In Season: Bison
by: ©2008 KAREN SCHUELLER, One of the charges at Rain Shadow El Rancho gets in some good grazing north of Eugene. The ranch’s owners have cultivated a herd of 32 and a solid business in the lean, nutrient-rich meat.

Not so long ago, bison, also known as American buffalo, roamed the continent from northern Canada to Mexico.

The woolly and wild herd animal provided food, shelter, clothing and fuel for American Indians until the late 1800s when unregulated hunting and westward expansion brought the population, once estimated at 60 million, down to less than 1,000.

Today most American bison, with the exception of those in wildlife reserves and reservations across the country, are commercially raised. In Oregon there are several bison ranches including Rain Shadow El Rancho in Scio, an hour north of Eugene.

In the summer of 2001, Joe and Karen Schueller of Southeast Portland bought the 120-acre ranch, and in the spring of 2002 they acquired four bison.

The Schuellers now have 32.

Karen Schueller says: 'Joe grew up on a big farm in Iowa, so he wanted to buy property and raise animals but wanted something different - something that not everybody was doing. That's why he opted to raise bison rather than cattle.'

Cardiologists approve, too

Bison is touted for its rich, sweet flavor, although the meat is leaner than skinned chicken breast and extremely high in vitamins and minerals. In fact, it is the only red meat endorsed by the American Heart Association.

According to Karen Schueller: 'We've actually had people contact us who have had heart problems, whose doctors have told them that they couldn't eat any more red meat. They find out about bison meat and they're overjoyed because they can eat red meat again.'

The Schuellers sell their bison to restaurants and markets throughout the state in various cuts (bison and beef cuts are the same) including steaks, brisket, ribs and chuck. But no matter how you slice it, Karen Schueller has two words of advice for cooking bison: low and slow.

'When you cook bison you have to be careful not to overcook it because it doesn't have the fat marbling that beef does so it cooks faster,' she says. 'Typically we tell people with bison steaks to raise the grill up a bit. And when broiling it, lower the rack a notch to keep it farther away from the heat. The meat can really dry out if it's overcooked.'

In the summer the Schuellers eat a lot of bison steak but in the winter their favorite way to prepare it is to place a bison roast in the Crock-Pot with a marinade and slow-cook it for several hours.

Better keep your distance

Unlike with cattle, sheep or goats, there is very little interaction between commercially raised bison and their ranchers.

Male and female bison have horns, and if the herd is infringed upon the dominant ones will kick or ram the interloper to protect the group. If a bison starts stomping its hoofs or shaking its horns, beware - you've gotten too close. It also should be noted that bison can jump up to 6 feet.

Karen Schueller says: 'When the first babies were being born we called this guy that we know who raises bison and said, 'OK, are we supposed to go out there and help them?' And he laughed and said, 'Not if you value your life.'

'They're wild animals, so typically what happens is when they have their babies they'll go back into the high timber on the ranch and disappear,' she says. 'A few days later they'll come back down and show up with the babies.'

When the Schuellers feed the herd (which grazes on grass and alfalfa hay) they drive down in the hay-filled tractor and drop hay in various areas where the bison then can keep their distance and dig in at leisure.

If you'd like to check out the largest land mammal in North America since the end of the ice age, call and schedule a visit to the ranch.

You can purchase bison meat on-site and, if you're lucky, catch a glimpse of the standoffish herd. The Schuellers also make weekly bison deliveries to Portland's Fife restaurant, Taqueria Nueve and Pastaworks on Hawthorne.

Grilled bison steaks

Serves 4 to 6

• 4 8-ounce buffalo rib-eye steaks

• 1 1/2 teaspoons ancho, California or Chimayo chili powder

• 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin

• 1 teaspoon cracked black pepper

• 1 teaspoon coarse salt

Pat the steaks dry with paper towels.

Mix the chili powder, cumin, pepper and salt in a pie pan.

Press the mixture into each steak, coating both sides.

Heat the grill or broiler. Grill over a hot fire for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, or until the steak is cooked on the outside and rare or medium-rare within.

Be careful not to overcook.

Source: Janie Hibler's 'Wild About Game,' Broadway Books, 1998

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