| Eating Better for Your Health and Satisfaction
by Ben Martens Bartel
As the days get shorter and the weather cools, life on the farm turns, with a greater sense of urgency, to preparations for a long winter. Truth be told, we’ve been at it for quite a while. Cucumber season starts in July, so pickling began long ago. Peas ready in early August have been enjoyed fresh, then shelled into big bowls before being packed away into the freezer. The tomatoes are harvested, tomato paste is in the dehydrator, a big pot of stew is bubbling on the stove top. The kitchen can barely contain our garden’s bounty, as vegetables spill out littering the dining room table, our three boys bobbing and weaving over peppers, around pumpkins, snatching carrots as they chase out the door. This is what most autumn seasons look like around our house. Out in the pasture, I’ve just finished bringing the cattle back from the north pasture, now close to the yard, grazing tall stalks of mature grass from pasture they haven’t seen since May. A pig, in the adjacent paddock, lifts its snout to assess the smell of its new neighbour.
This is the life we imagined a decade ago, when we were frustrated with the difficulty of finding local, ethically-raised, ecologically-sound food, so we decided to start producing our own. Prior to farming, we began with gardening, unsuccessfully at first, but undeterred, one day in late August we enjoyed our first vine-ripened tomatoes and there was no turning back.
We all know we should eat better for our own health, that we should make our food choices count for the health of our ecosystems, but the pleasure of eating well is far more likely to change our habits than a sense of responsibility. The flavour available in well-raised livestock and produce is no accident; our ability to thoroughly taste and take pleasure in our food is fine tuned to steer our eating to foods that deliver the best nutritional punch.
The argument is well laid out by Canadian journalist Mark Schatzker in his book The Dorito Effect. In it he examines the correlations between our favourite flavours and the corresponding nutritional punch they accompany, a correlation found in whole foods, and absent in foods using engineered flavours. Giving your body what it wants and needs requires keeping a chemist away from your food, and it is best to go right to the source of where that food comes from.
One of the inspirations that led to our big lifestyle change was learning about pasture-raised livestock. One of my first jobs had been in a large-scale pig barn, and the experience has been seared into my memory. The social, ecological, and ethical problems inherent in industrial animal raising systems left me uninterested in eating pork altogether. It was the interrelation between ruminants and grassland ecosystems that first caught my attention. Essentially, prairie ecosystems evolved with the relationship between large ruminants (like bison) and predators at the centre of a healthy, highly productive life cycle. We settled on this as the primary management tool for most of our land base, with cattle eating the grass as we move them frequently to fresh paddocks, making us act as the predator to keep them on the move. Other livestock, such as pigs and chickens, have also proven useful for improving fertility through a similar cycle of impacting the landscape followed by a period of rest, allowing the grasslands to recover.
Keeping animals is a serious responsibility. Good animal husbandry respects the ancient relationship between humanity and domesticated animals. A common shorthand for pasture-raised chickens is “happy chickens.” On hot days our poultry flock will stay close to shade and water, hardly moving for much of the day. As soon as the heat breaks in the evening, they can be seen fanning out over a large area, scratching for bugs and fresh greens to eat, right when soil-borne insects are coming to the surface and the plants have stored a day’s worth of energy in their leaves. Pigs will make their own wallows in low spots, rooting up poorly drained soil and finding food sources in the root zone. The animals find the best possible fresh foods through the expression of their adapted behaviours. Our farming mentors have talked about the “chickness” of the chicken, or the “pigness” of the pig. The expression of natural behaviours reduces stress, and improves overall well-being of the animals.
Grass finishing ruminants (cows) has hardly been done since synthetic fertilizers created a glut of grain early in the 20th century. The art of good grazing and stewarding genetics has lost some ground since then, but now every year improvements are made, and as the grazing improves so too does the quality of grass-finished beef.
The best part comes later, at the table, when animals raised in a way that takes advantage of their natural behaviour yields deeper, richer, and more complex flavours. Allowing for slower but steady growth, and breeding for the conditions specific to our region, develops the flavour compounds that signal things such as higher omega-3 fatty acid, beta carotene in the fat, higher amounts of heart healthy fats, like conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).
