A hunt for the perfect steak finds Idaho chefs dishing up delicious new takes on beef and potatoes.
The sun dipped toward snow-dusted peaks and my belly growled as I entered Rupert's Restaurant at Hotel McCall in McCall, Idaho, one evening this past spring. In the kitchen was Gary Kucy, a 2013 James Beard Award semifinalist for best Northwest chef, and I was thinking steak. Specifically, sirloin, a cut taken from the hip between the butt and the soft part of the back called the short loin, sourced from Panther Ranch near Donnelly and done up fine with balsamic-shallot sauce and a creamy cloud of mashed Idaho potatoes. I'd been dreaming of it for weeks.
To most of the outside world, Idaho may seem a ho-hum culinary destination, a meat-and-potatoes place both literally and figuratively, where cattle and taters are surpassed only by dairy as the top agricultural product. Its potatoes, primarily large russets, are famous, as Idaho license plates proudly declare. But the state's reputation as prime cattle country is less well known. In fact, superpremium Idaho beef, lauded as some of the best in the United States by food writers and meat connoisseurs, can top out at $100 per pound for filet mignon, the tenderest cut of the short loin and still the highest standard for restaurant steak. I'd come to Idaho to learn what all the fuss was about and search for beef nirvana, close to the source and with a side of spuds.
The best beef is steak, or so I thought. So I was less than pleased when Kucy himself delivered the bad news at Rupert's. "We're out of the Panther Ranch steak," he said, then at once offered a consolation prize. It was Thursday, the day he cooks a Thai dish, and he had made a beef-and-potato curry using the chunks left after carving his Panther Ranch sirloin tip roast into steaks. And what a fabulous consolation it was, a velvety reduction of beef stock and coconut milk coating tender diced potatoes and fall-apart meat infused with spices, ginger, and garlic from a slow braise. Eating it, I realized I'd have to rethink Idaho beef and potatoes.
Idaho farmers have been doing some rethinking as well. On his organic farm in the Magic Valley, Mike Heath walked me through recently planted fields where foliage from 13 potato varieties was just starting to push through the dirt, evidence of his decision to go beyond the familiar russet. "The old volcanic soils, plus warm days, cool nights, and plenty of water—that's what makes for great Idaho potatoes," he said, presenting me with a sampler bag of specimens utterly unlike your standard supermarket spud. They reminded me of knobby jewels in shades of gold, red, amethyst, and white. Once cooked, he said, each variety would display its distinctive texture and flavor—from creamy to fluffy, starchy to slightly sweet.
The state's beef is varied, too. Nearly all of Idaho's 2.2 million head of beef spend part of their early life grazing on grass; after that period, there are choices. The vast majority go on a grain-based diet in commercial feedlots to quickly add bulk, a marbling of fat, and a uniform taste. The longer they bulk up, the richer their flavor becomes. A small fraction of Idaho's herd—no one knows exactly how much—lives entirely on grass, and their flavor depends largely on its qualities. It's like a wine's terroir, but with a moo.
"We're grass farmers first and cattlemen after that," said Bill Gale, a partner in Idaho's Homestead Natural Foods, a team of three family-owned ranches that raise 100 percent grass-fed cattle. Stretching away from the back deck of his ranch in Middleton, lush pastures grew thick with a dozen different grasses almost ready for his herd to graze until as late as mid-October. The cattle had spent the winter eating stored alfalfa hay and grass silage—chopped and lightly fermented plants. Gale runs a herd of cattle crossed with the Australian breed Murray Grey, a mix that he believes is more efficient at converting grass to meat. Even so, it can take up to 30 months for his steers to develop market-ready bulk and flavor, compared to the 16 months or less typically needed in some feedlots. "Idaho grass-fed beef is some of the best-tasting beef in the country," he said, "because the mineral content of Northwest soil produces great grass."
For a taste, Gale sent me to the Modern Hotel and Bar in Boise. Sitting at the translucent curved bar, I perused the menu. No steak. But the rich, braised Homestead ragout of oxtail—which comes from cattle, not oxen—proved a fine substitute, atop rigatoni and with a side order of Idaho potato gnocchi tossed with local mushrooms, ramps, and green garlic pesto. With dishes like these, I thought, who needs steak?
And then I finally found some. At Della Mano in Ketchum, Taite Pearson, another 2013 James Beard Award nominee for best Northwest chef, offered a New York strip steak—a tender neighbor to the filet mignon—from Teton Waters Ranch in Tetonia, which raises Red and Black Angus cattle breeds exclusively on grass. The steak arrived at the table deeply browned and still sizzling on a bed of sautéed local artichoke hearts, ramps, dandelion greens, and flageolet beans. It was stunning: Yielding in texture and full of clean, bold, and long-lingering meat flavors, the entrée was so perfectly paired with the vegetables that I didn't miss the potatoes.
Then, at CK's Real Food in Hailey, I was equally stunned by a flat iron steak cut from the shoulder of a Snake River Farms steer, a cross between the Black Angus and Japanese Wagyu breeds that is fattened for upwards of 28 months on a diet that includes corn, wheat, and Idaho potatoes. Paired with a lightly dressed watercress–blue cheese salad and a ramekin of Mike Heath's potatoes au gratin, the steak (my most expensive meal at $39) practically melted when cut and had a silken texture, buttery mouthfeel, and mild, almost toasty roundness of flavor. It was delicious, and utterly different from the Teton Waters Ranch steak. You'd swear the two came from different species.
Which was better? Depends on who's dining. In Idaho you can decide for yourself.
Photography by Shawn Linehan
This article was first published in November 2013. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.