Another thing that’s real hip is offal. Well, hip in the “I had some at Babbo” sense. Not hip in the, “come on over, I got some kidneys on the Webber and some Valpolicella in the cellar,” sort of sense. That is to say that, for the very, very intrepid foodie, offal is okay if it’s been given a good going over by a professional kitchen, sanctified by the hand of a culinary deity, served in the minutest of portions and cloaked with some other, more benign foodstuff. This is a crying shame.
Not that I’m a great offal cook myself, I do a few things right and I’m a little scared of say, chicken intestines. But that’s just cultural conditioning and that’s just what needs to be undone. Especially if we want to call ourselves cooks, or conscientious omnivores, or logically consistent people.
As far as cooking is concerned, offal is the only group of ingredients that consistently and inherently requires thought and consideration in it’s preparation. As Thomas Keller proclaims in The French Laundry Cookbook:
It’s easy to cook a fillet mignon, or to sauté a piece of trout, serve it with browned butter à la meunière, and call yourself a chef. But that’s not really cooking. That’s heating. Preparing tripe however, is a transcendental act: to take what is normally thrown away and, with skill and knowledge, turn it into something exquisite.
…in his customarily prosaic fashion.
But only in recent times, in this country, has offal had the distinction of being an amuse bouche for the jaded palate of the highly sophisticated diner. In nearly every other meat- eating society on earth, offal is regularly on the table. Even Jews and Muslims, with their squeamishness’ about blood and bottom feeding, eat offal. So what is the fucking hang up?
In my short career as a meat- cutter/ manager, I got an unrestrained, firsthand and unwelcome view of American’s relationship with meat: “Can you pull the skin off that and cut it into 67 one quarter by five eighth inch cubes? That’s what it says in my recipe”; “Um, I’ll have one boneless, skinless chicken breast. Can you put that in a plastic bag and wrap it?”.
Or one of my very favorites:
“Hi, do you sell rabbit?”
“Well yes we do mam, it’s right over here.”
“Oh my god, it’s true, you do sell rabbit.”
Me smiling, oblivious: “Yep, we sure do. How many would you like?”
“I don’t want any. Rabbits aren’t food. They’re pets and that is inhumane and disgusting. I can’t believe you people sell this. You need to take those off the shelf. I belong to an organization….”
“I’ll go get the manager.”
This conversation took place before I was the manager, thank the good lord for something. I could go on and on but that isn’t the point. The point is, oh wait, I have one more that needs telling.
When my brother and I were catering, we scored a demonstration at the local farmers’ market. We had been making pies for the local wine bar and I had rendered out a 25-pound case of leaf lard and canned it for the purpose of making real, traditional pie crust. So we decided to make strawberry-rhubarb pie. We made two: one all butter, one butter and lard. My brother bravely solicited the crowd, “So who likes lard?” You would have had to be there to imagine all the “ewe!”‘s and “no way!”‘s. It seriously sounded like a classroom of kindergartners being asked to eat a pile of dead rats. If this is at the farmer’s market, you can see what an uphill battle we’re into.
So we have established that modern (or are they post-modern? or “after-modern”) Americans, especially in Portland, really hate every part of the animal except the loins and breasts, since avian dark meat and mammalian shoulders are quickly being relegated to the category of “variety cuts” as well. And even these lilly-white extravagances are regarded with suspicion, like an envelope, lacking a return mailing address, full of a mysterious white powder. And Portlanders think of themselves as environmentalists.
The energy inefficiency of raising animals for food is well documented. And although there are arguments to be made for an alternative system of animal husbandry as an ethical, aesthetically pleasing, and efficient way to feed the burgeoning population of increasingly affluent top tier heterotrophs, waste is inexcusable. And waste is precisely what we do when we disregard about 25% of every pig we slaughter and maybe %30 of every cow (those figures are approximate educated guesses, it’s unreal how many greyhounds one must consume before any useful information can be pried from the internet). A pig apparently yields, on average, about 73% muscle meat. Maybe 5% of the rest is digestive contents, and the rest is edible. Seriously, most of this food is thrown away, fed to animals (like livestock), or shipped to China.
It’s especially repulsive when one considers that as recently as the 1960’s offal was considered perfectly acceptable family fare, but by the 1980’s that had all changed. Can you imagine the Seavers sitting down to a nice platter of boiled tongue with horseradish sauce? Yet, as recently as 1972 James Beard was rhapsodizing the glories of skewered lamb kidneys. Which are delicious by the way.
