An Ode to Organ MeatsBy Winnie Yang
While some might recoil at the sight of Brussels sprouts on their plates and others avoid broccoli like the plague, there are few foods as capable of provoking universal squeamishness (in this country, anyway) as offal. And that’s a damn shame.
Offal is very nearly a whole class of food in itself, encompassing everything from the heart, liver, lungs, and entrails of an animal, to the tail, feet, and head, each part with its own unique and yes, delicious, flavors. The word “offal” actually comes from the Old English “off” and “fall,” referring to the pieces that fall from an animal carcass during butchering. Various dictionaries refer to offal as “refuse” or “rubbish” or “waste parts,” when in fact they have much to offer nutritionally and gustatorially.
In much of the world -- France, Italy, and China especially -- the tradition of preparing organ meats reflects resourcefulness and economy on the cook’s part, as nothing is wasted. While offal has never been a big hit in the U.S. (and it certainly doesn’t help that the word is pronounced “awful”), viscera have gained a foothold in restaurants and kitchens in the past couple of years (which attests to the broadening tastes of American diners as well as the savoriness of the offal dishes themselves). In fact, most of this country’s best chefs list offal as one of their favorite meals to cook and eat.
There are many ways to enjoy offal. And, of the various types available, the liver is perhaps the most widely eaten. The most celebrated type of liver, foie gras (pronounced “fwah-grah”), or fatty goose or duck liver, is known by many people as a French delicacy, but its origins can be traced back to classical civilizations, and the Ashkenazi Jews are credited with disseminating the method of cultivation, as well as appreciation, for this justly venerated liver to Western Europe.
Admittedly, the cultivation process is somewhat less than humane: farmers cram corn through funnels directly into the birds’ gullet, overfeeding them to produce the grossly enlarged livers. If that doesn’t bother you, then you should make haste to either Radius, blu, or Clio; all serve versions that render me speechless. Since fresh foie gras is both expensive and difficult to procure, you’re better off eating it at a restaurant. I usually prefer a whole lobe if I can get it, but I’m not one to pass up a terrine or pÂtÉ either (both are mixtures of foie gras with seasonings and other ingredients). Foie gras goes especially well with Sauternes, a French sweet white wine.
If, however, you’d rather spare the overstuffed fowl, you can always go with the less controversial chicken liver. After cooking a few rashers of bacon, saute some onion in the residual bacon fat over medium heat. Once those become translucent, add the livers in the oil, taking care not to overcook (they should still be very tender) and salt and pepper to taste. Calves’ liver, once sliced, can receive equal treatment and is especially prized for its smooth texture and delicate flavor.
Besides the usual land animals, many fish have tasty livers as well. I recently had a fantastic monkfish liver dish at Prune, a restaurant in New York, and let me tell you, those ducks have some serious competition.
More intimidating in concept perhaps is tripe, which always seems to receive short shrift, as far as offal is concerned. Tripe is the stomach of ruminants, and that of cows is the most commonly prepared. There are several cuts of tripe, but my mother prefers to use the honeycomb kind (named thus for its appearance). After boiling it for a couple minutes in water flavored with ginger, she discards the cooking liquid and covers the tripe with water again, adding a couple tablespoons of soy sauce, a little anise, and some black pepper, and braises it over low heat for about an hour and a half, slicing it into pieces when cooked.
Specialty tripe dishes abound in Italy and France, but many people are more familiar with Scotland’s infamous haggis, which includes various chopped-up bits of sheep or cow offal mixed with oatmeal and suet, all stuffed into the stomach sac of the animal. Alternatively, you can get your most benign introduction to tripe within Vietnamese cuisine at Pho Pasteur, where it is a key component of their pho soups.
I’m also a big fan of sweetbreads, another name for the thymus and pancreas of an animal. Dredged in flour and fried (in bacon fat or lard, natch), these have an almost nutty sweetness and a creamy interior. Radius is doing a great salad right now that features these delectable morsels. If thymus doesn’t sound so appealing, however, you should take a page from “Molto” Mario Batali -- a New York celebrity chef who hosts a couple shows on the Food Network. In the sweetbreads recipe in his Babbo Cookbook, he asks, “Is there really a difference between eating a muscle or a gland?”
Another great way to sample all kinds of offal is to go out for yakitori (yaki, “grilled,” and tori, “fowl”). While you can get marinated bits of non-offal chicken parts grilled on skewers, places like Kiyoshi Sushi House in Brookline offer a vast array of giblets (or the offal of fowl). My favorites include chicken hearts, chicken bone, and chicken skin (not really giblets, but for some reason, shunned nearly as much). Cow tongue is also excellent. All of these somehow taste much meatier and juicier than ordinary cuts, so if you have to, just pretend you’re eating kebabs.
With offal, the challenge is really only in your head. So before you summarily dismiss one of the most delicious foodstuffs animals have to offer, I urge you to give them a shot. Who knows, you might find them offal-ly tasty.
Drop Ms. Yang a line if you want to know how to prepare kidneys or where one can find some decent calf’s brain: <email@example.com>.