I've decided to become a conscious carnivore. It's something I've been mulling for a while, but after reading Michael Pollan's book

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A History of Four Meals

, I found I couldn't stomach the notion that the food I was enjoying had led a miserable life. Since I believe humans are meant to eat meat, and don't plan on becoming a vegetarian, I needed to make some changes in the way I bought food.

As Catherine Friend puts it in her new book,

The Compassionate Carnivore

(Perseus Books), "By admitting we are eating animals, we allow ourselves to feel more compassion for them . . . . Once we open our eyes and connect the dots between a farmer's barn and the burger on our plate, we know we have a responsibility to improve the lives, and deaths, of livestock animals." This makes sense to me.

So I've committed to becoming a consumer of animal protein that, prior to becoming meat, lived a happy enough existence doing what cows, pigs and chickens do - eating grass and living outside in natural conditions, not stacked on top of each other in a hellish, feces-laden setting.

And I'm not alone. Farmer Mark Faille of Simply Grazin' farm in Skillman, N.J., has seen a dramatic increase not only in his sales, but in the questions he's asked by customers and restaurant owners.

"People are demanding local and humanely raised product," he said. "We see people from all economic levels . . . . The change I've seen in just the increase of awareness is overwhelming."

Likewise, Trent Hendricks of Hendricks Farm in Telford said he had seen a steady, regular increase in customers interested in humanely raised beef and poultry.

"It's the health-conscious that are hard-core, that show up every couple of weeks with coolers in hand," Hendricks said. "The gourmands are more hit-and-miss."

My decision fits in with the general direction my food consumption has been going, buying fresh, local and seasonal, and keeping prepared and synthetic food (mostly) out of my kitchen.

OK, so I had a stand: I wanted to buy meat and poultry that is humanely and sustainably raised first, and if possible, locally raised, so my dollars support family farms. Now I needed a plan. What exactly are my shopping options?

Supermarkets.

For the most part, I found I couldn't buy meat or chicken at the typical supermarket. While a few brands promise organic chicken or beef without antibiotics, that doesn't necessarily address the humane factor. The chickens might get organic feed, but that doesn't guarantee they're truly free-range. And since supermarkets buy in bulk, local products are not high on the list of priorities. Two exceptions: Whole Foods and Wegman's. At Whole Foods, high prices deliver, if not necessarily a local product, at least one that meets my overall conscious carnivore criteria. Wegman's also carries beef and chicken from humane certified suppliers; the beef is from Montana, the chickens from Eberly Poultry farm in Stevens, Pa.

Farmers markets.

Now we're talking. Our area has plenty of farmer's markets from which to choose. But I find it's still up to me to ask the questions - has the meat been humanely raised? Do they know the producers, and have they seen the conditions first hand? At Reading Terminal, for instance, Nick Ochs works with local Lancaster farms to sell pasture-raised, corn-finished prime beef and free-range chickens. "That's our niche - we know where all of our meat comes from," he said. Although he doesn't carry 100 percent grass-fed (it's not fatty enough to qualify as prime, which is what Ochs' sells), he can order it.

Clark Park Farmers' Market and the Headhouse Farmers' Market specialize in keeping it local, offering organic produce, artisinal cheeses, grass-fed beef and poultry, and more.

Farms.

This is another option, actually driving the hour it takes to get to Hendricks Farms - the only one I've visited personally - to pick up grass-fed beef, poultry, organic eggs, and milk and the cheese that Hendricks makes himself. Hendricks specializes in dairy, but after life as dairy cows, his herd is processed for ground beef, and he cooperates with a few other local farms to sell humanely raised meats as well. It's an easy ride, and I spent about $270 on meats and poultry - which is lasting a long time. Another option is Simply Grazin' in Skillman, near Princeton. I haven't been there yet, but it's on my radar. (See the accompanying list for other farms.)

What it costs

This conscious-carnivore thing isn't cheap. "Happy" chicken can run as high as $7.99 a pound. A pound of organically raised grass-fed stew beef sells for $8 a pound and the cuts of meat go up from there, with sirloin steaks at $14.25 a pound. And pork chops from pigs that are allowed to roll around in the mud, chomp on acorns, and generally live a good piggy life cost in the neighborhood of $10 a pound.

"Our ground beef is $9.99 a pound," Faille of Simply Grazin' said. "But I can tell you that the beef you purchase comes from one animal, and I know that animal's name, date of birth, sex, and where he was processed. You can't get that for 99 cents a pound."

Faille raises cattle on 220 acres in Skillman and on 200 acres in Hunterdon. He and his fiancee also operate a small retail store that carries organic veal, beef, pork and chicken raised in a chemical-free environment, free-range, pasture-grown, with no growth hormones, antibiotics or steroids. His beef is processed at Bringhurst Meats in Berlin, the only federally inspected, certified organic processor in New Jersey. (His meat products are available at the Collingswood Farmers' Market.)

One way to pare the price is to commit in advance to a share of an animal, an arrangement you can make directly with the farmer.

But generally, it costs more to eat this way - I'd say I'm spending about 25 to 35 percent more a month, but I feel so much better about what I'm buying and serving to my family that it's worth it.

Taste test

As to the taste, there is a difference between corn-fed and grass-fed beef. "Yes, corn-fed is tender and has more marbling," said Bill Kurtis, founder of the Tallgrass Beef Co. in Kansas. "But it also can be bland. Grass-fed beef is the way beef was meant to taste, nutty, slightly sweet and juicy." The flavor of grass-fed beef has improved, as Kurtis and other ranchers have committed to raising heritage breeds such as Black Angus, Red Angus and Hereford, all fed grass for thousands of years.

