Get to know the Florida ranchers and beef producers, and Sunday Supper tastemakers, as Sunday Supper contributor, Christina Thomas of GoEpicurista takes us along on her Florida Beef Immersion Experience.
My love of beef runs deep. My first cooking lesson, at eight years old, was preparing Bistec encebollado (steak and onions). Today, whenever I can’t decide what to make for dinner, the go-to is NY strip or rib eye on the grill. What’s a meat-lover to do when she wants to learn more about that juicy steak on her plate? Go to the experts.
Here’s the story of my recent Florida Beef Immersion Experience with Florida Beef Council and Sunday Supper Movement.
With a cowgirl hat and an open mind, I headed to Gainesville, Florida truly excited to learn more about beef. And boy, did I learn!
The Florida Beef Council challenged us to create recipes with beef as an ingredient, rather than the main attraction, which resulted in 15 amazing and healthy beef recipes I can’t wait to try. I loved creating my Steak & Farro Rainbow Salad because it took me out of the usual dinner routine. Plus, the colors on the plate made me so happy!
BACK TO SCHOOL
Fifteen Sunday Supper tastemakers went back to school, literally! The University of Florida Animal Sciences professor, Dr. Todd Thrift, taught us about the chain of beef production, from birth to plate. I never knew there were so many individuals involved in this process.
It starts with the cow-calf producer, like Bo and Emily Hobby of Rockin’ H Ranch, who maintain a breeding herd of cows that raise calves every year. The backgrounder or stocker then continues to graze the calves on grass and other forages. The finishing feedlot, like at Quincey Cattle Company, is where calves are fed a grain or grass based diet. The processing facility is where beef is harvested, inspected and packaged. The final step is shipping to our grocery stores or dining establishments. Wow!
Florida rocks the beef industry. Did you know Florida is the oldest cattle ranching state in North America as Spanish explorer Juan Ponce De Leon brought cows here in 1521? I didn’t realize how much beef is a part of our Florida history.
Dr. Thrift was very informative, and as bloggers, we could not resist the photo op. It’s not every day you see a cowboy professor. He was such a good sport posing for photos. Unlike another character you’ll hear about later on.
FREEZING TIME IN THE MEAT COOLER!
Dr. Dwain Johnson gave us a crash course in beef quality, yield, and the grading process before we donned our ‘fashionable’ headwear and white lab coats and headed into the meat cooler. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Beef everywhere and freezing cold!
Interesting fact about Dr. Johnson, he was one of the researchers who discovered the Flat Iron Steak. I’ve consumed quite a bit of that tasty, tender cut which doesn’t put a dent in my wallet, and knowing who invented it, tastes even better.
Did you know that all meat sold is required to be USDA inspected but not all is required to be graded? This is a voluntary fee-for-use service, which beef packers will pay for to rate higher end quality beef. You can have Select, Choice or Prime and the grading depends on many factors including the level of marbling and fat.
With teeth chattering, we learned from Dr. Jason Scheffler and Dr. Chad Carr all about the huge beef carcasses hanging from the ceiling and where the different cuts come from on the animal. Our iPhones shut down because of the low temps in the cooler. Imagine the blogger anxiety (panic!) when we couldn’t take pictures, video, Snap, Tweet or Insta!
Did you know there’s less yield with dry aging because the outside of the cut has to be trimmed, thus making it more expensive? When you see a “dry aged prime steak” at a fancy white tablecloth restaurant, you can bet you’ll be paying top dollar.
THE CATTLE RANCH
We were off to meet the cattle ranchers and the stars of the show: the cows and calves. Our first stop: The Rockin’ H Ranch, home of Bo and Emily Hobby, first generation cattle producers who started the business because of their shared love of farming life. Together with daughter Nikki and their grandchildren, they welcomed us to their home and gave us brief overview of the operation.
It’s serene in Williston, Florida. The farm is quiet, except for chirping birds and “mooos” in the distance. We could have listened to this knowledgeable man with a background in cattle nutrition (he worked for Purina Mills selling cattle feed before starting the ranch) and past president of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association for hours.
I sense the importance of family. They are passionate about the care of the animals they feel fortunate to raise and have taught their children and grandchildren, respect and care of the land and the animals, the importance of preserving life, self-sufficiency and independence. Watching the young ones adeptness on the horses, I can see they are part of the next generation of ranchers Bo Hobby is passionate about inspiring.
