- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 2004

Has mad cow disease scared you into the seafood section? Never fear; buffalo is here. It’s the other red meat. It’s what’s for dinner if you are having second thoughts about eating beef these days.

Buff, buffler and buffalo are the nicknames people use when they refer to bison, and the terms can be used interchangeably. (True buffalo is Asian and African and only distantly related to our American bison.) For most people, the first bite of a perfectly cooked slab of rare and juicy bison is a shocker. The meat is bright brick red.

If bison is so terrific, how come it’s rarely seen outside adventuresome restaurants? Every grade school child knows about the decimation of American bison herds more than 100 years ago, but do they know that we finally came to our senses and started cultivating bison?

Today, America’s bison population is estimated at more than 250,000, and there are bison ranches in all 50 states — even little Rhode Island has two. Bison ranching is a growth industry, but for all its attributes, it will never replace beef, no matter how good it is.

It’s a simple numbers game. Ranchers say that there are as many beef animals slaughtered in one day as there are bison in the world.

That’s supply. Now for demand.

Unless you’ve tasted bison, you may not want to search it out, much less demand it. It is available from some grocers, including Whole Foods (call first to make sure it’s in supply), but perhaps a more reliable place to find it is through mail order by phone or on the Internet.

It’s not cheap, and you have to add in the price of shipping. For example, two 10-ounce rib-eye steaks will cost about $70 plus shipping. So it makes sense to buy it in quantity and stash it in the freezer. Or to seek out a local vendor and save the air-freight price.

Once the decision is made and the price is paid, there’s much to recommend bison.

Flavor. Bison is not the least bit gamy or wild in flavor. The meat has a somewhat sweet flavor like that of Argentine beef.

Bison is naturally grown. Because of the way it is raised and handled, it doesn’t need hormones, artificial growth stimulants or antibiotics. Due to its, shall we say, independent nature, live bison is handled and dealt with as little as possible. For perspective, remember that bison stand nearly 6 feet tall, span almost 9 feet in length and weigh on average a ton to 11/2 tons. They spend their lives grazing on grass in open land, much as they always have, with very little time in the feedlot. Because of that, bison do not marble, which is to say they don’t develop fat throughout their muscles. The result is more meat (read protein) and less fat per pound.

Appearance. The muscle structure of bison is very similar to beef and the cuts of meat are similar, but bison is darker red and richer in color. A bison has a longer frame than a steer with one more rib. So there’s a little more meat yield.

Texture. Bison meat is dense. Because there’s so little fat, steaks have a firmer chew than beef. Interestingly, thinly sliced bison tenderloin is almost fork tender.

Bison can be cooked in much the same way as beef, and the recipes and accompaniments are almost interchangeable, with one important difference.

Bison cooks faster than beef because it has less fat.

Since fat acts as an insulator, heat must penetrate this insulation to get to the muscle. Therefore, marbling slows down the cooking process. Since bison is low on marbling, it has a tendency to cook more rapidly. So cook it at a lower temperature and for less time.

In general, if using a beef recipe for bison, set the oven temperature 50 degrees lower and cook it about 40 percent less time.

Here are a few other cooking tips:

• If you normally cook roast beef at 325 degrees, turn the oven temperature down to 275 for bison. To ensure the right degree of doneness, use a meat thermometer. A rare roast will be 130 degrees.

• When grilling or oven-broiling bison, move the rack one notch away from the heat source, compared with where you would normally cook beefsteaks. Sear the steaks on both sides, then turn the heat down and finish cooking. Check the steaks a few minutes sooner than you normally would.

• To make a kebab, parboil slow-cooking veggies to give them a head start before lacing them onto skewers with quick-cooking bison cubes. Brush with a light barbecue sauce. Bison can be marinated two hours or overnight, but many chefs prepare it with a rub of dry spices.

• Ground bison, the basis of bison burgers, is, of course, leaner than beef. So care must be taken to avoid drying out the meat. There is very little shrinkage with bison, so what you put in the pan will be close to the same size after you cook it. The thicker the patty, the juicier the burger. Make your own, rather than buying thin pre-packaged burgers. You will be pleased to note that there is very little grease in the pan after cooking.

