Nothing says “yum!” like a bit of nomenclatural confusion — especially with a side of near extinction.
But that’s what you get once you venture down the culinary path with bison, an alternative red meat that is showing up at more and more grocers nationwide.
And these massive shaggy creatures are such a delicious — and good for us — meat, it’s worth sorting it all out.
So let’s start with the name. The critter you know as the American buffalo (yes, of rolling plains and Native American fame) really isn’t a buffalo at all.
Turns out there are only a few types of buffalo in the world (including the Asian water buffalo and African Cape buffalo). The American buffalo (technically bison) is more closely related to your run-of-the-mill cow. Yet people tend to use the terms interchangeably and we’re not going to get too bent out of shape over it.
Bison were once hunted to near extinction. But they’ve made a pretty good turnaround and these days are raised primarily for consumption.
Why do you care? Because bison meat, which is raised without hormones or antibiotics, can be incredibly tender and flavorful, with a sweet, rich beefy flavor.
It also happens to be amazingly lean, packing fewer calories and less fat than beef and even skinless chicken.
That low-fat profile comes with a price, however. Like any lean meat, bison has a tendency to cook quickly. So quickly that it’s easy to overcook it.
And that is why bison has a reputation for being tough. It isn’t. If you have bison that is tough, that just means it was overcooked.
Though bison is available in most of the same cuts as traditional beef, the most common varieties at grocers are ground and steaks. We’ll stick with those.
You can use bison much as you would beef. The trick is to modify the cooking method (rather than the flavors or other ingredients) to account for the leanness.
When cooking ground bison, it’s best to work in some sort of liquid flavor to keep the meat moist. This might mean eggs or tomato paste for a meatloaf, or some sort of pan sauce or gravy if you are browning it in a skillet. That also makes it ideal for meatballs simmered in sauce or for using in chili.
For bison steaks, think fast and furious. Season them, then pop them under the broiler or on the grill for just a few minutes per side.
Seared Bison With Sage and Gnocchi
Start to finish: 15 minutes
1 pound package gnocchi pasta
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
Pinch red pepper flakes
1½ pounds bison steak, thinly sliced across the grain
¼ cup chopped fresh sage
½ cup grated Parmesan
Salt and ground black pepper
Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the gnocchi and cook according to package directions. Reserve ¼ cup of the cooking water, then drain the gnocchi and set aside.
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat the oil. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes. Sauté the garlic for 30 seconds.
Add the steak and sear on each side for about 1 minute. Don’t crowd the pan or the steak with steam rather than sear. If needed, work in batches.
Once the steak is seared, add the sage and cooked gnocchi. Cook for 30 seconds, then add the Parmesan. Toss once, then season with salt and pepper.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 360 calories; 90 calories from fat (26 percent of total calories); 10 g fat (4 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 80 mg cholesterol; 32 g carbohydrate; 34 g protein; 2 g fiber; 640 mg sodium.
J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He is the author of the recent cookbook High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking. He also blogs at LunchBoxBlues.com.