Rethinking Veal: With careful shopping, you can find veal that is humanely raised




Alisa Blatter is a young mother who lives in Mount Washington. She is my friend and neighbor and a very, very good cook. We often trade recipes and food finds. Recently, I invited her, her husband Josh and their son Max to dinner. I planned to serve veal shanks as the center of the plate.

"Oh. I haven't eaten veal for 25 years," Ms. Blatter said. "My ban on veal started in 1985 when I was a high school sophomore in England. A fellow student put a paper on my desk, a did-you-know rant against how veal was raised. The words were descriptive enough, but worse, the photos of calves raised in crates, away from their mothers and too weak to stand, produced a feeling of horror. My visceral response was so strong, I told my mom I never want to eat veal again. And I haven't."

What's in a name?

Most of us know the word beef comes from the French boeuf. But why do we call the meat from young cattle veal? Dictionaries say it's from the Middle English veel, from Old French veiaus or veel, from Latin vitellus, diminutive of vitulus, calf.

Oh dear. I know, of course, that veal has long been synonymous with cruelty, with animal lovers shocked by images of young calves confined in minimal spaces. Well, if you shop carefully, you will find that things are changing for the better.

"Hey, listen," I responded. "Raising veal is a whole new ball game. In most cases the rules and practices have evolved. If I can promise to serve ethically raised veal, will you eat it? Maybe it's time to rethink the subject."

Very long pause.

"It's hard to let go because veal is my bookmark for ethical eating," Ms. Blatter said. "I'm careful where I shop because when I make choices for my family, I'm always aware of sourcing. I know it's a luxury to do that, but I vote for ethical practices with my wallet. Today I feel the same revulsion to supermarket chicken.

"I didn't plan on ever eating veal. Let me think about it."

While she pondered baby beef, I researched, purchased, cooked and did indeed serve this most controversial protein of the last three decades.

Old veal, new veal

The use of containers and tethers began in Holland after World War II when excess liquid whey from the dairy industry was used to feed veal calves, mostly bulls, until they were ready for market. The animal abuse caused an uproar, and veal consumption plummeted. In 2007, the American Veal Association passed a resolution calling on the industry to voluntarily and completely stop using containers and tethers by 2017.

What the Niman Ranch brand is to pork products, Strauss Brands is now to veal. Randy and Tim Strauss, brothers and third-generation owners, are not farmers or ranchers, but packer-processors. They believe that it is their responsibility to provide meat from calves raised in the most natural and compassionate environment possible.

The majority of the Strauss company's veal as supplied to both wholesale and retail customers is group-raised -- that is, from calves that live in individual spaces in a barn for about two months, then move to pens with other calves in a "finishing barn" until they're ready for market. Group-raised calves have enough space to move around, and they're able to go in and out of the barns. It is considered a humane raising practice.

However, it is the company's niche product, Strauss Free Raised Veal, that is getting attention. Launched in August 2008, this veal is made from the meat of calves that are 100-percent pasture-raised and not separated from their mothers until market day.

The Strauss brothers, with their family, have spent years searching for a humane and earth-friendly way to raise veal. Their first goal was to find a more authentic breed to replace Holstein dairy bull calves used for modern-day formula-fed veal. They chose the Limousin breed, well-known for its taste and tenderness.

Based in Milwaukee, the brothers contract with a network of hundreds of independent family farmers and ranchers throughout the United States who raise calves to the strict set of standards set by Strauss. This network provides a year-round supply of fresh, sustainable, pasture-raised veal. By "following the grass" seasonally, somewhere within the system some veal is always market ready.

Pasture-raising animals is not a ground-breaking farming method. Veal calves have been raised in open pasture with access to mother's milk for centuries. It was only after WWII that factory farming and the practices of raising calves in confinement using a manufactured liquid-feed diet became common in the United States.

When a consumer sees the Strauss Free Raised moniker on a label or sign, they have the assurances that this is pasture-raised veal that:

• Is free to roam, never tethered or raised in confinement.

