Livestock Lessons

Yes, I am the farmer who occasionally (especially for holidays) comes to market with four-legged babies and their bottles in tow. Sometimes it’s strictly for fun, such as on Easter and Halloween, but at other times it is out of necessity when there are newborns needing fed every few hours.

Each time I have a critter riding shotgun, though, I am amazed at how many people do not know the differences between sheep and goats. Furthermore, in speaking with customers about other meats, many are unaware of the various nomenclatures associated within a species or the regional names assigned to the same cut of meat.

So, here’s a brief run-down of some of the terms you may hear your farmer use when discussing their livestock.

What’s in a Name?
“What kind of cows do you raise?” is the most often asked question to beef farmers. Answers can include breeds like Angus or Piedmontese, depending on which vendor you patronize. Sometimes you might hear a term, like steer (castrated male) or heifer (young female) and wonder what the heck is that. In agriculture, names are given to denote the assorted stages in maturity and sexes within a species.

In keeping domestic livestock for meat production, young males are routinely castrated unless the farmer has the space to grow them to harvest weight separated from the females to prevent indiscriminate breeding. This is also done for safety reasons as young intact males tanked up on their own testosterone have a propensity for fighting among themselves. This can be as dangerous for the farmer as it is for the animals. In pigs, uncastrated males can have boar taint, meaning their meat has a strong off-flavor.

Some farmers prefer not to keep breeding animals, instead procuring “stockers” and “weanlings” which are young animals purchased from a breeder.

Talk Birdy
In over thirty years of farming I have yet to encounter someone raising broiler chickens who hatches their own peeps. Meat birds are purchased as day-old peeps from regional hatcheries who ship via the US postal service. This is also true for laying hens; however, many farmers are choosing to purchase started pullets which are young hens, 20 to 24 weeks old, who have just started laying eggs.

Speaking of chickens, there is a difference between a broiler and a layer chicken. Broilers are bred (not genetically engineered) to grow lots of muscle in a short amount of time. It takes half as long or less (6-9 weeks) to get a return from broilers than it does from laying hens. And no matter old a laying hen is, she’ll never have a meaty frame like a broiler.

Occasionally, farmers who have laying hens will bring stewing hens to market. As the name implies, they are not meant for meat unless it’s being shredded. Spent laying hens impart lots of flavor and are coveted for making rich stocks and broths. These are the hens who are no longer laying eggs…the slackers.

How do farmers know when their chickens are no longer laying eggs? They lose their feathers. This is called molting and occurs when a chicken is 14 to 16 months old, usually in the fall as days grow shorter. To maintain production throughout the winter months, replacement pullets are hatched or purchased in late summer. Some farmers use colored leg bands to denote age and other change breeds between breeds. Chickens can lay eggs for many years if allowed to molt and re-grow their feathers—a process that can take up to four months. This is fine for backyard flocks and farmers who don’t depend on an income, but for those of us at markets, unproductive birds are a drain on the system.

Big Difference
Goats do not grow up to be sheep or vice versa. Each belonging to a different genus, goats being caprine and sheep ovine, they generally do not interbreed. If they do, the offspring are stillborn or do not live long.

Baby sheep are called lambs and baby goats are kids. Momma sheep are ewes and goats are does. Male goats are bucks and sheep are rams unless you are in the UK and then they are tups. Both male sheep and goats when castrated are called wethers.

How does one tell the difference between sheep and goats? The tail is the best way as goat tails stand up and sheep tails lay down even when docked short. Spend any time around both species and you’ll notice differences that go beyond physical appearances. Put both together in a single group and they will segregate on their own.

Sheep are grazers, like cows, who predominantly prefer grass and eat with their heads down. Goats are browsers, like deer, and prefer to eat leafy shrubs from shoulder height and above with their heads up. The sugars in grasses will add more fat into the meat of grazing animals whereas browse is much higher in protein producing a leaner meat.

Don’t count on horns to tell the difference as many breeds are naturally polled, meaning born with the genetic trait to not grow horns. Many farmers choose to disbud animals with horns at a young age meaning they cauterize the horn buds, so they do not develop. This is especially true for dairy animals, including cows. Just so you know, both males and females can have horns. The removal of horns for most farmers is a safety factor. No matter how tame an animal, a flick of a sharp horn in a playful jest can be painful.