One of the tricks to maximizing these benefits is going to where the flavour is. Cuts with bone and connective tissue require more planning and patience to cook, but will give you fuller and healthier flavours. A pork hock, or stewing beef, cooked for a long duration at a low temperature (slow and low) are absolutely the most delicious cuts. Don’t be afraid of fat, it keeps the meat juicy and lends excellent flavour, as well as nutrition. Bones and connective tissue for stewing and braising are exactly the right thing for a crisp fall day—the radiant warmth and delicious smells radiate out from the kitchen, welcoming everyone to eat.
Learning to eat seasonally is central to life on our little farm. Doing so allows you to feast on local fare while it’s available until you are sated. As the summer salads and fresh-from-the-garden veggies subside, we move on to root vegetables that pair deliciously and naturally with warm, slow cooked, pasture-raised meats. Each season brings with it its own flavours, and embracing each season for what it offers increases our enjoyment and connects us with the ancient traditions of eating what the earth offers when we work in harmony with it.
(A few of our fall favourites)
Bacon Fat Mayonnaise
(The perfect combination for toasted tomato sandwiches and a great way to use up the grease after cooking bacon.)
1/2 cup bacon fat, melted
1–2 tsp prepared mustard
Salt and pepper to taste
In a blender, blend one egg, a dollop or two of mustard, and a few shakes of salt and pepper. Then as slowly as possible, dribble in the melted bacon fat while blending. Chill, then enjoy (especially with toasted tomato sandwiches). Keeps 1–2 weeks in the fridge, but you’ll eat it before then.
Sausage and Apples
(Easy to prepare and so good)
4–6 links sausage (pierced in several places)
We prefer a South African sausage with coriander for this meal.
In a wide saucepan lightly coated with oil, brown on all sides on medium-high heat, turning often, 5–7 minutes. Remove from pan, keep warm.
1/2 cup apple juice
1/4 cup apple jelly or hot pepper jelly
2 tbsp Dijon mustard
Mix together in a small bowl.
1 medium onion, cut in vertical slices
Add to same saucepan used for sausages. Place on medium heat and stir often until starting to brown. Add more oil if needed.
3 firm apples, cored and sliced in thick wedges
(frozen works as well)
Include a mixture of apples and chopped buttercup squash
Add and stir until starting to brown. Stir in juice mixture.
1 tsp dry basil (or 1 tbsp fresh, chopped)
Pinch of pepper
Sprinkle on top. Return sausage to pan, reduce heat to medium-low, cover and cook until sausages are completely cooked through, about 10 minutes.
Marrakesh Lamb Stew
1 1/2 lbs. lamb, beef, or venison (chopped in bite-size pieces)
Brown in batches in 1–2 tbsp oil in a soup pot. Set aside.
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
Stir into drippings, saute until translucent and tender. Return meat to pot.
5 medium carrots, chopped
2 cups stewed tomatoes
2 medium turnips or 1 rutabaga, chopped
1 medium potato, chopped
1 cup water, beef broth or tomato juice
(if using water add 1/2 tsp salt)
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp each ground cumin, coriander, cloves, turmeric
1/4 tsp crushed chillies (or more to taste)
Pinch of ground allspice and ground nutmeg
Add and bring to boil. Cover, reduce heat. Simmer for 40 minutes.
2 cups cooked chickpeas
1/2 cup pitted prunes, halved
1/2 cup raisins
Stir in. Cover and cook until vegetables are tender, an additional 10 minutes.
2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
Stir in. Serve on a bed of couscous or rice. Garnish with 2 tbsp toasted slivered almonds.
Benefits of Pasture-raised Meats
- Happy animals = Healthy meat
- Higher content of heart healthy omega-3 and beta-carotene
- Deeper, richer, and more complex flavours
- 3–5x greater amounts of the good fat called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which may enhance muscle growth, reduce heart disease, and lower cancer risks
- Sustainable farming practices
- Lower stress living means healthier animals
- Animals thrive in wide spaces and clean living conditions
- You can trust your food and what your food eats
Ben Martens Bartel farms at Grovenland Farm near Lanigan, SK, alongside his wife Lisa and 3 boys, and his parents, John and Denise Bartel. Since 2011, they have been raising pastured chickens, pastured pigs, and grass-finished cattle, along with growing a chemical-free market garden and operating a CSA (Community Shared Agriculture). For more information, call (306) 365-3037, email email@example.com, or visit www.grovenlandfarm.ca. Their products are also available through The Farmers’ Table (see the display ad on page 9 of the 26.1 September/October issue of the WHOLifE Journal).