The Offal Truth
Brains, kidneys, liver and intestines--they're culinary delicacies all over the world. So why don't Americans get it?
Thursday, February 3, 2000
The name is not exactly pretty. Mention the word offal and more likely than not--at least in this country--you won''t set off a round of lip-smacking among your dining peers. "One way to horrify at least eight out of ten Anglo-Saxons is to suggest they''re eating anything but the actual red fibrous meat of a beast," lambasts MFK Fisher in her opus, The Art of Eating. "It is too bad," she sniffs, "since there are so many nutritious and entertaining ways to prepare the various livers and lights."
But try telling your pals to come on over for a kidney cook-out or some scrambled brains and eggs, and you may find yourself setting the table for a party of one. "Variety meats" tend to invite controversy, even among lettered culinarians.
"I am loath to play the vulture," insists food writer Bob Shacochis. "I refuse to eat the organs of animals, whether calf''s liver, sheep''s kidney, pork brains, chicken gizzards, beef hearts, or etcetera. Offal is more appropriately consumed on roadsides by scavengers, rather than tableside by gentlemen and ladies in evening dress."
It''s no surprise that these specialty items are found more often on menus in Paris than in Peoria. But even with its detractors, there is a loyal, if small, contingency of supporters--enlightened folks who know how uniquely delicious these delicacies can be--when served by chefs who know how to prepare them.
"Offal is more appropriately consumed on roadsides by scavengers, rather than tableside by gentlemen and ladies in evening dress."--Bob Shacochis, food writer
It is the French chef, in particular, who champions the variety meat, scoffing at those sqeamish souls who turn up their noses without knowing what they miss. After all, it was France that gave us Escoffier. The Holy Father of haute cuisine provides no fewer than 13 recipes for calf''s head in his professional cooks'' bible, Le Guide Culinaire.
While the recipe for Tete de Veau Froide a la Flamande, might be startling to the novice, particularly when it gets to the part where you "place the two halves of the head face downwards and arrange half a tongue and two pieces of ear on each," recipe 2725 for Tetine de Veau may come as an even bigger surprise: braised calf''s udder, garnished with spinach.
"It used to be that waste was just not accepted," explains Chef Richard Zoellin, proprietor of Carmel''s long-standing French Poodle Restaurant. "Cooks would make a point of finding a use for every part of the animal, and a cooking process to go with it. I would love to cook like some of the Michelin restaurants in France, but here we don''t have the clientele to support many of those dishes. But I do have some older, well-traveled customers who come in and make certain requests."
One of those requests is for cervelles, or brains. In one of more than 20 cervelles recipes in Le Guide, Escoffier tells how to "carefully cook a nice white brain." Baked, poached, sauteed or broiled, passed through a sieve and molded, deep-fried and served in truffle sauce, or done in the oven with mushrooms over pasta and garnished with spine marrow, the Old Master treats the brain with reverence. Although lamb and pork may also be used, Zoellin prefers calf''s brains. Because they''re highly perishable, he gets them in frozen. "They have to be thawed slowly and soaked in cold water. Then, before slicing, the envelope membrane has to be removed. I saute them just until they tighten up, without becoming hard, and finish them in blackened butter and parsley, served with English-style boiled potatoes."
One faithful French Poodle regular often requests Tripes a la Mode de Caen. When it comes to beef stomach lining, the best part is the honeycomb. Coming from the second stomach chamber, it gets its name from the inner side that exhibits a pattern resembling a honeycomb.
This is the kind of tripe Zoellin uses, cutting it into pieces and braising it for a full 12 hours with pigs'' feet, mirepoix, veal stock, apple cider and Calvados. "It''s a specialty of northern France," he explains, "with the Calvados that the area produces giving it its regional distinction."
Veal sweetbreads are found with some regularity on local upscale menus, often as a featured special. Although it''s unclear how they came to have their somewhat euphemistic name, it''s undeniable that "sweetbreads" has a yummier ring than "thymus glands." Sweet or not, this delicacy has a strong enough local following to merit inclusion on the regular nightly menu at Carmel''s San Souci restaurant.
"It''s a three-step process to prepare them," explains Chef/proprietor Preston Seamster. Purchased as a full lobe, the round gland called the "nut," or the "heart" sweetbread is prized for its delicate flavor and firm, creamy, smooth texture. It must first be soaked in several changes of acidulated water. "The outer membrane must be peeled away," Seamster says. "Then they''re blanched, simmered in vegetable stock just until cooked through, but still moist inside, almost the texture of foie gras."
Seamster then slices the sweetbreads into medallions and sautes them, deglazing the pan with Calvados, adding a touch of cream, and serving them with cara= melized apples and Parisienne potatoes.
So who orders these dishes? Seamster admits that it''s a more "sophisticated group" that provides most of the local demand. "Usually it''s an older, European crowd that has already experienced the dish somewhere else. And when you''re doing dishes like this, you need to already have the demand because the product is delicate. When you have to order a minimum of five or ten pounds, you don''t want it around for long."
