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Offal or awful: It's a matter of taste

Out of My Head

Posted: April 5, 2008 4:00 a.m.
Updated: June 6, 2008 5:02 a.m.
 

"Offal cookery is a historical thing. I'm not creating anything new.
I'm reintroducing what most people in the U.S. consider garbage."
- Chris Cosentino, executive chef at Incanto Italian Restaurant & Wine Bar in San Francisco

If a recent culinary trend keeps rising, spleen-kebabs and lamb testicle fries may well become routine fare on many restaurant menus.

Assuming that meaty statement has whetted your curiosity's appetite, I'll continue.

Offal - AKA animals' abdominal organs, extremities (tails, feet, head, brains and tongue), hearts, liver and lungs, and other non-skeletal carcass paraphernalia usually discarded by butchers - is becoming haute cuisine in numerous eateries across the nation. And it's commanding some "beefy" prices, too.

Using every piece of the animal, from noggin to tush, is gaining popularity, and that pleases many fine chefs and ranchers. They believe all parts of the animal should be consumed, not only because they're nutritious and tasty, but also out of respect to that creature.

According to eco-conscious chef Chris Cosentino of Incanto in San Francisco, offal is "offally delicious."
Cosentino, whose www.offalgood.com Web site serves up hearty information on the subject, says the term "offal" literally means "off fall," or the pieces that fall from animals' bodies when they are butchered. (A 14th century English term, "offal," as it pertains to birds, means "giblets.") Perusing the chef's list of dinner selections, it's clear he puts his customer's palates where his heart is.

Among his prized offal entrees:
Porchetta di testa (whole pig's head boned, marinated, rolled, tied, and slowly braised); pig's trotters (feet); venison kidneys; lamb pluck (heart, liver and lungs), Sardinian tuna heart, and much more.

Despite this unusual food fashion sounding "new," offal cooking is very Old World. For centuries and throughout the globe, many cultures have incorporated miscellaneous critter parts into their diet, rich and poor alike.

Until reading about this dietary trend the other day, I had forgotten what an "offal" childhood I had known.
It all started with my maternal grandmother, an Orthodox Jewish immigrant who originally came here from Europe at age 9.

Nana Henrietta grew up to be an absolutely fabulous cook and baker.

Among her countless culinary charms, she could make "weird" animal parts taste delicious and present beautifully.

For me, such a dining experience usually began midday with "Frigidaire intrigue." How well I recall peering into the "ice box" after Grandma had been to the kosher butcher that morning.

I wondered: What did she bring back this time?

Often, from analyzing the size and feel of the butcher-wrapped package, I knew that a big pickled cow tongue was on its way.

While I admit that rolling my own tongue over those large bovine taste buds slightly grossed me out, the cow tongue's taste and texture were enjoyable (especially with French's yellow mustard).

Should a fresh-killed hen be in the cooler, I knew I'd be seeing the whole bird come prep time - head, beak, feet, little yellow premature eggs (without shells, they came "floating" inside the chicken), and feathers (which Grandma burned off before cooking, temporarily creating a very malodorous atmosphere).
Grotesque to some folks, sure, but oddly interesting to this kid. (It was like a science lesson in my grandmother's '50s-Modern pink kitchen.)

Come suppertime, I also knew I'd be staring down at a couple chicken "fislach" (feet) swimming in the broth.

"They add 'tamme' (Yiddish for 'taste') and strength to the soup," Nana explained of the chicken feet.

Invariably, I'd take the two feet out of my bowl, align them, then create a little impromptu Busby Berkeley dance number - that is, until my mother took notice and quickly told me to knock it off.

"Have a little respect for what you're eating," she'd tell me.

(To this day, that statement still seems oxymoronic.) Upon heeding my mom, I ate the chicken feet (clarification: only the small foot under-padding part, never the crepe-y legs/shins or, even worse, the yellow-nailed toes. Feh!) Somewhere also floating in the soup (unless I'd been gypped) were two of my favorite chewy chicken innards: the heart and the pupik. (In Yiddish that word means "belly button" but in "fowl language" it refers to a gizzard/muscle in the bird's abdomen.) Nana, who slightly preceded my mom in passing almost 20 years ago, also made other tantalizing dishes from animal viscera and trimmings.
They included: Sauted sweetbreads (lamb or calf pancreas or thymus gland), stewed kidneys, baked cow brain, fried liver and onions, and, oh so tantalizing, baked kishka (beef intestine) with gravy.

Lest I forget two more specialties that were favorites at our house:

Jellied calves feet (known as "pet'cha") and "grebenes." Pronounced "gree-binus," the latter is chicken skin deep-fried with onions in lots of chicken fat (schmaltz) and then generously salted. (Note: Later in life I, and many other Jews, began referring to grebenes as "grieve-in-us," as it was so high in cholesterol and was no friend to families with heart disease.) 

*****

Interestingly, long ago when I ate Nana's "peculiar" provisions, I rarely thought twice about what I was eating. She made it and that was good enough for me. (And boy, was it good.) Today, however, I'm a lot more squeamish about ingesting animal flotsam and jetsam.

With all due respect to the eco-conscious chefs and ranchers who are "reintroducing" offal dining into diners' mouths, that delicacy is not high on my protein source list.

Call me a wimpy carnivore, but through the years I have become somewhat uncomfortable eating animals in general. Carcass morsels and various other body snippets make my mouth water even less.

Examples of that acquired reticence: Anything veal totally turns me off. (Sure, it's flavorsome white meat, but we're talking baby cows specifically raised to die young, while still tender and anemic; they never get a chance to enjoy a few seasons of sunshine, grass and romance before it's off to the slaughterhouse.)

Speaking of slaughterhouses, I've become concerned in recent years about the connection between beef and prion-induced illnesses (i.e., Mad Cow disease). Seeing as there are morons working at stockyards who "don't know" downer cattle are never supposed to be forced into the food chain (and for our schoolchildren, no less!), the idea of eating brains (or any other nervous system material) really makes me skittish.

If anything, feed it to those morons.

Feet I'll not stand for. I have seen too many restaurant employees forego washing up after using the bathroom, or handle customer food while touching contaminated surfaces. I'm supposed to assume they'll properly sanitize some slop-encrusted pig's foot before tossing it in my stew?

I never buy cow liver any more. Seeing it raw, porous, and floppy, I wonder about the lifetime of toxins its host ingested. (I know that's a disgusting thought, but, hey, we're talking filtration organs here, not marshmallows.) While I'm confident that today's upper-crust, offal-promoting chefs are careful about where they purchase and how they prepare their animal parts, I don't see myself having anything more "exotically offal" than an occasional pupik.

No heads or tails.

No glands or lungs.

No intestines or tongues.

My offal days are over.

Besides, without Nana at the stove, I just don't have the stomach for such things.

Diana Sevanian is a freelance writer and Santa Clarita resident. Her column reflects her own opinions and not necessarily those of The Signal.

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