There's a Western-style cattle ranch with 1,000 acres of pasture less than 100 miles from the Chicago Loop. We're talking Billy Crystal and Bruno Kirby in City Slickers stuff here. The land itself is the ecosystem and living quarters for Quarter Circle Seven Ranch's nearly 600 grass-fed steers. The cattle rotate on the ranch's pastures each day, settling where the grass is good and the sun is least harsh (in the winter they're fed a mixture of wet alfalfa and wheatgrass, which is called haylage). There's a river that runs through the ranch, and when it's not frozen over, it's the water source for the herd. So grass-fed beef, from cattle literally raised on the pasture, sleeping under the stars? Yeah, this is where it's happening. And up until April of this year, nearly nobody in Chicago knew about it.
It was also around April of this year when Dave Rand, now with Q7, left his post as farm forager at Green City Market to reenter the private sector and post up with Frank Morgan, a 58 year old lifelong rancher and Californian who moved to Illinois in the mid-90's and started Q7 Ranch nearly three years ago. Dave calls Frank a true character who was so inspired by books like Omnivore's Dilemma that he set aside the potential business loss of not operating a corn fed cattle ranch. The pride he has to work for the man is clear in the tone he takes when talking about him.
But Dave is a character in his own right, too. In addition to his time at Green City Market, he's worked on an organic heirloom grain farm in Washington and managed a commercial salmon fishing fleet in Bristol Bay, Alaska. If a man could be judged by his dedication to the land, Dave is your model citizen. Today he splits his time between working with Frank on the ranch and growing the marketplace of chefs and retailers, of which Chicago is the lion's share. The beef is available in restaurants such as Old Town Social, along with markets and shops including The Butcher & Larder and City Provisions (see the entire list here). And in November they set up shop at Dose Market—which is how the Q7 Ranch hot dog found its way to my kitchen.
The label on the dog packaging classifies the four wrapped links as "Ranch Select Beef." What Q7 calls select has nothing to do with what the USDA calls select, let alone prime or choice. USDA beef classifications adhere strictly to corn fed cattle. For Q7, Ranch Select Beef simply classifies which of the two different types of cattle are raised on the ranch, which are Corriente (Ranch Select) and Black Angus (Premium Angus). Nearly three-quarters of the Q7 steer are Corriente, which is a smaller breed than the Angus. Angus is obviously in high demand, and mostly goes to restaurants, whereas Q7 is the only ranch in the region to raise the Corriente steer, which is cheaper because it's less known, and largely sold for retail use. The Corriente steer itself has a story worth telling.
The beef in this hot dog is made up of what Dave calls "beef trim." They don't add fat to the ground mixture, which is very lean, because of the quality of beef and attached fat on the beef trim. Any hot dog might have a mixture of ground chuck and round (with the trimmings of the shank), belly and navel meat, rib meat, and sirloin. The casing is an all-natural beef casing, which is a bit thick and gives the link a strong snap. The forcemeat is seasoned with mustard seed and spices, which lends a subtle smokiness and kick. When cooking, Dave says it's the ideal grilling food. He scores the casing before tossing on a super hot grill, and let's the flame char the dog, allowing the skin to crack and curl. With a little brown mustard, ketchup, and homemade pickles, he's a happy guy—though he says Frank likes to butterfly the link and cook it in a skillet.
Grilling season is over in this house, so I when it came time to cook mine I did so in the pan with a little butter over high heat and finished them in the oven. Even with a dried out bun I enjoyed the meat (we topped them with roasted squash, crispy Brussels and leeks, and a smoky aioli). Eventually I peeled away the bread just to get more of the meat, which definitely had a little kick and smokiness like Dave had said, and biting through it was like something in the middle of biting through a tender jerky stick and a sausage. Dave admitted the hot dog isn't like the traditional store bought, but I think that's the point.
Besides at the monthly Dose Market, the hot dog isn't available by retail in Chicago. Q7 offers something called the Beef Sides Program, which operates like a CSA, and supplies its members with proportionate ratios of beef cuts based on the size they order—such as a half steer, quarter, or even an eighth—and hot dogs are often included with that. They're also available online, and are currently selling at $5.79 per pound. That sort of direct sale is what best impacts Q7's bottom line, so I'd encourage anybody to buy through the site. But that doesn't mean Dave won't work with retailers, or even kitchens, to offer the hot dog via Chicago retail. He says if people ask for it, and his customers then request it, he can easily supply that demand. It's just a matter of asking about it.