• Is raised on natural open pastures alongside their mothers and herds.

• Has unlimited access to mother's milk.

• Never is administered antibiotics.

• Is strictly vegetarian fed, never with animal by-products.

The company says, per the guidelines of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Humane Slaughter Act, the animals are humanely rendered unconscious prior to slaughter with a USDA-approved stunning device.

The Strauss business also is green, green, green. Their facilities use biodegradable cleaning supplies and recycled papers, have green lighting, use no disposable plastic frocks and gloves, and more. They also work with animal-welfare advocate Temple Grandin to minimize the animals' stress and improve the safe handling of calves.

High-profile food stars are getting on the humanely raised bandwagon, too. Chef Anthony Bourdain says, "This veal reminds me of the veal I love in Italy." He's giving Strauss veal a plug on an episode of "No Reservations," airing this fall.

Many other suppliers are committed to the humane raising of veal, too.

Where's the veal?

I asked chefs at a few Pittsburgh restaurants where they got their veal and how concerned they were about animal welfare.

• Chef Dan Liephart, of Isabela on Grandview, serves veal occasionally. "We'll make shanks, tenderloin or rack, but we like some of the more obscure cuts such as hanger steak and sweetbreads for appetizers. Our source is Strauss because they utilize many farms throughout the country as they 'follow the grass' throughout the year. And we like that the veal is free to roam alongside its mother. ... These days, we honestly don't hear much grief from customers about veal anymore."

• Rico's could be called Rico's House of Veal. The Ross restaurant offers 10 to 15 veal entrees every day, including Piccata, al Marsala, Florence, Parmigiana, Milanese and Chasseur. Owner/chef Rico Lorenzini says his supplier is Butcher Block, and that the company distributes pasture-fed and humanely raised veal.

• "Since fall, we've served braised veal cheeks and braised veal breast," says Chef Trevett Hooper at Legume Bistro in Regent Square. "We use both a Canadian veal, La Quebecois, and one from New York, a cooperative of farmers who sell their veal to D'Artagnan. Both La Quebecois and D'Artagnan claim to use humane practices in raising the veal. We go through long periods of time when we don't use any veal, but that's a result of customer demand.

"It's very silly when people complain about veal (or foie gras) but never question the source of the other animal products they do eat," says Chef Hooper. "The animal-rights groups have done a wonderful job of confusing the real issues of animal suffering in farming. While there are some terrible things in certain methods of raising veal, there are equally terrible ways of producing the beef, dairy, eggs and poultry that most U.S. consumers eat on a daily basis."

Bon appetit

With Strauss veal purchased online in my refrigerator, I was armed with my "elevator speech," 25 words or less, for Alisa: This free-raised, pasture-fed veal is raised ethically and sustainably with a small carbon footprint. So, are you coming to dinner or not?

Long story short, Ms. Blatter's family came, they ate, they enjoyed. But it was a hard decision for her.

"I've known for two weeks I was going to eat veal, so I had time to prepare myself," she said. "I didn't want to sell out, so I did a lot of thinking. I decided that over time the rules of engagement had changed. My old feelings of revulsion were tied to feelings of ethics, and I couldn't compare this meat to the food I had been ethically avoiding. So I resolved the issue in my mind before I came to the table. And when we came in the door, the house smelled so good, it was comforting. Still, I don't plan to cook veal at home, but I would consider ordering it at a restaurant where I know it was properly sourced."

Well, what about all of you veal protesters out there? Isn't it time to take up another cause?

Sources

Consumers who wish to purchase Strauss can order the premium Meadow Reserve line online from Allen Brothers at allenbrothers.com.

• Giant Eagle spokesman Dick Roberts said that the chain does not carry Strauss Free Raised. But Strauss is one of its two main veal suppliers, both of which raise their animals tether-free and in a group environment. "We work closely with our suppliers to provide these humanely raised, high-quality products at a great value to our customers."

