|Deciphering the Menu: Offal|
Are you tired of the traditional flavors and textures in cuts of meat such as pork tenderloin or lamb chops? Is your palate bored with typical chicken breasts, legs and thighs? If you are looking for an array of new flavors and textures, venture to what butchers refer to as the fifth quarter: offal, which include animal organs as well as tail, feet and tongue.For many years, American restaurants shied away from serving innards. They are popular globally but lost appeal in the United States after World War II due to the increased availability of cuts of meat that were easier and quicker to prepare. However, there has been a “generational switch,” according to Chris Cosentino, head chef of Incanto in San Francisco and offal enthusiast. “People are opening their minds and young chefs are trying to preserve the history and techniques of cooking offal. But, they present it to people in a new and exciting way.” Cosentino practices what he calls “sustainable eating”— cooking every part of the animal to be less wasteful and more economical. So if you do get up the nerve to chow down on some glands or genitals, here’s what you need to know to have a pleasant anatomical experience.
Chef Cosentino has got guts
Belly – Eaters from Europe to Asia have no problem stomaching it, especially if it’s pork. Even timid American carnivores have probably eaten cured and smoked pork belly—it’s called bacon! However, it is best when braised in a stock or sauce, followed by some pan-frying or a quick pop in the oven to achieve a crispy crust that contrasts with the belly’s tender interior. Pork belly often has as much fat as meat, which equals a rich and juicy flavor that some believe is far superior to that of a typical chop.
Bone Marrow – Hungry patrons may feel like dogs when devouring this dish: bones are roasted and the grayish, custard-like marrow in the hollow center is meant to be spooned out and spread on bread like butter or stinky, runny cheese. It is meaty, yet creamy, and is often paired with a red-wine reduction sauce to complement its insanely rich flavor. It is popping up on more and more menus nation-wide. Bone marrow may also be used for stock.
Brain – The texture is creamy and when prepared correctly, brains actually have a mildly earthy flavor. Certain dishes use the brain subtly, such as the lamb’s brain ravioli at Babbo in New York. Others, especially ones from Asia, are more palpable. For example, Minangasli, an Indonesian restaurant in Queens, N.Y., serves straight-up beef brain. It is not disguised, only complemented with coconut milk.
Cheek – European and Asian cultures aren’t the only communities that grin wide for this. Texans, who are known for smoking whole cows to make their famous barbecue beef dishes, also cook with this part of the face. Cheeks are similar to other muscles: they are meaty, succulent and taste great braised. Fish cheeks can even be fried. It’s a safe bet that most have eaten cheek in pasta sauces. Veal cheeks,which are more tender than those of beef, can be ground to make ragu. Guanciale, which is cured pig cheeks, are used to infuse flavor in both Carbonara, an egg-based sauce, and Amatriciana, a spicy tomato sauce. Mexican barbacoa also often calls for beef cheeks because they easily soak up seasoning and sauces the way ribs do.
Cocks Combs – The “fleshy growth” on the top of turkey, pheasant or chicken head, according to Larousse Gastronomique. Basically, it’s the spiky, red Mohawk easily noticed on roosters. When braised well they soak up juices and are very tender.
Feet – Don’t worry, they don’t smell like sweaty socks and sneakers. Poultry feet are commonly used in Asian cooking, especially for Dim Sum, and slathered in sauce. If you are turned off by feet, steer clear of this, for it is easily identifiable as a bony body part with claws. They are usually floppy, and at their worst they are squid-like. At their best they taste rich with familiar chicken or duck flavors. There is no neat way to eat bird feet: nibble around the bones, munch on the toes and make sure to spit out the claws. However, pig feet are usually served boneless and epitomize decadent fat. Pickled pig’s feet are delicacies in the American South, Germany and Ireland. An additional bonus of pig’s feet is their high level of collagen,which cleanses the pores and reduces the effects of aging on skin. Hakata Tonton, a self-described “Japanese soul food” restaurant in New York, incorporates pig’s feet into most menu items: they are sliced in deep-fried spring rolls, grilled as an entrée and stewed in broth. “Lots of restaurants throw away pigs’ feet, but we wanted to experiment with using them in many dishes,” said manager Yuriko Miyake.
