Flash in the pan 

A perfect match

It's a well-worn American story: ketchup meets burger. But this version is better. The stars of the show are beyond homemade, they're dirt-made, from the ground up: handmade ketchup from homegrown tomatoes, served on ground beef raised by good friends. It's a story about the potential of simple pleasures carefully crafted, and how the history layered into food adds complexity and flavor, creating a terroir to rival the finest wine. It's a drama you could reenact at home with a little legwork, and if enough people did, we could put McDonalds out of business.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX

It starts with my new quarter beef.

In cattle country, the semantic dichotomy between "cow," the animal, and "beef," the food, doesn't exist.

"Five hundred dollars is a lot of money for a quarter beef," said the butcher, when I went to pick it up. "There's a woman down the road who will sell you a whole beef for $1,000."

"Raised on what?" I asked.

"Grain," he said.

He knew my beef was grass-fed, yet failed to see the value at $4 per pound, cut and wrapped. Grass-fed definitely means something to me, and this beef was more than just grass-fed, it was finished on spring grass. Slaughtered in July, several months earlier than normal, it spent its final days munching on the tender, vital shoots that filled the valley with a lime-green glow. This cow had a name, Wendell, and came from a farm that mostly sells vegetables but raises a few beefs for personal consumption, and selling to friends if there's extra. I became one such friend by chatting with them at the farmers' market while buying veggies.

The health benefits of grass-fed beef are widely known and I won't repeat all of them here, but suffice it to say it's a different animal, literally, than grain-fed meat, and nutritionally much closer to wild game.

A deer and elk hunter for years, I thought I had no use for beef, and had boasted as much to a hunter friend. "As long as I've got wild game in the freezer, I'll never reach for bovine," I said. A week later at my farmer friends' house for dinner, I ate a grilled sirloin steak that made me eat those words. Beef has a rich juiciness that sets it apart from other meats, and I wanted some in my protein portfolio. Though I have every intention of filling the freezer with wild ungulate next season, I bought a share of next year's beef.

Wendell dropped peacefully with a bullet between his eyes on July 16, without having the faintest inkling what was coming. His body hung for 10 days before being cut and wrapped.

Wendell is now in packages marked "rib steak," "t-bone," "tenderloin," "bottom round" and "stew meat," in addition to the sirloin that had so charmed me. There are also 65 packages of hamburger, which at first was an unexpected buzz-kill. When I butcher my deer and elk I grind very little of it, and what I do grind gets turned into summer sausage and bratwurst. Much of the tough meat that most people grind—those sinewy chunks full of tendons and cartilage—has some of the best flavor, and I'm happy to cook these off-cuts slowly, until the connective tissue melts. My mountain of burger meat left me wondering if this quarter beef was a mistake, but I'm happy to report that it wasn't. I solved my burger dilemma with a gallon of homemade ketchup.

Another farmer friend, for whom I do odd jobs on occasion, offered to let me harvest as many tomatoes as I wanted. I brought home about 100 pounds and proceeded to make gallons of salsa, tomato sauce and ratatouille. It wasn't until a year's worth of these needs were met that I hit on the obvious solution to my burger-meat problem.

Here's my ketchup recipe, modified slightly from my food preservation bible, Stocking Up (Rodale Press).

For 5 quarts of sliced tomatoes—about 30 medium-sized fruits—slice 2 large onions and liquefy the tomatoes and onions together in a food processor. Simmer the mixture for about 30 minutes, then push it through a food sieve or food mill. Return to the pot—ideally a thick-bottomed pot to avoid hot spots and scalding—and simmer slowly, stirring often. In a different pot, simmer 3 cups of vinegar with a 6-inch stick of cinnamon, 2 teaspoons of cloves, and a head of minced garlic. After 30 minutes, kill the heat under the vinegar.

When the tomato and onion mixture has almost reached the consistency of ketchup, pour the vinegar mixture through a strainer to filter out the spices, and into the pot. Add a tablespoon of paprika and at least a dash of cayenne pepper—more if you want your ketchup spicy. The vinegar will dilute the ketchup slightly; continue to simmer until it's thick. Then ladle it into clean, sterile, pint-sized canning jars. Screw on clean, sterile lids, and process for 10 minutes in a water bath.

The flavor of this bright-red paste practically jumps out of the jars, and all of a sudden my mountain of burger meat looks more like a molehill. Served plain with my ketchup, the burgers tell a tale of two farms whose paths cross in my kitchen. The green grass of springtime, chewed and re-chewed and processed through four stomachs into beef that's kneaded with garlic and parsley from my kitchen garden, meets the sun-drenched fruit of summer. It's simple, it's local, and it's perfect.

Ask Ari: Oiled up

Q: I hear that you're not supposed to use olive oil when frying. Why is that, and what should I be using? I'm vegan, so you can hold the bacon grease—I know how you operate.

—Guessing on Grease

A: The frying-with-oil issue is a matter of the relative smoke points of various oils, i.e. the temperature at which different oils start to smoke.

Scientists have discovered a growing number of molecules, carcinogenic and otherwise toxic, that form when food is cooked at high heat. Heterocyclic amines, for example, are very nasty, and they form when meat is heated above 392 degrees. And even fry-pan vegans like yourself can worry about acrylamide, which is found in potato chips, roasted nuts and flaked breakfast cereals. Like heterocyclic amines, acrylamide forms only at high temperatures.

Generally when oil smokes, such bad molecules are created. Olive oil has a low smoke point relative to other oils, but as long as the oil isn't smoking, it's fine for frying. If your olive oil does begin to smoke, toss the oil, rinse the pan and start again. Low-temperature frying, or steaming, allows more of the nutrients in your food to survive the cooking process and make their way into your body.

If you're determined to fry high, safflower and grape seed oils are my two favorites. Both have high smoke points, great flavor and are good for you. Canola oil is overrated and should be avoided. It's not a naturally clean oil, and looks like tar before it's filtered. While the filtering helps, I prefer to use oil that starts clean.

One interesting exception to the no-smoking rule is mustard oil, which is used in a lot of Indian and South Asian cooking. Because it's so pungent, mustard oil is intentionally smoked before use to mellow the flavor.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net

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