Heart, Liver, sweet breads, brains, pig’s ears and tongue, oh and we can’t forget the testicals. Yummy!!! So what is it about the innards of animals that send us foodies flying off into deliriums of culinary ecstasy? I like to write about and cook with offal because I love to eat it but let’s face it there are few foods capable of provoking collective queasiness in some as offal; which strikes me as particularly nonsensical. If indeed you are a meat eater anyway it is incumbent upon you to eat the entire animal that has given up its life to feed you. . If we kill an animal for meat, surely it’s respectful to make the most of every scrap?
Eating liver or tongue shouldn’t unsettle you any more than devouring a roasted chicken or a tender and rare prime beef steak – it’s all flesh and blood. What makes me feel queasy is the vast number of mystery meat, processed and frozen faux meat products and skinless, boneless chicken flesh that has been taken from some poor creature that never saw the light of day let alone breathed fresh air that you find in the meat aisles of most supermarkets
To cook with offal first of all it must be judiciously sourced and be really fresh. Offal is very delicate and will spoil easily especially liver and kidneys. It deteriorates much faster than other meat protein. Fresh, raw offal will be firm and succulent with bright color and without a strong smell. Cook your offal as soon as you can, ideally the same day you bought it. The distinct flavors of these meats pairs up best with aromatic herbs, piquant sauces, hot spices, onions and garlic, cooked simply but with attitude making a dish that is satisfying on every level: virtuous, epicurean, primal and simply delicious.
Offal is almost a food group in itself, incorporating the whole shebang from snout to tail with all the good bits in-between. The word “offal” actually comes from the Old English “off” and “fall,” referring to the pieces that fall from an animal carcass during butchering.
Offal has figured in the cuisines of all peoples, ethnicities and religions. The practice of preparing organ meats says as much about the ingenuity of the cook as it does about the frugality as nothing is wasted. While offal had somewhat fallen out of fashion in most of the Western world during the more prosperous times it has now come back “big time” gaining popularity in restaurants and the kitchens of celebrity chefs. In fact, most of the best chefs list offal as one of their favorite meals to cook and eat.
Liver is possibly the most generally eaten offal. In fact my first initiation into the wonderful and delicious world of innards was through my mother’s fantastic Jewish classic of chopped liver. Smeared onto toasted challah bread with a dill pickle; it is a slice of culinary heaven.
Of course the most celebrated and ultimately controversial type of liver is foie gras, fatty goose or duck liver. Recognized as a true delicacy for centuries, its origins can be traced back as far as the ancient Egyptians, who noticed that the fattened liver of geese that gorged themselves on grain before starting the long migration south was especially delicious. Later it is said that Jewish farmers brought the method of cultivation, as well as appreciation, for this rightly revered liver to Western Europe. Admittedly, the cultivation process of force feeding the geese is somewhat less than humane in certain people’s eyes though other will say otherwise. Lately the righteous defenders of our livestock have almost succeeded in taking this delicious morsel off of our dinner tables. (See my previous blog https://culinarygypsy.com/2012/06/23/foie-gras-the-controversy-the-history-the-tradition/ )
One of my all-time favorite and in my mind most delicious of the edible organs is calves liver. I love the feel of the glossy and satisfying presence of calf’s liver. The fragrant and slightly metallic scent of a fresh piece of calf’s liver is exceptionally delectable, having the tenderness of a poultry liver combined with the more assertive, natural taste of a larger animal. Sautéed with onions, crispy on the outside and tender pink inside…… lip-smacking!
Other more “hard core” viscera include tripe, the stomach lining of cows. This particular delicacy needs a little more preparation to make it palatable but is definitely a favorite in many cuisines. Tripe dishes are very popular in Italy and France, but probably Scotland’s infamous haggis, which contains an assortment of chopped sheep or cow offal mixed with oatmeal and suet, and stuffed into the stomach sac of the animal is one of the most well-known and much maligned offal dishes. Actually I had my initiation into the delights of tripe in Vietnam at the famous Saigon Pho restaurant, Pho Pasteur. It is one of the main ingredients in this delicious and unique noodle soup.
Sweetbreads the pancreas of an animal is stunning when dredged in flour and sautéed in butter and olive oil. Braised pickled beef tongue brings back memories of my European Jewish upbringing. Fergus Henderson, the celebrated English chef and king of snout-to-tail cookery, says an ox tongue should first be brined for seven days, but I reckon 24 hours is enough.
One of the latest culinary hits is beef cheek. Although technically a muscle they are also considered offal. Slow braised with root vegetables and a really good red wine make this one of the most succulent and delicious meats.
Grilled meat restaurants, known as a ‘shipudiya,’ are plentiful and popular in Israel and other Middle Eastern countries, serving ‘shipudim’ — skewers of beef, chicken kebab and especially turkey hearts and chicken liver cooked over a charcoal brazier – In Israel some even grill skewers of Foie Gras…..
Of course for me the most intense and all-encompassing example of offal cookery is just up the street from my apartment in Jerusalem. “Meorav Yerushalmi” Jerusalem mixed grill;
A combination of chicken hearts and liver, turkey testicles and gizzards, together with turkey red meat all seared on a hot griddle in a mix of spices like cumin and turmeric. It is then served in a pita with hummus, hot sauce and a salt pickled cucumber. Only to be found in Jerusalem at the original Steakyat Chatzot (“Midnight Steakhouse”) on 123 Agripas Street.
