Two things about Bill Niman, chairman of Niman Ranch, might surprise anyone who knows the name only from supermarket packages or descriptions on restaurant menus: He still works his own ranch in Bolinas, California, and he lives in a simple two-bedroom house he built himself in the 1970s.
Niman doesn't just market sustainability, he walks the walk.What began with a few orphaned bottle-fed calves in 1972 is now one of the nation's largest purveyors of sustainably raised meat. Bill and his wife, Nicolette Hahn Niman (a former attorney for Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s Waterkeeper Alliance), oversee a network of 500 family-owned farms and ranches across the country that follow their prescribed animal-husbandry practices.
They also have two ranches of their own, in Bolinas and Chileno Valley, and with help from ranch hand Annie Van Peer, they feed the animals, keep an eye on pregnant cows, and track the cattle on the grassy green hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Bill believes that well-cared-for animals produce better meat, but there's an ethical component to his practices too (see below). Nicolette shares his standards, albeit from a different angle.
"I'm a vegetarian," she says, "so when I'm okay with how this ranch operates and how these animals are treated, I think that's really saying something."
The couple both hail from the Midwest and return there each December to spend Christmas with family. So, most years, they gather with friends before or after the holiday to host a celebration at home. Since they live on a working ranch, their parties are always relaxed and casual.
And because the house is compact, they're also intimate. The breakfast nook doubles as a dining room, so the adults assembled for the day's party ― Paul and Mary Canales (he's executive chef at Oliveto in Oakland; she recently left Chez Panisse to open Ici, an ice cream shop in Berkeley), Ambjorn Lindskog and Andrea Hyde (who run Bistro Elan in Palo Alto, California), and the Nimans ― seem like a large group. But no one at the table would trade the cozy feeling and peaceful view of West Marin hills for extra elbow room.
Being chefs, the guests can't help but contribute to the meal. The centerpiece is Paul's recipe: Niman Ranch beef, naturally, roasted with rosemary and garlic and served with caramelized shallots and walnuts. That's followed by a sweet-potato gratin, and brussels sprouts with Niman Ranch pancetta, courtesy of Ambjorn. The meal is rich and celebratory, and will be capped with Mary's frozen citrus cups ― a fun and refreshing way to end any holiday dinner.
"These ingredients are so good," says Paul as he sets down his fork, "that all they need are simple cooking, good wine, and good company."
Welcome guests with these light snacks made with ingredients available at most specialty food stores.
• Add a generous amount of salt and pepper to ricotta and serve as a spread for halved radishes.
• Top cucumber slices with dollops of crème fraîche and Nova Scotia-style cured salmon. Top with wasabi-flavored whitefish roe (also available from www.tsarnicoulai.com) and/or small sprigs of dill.
• Wrap strips of roasted red pepper around white anchovy fillets and secure with a toothpick.
• Spread soft, creamy blue cheese (like gorgonzola dolce) on thin slices of fig cake.
• Serve crudités (carrot halves, celery sticks, fennel cut into wedges, broccoli and cauliflower crowns ― whatever combination of raw vegetables appeals to you) with fennel salt (grind ½ tsp. fennel seeds in a spice or coffee grinder and mix with 2 tbsp. kosher salt).
In order to sell their meat under the Niman Ranch label, farmers and ranchers must abide by a strict set of sustainable animal-husbandry practices. Niman and the many chefs who buy his meat ― including those at Zuni Café in San Francisco and Lucques in L.A. ― believe these standards are better for the environment and for the animals, and produce better-tasting, better-textured beef, pork, and lamb. Among their practices:
• Sustainable grazing involves limiting the number of cattle, rotating them among pastures, and keeping them from harming rivers and streams.
• No antibiotics are used on animals sold under the Niman Ranch label.
• No hormones or growth-promoting additives are given.
• A later age at slaughter means slower weight gain and more intensely flavored meat.
• Smaller feedlots ensure individual care of the animals and less impact on the surrounding environment.