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May 16, 2012 at 6:00 AM

Former Seattle chef makes a (delicious) case for ‘Pure Beef’

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The last time you saw Lynne Curry in our region, she might have been cooking with Jerry Traunfeld at The Herbfarm or serving as assistant food editor at Seattle Magazine. Earlier, you might have found her as kitchen manager at the now-renowned Willows Inn on Lummi Island, harvesting Italian plums from the owner’s trees and plucking borage for the salads while pursuing a graduate degree in education.

Tomorrow (Thursday), she’s stopping by on a book tour for “Pure Beef: An Essential Guide to Artisan Meat With Recipes For Every Cut,” which brings her disparate culinary, writing, and teaching skills together in one meaty package. She’ll be at The Book Larder at 6:30 p.m. for a demonstration class on the differences between conventional and grass-fed beef and a tutorial on beef cuts and cooking techniques.

The book, with recipes from Tamarind Beef Satay to Deluxe Pimento Cheeseburgers, was informed by Curry’s life in a tiny rural town in the mountains of eastern Oregon, where she and her husband moved in 2001. “For months I lamented the cafe’s weak coffee, the processed restaurant food, and the grocery store that closed at 9 p.m. sharp,” she wrote. But in time, she found word of mouth leading her to pastured eggs and raw milk or huckleberry harvests, to offers to pick out a young lamb for slaughter… and, eventually, to learning about the types and cuts and lives of the cattle being raised throughout the community.

“What’s really amazing about the Wallowa Valley, where I live, is there’s an invisible food system,” she said. “My friend recently had her drakes picking on her hens. We had to knock off six of them. So I have a duck in my freezer. This (way of life) has always been there, but now it’s something that people want to know about and want to do, which is precisely why I wrote my book.”

The smaller-scale purchases eventually led to “cow-pooling,” chipping in with neighbors to buy and share the meat from an entire Longhorn steer. She found herself with 87 pounds of beef in her freezer, from short ribs to soup bones. She cooked through it all — and has kept up the practice every year since, piquing her interest in the meat’s purported health benefits and in how it might differ from beef raised on an industrial scale.

The price per pound of the field-raised, grass-fed beef was the big incentive to cow-share. Buying in such bulk, it cost about the same as supermarket extra-lean ground beef. More than that, paying the same rate no matter what the cut had an equalizing effect.

“Ground beef was worth the same as that tenderloin, and I valued things differently — not because of their price, but because of their versatility in my life. I got to appreciate them in a completely different way because it wasn’t a $16.99 ribeye, it was just a rib steak,” Curry said. She worked her way through recipes for each part of the animal, eventually adding research from “butchers, chefs, meat scientists, researchers, and the local cooks of Wallowa County” to match the different cuts to the best cooking methods and recipes.

It’s useful to know how to butterfly a roast or make great beef stock or cook a steak medium-rare, but Curry’s research also paid off in the case she makes for eating grass-fed beef, and her first-hand knowledge of a ranching community, depicting “that relationship with an animal that isn’t a pet and isn’t a wild animal.”

Living on Lummi Island as a young adult and working at the Willows “was very formative,” she said, absorbing the Slow Food culture that was just getting its start in Seattle. She decided to pursue a career in food writing, and attended culinary school at Seattle Central Community College as a way to get there. She met Traunfeld, formerly of the Herbfarm, while writing a Seattle Magazine story, and wound up as a cook in the small team in the Herbfarm kitchen.

Was she ever tempted to ditch writing and stay in the restaurant world? “The beauty of it was — and this was my regret at moving away — I could do both. They were so incredibly compatible,” she said. “You’re working very right brain in the kitchen, and then I would go and be very left brain in my writing.” This was during the dot-com boom years, though, and she and her husband wanted to buy a home and raise a family. They wound up settling in their small community near the wheat farm where he had grown up.

A vegetarian for nearly 20 years before she embraced omnivorism, Curry said it’s ironic that she’s writing a book on meat, though it also fits in with her belief of eating from your own foodshed. On Lummi, she had access to reefnet salmon and wild blackberries. In Seattle she had Pike Place Market and Mutual Fish. Moving inland she had this beef, which she says “looks and cooks, tastes and chews, like no other beef I’ve had before.”

Eating meat of any sort is a volatile topic in some circles, and favoring the more expensive grass-fed beef can be even more explosive.

The debate about whether we should eat any meat is significant, Curry said, but “clearly, 95 percent of us are eating meat. I felt like the question is, ‘How are we producing that meat?’ I wanted to depict it as accurately and as possible so people can make informed decisions.”

It wasn’t easy. She sent her first draft to a rancher friend, who read a paragraph on commodity meat and told her “Your language is so biased.” She had to rewrite and rewrite again, relying on her background as an educational researcher, to make it as neutral and factual as she could. In her own community, at least, she can see the difference.

“There are a lot of things that need to happen on the policy end in the bigger-picture stuff that maybe we don’t feel powerful enough to affect. But those everyday buying decisions make a huge difference in the lives of the ranchers I know…

“As I was leaving on Thursday I was driving out of the valley, and the snow is just perfectly covering the mountains, the rivers are starting to flow, I recognized (cows in the fields). I know the cattle breeds, I know some of the herds, who their owners are…I stopped at a fast-food place that’s been there at least two generations…I was able to order a grass-fed burger. I had to pay $2 more, but… that’s a tremendous change, that I can eat local meat in my own community.”

In the end that’s her message, that “food is place-based… It’s connected to a place and it’s connected to the people who are involved at every step of production.”

Beef, in particular, is so much larger by scale than any other animal we eat, and takes on a larger role. Every step in the production process to make it delicious requires people who care, she said, “from the rancher who raises it to the slaughterer to the butcher to even the retailer.

“Everyone has a hand in creating the quality.”

Photo courtesy of Lynne Curry

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