Wah - wah - wah - all the different cuts, and recipes, the preparation of meals, when really, all I want to do is sink my teeth into it, just like Jeeps.  It was a moment of embracing my own carnivorism, my absolute lust for good meat.  I feel the same about vegetables.  I’m-just-a-dawg-for-food.  And our lack of bone inventory stirred my inner doggy, triggering that canine mentality that there’s never enough, even though there’s plenty.  

My dog moment aside, when you place your order for Kretsinger meat, I may write back “out of stock”.  Just keep in mind, there’s still plenty more for you to sink your teeth into.