Offal for Beginners

Clockwise from top: pig's tongue, heart, foot, ear. Image via Eat Me Daily

We are having an offal moment.
Nose-to-tail, organs, innards, variety meats, the nasty bits—whatever you want to call it, whole-animal cookery is experiencing a revival in restaurant and home kitchens.

There are good reasons to eat offal.
It’s cheap, full of nutrients and protein, and adds variety to our diets. It reduces waste, maximizing the resources of food production, and pays a kind of respect to the animal that gave its life to appear on our plates. Of course those reasons are probably the last thing on your mind when you’re confronted with a grilled sheep heart (very tender, distinctly ringed with chambers) or boiled pig ears (simultaneously crunchy and gelatinous, still looking very ear-like).

Offal doesn’t challenge us with its taste. Most innards and extremities are subtly flavored and not unfamiliar. And intellectually we appreciate its virtues. The problem is an emotional, elemental, visceral response—one we feel in our own viscera. Its homophonic name (yes, it is pronounced awful) doesn’t help.

Offal is the stuff of nightmares for vegetarians and carnivores alike. Some might recoil from brussels sprouts and others gag on cottage cheese, but offal provokes a squeamishness that is nearly universal. It’s a shame, because some of today’s most creative chefs have embraced whole-carcass cooking as a badge of honor, producing innovative, exciting dishes based on offal and odd bits like heads, tails, and trotters.

If you’re ready to take the plunge, here are some tips to get you started.

  • Leave it to the professionals.
    Preparations can involve some fairly gruesome peeling, snipping, and soaking. You want to be sure it’s done right and hang on to your resolve and your appetite. Eat out.
  • Start with sweetbreads.
    You probably thought I was going to say liver, but no, the thymus gland (or sometimes pancreas) is the better gateway offal. Sweetbreads are sweet and mild, and in expert hands will emerge tender and crispy, sort of like a cross between monkfish and fried chicken. Liver, on the other hand, is chalky with a powerful mineral tang—paté and terrines did not prepare you. Trust me, you want the sweetbreads.
  • Know your limitations.
    The true challenge is not to your palate but to your head. Pig brains might taste like nectar from the gods, but if you can’t get past the ick factor, then don’t go there. We all draw our lines somewhere, and there’s no shame if yours is this side of ram testicles.

The U.K. Guardian explains all the nasty bits in An A to Z of Offal.

AOL’s Gadling travel blog has A Guide to America’s Most “Offal” Restaurants.

 

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3 Responses to Offal for Beginners

  1. Janice says:

    I have my limitations, but sweetbreads are easy- hand ’em over!

  2. I wish I had it in me but I don’t. I do respect the prospect of using the whole animal and not just the prime parts. As a waiter, I served sweetbreads for years with rave reviews but to this day won’t touch them. The ick factor is solid with me. To the adventurous eater: You can have mine!

  3. Michael says:

    For the record, I love liver. Fegato alla Veneziana for example, especially in Venice. But simple calves liver and onions on a late fall night is good enough.

    That said, you’re right about sweetbreads!

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