Between his full-time job as a Director of Clinical Outcomes at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and working in his garden on weekends, Rinol Alaj always finds time to cook a homemade meal for his daughter Sihana and partner Anastassia. “It’s important to eat real food, it is what keeps you healthy” Rinol says while pointing to the jars of homemade fermented vegetables he keeps in his New Jersey apartment. “Sihana and I love meat and Anastassia is a vegetarian so every meal I cook is a variety of flavors and ingredients. I’ve always loved good food” Rinol adds “Growing up in Kosovo, my mom taught me how to cook and she is a master in the kitchen!”
Rinol , Noli to his friends, is a refugee from the war in Kosovo. When he was 15, he and his family were forced to close their business and barricade themselves in their home. “It was a dangerous time. We had enough food to survive but we could not leave to buy more, it was too risky.” Noli recalls. “Albanian food is a lot of stews and a lot of meat. We would slaughter a cow in December and have enough meat to last us through the year. There was no freezer so we would age and preserve the meat by hanging it and cold smoking it with a little pine wood every day. It would take about three weeks to cure it. We would make a pot of white bean stew and eat a slice of cured meat with it, man it was delicious!
We also made beef sausage, we would mix the ground beef, onions, paprika, and red pepper flakes and leave it near the burner on the stove to dry it for a few weeks”
After almost 50 days in the house, there was a knock on the door. “We could see military outside and weren’t sure what they wanted. It was a group of family friends that had come to help us escape to Macedonia. They told us we had 2 hours to pack”. A few months later Noli and his family were given refugee status in Belgium. Noli then moved to the United States with his older brother to attend high school, he had just turned 17. His cousin Rudolfo owned a restaurant in New Jersey. “The day I arrived he took us to buy clothes for the restaurant and told he me I would start working in the next day. I slept in the apartment above the restaurant. I shared it with 4 other refugees. I loved working in my cousin’s restaurant, it made me feel at home. I would hear my cousin arrive early in the morning and I would race down the stairs to help him with all the prep work in the kitchen before I went to school.”
After high school, Noli worked himself through college with chef Zadi Arifi a three-star NY Times restaurant and later at Da Nico restaurant. “I got a great education from Chef Zadi. He taught me how to cook to bring out the best flavor of the ingredients without overpowering it with herbs and spices. This is one reason why I love Pineywoods beef so much, it has such a beautiful flavor on its own and needs very little seasoning. The first time I cooked a Pineywoods roast in my apartment the aroma was amazing, primal!
Having worked in some very fine restaurants in New York City, I have tried my share of beef, including Kobe and Wagyu. Pineywoods beef is as good as any of these high-quality meats. I was a
bit surprised.” Noli admits. “I think the excellent flavor has a lot to do with what Pineywoods eat. I went to visit the farm that I bought from, they have both woods and grass. I watched their Pineywoods
eat bushes and weeds and grass, even parts of the trees!
I have cooked Pineywoods steaks, ribs, roasts and made everything from Moroccan dishes to chili con carne with the ground beef. Every bite has been so delicious! I enjoyed learning about the history of Pineywoods cattle, it’s interesting that they are descendants of Spanish cattle. Like me, they have a history that is beyond America.”
“I wish more people could try Pineywoods meat.” Noli laments. “It’s hard to find. It’s good to see organizations like Pineywoods Cattle Foundation promoting this endangered farm animal. When we have friends over and I tell them the meat I am serving is from a breed of cattle that is threatened with extinction, they look at me like I’m crazy! ‘Why do you buy it!?!’ they ask. I grew up on a farm in Kosovo, I understand that it costs money to raise cattle. I explain to friends that hay and veterinary bills are not free and Pineywoods farmers must sell some of their cattle for beef to help pay for saving the rest of the animals. No farmer can keep animals just to save them from going extinct I tell them, there is a balance, some must be sold either to other farms to breed or as meat. Most of my friends understand this and even those that don’t understand ask for more Pineywoods once they have tasted it, it’s so good man!” Noli laughs.
Noli was kind enough to share his Albanian cured beef sausage recipe with us. We’ve included it for you below:
Pineywoods beef chuck ground beef (about 5 lbs)
onions (about 4 lbs)
freshly ground black pepper
freshly ground paprika
red pepper flakes
Mix the ground meat with finely chopped onions and spices. Stuff into 28-32mm hog casings, making 18" (45 cm) links, and tie with twine.
Ferment at 71-77F, 85-100% relative humidity for about 48 hours in an area with good ventilation, until the meat firms up and turns dark red.
Dry at 59-64F, 75-85% relative humidity for 10-20 days with good ventilation, until target weight loss of about 50%
Optionally, you may smoke the sausage for 12-24 hours during fermentation or drying, ensuring temperature and humidity conditions above are met, to obtain smoky flavor.