The best damn steak I ever had were fat T-Bones handed to me on the ranch they were born on, up near the Missouri River Breaks north of Lewistown, Montana. Man, oh man… were they good!
I’ve spent twenty years cooking professionally, across the northern half of the US. I trained under a 6’5 tall, 350 pound, German trained and internationally competing Executive Chef in Portland, Oregon. I’ve worked in mom-n-pops and hotels serving thousands at once. I was the butcher for a large hotel in Bellevue, Washington, working for a big French Chef who chided me for having fingers that couldn’t handle 200 degrees naked. I worked sauté at the Ritz Carlton Boston, sipping little shots of Johnnie Walker Blue passed from the bartender (that was old-school treatment).
I’ve tasted a lot of good beef. A lot at the expense of my former employers…
I’ve served it raw, seared blue, stuffed, smoked, dried, pan-seared with peppercorn and heavy cream, grilled, barbequed, simmered, roasted, with $50 per fluid ounce wine reductions, with $300 per ounce truffles, with caviar, and the list marches on – a veritable plethora of preparations. I love fresh ground beef with salt, pepper and a splash of Worcestershire or A1. I love juicy med-rare prime rib with fresh grated horseradish and a fluffy Yorkshire pudding.
I’ve cut thousands of portions in my life – tenderloins, steaks, cubes, and roasts. Beef is, for me, quite tasty. I’m not as partial to the tenderloin as other steak cuts – the tenderloin doesn’t carry a lot of beef flavor. My favorite beef recipe to make is dry-rubbed bone-in prime rib, smoked slowly on black cherry to ninety degrees, sliced into steaks and flash-grilled on a hot fire. Served with salted roasted baby potatoes and fresh vegetables and a stiff drink, it makes most men happy!
The worst steak I ever had was in a hotel in Laramie, Wyoming. I was so full of belief that my stop there (during a move from Oregon to Boston) would entertain a fine steak! I sat at the counter – remind me to write about counter seating sometime – ordered a fat New York cooked blue, and sipped the foam off the beer bottle. A few minutes later the plate came: the steak was icebox cold and gray on the outside – the barest of grill marks. I sent it back – and watched as the cook and the waitress talked. Slowly, it dawned on me, as I watched the waitress carry the plate to the microwave – extreme disappointment was about to envelope my experience. It’s bad when you experience a restaurant disappointment – it’s much worse when you watch the development of your disappointment over ten seconds of unable-to-prevent agony.
Black Angus and Simmental Cattle
I was in Montana this past June for the meeting of the oldest cattle ranchers association in the country, founded by President Teddy Roosevelt – the Montana Stock Growers Association. The best damn steak in the world was handed to me by the rancher of Big Sage Ranch, near Lewistown, Montana, on that bright June Sunday morning from the freezer trailer that sits permanently on site. That animal was bred, born, raised, fed, slaughtered and butchered right there.
That animal was raised free on thousands of acres of high Montana steppe, with antelope, rabbit, deer, elk, bear, coyote, eagles and owls as neighbors. I stood on those Missouri River Breaks that morning with my stockman friend John and his working dog, rifle in the pickup back window, watching elk break from the lowland over the ridge, listening to John tell of the settler mama and four kids that had lived in the broken sod house down below; how she met a man who moved in, and how a couple years later two of the kids lit out in the middle of the night and walked fifty miles to get away from him – no one knows how he disappeared that next year. You could travel thirty miles in any compass direction from the spot where that cattle roamed and not see a human soul.
All mainstream beef you or restaurants purchase today, either in the supermarket or your favorite restaurant is processed – meaning slaughtered, butchered and packaged – by five multi-national packing houses. The largest, Smith, is now majority owned by Brazilian cattle concerns – creating the largest beef operation in the world. The process is this: raised on ranches across the nation, sold at auction and trucked hundreds and thousands of miles to centralized feedlots and slaughter/kill plants, and then sold to distributors frozen. The beef is trucked, sometimes re-sold and delivered to our markets and restaurants. This system developed prior to WWII with the advent of refrigerated shipping – and, honestly, it works for mass distribution. I have to admit, I’m still hooked on the convenience of restaurant meals that use this source.
However, the best beef you can find is not just in Montana. It’s in this county – and the next county over… Buying your beef locally, when you can, is the best beef you can find. You support the tax base of your county by keeping your money local, you support people you can shake hands with (increasing community bonds) and… you know where your food is from.
I drove back to Missoula that afternoon with those thick T-Bones in a cooler. My best friend started up a grill in his backyard, opened some micro-beer, and we tasted those Missouri Breaks, sagebrush, prickly pear cactus and hard winter in that tender, juicy, marbled and oh-so-flavorful steak.
Big Sage Ranch in the Judith Basin of Montana and raises 75% Black Angus, 25% Simmental beef blend.