What you do is cut the kidneys (which must be fresh) through the middle lengthwise. That is to say, along the inside split of the kidney bean (you’ll know what I mean when you have them in hand). Remove the white stringy stuff that’s in there with a sharp knife (yes offals do take a little skill) and then cut the halves into half or thirds if they’re large. Soak these pieces in water for a few hours (or milk if your loaded), then drain and pat dry. Cut some mushrooms (Crimini or, if you got ’em, Porcini, Chanterelles, Morels or any other firm, large, flavorful fungi) into quarters or halves depending on size. Some good bacon will be threaded onto a skewer, intertwined with alternating layers of mushroom and kidney chunks. The bacon should wrap half way around each skewered piece of kidney or mushroom. Season this well and grill carefully (so as not to set fire to the bacon) for 10 minutes or so, while basting alternately with a mixture of white wine and mustard, and melted butter, until the mushrooms are soft and the kidneys are crispy outside, just pink inside. Serve forth with a salad of endives and radishes, and some good bread. This is how we eat.
If you don’t do it first, restaurants will beat you to the punch. You’re probably okay with that, but you shouldn’t be. When I began my career as a white trash line cook, flank steak was about $3 a pound. Then London Broil got trendy, no wait, it was already totally trendy, then every two-bit-hack of a cookbook author in the country published a recipe for flank steak, the Great American Marketing Machine went to work, now you’d be lucky to get a pound of stringy, fussy meat for under $12. So don’t wait for others to tell you, just forge ahead. You’ll already be competing with the dogs.
Marrow is people food. Have you ever eaten Osso Bucco? It literally means “bone hole” (don’t you laugh) and refers to the fact that the real treat, the raison d’être of this dish is the little spot of marrow in the middle of the bone, and it should be served with a little tiny fork so you can get it out of there. But how often does that happen? Just ask for a little fork and one gets a reaction ranging from bemusement to utter confusion. Fortunately marrow bones are still relatively cheap, easy to prepare, and can be enjoyed on their own.
The french classic of bone marrow with snails is pretty good, but a little fussy and rich. I like the suggestion of Fergus Henderson, to serve them with toast, salt and a simple salad of parsley, shallot and capers dressed in olive oil and lemon. Cooking them is simple. Have the butcher cut them into 2 to 3 inch lengths (and make sure he’s only giving you bones with a lot of marrow, he thinks it doesn’t matter because you’re going to feed it to the dogs) rinse them off, and roast them in a 450 oven for 15-20 minutes or until the marrow is just soft all the way through: use a skewer to test. Don’t overcook, as the marrow will just turn to liquid and run out the ends. If you want to get really fancy, the New Professional Chef would have you soak them in a bowl of cold salted water for a few hours to draw out the blood and any “impurities”, then you can apparently push the marrow right out of the bone. Good stuff to garnish a steak with.
Chicken and turkey offals are about the only offals commonly available. Increasingly, these are seen on the menus at trendy izakayas skewered and broiled. I even ate some skewered chicken butts at Ping, they were disappointing. As a red blooded Midwesterner, I’m partial to fried livers. As a fussy contemporary epicure, I got a certain method.
Chicken livers, to my mind, need soaking. Salted water works, salted milk is even better. I rinse the livers first, then I soak them for about 12 hours or overnight. Drain, pat them dry and season generously with salt and especially pepper, and roll them in a 50/50 mixture of rice flour and AP flour (rice flour helps make everything fried, crispier). Immediately upon dusting them, shallow fry them in a cast iron skillet, preferably in lard. They cook pretty quick, so you can cook them at a fairly high temperature, just don’t let the oil burn. the livers should be brown and exceptionally crisp on the outside, just a hint of rosiness on the inside. No, I cannot explain why it’s okay to eat chicken livers less than totally gray all the way through. I just know that I can, and to cook them any more results in a dry, crumbly mess that is best served to the cat. These I serve forth with a spicy cocktail sauce. In the Midwest, and even out here, chicken livers are generally, flabby and limp and served with ketchup, appealing only to the die- hard who is probably more interested in proving their authenticity, or their virility, than in enjoying their food.
The overarching theme here, as you may have noticed, is soaking. Not all offal needs a soaking, mainly just the internal organs, especially those that process waste. This tames the often strong flavors. and removes much of the bloodiness. On the other hand, aficionados like Fergus Henderson and rustics like Angelo Pellegrini waste little time or flavor with such niceties. I leave it to you to decide. If, however, you choose to bring home a nice boneless, skinless chicken breast for dinner tonight, I want you to think about all that flavorful, delicious skin and bone that, thanks to your squeamish contemporary sensibilities, is being rendered into soap, machine lubricant, pet food, candles, cosmetics and livestock feed right now. Turns out that, on some level, even the industrial complex abhors waste.
Preparing lamb’s kidneys. In reading order: a fresh pile of kidneys, where to cut into them from, the opened kidney showing the white stuff to be removed (there’s a little more under the pale flesh), soaking in a milk brine.