Eight year old Nox, quite comfortable on his horse, adorably tells me he’s been riding “all his life”. When asked about his horse, he tells me “no ma’am, it’s not mine, it’s my grandfather’s. But he lets me ride it.” I have a feeling grandpa is very proud to see this well-mannered young man on his steed around the ranch.
We put our cowboy hats and boots to good use and took a hayride to check out the nearby herd. Found them all hiding in the shade of majestic trees, much like we wish we were due to the hot 90° sun! The expert cowgirls coaxed them to come out and greet us. At Rockin’ H Ranch, they work their cattle with horses and cow dogs, instead of 4-wheelers because they believe it creates less stress on the cows.
Red, a 3 1/2 year old Brahma bull, was a hit with all the ladies even though he wanted no part in posing for pictures. He’s a show bull that did not care to put on a show for us. But we loved him anyway. What a character!
As we said goodbye, we had a better sense for who these cattle ranchers really are. They are families with a great love for the land and the animals in their care. In fact, more than 97% of U.S. beef cattle farms and ranches are family farms, not big corporations. The average size of a typical herd in Florida is 30, a much smaller number many of us believed.
Traveling along miles of beautiful green pastures, we visited Quincey Cattle Company, where owner Don Quincey operates one of the only preconditioning sites (or feedlot) in Florida. He’s been around cattle all his life and is a champion for the industry and the environment. “We raise the cattle in pastures, not paddocks and they are on grass, not in dirt lots” he says while talking about what sets them apart.
They mix their own feed with the help of a nutritionist, using all locally grown corn, forages and various vitamins and mineral supplements. They monitor the cattle constantly to spot any health issues. In fact, the calves are grass-fed most of their life, with only the last 120-150 days spent in the feedlot where they continue to graze on pastures along with a more nutrient-rich grain diet.
He shows us the cattle shoots, designed using Temple Grandin’s more gentle methods, and shares “if the calves are stressed or mistreated they won’t do well and thrive. It’s not just the humane thing to do but it is also good business.”
Our final stop of the day is at Ken and Lynetta Griner’s of Usher Land & Timber, Inc. a family-owned logging, farming and cattle company in Chiefland, Florida. Together with son Korey, they manage a cow/calf program with nearly 700 “momma” cows and 50 replacement heifers, and a stocker program with about 2,000 stocker calves.
Ken allows us on the field to view what he calls “the Lebron James” of bulls. A group of Charlois (the white ones) and Angus bulls (the black ones), which are quite the ladies men with about 25-30 “friends with benefits” each. (See photo at the top of this post.)
They are a calm and curious bunch as they approach us to see what all these ladies with cameras are doing. I sense they enjoy the attention, but as soon as we get close they run away.
Boots, the cow dog, helps steer the herd expertly according to Ken.
We stop at their facility, where we learned of the breeding process including natural and artificial insemination. It’s a tough job, seven days a week, 365 days of the year, but they are proud of the work they do and their understanding of animal husbandry.
Everyone we met showed us a passion and genuine respect for the land. They are proud of their family traditions and their operations. They want their stories shared to educate the public and clear misconceptions.
Ken Griner says “we need to protect the land, our water, our animals. Our inheritance is in land and cattle and we want to preserve it for generations to come”. Lynetta adds “we provide food, oxygen and water” and those are the most valuable of all resources. Usher Land & Timber has been recognized for their environmental efforts and stewardship of natural resources.
DINNER BY THE SUWANNEE RIVER
All this learning made us hungry! We ended the day with a delicious dinner hosted by Don & Donna Quincey of Quincey Cattle Company, who welcomed us to their beautiful home on the Suwannee river. This was like stepping into a whole different world. As if time stopped to allow us to take in the beauty of nature around us.
There’s a lot of beef in Florida, so I was curious why we don’t see “Florida Beef” in our grocery stores?
We learned that although Florida is one of the largest in breeding cows and raising calves, once they are weaned and leave their ranch or farm of origin, between 6-12 months of age, they are sent to feedlots located out of state (including Texas, Kansas, Colorado) for finishing and processing.
The “Fresh From Florida” initiative is looking to eliminate the traditional route beef has taken to get to the consumer and have all steps of the process take place in Florida, from sourcing cattle, growing cattle, finishing and processing. This is exciting news!