Because grass-fed has less fat, it's best cooked at lower temperatures, rare to medium-rare, to preserve its natural juices. And because it's leaner, it's also better for you. A six-ounce grass-fed steak has about 100 fewer calories than its grain-fed counterpart. If you are like most Americans, who consume an average of 66.5 pounds of beef a year, switching to grass-fed lets you skip close to 18,000 calories annually. Grass-fed beef is also rich in omega-3s, the "good fats" commonly found in fish, along with another type of potentially good fat called conjugated linoleic acids, or CLAs.

I have yet to taste locally raised pork, but I can attest to the delicious, juicy flavor of the truly free-range chickens I bought at Hendricks, which are also notable for their lack of the pockets of yellow fat you find in a supermarket bird.

The bottom line? I spend more time thinking about where I buy my food, and spend more money and more time buying it. We entertain a lot, and I predict that, since the days of throwing a pile of (cheap) chicken on the grill are over, I'll be serving more plant- and grain-based main dishes, and eating less meat. In fact, we're eating less meat in general, and more wild-caught fish.

But while becoming a conscious carnivore hasn't been easy, I feel as if, in my own small way, I'm making a difference. And I feel pretty good about that.

Asian Beef Pot Roast

Makes 4 to 6 servings

2 pounds boneless grass-fed beef chuck roast

1 tablespoon oil

1 medium onion, chopped

2 carrots, chopped

1 green bell pepper, chopped

6 ounces mushrooms, wiped clean and cut in half

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 (1-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced

2 cans (28 ounces) whole tomatoes

2 tablespoons oyster sauce

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

2 teaspoons Chinese

five-spice powder

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds

1.

In a 5-quart heavy pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking. Brown roast on all sides.

2.

Transfer meat to a plate and pour off all but a tablespoon of fat.

3.

Return pot to heat and add onion, carrots, bell pepper and mushrooms. Cook over moderate heat, stirring, about 5 minutes.

4.

Add garlic and ginger and cook, stirring, 1 minute, until fragrant. Stir in tomatoes, oyster sauce, red pepper flakes, and Chinese five-spice powder.

5.

Bring mixture to a boil. Add meat and simmer, covered, turning roast over halfway through cooking time, for about 3 hours or until meat is tender.

6.

Let meat stand about 10 minutes before slicing. Cut crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick slices and arrange on a platter. Spoon vegetables and sauce over meat and garnish with cilantro and toasted sesame seeds.

- Whole Foods Market

Per serving (based on 6):

470 calories, 32 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 32 grams fat, 103 milligrams cholesterol, 518 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber

Chicken with Olives, Orange and Sherry

Makes 4 servings

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 43/4-pound chicken, cut into 8 pieces

1 cup sliced shallots (about 3 large)

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 cup medium sherry

1 cup low-salt chicken broth

1 orange, halved lengthwise, each half cut into 5 wedges

1/3 cup brine-cured green olives (such as picholine)

1 tablespoon honey

1.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

2.

Heat oil in large ovenproof skillet over high heat. Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper. Add chicken to skillet; cook until skin is crisp and browned, about 6 minutes per side. Transfer chicken to plate.

3.

Reduce heat to medium-high. Drain all but 2 tablespoons drippings from skillet. Add shallots; stir until soft and beginning to brown, about 2 minutes. Add garlic; stir 30 seconds. Add sherry; boil until reduced by half, scraping up browned bits, about 3 minutes. Add chicken broth; bring to boil.

4.

Return chicken, skin side up, to skillet. Place orange wedges and olives among chicken pieces. Transfer to oven and braise uncovered until chicken is cooked through, about 20 minutes.

5.

Transfer chicken to platter. Bring sauce to boil over high heat. Stir in honey; boil until thickened, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Pour sauce, oranges, and olives over chicken, or return chicken to skillet and serve.

Per serving:

711 calories, 44 grams protein, 21 grams carbohydrates, 11 grams sugar, 42 grams fat, 170 milligrams cholesterol, 358 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber

Grilled Lime-Marinated Flank Steak With Chipotle Honey Sauce

Makes 8 servings

21/2 pounds grass-fed flank steak

1 canned chipotle chile

2 garlic cloves, chopped

1 tablespoon cilantro, chopped

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice (about 4 limes)

For the sauce:

3 canned chipotles, pureed

1/4 cup honey

2 teaspoons peanut oil

2 tablespoons balsamic

vinegar

2 tablespoons brown mustard

2/3 cup freshly squeezed lime juice (about 5-6 limes)

2 garlic cloves

1 teaspoon cumin

Cilantro (optional)

Salt and pepper

1.

Place the steak in large dish or baking pan.

2.

Mix together the chipotle, garlic, cilantro, vegetable oil and lime juice in a bowl and pour over the steak. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for 4-6 hours, turning occasionally.

3.

Make the sauce: Combine the chipotles, honey, peanut oil, vinegar, mustard, lime juice, garlic and cumin in a blender or food processor and puree until smooth. Stir in the cilantro (optional) and season with salt and pepper to taste.

4.

Remove the steak from the marinade and season with salt and pepper. Grill over high heat for about 5 minutes on each side for medium rare. Remove the steak from the grill and let it rest for about 4 minutes.

5.

With a sharp knife, thinly slice the steak across the grain, at a sharp angle.

6.

Serve the steak on top of a slice of French bread and accompany each serving with a few tablespoons of sauce.

Per serving:

303 calories, 32 grams protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 14 grams fat, 58 milligrams cholesterol, 146 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber