“Lucky indeed is the cook with the gift of tongues!”
—Irma S. Rombaur and Marion Rombaur Becker, The Joy of Cooking, 1975 Edition
Recently I bought a beef tongue. Actually, I bought the tongue, the only one in the butcher case. The butcher did not flinch. He removed it and took a formidably curved knife to it, trimming some especially fatty-looking, gristly bits from the throat end before wrapping it up and handing it over.
My tongue cost $16.00, or almost €13: not cheap. Offal, or what Americans refer to as “variety cuts” like tongue, liver, tripe, heart and gizzards, are supposed to be cheap due to their unpopularity. Not my tongue.
As North American meat eaters have grown accustomed to the availability of boneless, skinless chicken breasts, desiccated pork, and reassuringly lean ground beef, once-common cuts like liver, kidneys, and tongue have entered meat purgatory. Chefs like Anthony Bourdain, Fergus Henderson, and Jennifer McLagan have struggled to bring what McLagan calls “the odd bits” back into the everyday diet, Bourdain in Les Halles Cookbook, Henderson in his famous The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, and McLagan in Odd Bits: How to Cook The Rest of the Animal.
At this juncture, the odd bits are limited to three kinds of eaters. There are the moral high grounders that, in a nod to Henderson, dub their philosophy “nose to tail eating”. Nose-to-tailers seek out carefully sourced meat (raised organically, treated kindly, killed humanely), then express respect for the animal by consuming all of it with relish. Then there’s the extreme eating crowd, which associates gustatory bravado with consumption of the uncommon.
This leaves people who like to cook, and are just plain curious. Avid cooks are ever prowling for something new to prepare or, in tongue’s case, something old.
I associate tongue with my grandmother. I know she prepared it, though never in my presence. Nor was it ever a menu item when my family arrived at her apartment for Friday night dinner, dog in tow, ravenously awaiting her matzoh ball soup and roast chicken. She likely assumed we wouldn’t eat tongue, and she wasn’t wrong.
Thirty years later, tongue crops up occasionally in my cookbooks. In The Art of Simple Cooking, Alice Waters describes herself as “quite partial to tongue in a boiled dinner.” David Tanis, a Chez Panisse cook and author of Heart of The Artichoke and Other Kitchen Journeys, devotes menu 20 to “Bring Back Tongue”. It was Christopher Hirscheimer’s accompanying two-page photo spread of a classic bollito misto (a nicer way of saying boiled dinner), so brisket-like in appearance, that first nudged me tongueward. McLagan’s Odd Bits, sealed the deal. There, amid testicles, tripe, blood, brains, eyes, and ears, was tongue. Once again, there were appetizing photographs, accompanied by several recipes. I decided make the leap: Tongue with Salsa Verde.
Tongue is not fast food. You have to think about cooking it. On a Thursday night, I moved it from freezer to refrigerator to defrost. On Friday night, while a wimpy pasta boiled, I brined my tongue.
Tongue may be prepared without brining, but all my cookbooks said an overnight soak in salty water would only improve the dish. Borrowing from McLagan’s book, I threw salt, coriander seed, black peppercorns, garlic cloves, and some parsley into a large stockpot, added the tongue, cold water to cover, and set it in the fridge.
Raw tongue is rough to the touch, and absolutely looks like a tongue. But beneath the unappetizing exterior the bright red of fresh beef was visible and innocuous.
My tongue preparation plans were derailed by migraine. Fortunately, beef tongue is forgiving, and may sit in its salty bath up to four days. So after an unplanned visit to the emergency room, I shakily returned to the fridge, where I discovered the tongue smelled of corned beef. Using McLagan’s recipe as a vague guide (I invariably deviate from recipes, unless I am canning. Never deviate from canning instructions. Botulism kills.), I rinsed the tongue and put it into a fresh vat of cold water, adding carrots, more garlic (there’s never enough garlic), and more peppercorns.
I allowed the tongue to burble away on low heat. It soon filled the house with the complex, incomparable scent known as Jewish Deli.
