If you’re looking for something different and extraordinary to serve at your holiday table this year, have I got the dish for you: crusty inch-and-a-half-thick, bone-in rib-eye steaks, slowly cooked to medium-rare, carved into juicy slices and dotted with red wine balsamic butter.
But these aren’t just any old steaks.
A small but devoted group of Washington area chefs, among them Robert Wiedmaier, Brian McBride and Jeff Black, swears by the calf meat that comes from Chapel Hill Farm’s Randall Linebacks, a rare heritage breed of cattle descended from Colonial times and in danger of extinction.
Nine years ago, the farm’s proprietor, Joe Henderson, bought 25 head of them. He was looking to raise cattle on the 600-acre property he and his wife, Lucia, had purchased near Berryville, Va., in 1999, and he chose Randall Linebacks because the American Livestock Breed Conservancy listed them as critically endangered. In 2002, there were thought to be only about 100 in the world.
At the heart of Henderson’s decision to take on the Randall Linebacks as a cause was his sense of stewardship. An avid fisherman, hunter and conservationist, he says he’s interested in leaving the land in better shape than he found it. He wound up with 500 more acres than he had originally intended to buy and saw raising cattle as a way to tend the land.
“A friend of mine told me if I was going to do cows, I was going to lose money, so I may as well do it in a worthwhile way. So here I am,” Henderson likes to say.
Drawing on previous farming experience, a master’s degree in business from Harvard and capital acquired from a successful career in strategic planning and equity management, Henderson, now 66, embarked on a rigorous campaign to help save Randall Linebacks from extinction.
The first order of business was to hire farm manager Noah Travers, a local with experience raising cattle and an agriculture degree from Virginia Tech. Travers oversaw growing the herd, initially through embryo transfer and then by letting Mother Nature (field breeding) take over once a base herd was established.
Henderson guesses that once the breeding herd, which doesn’t count bulls, is 1,000 strong, its survival is ensured. To date his herd numbers around 300.
Vital to the breed’s growth was to create demand for the product. Business-wise, it made sense to Henderson to sell only whole animals, so he needed to find chefs who could hang, store and butcher 300 pounds of meat and who were willing to pay its premium price. (Randall Lineback costs $7 per pound, as opposed to the $1.40 per pound that Travers says Angus carcasses go for these days.) Having the know-how to utilize every part of the animal from head to tail was another requirement; that would be the only way restaurants could realize a profit.
Through a business connection, Henderson met Brian McBride, then executive chef at the Blue Duck Tavern in the District’s West End. In 2006, McBride hosted a dinner for some of his chef buddies and served seven courses of Randall Lineback: tete de veau, pressed veal belly, T-bone rack and osso buco (shanks), plus the liver, kidneys and tail.
The chefs were sold. Over a tasting I shared with Henderson at Brasserie Beck last month, Wiedmaier explained why.
“Those Linebacks roam free, drink from a spring, eat grass and get finished with just a little bit of grain. They haven’t been interbred with God knows what, they’re lower in fat than other meat and the flavor is clean. Because it’s so lean, you have to cook it slowly to make it palatable, but once you do . . . oh, man!”
He and other chefs concede that for diners who are accustomed to fatty, grain-fed meat, the full flavor and sometimes chewy texture of Randall-Lineback can be startling.
Apart from cooking technique, the meat poses a challenge for the chefs: They’re not sure what to call it.
Black labels it “heirloom breed veal” at his restaurants. Wiedmaier sometimes calls it veal (for a Bolognese sauce he mixes, to delicious effect, with mussels at Brasserie Beck) and other times just refers to it as Randall Lineback.
Henderson has the same problem.
Tapping into a term the British coined to create a market for the grass-fed, humanely raised male offspring of dairy cows that would otherwise have been euthanized, Henderson printed up a brochure calling his product rose-veal, but then created another one using the term rose-beef.
As Henderson sees it, defining the product is problematic because Randall Linebacks take twice as long to mature as other breeds. The calves they raise to eight months bear no relation to Angus of the same age: “The genetics are different, and the taste is different.”
The root of the issue, says Henderson, is that in the mid-19th century, cows began to be bred either as dairy animals or beef cattle. The all-purpose heritage breeds — which had been used as dairy, meat and draft animals — began to disappear.
“What you have here is an animal that has been in a time machine and emerged hundreds of years later in an industrial system based on dairy and beef. You can’t apply 19th-century terms to a 17th-century animal,” says Henderson.
Henderson’s goal is that entrepreneurial farmers in five regions will replicate the business model he created, thereby promoting the breed’s proliferation.
“Give me someone who can raise 100 to 200 animals near a major city: That’s who we want to get into this business. We’ve spent the money and come up with a model that works, so they don’t have to,” he says.
The model that Travers and Henderson formulated starts with providing a low-stress, open-air environment for the animals and weaning calves gradually. Let them eat grass for five months, then grain for three (so the meat isn’t so tough), until the calf weighs about 525 pounds. Stagger breeding to ensure consistent supply; that is vital for restaurateurs, as are regular, on-time deliveries. Slaughter humanely at a reputable abbatoir.
Henderson hangs the meat for two to three weeks and cuts it into quarters before delivering, which makes it easier for the chefs to handle. (They often hang it for another week or two for further tenderizing.)
Randall Lineback is available to the public at Wiedmaier’s Butcher’s Block Market and, beginning in January, at chef Cathal Armstrong’s Society Fair, both in Alexandria. (See the sidebar above.) Because both businesses buy whole animals, what is available there at any given time varies greatly, so customers should call ahead.
Taking into account a head-to-tail concept, I developed Randall Lineback recipes using ground meat, top round, rib-eye steak and leg shanks.
The ground meat had such character that I treated it like beef and made a smashing stroganoff with it, using a one-pan, no-boil method I filched from chef Patricia Jinich’s public television series, “Pati’s Mexican Table.”
Slices of scaloppine cut from the round, then pounded and marinated, turned into a crunchy schnitzel with sauteed carrots and onions, omelet strips, scallions and Sriracha sauce.
I seared beautifully dressed osso buco from the Butcher’s Block, then braised them slowly in chipotle-and-cumin-spiked tomatoes, red wine and chicken broth for a Southwestern take on an Italian dish. The meat was not as fall-apart tender as regular veal, but its flavor was a cut above.
Taking into account the low-and-slow admonition, I started thick rib-eye steaks, each large enough to serve two, in a cold pan and cooked them slowly over medium heat. That went against the traditional hot-sear/high-heat method for pan-frying steak but resulted in nicely crusted, tender, company-worthy slices of meat.
For a spectacular presentation, especially for a holiday meal, I like to carve and serve the meat on a nice bamboo cutting board, with sauteed mushrooms piled alongside. The aforementioned red wine balsamic butter looks especially enticing as it melts into the medium-rare slices.
Whether Randall Lineback is veal or beef isn’t really the point. It’s real, rich and funky in a good way: truly a breed apart. During our tasting with Wiedmaier at Brasserie Beck, Henderson described it aptly.
“It’s the Beluga caviar of meat!” he declared.
Maybe he should just leave it at that.
Hagedorn writes the monthly Sourced column. He will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.