Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Absolutely Offal

Here's a gallery of innards, what we did with the kidneys, liver, heart, and tongue of our Sheepy Hollow lamb.

Deviled kidneys after
Fergus Henderson:

You cut the kidneys open, snip out the bit of gristle, toss them in flour seasoned with dry mustard, cayenne (or espelette), salt and pepper. Fry in butter, splash in some chicken stock and Worchestershire, serve on toast. A little cress salad (bought, not foraged), cool and crisp, made a nice counterpoint.

This was really pretty good. If you don't eat offal on a regular basis--and we don't--there are textures and...aromas, let's say, that are unfamiliar and not necessarily appealing, at first blush. Mary and I both started in a little tentatively, trying to decide if this was delicious, repulsive, or something in between. Our final verdict: Much closer to the delicious end. We cleaned our plates. We could have eaten more.

Next up, my own interpretation of Leopold Bloom's "liverslices fried with crustcrumbs":

I soaked the slices of liver in milk for a while. I seasoned with salt and pepper, dredged in flour, dipped in egg, coated with crumbs. Fried the slices in butter until the crumb crust was brown. To accompany, I just sautéed some red onions from the market and a bit of celery (from California) briefly, leaving it all nice and crisp, the onions sweet, the celery savory. I was pleased with the presentation, but...I just don't like liver that much. There's something unrelenting about both the flavor and texture of liver that's off-putting for me.

That said, there are some kinds of liver I do enjoy:

I found some foie gras from
Au Bon Canard in the freezer, go figure. Seared and served with a dried apple-maple-vanilla compote, pretty good.

Our final offal offering was prepared a few nights later. We had some friends over for dinner, and as a starter we served an assiette of braised lamb tongue and stuffed, roasted heart (another of Bloom's favorites).

The tongue and the heart both are hard-working muscles--I'm thinking there should be something witty or trenchant to say about that physiological fact, but I'll let it go.

The tongue and the heart both are hard-working muscles, so they need a lot of cooking to become tender. The tongue was simmered in chicken stock with some garlic and thyme for a couple of hours. The heart I stuffed with breadcrumbs sautéed in butter with onions and garlic, moistened with red wine. Drape a couple slices of bacon over top, roast-braise with some chicken stock for a couple of hours.

For the sauce I combined the cooking stock from both, added some white wine, reduced. I served slices of the heart and tongue over a slick of this rich reduction, rained some chopped cornichons (our garden cukes) and some parsley over top. Being muscles, the heart and tongue tasted more like meat, less like innards. And they were good, but after our recent experiments with the edgier offal, also somewhat less interesting.

So there you have it. I wouldn't go out of my way to add any old offal to the menu. I would do kidneys again--our friend Jean-Louis, who shared the heart and tongue assiette with us, said that they're great on the grill. I would cook up another tongue, a bigger one. Heart, sure, I would give it another go.

On a trip in western France a few years ago, through the Sarthe region around LeMans, then through Normandy and into Brittany, I made it a point to try various kinds of offal. I had foie gras every chance I got, of course, and headcheese, marrow bones, veal kidneys. (About three days into a trip to France, we always notice that we've acquired "the breath of the carnivore," a ripe, carrion-like tinge in our exhalations; and we so eat salads for lunch for a couple of days.)

My biggest challenge came when I ordered "marmite de tripes Normandes," the symbolic dish of the region--tripe cooked a long time in a cocotte with vegetables. They brought the little dutch oven to the table, and ceremoniously removed the lid. As the fragrant heat rose up I leaned in to appreciate it with rich anticipation, and as the curling tendrils of steam reached my nose, my reaction was: Whoa! I think I'd like that better without the diaper! Which reaction I luckily refrained from expressing, just nodded and weakly smiled, instead, and wondered if there was a pizza joint in Domfront that might be open late....

But after that initial aromatic rush subsided, and I took a portion of tripe and vegetables on my plate, I found that it was quite to my liking, the broth rich and deeply restorative, the vegetables sweet, the tripe itself tender and satisfying, a bit like tete de veau, long-simmered veal head, a dish I love.

Expectations surely go a long way toward determining whether one is going to like a particular dish. In areas where tripe is commonly consumed, tripe is adored--Normandy, Rome, Mexico, even Philadelphia. Even with the current, somewhat faddish, appreciation of nose-to-tail eating, I don't think we're about to become a country of kidney-scarfers. I'm not a total convert to offal gastronomy, but I enjoyed our experiments with lamb innards, and I learned a lot from them. In future I'll take my offal where I find it, and be glad for the opportunity.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw


el said...

I am very glad you've documented your trepidations, Brett, especially in re: the funk scent of much cooked offal. Think about it: most predators go for the guts, quite literally, when they hunt and kill their prey: would that they could light up a fire and give something a bit of a toast but they can't. Most of the nutrition quite frankly is found in the insides, not the muscles, of an animal, and it's not lost on any animal.