A stewed pig' s foot dish at Hakata Tonton
Heart – Even if an animal was filled with love, the heart is the leanest muscle. It should be tender and chewy. It can be pan-fried, grilled or used as the basis for soups and stocks. Haggis, a traditional Scottish dish, is a combination of sheep’s heart and other intestines that are minced, stuffed either in a casing or the animal’s stomach, and then boiled. Grilled chicken hearts are often served at Brazilian, Middle Eastern or Japanese yakitori restaurants.
Kidney – Like most animal parts, they are best when served tender, yet firm, and terrible when tough. They are common in restaurants from Europe to Asia. Veal and lamb kidneys are the more popular variety due to their mild flavor. When not prepared correctly, or when spoiled, kidneys can smell like urine. Steak and kidney pie is a classic dish in Britain. It can be found in the United States at Matt Murphy’s Pub in Brookline, Mass.
Liver – Preparations can differ vastly. Sautéed or pan-fried beef, chicken or pork liver and onions is a traditional and simple European and American dish. It is best crispy on the outside and smooth and tender on the inside. When over-cooked, it can taste like leather. Jewish delis offer chopped liver, which is a spread made by sautéing liver and onions in rendered animal fat with hard-boiled eggs and seasonings. It is lumpy, gray and has a strong smell that takes some getting used to. It is also very high in fat and cholesterol, but also high in protein on a positive note. Barney Greengrass in New York has been lauded for its chopped liver, which is smooth with little chunks of onions and egg. Gary Greengrass, the manager and grandson of the restaurant’s founder and namesake, said the chopped liver gets its deep flavor from being cooked in schmaltz, which is chicken fat.
Foie gras – A French delicacy that is arguably the most coveted form of liver. It is from ducks or geese that have been fattened by force-feeding. The force-feeding process is controversial and opposed by animal-rights activists. However, they may rethink their calls for a foie gras ban if they try this buttery, boldly flavored spread in the form of a mousse, parfait or pate on slices of toasted baguette.
Lungs – The U.S. Department of Agriculture banned restaurants from serving lungs in 1972 because chefs were using them as undisclosed filler ingredients, according to Cosentino. However, in Italy, lungs are known as pulmones and are often served in “killer, tasty sandwiches,” Cosentino said. Some Italian-American delis, such as Ferdinando’s Focacceria in Brooklyn, serve a modified version of these sandwiches using spleen instead of lung.
Sweetbreads – This term refers to either the thymus gland or the pancreas of a calf. Sweetbreads are a great introduction to offal. Whether they are fried or sautéed, they should have a crispy thin crust and a soft interior with the juiciness of any tasty, fatty food. However, they are also delicate with a nutty flavor.
Tail –Soul food chefs of the American South and the Caribbean chase it. Oxtail is best used in stews and soups. It has a bold, beefy flavor and smooth texture similar to short ribs.
Testicles – We’ll be mature and skip any obvious puns and jokes. Although more common in various Asian and African cuisines, testicles are not as exotic and foreign as you may think. There is an all-you-can-eat testicle festival each June in Mount Sterling, IL. In the American West and the Canadian prairies, buffalo, boar and bull testicles are battered, deep-fried and coined Rocky Mountain Oysters. Incanto offers duck testicles. “You don’t want them undercooked,” Cosentino said. “They are pillow-like, varying in sizes, rich and delicate in flavor.”
Tongue – Cow’s tongue is the most common. It is a meaty muscle with typical and familiar beef flavors. At Jewish delis, tongue is usually served cold and sliced thin. It’s similar to roast beef. However, breaking from tradition, Canter’s in Los Angeles serves an open-faced sandwich of hot-roast tongue with potatoes and gravy. The cook boils the meat, skins it and douses it with salt, pepper, garlic and paprika before baking it. In Japan, tongue is grilled on skewers as part of a yakitori meal and sliced thick.
Patrons lick their lips at the sight of Canter's tongue sandwich
Tripe – This term refers to stomach lining. It can absorb sauces as well, and be as delicate as, pasta. However, when cooked poorly, it can taste as chewy as rubber. Tripe can be made into sausage, such as the spicy French and Cajun andouille. It is also used in stews and soups everywhere from Eastern Europe to Latin America. There is even a tripe soup popular in Philadelphia called Pepper Pot with origins that date back to both Caribbean and African recipes. According to the legend, Pepper Pot soup was introduced to America during the American Revolutionary War by an army cook. Tripe is also eaten in Scotland in haggis (see “heart” entry) and the Phillipines have a fried tripe dish.
Written by Alex Rush
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