Monday, August 6, 2012

Where The Buffalo Roam

I recently returned from a family trip to South Dakota, which was wondrous on many levels. We saw vast stretches of prairie and grasslands, witnessed colossal thunderstorms and wildfires, and mingled with antelope, prairie dogs, and grazing cattle. As for the food, we definitely were in the heartland. We ate every possible meat and potato combination, and my children discovered the joy of deep fried cheese curds and fry bread tacos. In fact, the word "fried" describes a large portion of the food we consumed.

But the big revelation for me was bison (commonly called buffalo, but bison is the more precise term). I've eaten bison before, but it is prevalent on menus in that part of the country. I had bison burgers, chili, and tacos, and all were delicious.

The population of bison in the U.S. has gone from near extinction at the end of the 19th century to estimates of 450,000 today, and there are now over 4,000 bison ranchers. Even "farmed" bison are always "free range," left to wander and graze on grass. They consume less food and use less space than cattle do, and therefore have a smaller environmental "footprint." Rising bison numbers means an increased need for grasslands, and some bison ranchers consider grassland preservation to be a twin goal to expanding the bison population. The state and federal governments are also encouraging bison farming, at least in the plains states. Bison are allowed to graze on the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, and I witnessed several groups of bison at Custer State Park, a 71,000 acre South Dakota preserve that is home to more than one thousand of these wandering, gentle animals.

Not only is a rise in the bison population good for the environment, bison meat is lower in calories, fat and cholesterol than beef. And bison can even be a local food choice, with bison farms in nearby Connecticut and Maine offering direct shipping of bison. I also found bison (from South Dakota) at The Meat House in Arlington Heights. Bison meat will cost you, to be sure, but like all other meats, I try to use it sparingly in order to be able to buy quality.

I went with a flank steak, which is a lean cut of beef and even leaner if you are working with bison. The key is a long marinade and a quick cook. Cook straight from the fridge, rather than bring the meat to room temperature before cooking, and that helps prevent overcooking. For a quick weeknight meal, marinate the steak the night before and serve with a chimmichurri sauce, a tangy Argentinian accompaniment for grilled meat.

Grilled Bison Flank Steak with Chimmichurri

For the marinade:

1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
1 bison flank steak, 1 to 1 1/2 pounds

Place meat and marinade in a sealed container or bag. Marinate in the fridge for a minimum of one hour, or up to overnight.

Remove from the fridge just before grilling. Shake off excess marinade and grill on direct heat for 3 minutes on a side, until nicely charred, and then move to indirect heat until just pink in the center, or until the meat registers 145 degrees F. Let the meat rest a few minutes before slicing.

Chimmichurri Sauce

1 cup packed cilantro leaves and stems
1 cup packed flat parsley leaves
6 T. extra virgin olive oil
2 T. red wine vinegar
1-2 garlic cloves
A pinch of red pepper flakes or Aleppo pepper
Salt and pepper to taste

While meat is marinating, put chimmichurri ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Taste and adjust for seasonings. Spoon over sliced meat.

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