The Japanese are also known for their partiality of everything inside, grilled yakitori style. Chicken parts grilled on skewers including chicken hearts, chicken bone, and chicken skin and of course the chickens bum (Parson’s nose)
So there you have it, my Ode to Offal. Give them a go. Experiment with some soft core at first, chicken liver etc. and then go up town with a feast of gizzards. The choice is plenty, Beef hearts, ox tail, kidneys etc. Who knows, you might just discover the “offal truth”!
You can explore further the wonderful world of Offal cooking with these books:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Nose-Tail-Eating-British-Cooking Fergus Henderson
http://www.amazon.com/The-River-Cottage-Meat-Book/dp/1580088430 Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
To help you along I have given a few very easy recipes of my own.
Fegato alla Veneziana Calves Liver, Venetian Style
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
8 onions, very thinly sliced
500 gram calves liver, thinly sliced
1/3 cup red wine
A few drops of Balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons passata tomato puree.
Heat the olive oil with 3 tablespoons of the butter in a large, heavy sauté pan over a medium flame. Add the onions with a few pinches of salt and sugar and cook them over low heat until very soft, slightly golden but not too dark. Remove them to a warm platter.
Dust the liver with seasoned flour, shaking off any excess flour.
Add more olive oil and butter to the sauté pan and add the liver, cooking for 30 to 45 seconds on each side. Work in batches if necessary to avoid overcrowding the pan. When done, place the liver over the onions and keep warm.
Add the wine to the pan and scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to dislodge any browned bits. Add the tomato puree, balsamic vinegar and cook down until reduced to a smooth sauce. Pour it over the liver and onions. Serve immediately.
Servings: 3-4 cups of chopped liver
650 gram chicken livers
1/4 cup schmaltz (chicken fat) or vegetable oil (if you must!), divided
1 large Spanish onion, coarsely chopped
5 hardboiled eggs, peeled and diced (divided)
Salt and black pepper to taste
2 tbsp minced fresh parsley for garnish (optional)
Pour 2 tbsp schmaltz or oil into a skillet and heat over medium heat.
Add the chicken livers to the skillet (in two batches) and fry for about 3-5 minutes on each side. Livers should be firm and browned on the outside while slightly pink on the inside; don’t overcook them, or they’ll turn dry.
Season the livers with salt and pepper as they are cooking.
When browned and firm, pour livers into a bowl with the leftover schmaltz/oil from the pan.
Fry the chopped onion in some of the oil in the skillet until golden. Add the fried onion to the mixing bowl, along with 4 of the diced hard boiled eggs. Season all ingredients with salt and pepper.
Put the livers, onions and eggs onto a chopping board and chop with a large knife until a roughly textured paste
(Do not use a food processor this will only make a liver pate and not “chopped Liver”.)
Add salt or pepper to taste. Let mixture return to room temperature.
Chill the chopped liver in the refrigerator. Garnish with remaining diced hardboiled egg and minced parsley together with toasted Challah bread.
Beef cheeks braised in red wine with roasted marrow bone
Serving size: Serves 4
2 tablespoons olive oil
2kg beef cheeks, trimmed
1 medium brown onion (150g), chopped coarsely
1 medium carrot (120g), chopped coarsely
3 cups (750ml) dry red wine
¼ cup (60ml) red wine vinegar
400g tomato presto
¼ cup (55g) brown sugar
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
6 black peppercorns
2 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves
1 large fennel bulb (550g), cut into thin wedges
Preheat oven to moderately slow.
Heat half of the oil in large casserole dish; dust beef cheeks with flour and cook in batches, until browned all over. Remove from pan
Heat remaining oil in same dish; cook brown onion and carrot, stirring until onion softens. Return beef to dish with wine, vinegar, tomatoes, sugar, rosemary, peppercorns, oregano and fennel; bring to a boil. Cover; cook in moderately slow oven 2 hours.
Roasted Marrow Bones
4 marrow bones, blanched
Course black pepper
Melt the olive oil and the butter; add thyme, rosemary, and marrow bones.
Cook the bones, basting with the herb butter and turning so they color on all sides. Put the bones in the oven. Continue roasting the bones until fully roasted.
Oxtail Gyōza or Wontons
Prepare the Oxtail
2 oxtail pieces, trimmed
Plain flour, seasoned to taste, for dusting
30 ml olive oil
1 small onions, coarsely chopped
1 small carrots, coarsely chopped
½ dry red wine
fresh bay leaf
Sprigs each of rosemary and thyme
1 litre beef stock
Dust oxtail pieces with seasoned flour, shaking to remove excess. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large heavy-based pan and cook oxtail, in batches, until brown all over. Remove and set aside.
Heat remaining oil in reserved pan; add onion, garlic and carrots and cook, stirring frequently, over medium-high heat for 10 minutes or until golden. Add wine and stir to remove cooked pieces from base of pan, and then pour mixture over oxtail in roasting pan.
Add herbs and stock, then cover tightly with foil and cook for 3 hours until meat is falling off the bone.
Remove oxtail pieces from cooking liquid and, when cool enough to handle, remove meat from bones, discarding fat, then shred with your fingers.
Shredded cooked oxtail meat
Shredded green cabbage, blanched
Chopped green onions
Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix well by hands. Place a teaspoonful of filling in a Gyōza wrapper and put water along the edge of the wrapper by fingers. Make a semicircle, gathering the front side of the wrapper and sealing the top.
Heat oil in a frying pan. Put Gyoza in the pan and fry on high heat until the bottoms become brown. Turn down the heat to low. Add 1/4 cup water in the pan. Cover the pan and steam the Gyoza on low heat until the water is gone.
Serve with soy dipping sauce.