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«It's easy to cook a filet 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 real cooking. That's heating. Preparing tripe, however, is a transcendental act». Thus writes Thomas Keller, the owner and chef of Northern California’s world famous restaurant, The French Laundry and Per Se in New York, in The French Laundry Cookbook.
As soon as one starts talking about offal or organ meats, a look of disgust passes over at least half of the faces present: but the truth is, most people don’t really know what offal meats are and are put off just by the word.
Real connoisseurs, however, will give a pleased smile, knowing full well that it’s food for refined palates. Because the vast family of offal meats consists of endless consistencies and flavours – from pig’s feet to salt cod tripe, from chicken livers to fish eyes – and there’s at least one for every taste. Some people, like myself, are utter converts (so much so that I even wrote a book on the subject).
Traditionally considered a working class food par excellence (except for in France: remember Auguste Escoffier’s beloved sweetbreads?), recently offal meats have been re-discovered by starred chefs, and many of the world’s finest menus are now featuring a few dishes based on these “poor cuts” of the less prized parts of beef and pork.
From the bone marrow on Carlo Cracco’s risotto to the Tutte le lingue del mondo” (veal tongue with pickled apple, passion fruit sauce and coriander sauce) dish from Massimo Bottura. The great Heston Blumenthal has even decided to prepare a royal lunch of «assorted offal, including brain and testicles»!
But let’s clear a few things up first. The term probably comes from “off fall”, meaning the pieces that fall off of a carcass when it gets butchered. At first, the word referred most likely to interiors and guts, and then, over time, it included the head, tail, hooves, and other edible parts.
These of course are the less prized pieces of meat that truly put a cook’s ability to the test: kidneys, sweetbreads, chicken giblets, lamb intestines, and even pigs’ feet and liver. And it’s precisely their obscure locations and consistencies that tend to provoke disgust, psychologically evoking the “less clean” areas of our own bodies. Most unknowing eaters lick their lips with delight after having eaten them, but only when nobody has told them exactly what they are eating.
In the U.S., the biggest offal advocate is the chef and TV personality Chris Cosentino. From his San Francisco restaurant Incanto at 1550 Church Street he wages his pro-offal battle and has even started the website Offal Good, which is avidly followed by his many fans.
«These are excellent cuts of meat that we’ve thrown in the garbage for years. Everyone talks about sustainable food, but offal is sustainable,» says Cosentino. And he’s right. The market may demand steak filet and other noble cuts, but if we regularly consumed even the offal parts of the animal, we could feed entire populations. And this is when the cultural aspect becomes economic.
In his restaurant, Cosentino has created a special room (dedicated to Dante Alighieri) where he can serve 17 customers an entire pig, the entirety of which can and should be eaten. And when we say everything, we mean absolutely everything.
Much loved by great chefs, offal meats are not as quick to be welcomed into the domestic kitchen. If you think that these exact cuts make up the culinary history of almost all the world’s countries, helping feed people during times of war and economic hardship, then it’s remarkable that only a few of these dished have managed to survive.
But those that have survive occupy a special place in the culinary kingdom. Consider, for example, the andouilles, those marvellous sausages made from pork innards (the Norman versions from Vire reach absolute perfection), or the Mexican menudo made from tripe and chili pepper so memorably described in a story by Raymond Carver. And there’s the succulent saratapel, a delicious Bahian dish based on pork tripe that appears recurrently in the pages of Jorge Amado. And once again, it’s tripe at the centre of the patsa, the traditional Greek soup.
In Britain, kidneys are especially lauded among the offal meats, but are upstaged by the Scottish specialty, haggis, made from sheep’s innards. Italy makes its contribution with a superb ragout of chicken giblets called cibreo, and of course, the Tuscan crostini (click here for the recipe) that foreigners go wild for – in many cases, without being aware of the fact that, along with the chopped chicken livers, there’s also beef spleen. Tripe is cooked in all the various regions of Italy, with minor but significant modifications: with tomato, with beans, with mint – more or less dense. Once, it was the most common single-dish meals in Italian cuisine.
Who among us thinks, while enjoying foie gras, that we’re eating offal? The liver from any animal falls under the definition of offal, ducks included. So there’s no reason to fear or disdain these cuts of meat. And before saying you don’t like them, make sure you actually give them a fair chance.