• A bison roast is like any other roast. It can be served in pretty much the same way as beef. Slice it thinly for sandwiches. Dice it for salads. Serve it cold with horseradish sauce. Cooked bison, eaten at room temperature, is excellent and perhaps the best way to savor its delicate flavor. A favorite at our house is to dip cooked bison slices into leftover juice or barbecue sauce just long enough to heat them through so that the meat remains rare.

• The ribs are quite another matter. Brush them with a thick, smoky barbecue sauce and place them on the grill or under the broiler until they heat through and become crunchy. Serve them for out-of-hand eating, with plenty of paper towels nearby.

Here are two places to buy bison:

• GoodHeart Brand Specialty Foods, San Antonio; 210/637-1963, www.goodheart.com.

• Nicky, USA Inc., Portland, Ore.; 800/469-4162; $100 minimum order.

Bison tenderloin

Fork tender and delicately flavored, a whole bison tenderloin makes a sensational centerpiece for a special dinner party. The cut is lean and should be served rare. Care must be taken not to overcook it. Crack whole peppercorns in a mortar with a pestle or smash them with a hammer.

1 4½- to 5-pound bison tenderloin

Olive oil

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon cracked black pepper

1 cup Madeira

1 cup beef stock

Trim off any of the silvery tissue covering the muscle and pat the meat dry with a paper towel. Tuck under the thin end of the tenderloin and, using kitchen string, tie the meat into an even-sized compact shape. (Five ties is about right.)

Rub the meat with olive oil. Combine the garlic, salt and pepper. Coat the meat with the mixture. Set the meat on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. Roast in preheated 300-degree oven about 60 minutes or until a thermometer registers 130 to 135 degrees. Do not cut into the roast or poke it with a fork.

Remove roast to a platter, and allow it to rest for 15 to 20 minutes while you make the sauce and finish dinner preparations. As the roast rests, it will continue to cook and the juices to settle and distribute.

To make the sauce, pour the Madeira and beef stock into the roasting pan. Cook on the stove top over high heat, scraping the bottom and sides of the pan to release the browned cooking bits stuck to the bottom, until the sauce is reduced by half.

Carve the roast into very thin pieces by slicing against the grain, just as you would beef tenderloin. Pass the sauce in a gravy boat. Makes 8 servings.

Grilled bison steak

Use tongs to turn the steaks to keep all the juices in. If you add mesquite chips to the grill coals, the steaks will take on a Southwestern flavor.

6-ounce bison steaks

Olive oil

Kosher salt and cracked pepper

Rub steaks with olive oil, then with a combination of kosher salt and cracked pepper. Grill the steaks 4 to 6 inches above medium hot coals for the following times depending upon the thickness of the steak: for 1-inch-thick steaks rare, about 6 to 8 minutes per side; for 1½-inch-thick steaks rare, about 8 to 10 minutes per side.

Prime bison rib roast

A 7-pound roast will serve six generously. A 15- to 16-pound prime rib roast will serve about 20 people for a dinner buffet. Be sure guests have an opportunity to watch the carving. The deep, rich red meat of the magnificent roast is beautiful. Use this as a guide for cooking any roast.

1 15- to 16-pound prime rib roast

Kosher salt

Rub roast with kosher salt, insert a meat thermometer, and put it on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. Sear the meat at 450 degrees for 20 minutes. Lower heat to 275 degrees, opening the door, if necessary, to speed up the cool-down. Continue roasting until internal temperature is 130 degrees for rare. Bison is best served rare because it is so lean. It will require about 20 minutes per pound of roasting, including the searing time. Let the roast rest for 20 minutes before slicing. Makes 16 to 20 servings.

Bison ribs with barbecue sauce

2 racks (about 4 pounds) bison ribs

Salt, pepper and coarsely ground garlic powder

Barbecue sauce of choice

Coleslaw

Place bison ribs, meat side up, on a roasting rack in a pan. Season to taste with salt, pepper and garlic powder. Roast in preheated 375 degree oven for 30 minutes.

Reduce heat to 325 degrees and roast 30 minutes more. Roast an additional 30 minutes, or until meat is cooked through, basting ribs generously with sauce every 10 minutes. Cut between the ribs to serve. Serve with coleslaw on the side, if desired. Makes 4 to 6 servings.s.

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