Christian Viollaz, owner of Chez Christian in Carmel, also claims a following for sweetbreads. After cleaning and blanching the meat, Viollaz simmers it with mushrooms in Madeira and cream.
But there''s another variety meat on Viollaz''s menu that is ordered more often than sweetbreads: frogs'' legs. "After ten years," he remarks, "frog legs have begun to outsell everything else. I have customers that come in just for them."
Part of their popularity, he feels, is based on the improved quality
of the product that has become available. "They come in as individually quick frozen pairs, about four to six pairs per pound, from China." As a native of Evian, France, Viollaz is especially impressed with their quality. "They''re pink and fresh, mild and tender, every bit as good as the ones in France."
Frog legs Provencal is a simple classic preparation, but there are a couple of tricks to getting it just right. The legs are first dredged in flour, and then set to sizzle in a hot pan coated with a drizzle of olive oil and butter, where finely minced garlic has just begun to release its heady scent. If the garlic is undercooked or becomes too brown, the dish is ruined. The legs are seasoned with salt and pepper and cook quickly. Just as they become golden brown, they''re removed from the pan, and a knob of sweet butter is stirred in. When the milk solids in the butter have turned nut-brown, it''s finished with a squeeze of fresh lemon, given a sprinkle of parsley, and is poured over the legs.
Perhaps one reason many Americans are averse to the idea of even trying brains, liver or kidney is lack of proper exposure. If one''s first experience with liver, for example, was gray, grainy, overcooked shoe leather that ended up concealed in a napkin before being secretly stashed in the trash, it''s unlikely this will lead to an acquired taste.
It stands to reason, on the other hand, that if your introduction to liver was tender medallions, sauteed until barely pink in the middle and garnished with lightly caramelized onions and a sauce of reduced raspberry vinegar and demiglace--something akin to the foie gras that is served at Chez Christian--by now we might all be eager for organ meat.
The ultimate liver, the Mercedes Benz of edible innards, is of course foie gras. Found on the menus at French Poodle, Sans Souci, Chez Christian and other local Continental eateries, goose liver has developed quite a name for itself on this side of the Atlantic in recent years. Part of the reason is its increased availability. Once only flown in from France and prohibitively expensive, now there are excellent domestic sources found in Sonoma and New York''s Hudson Valley. "Even people visiting from France who try the foie gras on my menu are impressed," says Viollaz. "The quality is there."
Although foie gras can also refer to duck liver, it more often applies to goose liver that comes from specially bred geese. Pte de foie gras is liver soaked overnight in Armagnac or port, which is then pureed and very gently baked in a terrine mold. Often garnished with truffles or pork and delicately spiced, it is the emblematic dish of epicureans around the world.
A storied delicacy, foie gras goes all the way back to the Roman Empire when the Emperor Vitellius'' favorite dinner included pike liver, pheasant brains, peacock brains, flamingo tongues and lamprey roe.
It''s not just the Romans and the French who have found clever uses for variety meats. The British are famous for their steak and kidney pies.
Britannia Arms British Pubs, with branches in Monterey and Carmel, have found a strong following for their savoury pies. "We make them individually," says co-owner Michael North, "using 40 percent kidneys to 60 percent tri-tip. I buy the kidneys fresh, and cleaning them is a meticulous job. Out of 40 pounds, just less than half is usable by the time the fat is removed. But even people who haven''t tried them before often love them, and we''re getting ready to package them for resale."
Liver and kidneys are what one usually thinks of when innards are on the menu, but there are plenty of other internal morsels served up by cutting-edge--and down-home--chefs.
It is Italians that gave the world osso bucco, braised veal shanks prized for the marrow found at the center of the bone. Removed from the bone and baked or poached separately, the marrow may also be enjoyed as an appetizer, spread on toast points.
Visit any of a number of taquerias in Monterey County on a Saturday morning, and it would be rare not to find a pot of menudo simmering on the stove. Menudo is hearty fare, full of tripe, calf''s feet and chilies, and is a popular antidote for Friday night excesses of cerveza.
Then there''s that favorite sausage ingredient: pork blood, popular with Europeans. Used as a thickening agent, it becomes British blood pudding. It''s also the main ingredient in the sauce that is poured on dinuguan, a Filipino pork dish featured on the menu at Seaside''s Nipa Hut
If it''s chitlins you happen to crave, you only have to go as far as Mom''s Soul Food in Seaside. A specialty of the American South, chitlins are really the small intestine, usually taken from pigs, and are most often enjoyed battered and fried.
Virtually everything but the oink is used in some manner by someone, all over the world. Those much-maligned livers, kidneys, brains and intestines are cheap, nutritious, and absolutely delicious, if Americans would only give them a chance.
And before you say no innard will pass your lips, squirt a little more mustard on that hot dog, why don''t you
Or you could always dish out the Spam.