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Slicing the barbecue budget

Grilling is a Canadian summer staple.

Canada Day is just around the corner and it is the official hallmark of a great Alberta tradition – barbecuing. Who doesn’t love the crisp sizzle of steak on a hot grill during a family cookout?

As provincial recreational activities go, a good beef barbecue ranks right up there with hockey brawls and sex. After all, aren’t we the ones who still drive down the highway sporting “I Love Alberta Beef” bumper stickers?

Barbecuing is more than a tradition handed down to us from cavemen who roasted entire animals on a spit. A barbecue symbolizes freedom from seven months of winter cold and freedom to enjoy summer’s sun-kissed abundance.

It recalls memories of weekends spent around a lake campfire seamlessly blended into weeknights languorously savouring a backyard cookout. Food not only smells better, but it tastes better when served under a blue sky or twinkling stars.

But for some St. Albertans, dreams of this al fresco nirvana have morphed into a luxury as beef prices surge.

Grill-ready tenderloin is priced at $50 per kilogram. T-bone sells in the high $30s and even the tougher marinating sirloin rings in at $20.

“Meat prices, beef specifically, has caught up to all-around increases in prices. We’ve been lagging behind but we’ve caught up to inflation,” said Rich Smith, executive director of Alberta Beef Producers.

Smith along with numerous other beef industry experts say the culprits for high prices are many. The 2003 discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in one of Alberta’s northern herds shut the door to many global markets. Prices plummeted. Farmers and ranchers were forced to cull cattle herds and inventory dropped to an all-time low.

A series of droughts in the southwestern United Sates coupled with high feed costs and the loonie’s swan dive raised prices. In addition, Australia, another major global beef producer, is suffering from droughts and their stock is down.

Smith adds that since the United States and Australia are suffering depressed conditions, Alberta is seeing Asian markets in Japan and Hong Kong increase imports of Canadian beef.

“If the demand stays strong and the supply is limited, and if across North American the numbers of cattle are shrinking, the price will stay high.”

Farmers and ranchers, finally reaping profits they lost in the last decade are starting to reinvest and rebuild herds.

“It takes a few years to increase a herd. You can raise a broiler chicken in six weeks, but with cattle there’s a two to three year lag. You need cows to breed and raise calves and that takes a while.”

He observed that Americans respond to the higher prices by purchasing cheaper steak cuts and ground beef.

“In Canada it’s what people are willing to pay. It’s grilling season and people will pay. They may not be happy, but they will pay.”

Debra Mudryk, a home economist for ATCO’s Blue Flame Kitchen agrees, but adds there is no reason home-style chefs need to stop buying expensive cuts and mixing their secret sauces.

Some of the latest culinary trends advocate serving smaller meat portions to help tone down the pain of high meat costs and shrinking wallets. Most are traditional recipes that have been re-engineered into healthier alternatives.

Mudryk advocates grilling two to three ounce (56 to 85 grams) steaks instead of the traditional six to eight ounce (170 to 226 grams) cuts.

“Take a pound of strip loin or sirloin or flank steak that’s been marinated. Barbecue it and slice it in thin slices diagonally against the grain and serve it on salad or pasta. It’s a wonderfully, light delicious meal. It’s not your traditional meat and potatoes. It’s a lighter, patio meal,” said Mudryk.

Another big trend she says, are satays, strips of thinly marinated and sliced beef woven onto a skewer and grilled for a few minutes.

Kebabs are also a nutritiously tasty indulgence and easy on the budget when alternatively speared with peppers, mushrooms, zucchini, tomatoes and onions.

“Take one of the less expensive cuts such as eye of round, cut it into cubes, marinate it and do it up as shish kebabs. A new way of preparing kebabs combines beef and bison cubes.”

For less expensive cuts, chefs often soak them in an acid-based marinade of wine, lemon juice, beer, soya sauce or yogurt for no more than 24 hours to soften the steak’s tougher muscle fibre.

“But the marinade won’t penetrate a steak completely. Some people like to tenderize the meat and in doing so push the bacteria to the centre of the steak. In that case you need to grill the meat until it’s well done,” cautions Mudryk.

Another strategy to maximize the dollar is paying attention to weekly grocery flyers.

“Look for what’s available. Don’t make up a list at home and expect to find it on sale. It’s rarely there. Check the flyers and see what’s available. For instance, I was out shopping and saw strip loin steaks on sale. I did some calculations and bought them. We barbecued them and I sliced them thinly and served them on pasta.”

Many recipes now encourage a snappy presentation simply by adding dressings, antipastos, flavoured butters, sauces, and homemade mustards and chutneys.

So if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

The Blue Flame Kitchen has roughly 3,000 free downloadable recipes on its website. Visit atcoblueflamekitchen.com/Recipes/.

Beer Marinade

1 can beer
c. chopped onion
c. fresh lime
c. oil
2 tbsp. soy sauce
1 tbsp. chili powder
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. salt
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 bay leaf

Combine all ingredients. Use to marinate beef. Allow beef to marinate for up to 24 hours in refrigerator. Discard marinade after using. Makes 2 cups

Anna Borowiecki: Anna Borowiecki joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2000. She reports on local people and events in the arts, entertainment and food industry. She also writes general news and features.