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Grassfed Texas yaks are a healthy alternative to beef

Raised in Weatherford, meat from this Himalayan cousin to cattle is available at Hudson's on the Bend, Cedar Park farmers' market.

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com

Weatherford is a long way from Tibet.

But outside the North Texas town about 30 miles west of Fort Worth best known for growing peaches, you'll find a herd of long-haired yaks that look like they could have been plucked straight from the vast, cold plateau of Tibet, on the northern edge of the Himalayas.

For more than 10 years, Robert Payne has been raising yak on a ranch near Weatherford, and for the past year, his niece Alicia, who lives in Pflugerville, has been selling more than a dozen cuts of the grass-fed meat at the Cedar Park Farms to Market farmers' market and to local restaurants like Hudson's on the Bend. (The Cedar Park Farms to Market is open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays in the Lakeline Mall parking lot, between Dillard's and Sears.)

"I call him the yak whisperer," she said of her uncle last week during a visit to the ranch. "He never has to use cattle prods to get them to go where he wants them. He just points and they go."

Robert Payne's herd has grown to about 100 yaks, all with thick, coarse hair as rough as their horns. Yaks come from a part of the world that is much colder than Texas, but like polar bears at a zoo thousands of miles from the Arctic Circle, they adapt to their environment. Access to water and shade is key to keeping the animals cool during the hot Texas summers, Alicia Payne says, and during the really hot days, her uncle turns on large sprinklers to help keep the yaks even cooler.

Every week, Alicia Payne either meets her uncle halfway, in Waco, to pick up coolers full of meat or she makes the almost four-hour drive up to Weatherford to help out with the animals and check in on Baby, a 2-year-old yak that she bottle-fed after the calf's mother wouldn't let her nurse.

Although related to cattle, yak produces a lean red meat that is lower in fat and cholesterol than beef, and higher in omega-3 fatty acids. It even has fewer calories per serving than chicken breast and less fat than salmon, Payne says.

Hudson's on the Bend executive chef Kelly Casey says that the meat tastes similar to grassfed beef, but that it is definitely a more delicate flavor. For about a month now, she's been serving chicken-fried yak and yak tartare made with Payne's meat at the legendary restaurant off RM 620 that has a history of serving unique meats, including antelope and rattlesnake.

"The grassfed meat is so good that the tartare is a good way to highlight the quality of the meat," Casey says of the dish made from minced raw meat.

Because the meat is so lean, it dries out easily, so Payne suggests cooking steaks from their frozen state. Sear it over a hot pan twice on each side, once to thaw it quickly and another time to cook it. Casey says that this is a good technique, especially with thin cuts of meat, to get a slight char on the outside but have a rare or medium-rare temperature in the center. For roasts, you'll have to cook the yak meat longer than you would beef because of the lack of fat to tenderize the meat.

Another interesting note about yak meat: Even though yak and cattle are both bovines, Payne says that she has customers allergic to beef who can eat yak meat without incident. (She says she even sells yak bones to one customer whose dog is allergic to cow bones.)

Genia Collard of Cedar Park has been a fan of yak meat since she first bought a pound of patties a year ago. "We are hooked for life," she says. "Yak meat takes up one whole shelf of my freezer now." She and her husband, Mel, eat yak meat at least twice a week in everything from meatloaf to fajitas. "It's not only the flavor, but it's the smell of it cooking. It's just the most wonderful thing."

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504

Yak Lasagna

1 lb. ground yak

1/4 lb. ground beef

1/4 lb. ground turkey

1/2 medium onion, diced

1 fully cooked Italian sausage, diced

1/2 cup pepperoni, diced

2 24-oz. jars Newman's Own tomato and basil bombolina sauce

1 can (14.5 oz.) Italian diced tomatoes

2 tsp. Italian seasoning

1 12-oz. box oven-ready lasagna noodles

3 cups Colby Jack cheese, shredded

3 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded

11/2 cups (about 12 oz.) large curd cottage cheese

1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, shredded

Salt and pepper, to taste

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook yak, beef, turkey and onion until meat has browned. Add Italian sausage and simmer for about 10 minutes. Don't drain any of the juice or fat.

In a large pot, add meat mixture, pepperoni, sauce and diced tomatoes with Italian seasoning. Simmer on low heat at least 1 hour to fully incorporate the flavors.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a 9-inch-by-13-inch pan, layer a small amount of sauce on bottom. Add layer of noodles and allow to overlap a little. Add layer of meat mixture, then a layer of each cheese and salt and pepper. Repeat layers, except don't use cottage cheese on the top layer. Cover with foil and bake for 1 hour. Let rest at least 10 minutes before serving.

— Adapted from a recipe by Mel Collard

Chicken-Fried Yak

1 cup all-purpose flour

11/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. pepper

2 whole eggs, beaten

1 lb. yak sirloin, trimmed of excess fat

1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

3 Tbsp. vegetable oil

11/4 cups chicken broth

1/2 cup whole milk

Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Place flour, salt and pepper in a pie plate and whisk to combine. Place eggs into a separate pie pan and set aside.

Using a meat mallet or tenderizer, pound out the steak until it is between 1/4-inch and 1/2-inch thick. Cut steak in half to create two half-portions. Dredge meat on both sides in the flour, then the egg and finally in the flour again. Repeat with other steak, and make sure the surface of the meat is well covered.

In a large heavy-bottom skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Once the oil begins to shimmer, add the meat and cook each piece on both sides until golden brown, approximately 4 minutes per side. (To keep crust intact, use meat tongs to flip the meat.) Once the meat has finished cooking, place in the preheated oven to stay warm while you make the gravy.

Turn heat down to medium. In the skillets, whisk 3 tablespoons of flour left over from the dredging in with the leftover fat. Add chicken broth and deglaze the pan, scraping the bits of meat and flour that are stuck on the bottom. Continue whisking until gravy starts to thicken. Add the milk and whisk until the gravy coats the back of a spoon, about five minutes. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste, if needed.

Serve gravy over the steaks. Serves 2.

— Addie Broyles