We were treated to “Fresh From Florida” steaks on the grill from calves finished at Quincey’s facility and mine was one of the most flavorful and tender steaks I’ve ever had. Only a bit of sea salt was needed to season these steaks!
Paige, from The Gathering Table, served true-Florida deliciousness as accompaniments: a refreshing salad of watermelon feta and blueberry basil, bacon-wrapped green bean bundles, grilled asparagus, loaded mashed potatoes, honey yeast rolls and decadent bananas foster bread pudding.
With bellies and hearts full of appreciation for our gracious hosts, we bid them goodnight.
BREAKFAST & BEEFALO
Day 2 began bright and early with a home-cooked breakfast prepared by the Whitehurst family of Whitehurst Cattle Company. Pug and Kellee Whitehurst, together with Devin and Annie Whitehurst, Adam Whitehurst, Van and Amber Whitehurst, welcomed us to their cozy farm bungalow with a tasty casserole, fresh baked buttermilk biscuits, sausage gravy, pancakes, bacon, beef sausages and fresh fruits (including their own homegrown carved watermelon). The hot coffee was delicious and quite welcome after a short night sleep.
Afterwards, Pug gave us a tour of his farmlands and we got a chance to meet “beefalo” – what happens when a cow meets a frisky buffalo! Of course, we had to stop for a picture!
BEEF AS AN INGREDIENT
Chef Dave Zino from National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and The Beef Checkoff, prepared three recipes using beef as an ingredient and not the main attraction. They all looked amazing and so easy to make.
Although I was still stuffed from the southern style breakfast, I would have loved a bite of the Samba Steak Stir Fry. Who knew V8 juice would be a good marinade for steak in the Gazpacho Steak Salad?
Chef Zino reviewed beef grades and aging and reminded us that beef is more than a meal, it’s a destination. Being a food writer who often writes about dining recommendations, my favorite quote was: “No one ever said – ‘honey I’m taking you out to a nice vegetable lasagna dinner.” Isn’t that the truth! Special occasions call for a nice steak dinner at a fancy restaurant serving prime steaks.
Photographer extraordinaire and Girl Carnivore, Kita Roberts, gave us great tips on how to photograph beef. It’s not easy to take pictures of brown food but Kita has this mastered. She says “tell a story, keep it juicy, use contrasting colors, and simply just own it”.
“It’s our job to make beef look sexy,” Kita says, and we attempted to do just that as we separated into teams to style and photograph a plate of grilled romaine, avocado, tomatoes and of course, steak. Lots of bloggers standing overhead and playing with food ensued, while camera settings and boundaries kept being tested. Yes, we love playing with food!
Nutrition expert, Jenna Braddock, shared a bounty of information about beef’s nutritional facts as well as the misconceptions that surround beef consumption.
Did you know a 3 oz. serving of lean beef provides 25g (about half) of the daily value for protein and only has 154 calories? In comparison, to get 25 grams of protein you would need to consume 3 cups of quinoa resulting in 666 calories!, or 6 tablespoons of peanut butter for a whopping 564 calories! Clearly a 3 oz. serving of beef is much better in the calorie and nutrient department.
To show how tasty and healthy beef can be, we then snacked on Jenna’s Quick Chickpea Curry and Isabel’s Family Foodie Portuguese-style Beef Lettuce Wraps, both delicious!
If you want a good deal or want to know how to cook a certain cut of beef, simply talk to your butcher. Kyle Raulerson, Winn-Dixie grocery manager, tells us “we are the beef people. Come talk to us and let us help you find the best cut to fill your plate.”
Many of us tend to stick with what we know and don’t venture out to try new cuts, either because we think they are too difficult to cook or because we don’t know anything about them. I asked Troy, the meat department manager for his hidden gem cut. He says “lots of people are missing out on short ribs. They have great flavor and value.” Now you know, go get short ribs!
#HASHED COOKING COMPETITION
After the successful #Hashed competition at Food Wine Conference this year, (where I was lucky to be part of the “Yes Chef” winning team) the Florida Beef Council challenged us to another round in the kitchen. Terri Truscello Miller of Love and Confections (also on the Yes Chef winning team), Sondra Cernigliaro of Girl Abroad and I set out on a mad dash around Winn Dixie with four other teams to shop and then prepare our “beef as an ingredient” dish.
