Monday, May 31, 2010

Hamburger Soup


On this second day of beef week, I've taken some time to do a bit of research to figure out the difference between grainfed and grass fed beef.  You'd think that the granddaughter of a dairy farmer would know a thing or two about cattle, but unfortunately I don't.  Turns out that feeding grain to cattle is not the smartest thing we as a country have ever done.  Cows, sheep, and other grazing animals are endowed with the ability to convert grasses (which those of us who possess only one stomach cannot digest) into food that we can digest. Traditionally, all beef was grass fed beef, but in the United States today what is commercially available is almost all grainfed beef. The reason? It's faster, and much more profitable. Seventy-five years ago, cows were 4 or 5 years old at slaughter. Today, they are 14 or 16 months. You can't take a beef calf from a birth weight of 80 pounds to 1,200 pounds in a little more than a year on grass. It takes enormous quantities of corn, protein supplements, antibiotics and other drugs, including growth hormones.

Switching a cow from grass to grain is so disturbing to the animal's digestive system that it can kill the animal if not done gradually and if the animal is not continually fed antibiotics. These animals are designed to forage, but we make them eat grain, primarily corn, in order to make them as fat as possible as fast as possible.
All this is not only unnatural and dangerous for the cows, but it also has profound consequences for us. Grainfed beef as we know it today would be impossible if it weren't for the routine and continual feeding of antibiotics to these animals. This leads directly and inexorably to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These are the superbugs that are increasingly rendering our miracle drugs ineffective.  Grainfed cattle is also responsible for the heightened prevalence of E. coli bacteria. When cattle are grainfed, their intestinal tracts become far more acidic, which is a perfect place for E. coli bacteria to grow, which in turn kills people who eat undercooked hamburger.

Many of us think of "corn fed" beef as nutritionally superior, but it isn't. A corn fed cow does develop well-marbled flesh, but this is simply saturated fat that can't be trimmed off. Grass fed meat, on the other hand, is lower both in overall fat and in artery-clogging saturated fat. A sirloin steak from a grainfed feedlot cow has more than double the total fat of a similar cut from a grass fed cow. In its less-than-infinite wisdom, however, the USDA continues to grade beef in a way that rewards marbling with intra-muscular fat.

Grass fed beef not only is lower in overall fat and in saturated fat, but it has the added advantage of providing more omega-3 fats. These crucial healthy fats are most plentiful in flaxseed and fish, and are also found in walnuts, soybeans and in meat from animals that have grazed on omega-3 rich grass. When cattle are taken off grass, though, and shipped to a feedlot to be fattened on grain, they immediately begin losing the omega-3s they have stored in their tissues. As a consequence, the meat from feedlot animals typically contains only 15- 50 percent as much omega-3s as that from grass fed livestock. In addition to being higher in healthy omega-3s, meat from pastured cattle is also up to four times higher in vitamin E than meat from feedlot cattle, and much higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a nutrient associated with lower cancer risk.

My dear friend Amanda lives on a cattle ranch in Montana which raises 100% organic grass fed beef (lucky her!).  My ignorance of beef means that most of her vast knowledge about cows has been lost on me, but when her father posted one of his famous recipes on the ranch's website, I just had to give it a try.
Hamburger Soup
Modified from White Park Beef

1 lb ground beef (I like an 80/20 blend for this)
1 large onion, chopped
4 stalks celery, chopped
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 bay leaf
salt & pepper- to taste
1/2 cup pearled barley
4 cups beef broth
1 cup tomato basil soup
1 14.5oz can of diced tomatoes
1/2 cup hot chunky salsa (use milder flavors to suit your taste)
1.  In a large soup pot over medium-high heat, brown and crumble the beef, add the onions and cook until they are translucent (about 10 minutes).  Add a little vegetable oil if the beef is sticking.

2. Put all of the ingredients in the pot, cover and simmer on low for 1 to 2 hours (until the carrots are done).  Remove the bay leaf before serving.

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