My daughter and I were recently watching an episode of Two Fat Ladies where they were making a bunch of kidneys for breakfast, slicing through each one on the half and expertly pulling the little white membrane. "Do kidneys taste good?" my daughter asked and I admitted they're an acquired taste. "Sometimes," I demurred, thinking silently to myself "not in my kitchen."

I think about that a lot: did my mother's overcooked liver put me off it for the rest of my life? Her overcooked porkchops sure did until I cooked my own and was amazed...but then again that's flesh. I do order foie gras from the one place here that serves it (from your same source, if you can believe it) but...there is something awful about offal if you're an American. (There! I admitted it! I'm an innards snob!)

bon appetit

Unknown said...

What a wonderful blog. I'm so happy I've stumbled upon you. I'll be a regular visitor. You can be sure of that. I'm very excited about your writing.
Charlie Leck

Teresa Marrone said...

Well, Brett, I have to admit that the few times I've eaten offal (in France and Italy), I have never gotten past the scent and the tang of excretions. In particular, I remember the scent that rises when I've been gutting a deer (or worse, an antelope... really funky) and even though I've tried to eat the kidneys and other offal from the game, I just can't get that scent out of my mind. (Same thing happens when I try to eat raccoon--which, in my sideline as a wild-game cookbook author, I've done many times--I can't get the smell of the raccoon musk out of my head. But I digress.)

Remember that Star Trek where Lwaxana Troi explains that years ago, it was fashionable for women of her planet to wear elaborate hats containing a small caged animal, and that finally one brave woman said, "Not only is this hat uncomfortable but it's cruel to the animal" and she refused to wear the hat. Soon, other women followed, and the fad died away. Have to admit that I feel pretty much the same about eating offal... even though à la minute chefs are serving offal to swooning customers, I have to say that I'm going to buck the trend and just admit that I don't like them!

I shall leave the animal disjecta membra to you and others who seem to tolerate, if not outright enjoy, them! Good for you for trying though. Keep the faith.

Wendy Berrell said...

Saw a book the other day in Paperback Book Palace: Unmentionable Cuisine. Worth checking out. Right in line here. Good stuff.

Trout Caviar said...

This is a really interesting topic, the offal question; thanks to you all for contributing to the discussion.

El, you're quite right about the nutritional aspects of offal, I think--didn't they used to serve liver to the ailing, for instance? When I was a kid my father enjoyed liver and onions, but the rest of us were excused. He also loved marrow bones, which were also too weird for us amateurs, but maybe I'm channeling his appetite now! I'm glad you've been able to try that great MN foie gras. I still can't quite believe that it's being produced here. The "by-products," the legs and magrets of those fat ducks, are fantastic, as well.

Teresa, I totally understand your POV. Try as I might, I can't muster up the macho of the "weird foods" enthusiast. I'm just a food enthusiast who has eaten a lot of weird stuff over the years (duck tongues in a Sichuan hot-pot in Chengdu always comes first to mind...). It did seem that offal eating was on the way out, in part because factory farming has made prime cuts so much cheaper, don't you think? So in part, at least (leaving out the machismo part), nose-to-tail eating could be seen as part of an ethic that wants to see everything used. And in part it's a fad, and it all gets mixed up and confused because, well, this is still America in the 21st century, isn't it? Many parts of the local-foods, whole foods "movement" are at least at little atavistic--but is there anything wrong with that? I don't think there's necessarily anything noble about killing your own meat, but I do think it is important to face what's involved, if you do eat meat, and maybe at least looking at the innards is one way to do that. Obviously you have done that, and then some! But a lot of people think that meat's natural form is chops on a styofoam tray wrapped in plastic. (And you know, oddly, I don't think I've seen that Star Trek episode--was that from the original series?)

And Charlie, well, I have you and Anne to thank for being able to undertake these offal trials! Anne sits unassumingly in her corner of the market every Saturday during the season, reading a book or studying to become a service dog handler, and behind her is a trailer full of some of the finest meat you can find. I'm just so happy to be one of the lucky ones who's in on the secret!

Wendy, I'll look for that book. Thanks for the tip.

Thanks for writing, everyone~ Brett

Teresa Marrone said...

Hi Brett--

I have Unmentionable Cuisine and will gladly lend it to you... it's very interesting reading. Yes, I agree that the current focus on nose-to-tail eating is a good thing in the sense of using the entire animal (and therefore respecting the life of said animal)... however, I will leave my share of karma for offal-eating to someone who enjoys it.

Lwaxana Troi was not in the original series of Star Trek! It's Next Generation. The episode is the one where she falls in love with a guy who is turning 60 (very well played by David Ogden Stiers, of MASH fame), and on his planet, everyone who is 60 commits ritual suicide to save their family from having to take care of them in their dotage (and also to conserve the planet's natural resources, which were imperilled at the time the death-at-60 tradition was started). Quite a good episode, actually.