The butcher recommended a petite sirloin steak on sale. It was the perfect cut to simply sear and thin slice to stuff in a gyro-inspired Greek wrap. We made a homemade tzatziki sauce with Greek yogurt, cucumber, lemon and garlic. Pan roasted spicy chickpeas and julienned red peppers, carrots, cucumber and parsley for color, crunch and added nutrients. We even got butcher paper and twine. The end result was not only pretty and flavorful, but good for you too!
The madness in the kitchen was hilarious. Our grill didn’t work, we couldn’t find a food processor, tiny knives, and “What? Time is up already?” I don’t know how they do these competitions on TV but collaborating with Terri and Sondra was awesome.
The competition was fierce and every dish looked like a winner. To our surprise, our Team Yia Yia won! And no, there was no bribery of the judges involved.
As fun as the challenge was, the best part of this event for me was not winning. It was the exchange we shared with the grocery shopper standing in line behind us at the cashier stand. As we waited our turn to pay, we were taking pictures of our cart, talking a mile-a-minute about our recipe and probably drawing more attention to ourselves than we should have – crazy bloggers!
The older lady behind us looked inquisitively at us wondering what was going on. We explained we were food bloggers participating in a cooking challenge. She responded that she wished she could try our food because we looked like we were good cooks.
As we paid for our groceries with a $50 gift card generously provided by Winn-Dixie, our total came to less than $30. I overhead Isabel talking about donating the remaining gift card and thought that was the perfect way for us to repay the gentle lady who had so patiently put up with our rambunctiousness.
I turned around and quietly offered her our gift card and wished her a great day. Once again, I was met with a puzzled look. As the cashier processed the gift card to pay for her items, she began sobbing. She approached me with a shocked look, tears in her eyes and hugged me, revealing she had a tough day and nothing good like this has ever happened to her. She further shared she’s battling breast cancer and her husband told her not to spend too much at the store as they are trying to make ends meet. I couldn’t help but cry as well. Many of us did.
In that moment, I realized there is much more to food than sustenance. Sharing food and spreading joy with everyone you meet is priceless. You never know what troubles another person may be going through and how you may be able to help with just a kind word or gesture. Truly an unforgettable moment. The lessons here are beyond just delicious Florida’s beef.
Our fantastic Florida Beef Immersion Experience closed with dinner at Dragonfly Sushi & Sake. With laptops and phones in hand, we tweeted our fingers away and chatted about all things beef with our Sunday Supper community online. We wished everyone could have been there as the fabulous chefs treated us to all sorts of small plates –from crispy ebi to braised short ribs, steamed buns filled with kurobuta pork belly, sushi rolls and more.
It may have been a head-scratcher at first, to attend a “beef” event at a sushi restaurant, but after tasting the surf and turf roll with beef tataki, the American Wagyu Carpaccio and Wagyu bites topped with a perfectly soft-boiled quail egg, I understood why this was the perfect ending to this weekend of all things beef!
FAMILY & COMMUNITY
A recurring theme over the course of the weekend was the importance of family and community. Each of the ranchers we met welcomed us into their homes, graciously sharing their stories and their love of the land, the animals and their families. There was great synergy to have experienced this as part of the Sunday Supper Movement. Our fearless leader Isabel Laessig, affectionately nicknamed “big mama” during the tour, has invited us to return to the family table and given us the opportunity to share with our families and each other the importance of community.
One of the things I love most about spending time “live” with my Sunday Supper family is that every chance we get we are brainstorming blog ideas, talking about best practices and the latest tools to make blogging life easier. I always leave more energized after spending time with these fantastic bloggers, whether at the Food Wine Conference or these live events.
In life, as in the #Hashed competition, we can get pretty caught up in the competition, but in the end the bigger picture of community and sharing special times with each other around the dinner table is what is truly important. It’s no surprise our collective mission is to gather around the family table. Gathering and sharing around food is what we do best!
Thank you Isabel and Florida Beef Council for the opportunity to be a part of the awesome #FLBeefImmersion Sunday Supper Live Event.
Thank you to all the individuals who came together to share their stories and teach us about beef. I am a better beef-lover for it.
Thank you to my fellow beef bloggers for your generosity and encouragement. You are truly a fantastic community I am honored to be a part of.
Read more about it!
If you’d like to read about the Florida Beef Immersion Experience from a few different perspectives, along with some recipes, check out these links: