Bringing bison back

Bravo for buffalo. See how we're saving the Western icon by eating it (again).
Eugenia Bone

A SUSTAINABLE MEAT

Bison, by their very nature, are sustainable. They're adapted to the wild and fend off predators more easily than cattle or sheep. They chiefly eat grass, so the meat is very lean ― 95 percent for entirely grass-fed animals ― and rich in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. Dr. Kevin Weiland, a South Dakota internist and author of The Dakota Diet (Basic Health Publications, 2007), wrote that "the fat content in bison meat is usually a third of that found in cattle fattened in the feedlot … You could lose up to 10 pounds a year just by switching your main source of meat to grass-fed buffalo."

Nutritionally, it's all about the grass. But some ranchers, like Dan O'Brien and his wife, Jill Maguire, owners of Wild Idea Buffalo Company in Rapid City, South Dakota, believe that what the grass does for bison, bison do for the grass. "I started thinking how food leads to restoration of the plains," says O'Brien, who has written numerous Western-themed books. "How we've industrialized it and degraded it ― and there is one solution: grass-fed." O'Brien believes that bison improve the plains habitat. He may be right. According to Kansas State University researchers, bison-grazed prairie leads to greater plant diversity and richness compared with ungrazed prairie.

The bison/prairie paradigm exemplifies a return to the symbiotic relationship between the land and food production that is at the heart of America's regional food movement, and it's why so many restaurants are putting the meat on their menus. "Bison fits the need of the modern meat eater,'' says chef Gary Danko. "It's sustainable animal husbandry. It appeals to the green or sustainable consciousness that Californians are seeking."

There are now more than 450,000 bison in North America, mostly in private hands. The initial increase in their numbers may have been due to conservationists, but the proliferation of this iconic American animal depends on selling it, as Dave Carter says, "one steak at a time." When it comes to the buffalo, we have to eat it to save it.

INFO: Visit bisoncentral.com for details on where to buy bison.


Recipes

Roast Loin of Bison with Shiitake Mushrooms
Gary Danko, of San Francisco's Restaurant Gary Danko, gave us this recipe. At the restaurant, he uses king trumpet mushrooms, but we've substituted the more readily available shiitake mushrooms. Danko serves this with herb spaetzle and caramelized cipollini onions.

Caramelized Cipollini Onions
A great addition to simple, rustic dishes like roast chicken or beef (or bison), these classy onions can be made ahead and reheated slowly when ready. This is an adaptation of a recipe from Gary Danko, of San Francisco's Restaurant Gary Danko.

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