They are all meat
I’ve been asked if I raise my sheep for meat or wool, goats for meat or milk, cows for milk or meat, but the truth is that all livestock, no matter it’s niche purpose, can be eaten. Like the broiler/layer issue, dairy animals have been bred for generations to put their energy into milk production instead of bulking up on muscle for meat. That doesn’t mean they can’t be used for meat.

Do you know what happens to most of the old dairy cows in this country? They become fast-food burgers. What if customers who patronize local dairies and farmstead creameries also purchased their beef from the same farmer? The same goes for veal, often a four-letter word thanks to an animal rights campaign exposing industrial operations back in the 1980’s. Just like every other facet of farming that has created a sustainable and humane alternative to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), dairy calves raised for veal on farmstead dairies and from small beef herds are often raised naturally, nursing from their mothers until harvest. As I tell customers, if you are drinking a farmer’s milk or eating their cheeses, yogurts and ice cream, you darn well better be eating their beef and veal if they offer it for sale.

Not just the farmers
We farmers are not the only ones to have our own vernacular when it comes to livestock. Customers, depending on their geography also have an assortment of names for meat cuts. When I first began having lambs butchered for market one of the cuts I brought was leg steaks. I could not save my life to sell a leg of lamb steak, but when I advertised them by their European name—gigot chops—within the first ten minutes of market they were all gone even though the package still called them leg steaks!

In the East, we have bottom sirloin, and in the West, they have their tri-tips. I’ve stared blankly at customers who ask me for oyster blade steaks until my butcher tells me they want a flat iron. There is no difference between a Kansas City strip and a New York strip steak, although I’ve had customers argue differently.

Customers and farmers have a lot of knowledge we can share with each other. This Saturday, when Pike Central Farm Market opens for the season you can try out your new vocabulary with your favorite meat farmers.

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Wrestling a Leg of Lamb

There really aren’t any fancy moves involved in cooking this iconic spring holiday staple once you understand about lamb and how many ways it can be cut.

First, let’s get through what lamb is.  Customers ask for “spring lamb” meaning an animal that is in the 3-5-month-old range. I like to refer to them as milk-fed lambs since ewes will naturally wean off their young by that time. Please do not ask your farmer for a spring lamb and then complain about the fat content. Spring lambs are supposed to have fat. It is when they become “teenagers” between one and two years of age (a.k.a. hoggets) that they begin to grow lean in a gangly fashion at the onset of sexual maturity.

The size of the leg is not always indicative of age. Larger breeds of sheep will produce larger legs. At the same time, there are breeds that even as aged adults would produce a leg roast of only a few pounds. Additionally, there are multiple ways that producers have their lambs butchered leading to assorted sizes in leg roasts. Let’s take a look at them.

Whole Leg Primal
A primal cut is when the butcher breaks down a whole animal into six cuts by first halving and then separating the front, middle and rear sections. A primal leg includes the shank, leg and sirloin, meaning the entire hip bone and ball joint, femur, tibia and fibula. This is a great option for family gatherings requiring a larger roast. Left intact, this is a long cut. To help facilitate fitting into a roasting pan and oven, the tendon between the shank and leg can be severed to allow the shank to bend. However, if you want to use the classic carving method with a manche a gigot (leg bone holder), you will need to leave the joint intact and ask your farmer to have the knuckle end of the shank removed by the butcher.

Whole Leg with Shank
This cut has the sirloin removed down to the ball joint of the leg, but the shank remains attached. As mentioned, the shank can have the tendons cut to allow the joint to bend so it fits into a pan easier. This cut of leg is also a great cut for Passover as the shank can easily be removed and added to the Seder plate.

American Leg
This cut is traditionally what Americans refer to as Leg-of-Lamb when purchased commercially. There is no sirloin or shank, only the largest muscle group on the upper leg with a single bone (femur) running the length of the roast. The consistency in thickness makes this the easiest to roast and to butterfly.

Butterflied Leg
This is the boneless version of the American Leg or the Whole Leg with Shank. This is also one of the fastest cooking cuts as it can be opened up and laid flat, such as with grilling. Boneless legs are great for stuffing, re-rolling and tying up with string prior to cooking. If you want to try your hand at de-boning your own lamb leg, Saveur has a great little video to show you how. This roast will also be the most expensive option as there were extra costs incurred through fabrication and weight loss with the removal of the bones.