McLagan says tongue requires 90 minutes to two-and-a-half hours of cooking. She also says tongue is impossible to overcook, which was a relief, as my tongue required six hours of gentle poaching to become tender. I then had to peel it. I know. Stay with me here. Tongue must be peeled warm, or the meat comes with the thick outer layer. I donned rubber gloves and went at it, assisted by a chef’s knife.
Once peeled, I tasted. It was delicious, much like brisket, but more finely grained, with a softer texture and surprisingly delicate flavor. Peeled, trimmed, and sliced, it looked like any other roast beef.
The salsa verde was simple: capers, arugula, parsley, cornichons, garlic, shallot, olive oil, lemon, and a spin in the blender. The deep green sauce was lovely against the pink meat. I served it proudly to my spouse, a man who has happily devoured sushi, pig’s ears, rabbit, fish heads, and chicken feet. He winced. He tasted gingerly. He admitted it was good, but could not bring himself to eat it. I pointed out his willingness—hell, eagerness—to consume other animal parts. “I know. I just can’t.”
Friends, this is sad. Our European, Latin American, and Asian counterparts all enjoy variety meats as a matter of course. I realize and respect that many of us have dietary restrictions due to personal beliefs, health concerns, and religious observation. But when we reject entire categories of food as disgusting, we narrow ourselves. And in so doing, we narrow more than our taste buds: we shrink our tolerance for others.
Consider cuy, a traditional food in Peru and Ecuador. Cuy is guinea pig, an animal North Americans often give children as pets. The Chinese take bony, gnarly chicken feet and make them delicious. (Never underestimate the power of deep frying.) My grandfather took chicken livers and chopped them with hard-boiled egg and tons of chicken fat. We ate this on rye bread, or, when nobody was looking, off our fingers. The Moroccans, famed for their kebab cookery, thread lamb hearts on skewers and flash grill them. The French make boudin noir, or black sausage. The noir part? Pig blood.
I’m not suggesting relinquishing your boneless chicken breast ways for a steady diet of pig snouts and veal tails. I can’t imagine eating animal blood (ech). Nor do I find eyeballs appetizing. But it’s good to know that others do: I learned by reading McLagan’s excellent The Odd Bits, and I am a more informed person for it. So I say to you: try a food you never expected to eat. Doing so is like listening to Bach when you prefer Lil’ Wayne, or watchingShane when you normally go for Sex and the City.
It’s yoga for the mind, a way to keep open to new things. Without food, we will die. Without opening ourselves to new experiences, edible and otherwise, our thinking ossifies at a time when, more than ever, we must try the variety the world offers, and accept one another’s differences as we do.
A few of my favorite cookbooks containing offal recipes:
Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook. Put aside the hype. The recipes are surprisingly simple, require no fancy kitchen equipment, and are delivered in Bourdain’s no-bullshit style. He may be a loose cannon with too many TV shows, but he really can cook.
Fergus Henderson’s The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating. For years, Henderson’s book was hard to get outside the British Isles. Even now, American cooks can only read about preparing spleen, lights (lungs), and sheep’s brains. Nonetheless, the book is filled with Henderson’s wonderful writing and excellent recipes. That Henderson has Parkinson’s Disease and can no longer cook contributes to my agnosticism.
Jennifer McLagan’s cookbook trilogy: Bones: Recipes, History, and Lore, Fat, and Odd Bits. McLagan is a trained chef and food stylist whose books tackles less popular foods, making them more accessible to the home cook. Her recipes can be complex, but are always clearly written. Of the three, Odd Bits is frankly the least accessible to all but the most intrepid home cooks. This has less to do with the recipes than procuring the necessary ingredients. That said, I have cooked from it, and reading it was an education in cookery and culture. If you’re the type who does holiday shopping in July, buy the set now for the cook in your life.
I also recommend David Tanis’s A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes” and Heart of the Artichoke and Other Kitchen Journeys. Tanis is part of the Chez Panisse posse. His books are beautifully written and filled with seasonal, surprisingly simple recipes. Tanis disdains fancy kitchen equipment. If you own a cast iron pan and a decent knife, you can cook almost anything in either cookbook. These are in constant rotation in my kitchen.
Next challenge: Tripe.