Sweet Meat: Tassajara Natural Meats delivers dry-aged excellence that goes great with Ventana (Bistro and Vineyards wine).

Sur Serving: Dory Ford’s freshly opened Ventana Bistro offers the Tassajara Natural Meats that once grazed across Highway 1.

There’s a new solution to lessen the dilemma of local omnivores who prioritize personal and planetary health but do not wish to compromise on the joy of eating well: Carmel Valley based Tassajara Natural Meats, a producer of grass-fed USDA-inspected beef.

Owner, local documentary filmmaker and my longtime friend Mark Shelley, who has been butchering free-range calves for 10 years for his own consumption, has turned pro. For their first year in business, Shelley and partner/wife Elizabeth expect to bring 30 calves to market after grazing them at Rancho Grande in Big Sur and Elkhorn Ranch in Moss Landing.

The debate over grain-fed versus grass-fed beef continues and mostly centers around flavor. But it really isn’t about flavor, since both are delicious. The important differences concern nutrition and humane treatment of animals – and grass-fed wins on both fronts.

In addition to these benefits, TNM offers the opportunity to buy meat from a single, local source that ensures sustainable stewardship of the land and manages the goods the entire way – from birth of the calf to slaughter to handing off the product at the market. Knowing a trustworthy farmer and his practices increases food safety and quality.

Shelley calls their primary product “free-range veal” or “vitelloni,” to describe beef that comes from calves who feed on mother’s milk and supplement their diet with natural grasses and perennials while frolicking in luxuriant coastal pastures. Though not certified organic, TNM’s feed and practices conform to organic standards and include free grazing, gentle weaning and a protocol for humane slaughtering.

The carcasses are dry-aged, cut, Cryovac-packed for the freshest possible product, and frozen. There’s some debate about the quality of fresh versus frozen beef, but Shelley cites a blind study from Kansas State University where no difference was discerned.

Beef is aged to allow natural enzymes to tenderize the meat, and dry-aging concentrates flavors. Most beef is not aged or is wet-aged, and it’s the water that reduces quality when beef is frozen. Savvy consumers know that dry-aged beef is worth a few extra bucks.

I stopped by the Farmers Market at Monterey Peninsula College on a recent Thursday to buy some TNM beef, the only current outlet for it. Since not every type of cut is brought to the market, the Shelleys gladly take orders, and also take custom orders for specific cuts for the next slaughter, since there is more than one way to skin a… calf. (Order at MPC or mark@tassajarameats.com.)

TNM primarily sells beef in packages. Individual cuts offered the day I visited were carne asada (thinly-sliced) for $9/pound and filet mignon for $28. Otherwise, three packages were as follows: $25 for 4 pounds of ground beef; $45 for 5 pounds (3 pounds ground beef, one top-cut steak, one lesser-cut steak); $80 for 8.5 pounds (4 pounds ground beef, two top-cut steaks, one flatiron or hanger steak, one lesser-cut steak).

I decided to hold an impromptu beef-and-wine tasting dinner at my home with the Shelleys and took advantage of the occasion to invite Bruce and Beth Sterten (partners in Ventana Vineyards) to pair wines with my recipes. Three couples contributed to a world-class meal and I heartily encourage you and your pals to replicate our menu of small tasting-size dishes (see sidebar, this page).

Shelley emphasizes shorter cooking times for this lean beef to keep it moist. Grass-fed beef has one third to one half the fat of grain-fed, and more nutrients like Omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamin E. Grain-fed beef has more saturated fat and possesses a flavor more familiar to most Americans.

Connoisseurs of grass-fed beef know that each animal’s meat tastes slightly different, depending on the type of grass, soil, weather and seasonal changes. You can also try TNM’s short ribs at Ventana Bistro in Ventana Inn, featured by Chef Dory Ford, a well-known advocate of sustainable foods.

I’d also like to salute Ventana Vineyards and the exciting way their wines have improved in the nearly three years since new owners took over the 400-acre Arroyo Seco vineyard and more than doubled the operation’s winemaking aspect. Though they still sell the majority of grapes to high-end wineries, Ventana produces 14 different wines, and all are estate.

The vineyard has earned 160 awards so far this year, including five sweepstakes in blind tastings. The latest for the winery is for the 2008 Pinot Gris, winner of the West Coast Wine Competition sweepstakes, and a smoking deal at $18 per bottle. (Available at the tasting room above Tarpy’s Roadhouse, 2999 Highway 68, Monterey.)

Tassajara Natural Meats Small Plates with Ventana Vineyards Wine Pairings

Aperitif 2008 Pinot Gris

BEEF CARPACCIO on arugula with local Sterten Grove olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and shaved Pecorino Romano 2008 Dry Rosado

MARROW from roasted bones, with parsley and sea salt 2007 Grenache

FLANK STEAK in honey-garlic-mustard marinade over chilled mesclun with fennel and red cabbage tossed in Sterten Grove olive oil and Meyer lemon juice 2007 Pinot Noir

GROUND BEEF KABOBS with Middle Eastern spices and cucumber yogurt sauce 2007 Rubystone

GRILLED SAMPLER Porterhouse Steak, Rib Eye Steak, Top Sirloin, Skirt Steak with only sea salt 2006 Le Mistral

Raspberry Tart 2008 Orange Muscat

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