Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Wagon Wheel Ranch: Buy A Cow Or At Least A Box Of Meat From A Howard County Farm

Half a cow is way too much meat for me.  I cook so little meat that I can't even imagine buying a box.

But people were really inspired by a prior post about Maryland meat producers, and Penny sent me a rave about the Wagon Wheel Ranch which takes orders in the spring and then raises the animals on its own farm.  Penny says grass-fed beef varies in quality, but she says some of the best steaks in her life were pasture fed.  It's just a matter of finding the ranches that do it well, and Penny will lead you to Mt. Airy:
I started eating grass-fed meat after reading Michael Pollan's article in the New York Times Sunday magazine in 2002. My switch was motivated by my interest in the cow, but in addition, grass meat is decidedly healthier, arguably better for the environment, and potentially more delicious than grain-fed beef. 
I encountered, as most people do, substantial variation in the quality of the meat. Grass-fed beef can be stringy and difficult to chew, or it can be juicier and substantially more flavorful ("beefier!") than the typical prime cut purchased from a supermarket shelf. The variability in quality can be a turn-off to people trying grass-fed meat for the first time. It's just a matter of finding the ranchers that do it well. Raising cattle on grass, while in some ways simpler than the factory process, requires more attentiveness than probably most of us realize. 
After I moved from New York to Howard County, at least after the initial rush of ample supermarkets with giant carts and broad aisles and frozen-case-after-frozen-case of ice creams, I began to wonder where I would buy meat and produce that satisfied my desire to purchase local/organic/fresh ingredients without going nuts. Somehow or other, maybe from a Google search, I came across Wagon Wheel and decided to give it a go. We ordered the smaller "taste-of-the-farm" package with all four meats (beef, lamb, pork, chicken). 
We were called to come out to the farm in July (the date that you sign up for is an estimate, and some flexibility is required). We drove out to pick up a big box of meat that we thought we'd never fit in our cramped freezer space. No worries. The steaks were frozen so I didn't get a good look at them.  Generally, grass-fed beef does not appear as glorious raw as the best-looking grain-fed steak; though cooked it compares favorably, the raw beef has less color, less marbling. Each cut from Wagon Wheel is also packaged in plastic, frozen, and labelled (usually with a date). We managed to make room by sorting most of the meat into a large flat tupperware, and storing the ground meat right in front of the tupperware and in the freezer door. It fits, even with out Kitchen-Aid ice-cream-maker bowl. 
The "taste-of-the-farm" package varies every order, but we have always received a selection of ground meats (mostly beef, also lamb, pork), stew meat, a whole roast chicken, and a few varieties of steaks (usually in pairs, or else big enough to split).  I enjoy the surprise. We have made stews with the stew meats; several delicious roast chickens (Roast Chicken with Mustard Thyme Sauce--which we brined; Moroccan Chicken with spicy paprika, cinnamon, cumin, mint, coriander--which we didn't brine, and was equally tender); braised lamb with fennel, star anise and coriander (all recipes on Epicurious, by the way); some delicious steaks (we can't grill in our apartment complex, so I sear it for a few minutes each side on a cast-iron skillet, and then cook it in a 400-degree oven for a few minutes, until it's almost medium rare--kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper, no oil, no butter); and various ground-meat-and-rice dishes, made by my better half. 
Wagon Wheel has always been a positive example for grass-fed beef and humane ranching methods. I am not ordering this year, only because I still have most of last year's winter order.  We don't have as much time to cook these days now that I've found a job, but we will likely order again in 2012. Highly recommended.
Anyone else have experience with locally-produced meats?  The box sounds like an adventure, and I'd probably like the mix of ground meats, chicken, steaks, etc.


Anonymous said...

Hi, my family recently moved to Howard County and I'm searching for a good source of grass fed meat. I saw your article on Wagon Wheel Ranch, but it was from a while ago. Is this still your source of grass fed meat or do you have another you would recommend? Thanks for your help!

HowChow said...

I haven't actually bought from Wagon Wheel, but I believe people still like it. I get comments every so often.