Baron of Lamb
This is the most decadent roast short of an entire young lamb to grace a holiday table. It consists of both rear legs, sirloins and loin, being cut at the point of where the rack begins. In many parts of the world where resources are limited (islands, deserts), the harvesting of very young male lambs is common to reduce the use of resources (milk, grass). It’s a good idea to talk to your farmer now if you want to try this next year.

If you are feeding a large crowd, consider purchasing two smaller legs, a leg and a shoulder or an entire half. With a little planning, the most economical way to serve a large crowd would be to purchase an entire lamb cut to order. This leaves you with a premium holiday meal plus convenient cuts like rib chops and ground or hard-to-find cuts like a whole neck roast, breast and short ribs.

Ah yes…the bones! Both raw and with the bits left over from a well-picked over roast make for excellent bone broth and seasoned stock.

No matter which cut you choose, here are a few tips.

  • Allow the roast to come to room temperature prior to cooking to prevent longer cook times and uneven cooking of the meat.
  • Skip the marinade. Leg-of-lamb is already a tender cut and does not need the added salt and acid to break down tough proteins.
  • Sear for 10 minutes at 450 degrees F and then reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees F for 10—15 minutes per pound depending on your preference for doneness. Using a meat thermometer, 130-140 degrees for rare, medium at 140-150 degrees and above 150 degrees for well done.
  • ALWAYS USE A MEAT THERMOMETER!! Insert to the thickest portion of the roast to test.
  • Allow the roast to rest for at least 15 minutes prior to cutting. And when you cut, slice against the grain, meaning you are cutting across the muscle fibers and not along their length.
  • For a crispier surface, dry-age the roast in the refrigerator uncovered and patted dry for a few days prior to cooking. Season at the time of cooking.
  • Not to discriminate, all this information applies to goat meat, too!

Seasons

sea·son
/ˈsēzən/

My mom is the matriarch of East Pine Street, having lived there the longer than any other of the residents. Many of her neighbors are young families similar to her when my parents moved there in 1968. When I showed up for a visit this week, I found her raking her gardens and cleaning up detritus from last fall and winter.

“It’s the season,” she said, pointing out that once she began her annual rites of spring many of her neighbors followed suit. Let your grass get too tall or weeds take over your landscaping, and she’ll notice. Fortunately, I live in the middle of a hay field so I need to let my grass get tall before it’s mowed. That’s called hay season.

While highly subjective according to the position of the sun, hormones, weather, planting and harvest, seasons signify change.

Last Sunday kicked of the regular season for Bethesda and NOVA Central Farm Markets. For vendors, that meant getting to market an hour earlier as the markets now open at 9:00 am. However, I needed to point out to several customers that the Saturday markets’ season won’t start until later—April 27th for Pike and May 4th for Westfield.

“That’s kind of dumb,” one customer remarked, and I had to have a conversation with them about seasonality. Many of the vendors at the seasonal markets are outdoor growers. While Mother Nature may be gifting us with warm weather, for farmers that means getting young plants started in a greenhouse into the ground so they can G R O W. Two weeks ago, it snowed where I farm. With a significant investment in time and money getting seeds started, farmers are careful about their outdoor plantings knowing well that cold weather can stunt or worse, kill their hard work setting back their season even further.

Recently, I had a customer at market casually ask when artichokes would be in season. I correctly pegged them as a transplant from southern California and then had to drop the bomb—there is no artichoke season here in the East. If they want artichokes, they’ll have to settle for the shriveled balls found at grocery stores which after all these years I still cannot bring myself to buy.

How do you know what is in season at the markets?

One way is to sign up for the Central Farm Markets’ weekly email. We’ve prominently featured What’s in Season at the Markets in the eblast highlighting what’s new, what’s plentiful and what to get before the season ends. Other ways to be in the know are to follow Central Farm Markets on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. If you’re not into social media, listen to the weekly radio show, Foodie and the Beast every Sunday at 11:00 am on Federal News Network’s 1500 AM to find out what’s fresh at the market.