• Whole Foods Market, 5880 Centre Ave., East Liberty, 412-441-7960. According to John Figlar, team leader for the meat department, the store offers locally produced, pasture-raised veal from Meadow Run Farm in Central Pennsylvania. Strauss Free Raised veal is available only at Whole Foods Markets Western and Midwestern stores.

• Salem's Halal Meats & Groceries, 338 South Bouquet St., Oakland, 412-621-4354, and Salem's Grill (the meat market opening in June) 2923 Penn Ave., Strip District, 412-235-7828. "Veal is raised on farms either in Washington County, Western Ohio or on nearby Amish farms," says Abdul Salem. They are "taken to a halal meat processor in McKeesport, where they are humanely slaughtered and skinned."

• Strip District Meats, 2123 Penn Ave., 412-391-1762. Owner Ray Turkas says, "Veal consumption has been on a decline for years. Veal is just not a big seller for me. But I do carry it, and the product I have is mother's milk-fed and ethically raised."

• McGinnis Sisters Special Food Stores (Adams, Brentwood, Monroeville). "We use a humanely raised milk-fed veal out of Michigan. They use what's called a non-tethered program," says Carl Tursh, meat and seafood team leader.

Veal Scaloppine Umbria-Style

PG tested

This recipe is not as "long" as it looks. Lidia Bastianich is an articulate and thorough teacher. "This dish showcases the skillful skillet cookery and flavorful pan sauces that delighted me in Umbria," writes the owner of Lidia's Pittsburgh and first lady of Italian cooking. Serve the veal over braised spinach, or with a seasonal vegetable on the side.

-- Marlene Parrish

  • 2 ounces prosciutto, roughly chopped
  • 4 plump garlic cloves, peeled
  • 3 small anchovy fillets
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 12 veal scallops (2 to 3 ounces each)
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 8 fresh sage leaves
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock or water
  • 2 tablespoons small capers, drained
  • 2 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley

Using a food processor, mince the prosciutto, garlic, anchovies and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil into a fine-textured paste.

Flatten the veal scallops into scaloppine, one at a time: place a scallop between sheets of wax paper or plastic wrap, and pound it with a meat mallet or pounder, tenderizing and spreading the meat into a thin oval, about 1/4 inch thick.

Salt the scaloppine lightly on both sides, using about 1/2 teaspoon salt in all. Put the butter and remaining olive oil in the skillet, and set it over medium-low heat. When the butter begins to bubble, lay as many scaloppine in the pan as you can in one layer (about half the pieces). Cook the first side for a minute or 2, just until the meat becomes opaque but doesn't darken; flip the meat, and lightly fry the second side the same way. Remove the first batch of veal to a plate, and fry the remaining pieces.

When all the meat has had the first fry, raise the heat and boil off any accumulated meat liquid until the skillet is nearly dry. Drop in the prosciutto paste, stir it around the pan, and let it cook for a couple of minutes, until it's sizzling and rendering the fat from the prosciutto. Scatter in the sage leaves, stir, and heat them until sizzling, then pour in the wine and lemon juice. Bring to a boil and cook to reduce the wine by half. Pour in the stock, heat to a bubbling simmer, and return the scaloppine to the pan, sliding them into the liquid so they are moistened. Toss in the capers, and sprinkle the remaining salt over all.

Adjust the heat to keep the sauce simmering gently and reducing gradually. Cook for about 10 minutes, turning the scaloppine over once or twice, until almost all the moisture has evaporated, concentrating the sauce into a thick coating on the meat and pan bottom.

Remove the skillet from the heat, and sprinkle the parsley over the veal. Tumble the meat over, coating them all with the sauce and parsley, and serve right away. Be sure to scrape every bit of concentrated sauce from the skillet onto each serving of scallopine.

Makes 6 servings.

-- "Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy" by Lidia Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali (Knopf, 2009)


Marlene Parrish: marleneparrish@earthlink.net or 412-481-1620.




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