Properly prepared, there is nothing that cannot be rendered delicious
By Damian Cotton
I am an unapologetic omnivore. While I have the utmost admiration for those who are vegetarian for ethical reasons, and indeed have many veggie and vegan days each week, I really enjoy eating animals because they are made out of meat. However, it must be meat from a good source: free range, organic to a point (proper veterinary drugs are necessary from a welfare point of view) and preferably a traditional breed that has characteristics like flavour and some fat content.
What I also insist on is the eating of the whole beast – what Fergus Henderson calls “nose to tail eating”. I do think that if one is going to raise an animal for food, then it is disrespectful and foolishly wasteful not to consume all of the carcass. I do appreciate that offal (or the amusing American term “variety meats”) can be intimidating to the squeamish, but properly prepared, there is nothing that cannot be rendered delicious. Indeed, once one has embarked on a course of lovely organ meats, the idea of fillet steak or chicken breast will become somewhat dull.
Possibly, school dinners and workplace canteens are to blame for our cultural reluctance to consume organ meats. I recall with great loathing the pig’s liver and onions served at school – great slabs of tough liver with a greyish gravy – and I once worked at a place that had kidneys turbigo as a regular canteen lunch – potentially a fine dish, but not if monstrously overcooked and left under hot lamps for a couple of hours. Indeed, overcooking is the greatest sin committed against offal. Remember that these are subtle and delicate meats that need brief contact with heat.
Consider the humble kidney. Lamb is probably the easiest to start with, being of a milder taste than pig and cheaper than calf. There is a mythology about soaking them in milk to remove any aromas arising from their primary function, but in my experience this is rarely needed – be guided by your nose and soak away if you wish. There are so many ways to prepare: the great British devilled kidney with mustard and a pinch of cayenne; the wonderful Spanish riñones al Jerez, simply sautéed with garlic and onion and then bubbled with a glass of sherry. Or why not try just seasoning halves of lamb’s kidneys and maybe adding some crushed garlic and cooking on the barbecue on skewers? If you do splash out on calves’ kidneys, the classic French rognons de veau is a good start, a bistro dish where veal kidney chunks are seared in hot butter, flamed with cognac and sauced with a little cream and Dijon mustard. One tip worth noting is that most kidney dishes can be bulked up with ordinary mushrooms for an agreeable contrast of texture and boost of flavour. Or perhaps some liver? Sautéed chicken livers, well seasoned, make a fabulous topping for dressed salad leaves, or as a starter on toast with grilled goat’s cheese. Calf’s liver is so delicate and tender, it needs to be cut very thin and flash-griddled or seared in a pan and accompanied by some crisp pancetta. Pig’s liver has a stronger flavour and works best with onions and garlic, or as liver and bacon with a good meaty gravy – and is also the best base for a coarse pâté. Lamb’s liver works well in almost any recipe, but my personal favourite is the Turkish arnavut cigeri (see recipe) which is considered almost medicinal in its stimulating tonic properties. There are restaurants all over Turkey that open in the late afternoon for a few hours and only sell this preparation – I have a fond recollection of such a place in Edirne where I sat munching succulent liver amidst multigenerational family groups.
Then some brains. Not only for zombies, you see. Meltingly soft with a flavour that is an echo of the taste of the animal it’s from. Hard to find–you’ll need to befriend your butcher–but quite simple to prepare. Wash well in several changes of water, peel off the membrane and gently poach for about 15 to 20 minutes. Then serve with noisette butter and parsley or cover in breadcrumbs or a light batter and deep fry then add a salsa verde. The bite through the crisp crumb into succulent flesh is one of the finest things you can do with your mouth.
If you are a little more adventurous, ask your butcher for lamb’s fry. Treat like brains, poach, peel and finish. Try them tossed in seasoned flour, fried gently in a little butter and olive oil and scattered with capers or caperberries. I once organised a works jolly for about thirty at a Lebanese restaurant with these as one of the many mezze and I’ll never forget young Carl’s reaction when he found he’d just eaten a lamb’s testicle.
Let us not forget sweetbreads, the pancreas and thymus gland: possibly the finest of all organ meats. Delicately flavoured yet with a decent chew, these little nuggets are regularly found in top end restaurants, and are a simple treat at home. Then there are gizzards from poultry, although these are really just meat, as they are a hunk of muscle that operates the crop (a gastric pouch that grinds seeds with grit before digestion). You should never come back from France without a few vacuum packs of gesiers confit to heat through and add to slams or as a cassoulet ingredient. Hearts are also muscle, just like any regular meat, and are best handled like squid: Cook hot, hard and fast, or long, gentle and slow – a favourite of mine is heart cut into bits and skewered, marinated in oil and garlic and plenty of pepper then cooked over hot coals – drop in a pitta with salad and you’ll never go to the kebab van again. Likewise tongue – a powerful muscle that produces a surprisingly sweet meat when cooked.
You could also try pig’s ears and tails, wonderful calf’s tripe, chitterlings and andouille, scratchings and fried rinds, cowheel and pigs trotters. Each with its own flavour palette and some intriguing textures. And then the beasts will not have died in vain, only to be served as boneless skinless fillets.