By staying in touch, you’ll know when harbingers of the season arrive at the markets. Folks are already asking about asparagus and strawberries. Ramps and fiddleheads showed up for the first time last week.

Once the season for your favorites arrives, remember those goodies are going to disappear when the season is over. Some farmers are able to extend their seasons using greenhouses, but delicate seasonal produce such as fresh peas, green beans, summer squash, berries and fruits come and go.

The key to enjoying seasonal delights year round is to stock up during the season and learn to preserve. Pickled ramps are easy and make great additions to salads and martinis. Berries can be frozen on sheet pans and then stored in containers without ending up as one big frozen clump. I like to pop a few in a blender with yogurt for a delicious and nutritious smoothie! It’s worth it to learn to blanch, bag and freeze.

Stay tuned to Dishing the Dirt throughout the seasons to learn how to serve, cook and preserve what’s in season.

Wash Your Produce

Last week when the Certified Organic farmers didn’t make it to market due to a family emergency I overhead a customer remark, “I only buy organic, so I don’t have to wash it,” as she stood in front of a poster advising customers to wash ALL vegetables and fruits, even the Certified Organic ones. While many vendors, both Certified and non-certified, wash their products to remove the dirt in which they are grown, others do not.

Thanks to the University of Maryland Extension, growers have free access to multiple resources in regard to food safety. When the colorful posters appeared at market earlier this year, I thought to myself, “Who needs to be told to wash their produce?” Now I know.

Why must you wash your produce?

Turns out there are a number of good reasons. Dirt. Bacteria. Viruses. Bugs. These are the reality of a biological existence.

First, how many times have you picked up produce with your hands, but it down and chosen another? How many people before you have also done that? Who knows where all those hands have been?

Secondly, produce is grown in dirt which is not sterile.  Imbalances in the form of bacteria, especially from polluted or contaminated water happen regularly, either from natural occurrences such as flooding or man-made conditions like nutrient run-off. We all live downstream.

Outdoor row crops interface with nature be it a bird overhead or a deer darting through the fields. Heavy rains can splash fine dirt on to leaves that if not washed will leave diners feeling as if they’ve been eating sand. Tractors drive over top kicking up particles of dust mingled with exhaust.

As farmers, we get to see up close and personal how critical it is to have a living, breathing soil full of fungi, microbes, slugs, bugs, beetles, earthworms, wasps and nematodes. We know what benefits a good dose a compost does for the plants. I know vegetable farmers who are even particular to the type of cow manure—from the heifer barns only—that he puts on certain vegetables. There are farmers who build their own soils from scratch using composts, amendments and beneficial inoculants.

We often speak about how far removed from their food sources people have become. Even though I know I’m the only one who has touched the vegetables I grow in my own garden, I still wash everything (except cherry tomatoes I eat straight off the vine) because I know there are skunks, opossums, cats, rats, raccoons, snakes, turtles and toads who all make their homes among the food I grow.

At market I get three different kinds of carrots—loose carrots, carrots in a bag and carrots held together by a rubber band around their leafy-green tops. Beets come this way, though they are more likely to be in a box rather than a bag; radishes, too. I wash all of them. Sure, the loose and bagged carrots may not be sporting the dirt as the banded bunch and may not need as much of a scrubbing, but they still get rinsed.

What is the best way to wash your produce?

There’s no need for a sanitizing agent like vinegar; plain tap water will do fine. For smooth-skinned fruits and vegetables, a good rinse under running water is best, but a wipe-down with a damp cloth will also do. Leafy greens—even those that come in plastic containers—get a rinse in a colander, a soak if they are gritty to the touch. Think of spinach harvested after a rain. Those leaves are like dirt magnets more than any other leafy green. Root vegetables get a good scrubbing with a bristled brush to get fine particles of dirt out of all the nooks and crannies and to also remove the fine root hairs or eyes.

I found it equally disturbing that the poster had to warn people NOT to wash their produce using soap or bleach. The best time to wash produce is immediately prior to preparation for cooking or eating. Even fruits and vegetables with outer rinds that are not eaten, like melons, should be washed prior to cutting.

With the kick-off of the regular market season and warmer weather there’s going to be lots of gorgeous fresh produce showing up at the market straight from the fields and orchards. No matter how clean it appears or if it is Certified Organic or how much you trust the farmer, be smart and wash your produce.