I'm no vegetarian but I don't eat nearly as much meat as I used to. I doubt many of us do anymore. And, we're all looking for ways to make those selections a bit healthier.
Enter the shaggy American buffalo. Known scientifically as bison to distinguish it as a bovine more related to domestic cattle than to Asian and African Cape buffalo, our American buffalo has become a beef alternative.
According to the USDA, there are about 150,000 bison raised on public and private lands in the U.S. They're huge -- a bison bull is the largest animal indigenous to North America. A bull can be taller than six feet at the hump and weigh more than a ton. They're free ranging for most of their lives, eating hay or grass until the last 90 to 120 days of their lives, when they're fed grain -- not unlike a lot of domestic cattle. Even with the grain diet before slaughter, there's little marbling, which is why bison meat appears to have a deeper red color than beef before cooking. Neither hormones nor antibiotics are given to bison.
Because bison meat is very lean, it will cook faster than traditional grain-fed beef and more like grass-fed beef, so bear that in mind if you're grilling a bison steak or a burger.
I tried the bison sold at Whole Foods recently. I picked up both a New York steak and a package of ground meat produced by Nature's Rancher. Whole Foods says the bison they buy is raised in Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado with many coming from Ted Turner's ranches. They're processed at 30 months of age after spending 14 days in the feed lot. (FYI, Nature's Rancher's ground and tenderized steak bison meat was subject to a recall earlier in July with worries it may have been contaminated with E. coli. If you purchased products, check the sell-by date and go to the Nature's Rancher site to see if they are among those recalled.)
The bison I tried was not subject to recall and, in fact, was really delicious. I broiled the steak, seasoning it just with salt and pepper. To accompany it, I made a tomato relish of chopped heirloom tomatoes and red onion, julienned basil, diced jalapeno, minced garlic, and a dash of balsamic vinegar.
The steak cooked quickly; just a few minutes on each side left it medium rare. It was more tender than I expected and had a lovely sweet flavor.
The following week, I pulled out my pound package of ground bison (it's packaged as "ground buffalo") and let it defrost overnight in the refrigerator. I used half to make burgers, which I gently mixed with salt, pepper and fresh jalapenos, then stuffed with about a tablespoon of Purple Haze goat cheese before putting them on the grill.
The rest of the ground bison went into a tomato and red pepper pasta sauce I had made. I'll be honest; the sauce was just okay so I had frozen what I hadn't eaten to give me time to figure out what to do with it. With the ground bison, I figured I'd defrost it and make a ragu. The flavors were tremendous. I wanted to dive into the bowl once the pappardelle was gone and lick up every last bit of the sauce. The meat gave it a richness and sweetness that the vegetables alone just couldn't produce.
Bison comes in most of the same cuts as beef. I saw tri-tips, rib-eyes, and filet mignon at Whole Foods. But it is pricey at around $20+ a pound. The New York steak was about half that. The ground bison is pretty reasonable.