Dictionary defines offal as:
1: the waste or by-product of a process: as a: trimmings of a hide b: the by-products of milling used especially for stock feeds c: the viscera and trimmings of a butchered animal removed in dressing: variety meat
I love definition No. 2. It really doesn’t make it seem as if the stuff is edible at all. But these parts of the animal historically have produced some of the greatest meals, because, face it (pun intended, head cheese, face parts, get it?), you need to be a great cook to make these tough, fibrous parts of the animal savory. Anyone can grill a nice tenderloin steak to perfection in a couple of minutes, but can you do the same with stomach lining?
We recently returned from our annual sojourn to the Bay Area and discovered several dishes — one which was yet another one of our many food epiphanies — that had us rethinking “traditional” menu selections versus eclectic selections, in this case the often discarded animal parts known as offal… but definitely not awful.
Located just under the Casa Madrona in the heart of Sausalito, Poggio’s Chef Peter McNee considers himself a novice in the world of offal, having added selections of these underutilized cuts only in the past four or five years. While most of Poggio’s menu remains traditional Italian fare, there are always several selections of that other meat. While we were there, he offered a couple of dishes with chicken liver — liver paté and sautéed liver. I know that since chicken liver is usually a traditional dish in delicatessens, you may not consider it as you would that other meat, but it is still an organ meat and qualifies as offal. See, you may have already had offal in your usual diet without even knowing it.
We were lucky that lingua or lamb’s tongue was on the fall menu while we were in town. And boy was it good. Food epiphany good! Good enough that I’ll probably check to see if my local food purveyor, Y. Hata carries it. It was grilled and slightly charred on the outside, but one bite was reminiscent of the texture of that thin strip of meat around the heart of a piece of prime rib. All the flavor of lamb with the texture of prime rib served under a bed of arugula and watercress tossed in a light vinaigrette, so that the bitterness of the greens and acid of the vinaigrette helped balance the richness of the tongue. Along with some roasted baby beets for sweetness, this was a magnificent dish. A return visit just for this dish would be in order!
Most supermarkets sell fresh chicken liver but the quality varies from market to market. Often it’s pre-frozen then thawed or semi-thawed before sale, which, isn’t as desirable as fresh chicken liver. I’m sure you’ve also run across beef or calves liver — the stuff of nightmares of my youth due to the perceived nutritional qualities of liver (a multivitamin gets those same nutrients without the nasty flavor of supermarket beef liver) — but once again these renditions are either frozen and thawed or just not very fresh. I’m not sure if the states offer beef stomach lining or tripe as readily as you find it in the 50th. Tripe stew is a regular menu item in most Hawai‘i local eateries — in fact most locals know the difference between the honeycomb smooth leaf tripe. Like most of the “less” desirable cuts of meat, tripe does take its fair share of cooking time for edibility. Boiling plus or minus several water changes for up to three hours is the rule, and this best be accomplished outside because of the fragrance that boiling tripe imparts to your kitchen, drapes and carpet. This is a big reason why the Tatsumoto clan never had tripe on a regular basis. However I recently reacquainted myself with the stomach lining only a mother (cow?) could love. As I mentioned, Hawai‘i locals do have a love affair with tripe, so much so that it’s not uncommon to find tripe poke at the local market. The local Marukai Market does sell tripe poke on a regular basis so I decided to purchase a pound on a recent visit. I reasoned that since the three-hour boil was prepared by the Marukai staff all I had to do was add seasonings for my own rendition of an offal masterpiece (NO pun intended). I added the tripe poké to two cans of chopped tomatoes, three slivered garlic cloves and one tablespoon of dried mint and salt and freshly ground black pepper. I simmered it in a slow cooker for four hours then tossed it with about two tablespoons of chiffonade fresh mint right before serving. I served this over polenta seasoned with salt, black pepper and freshly grated Parmegiano Reggiano. Mighty tasty if I must say so myself!
In the local markets, oxtail is another staple from the nether region of the animal. As a young college student, I often shunned oxtail, reasoning that its sole purpose was to swat flies from the bovine’s butt. This reasoning persisted despite Kam Bowl’s famous oxtail soup served with copious amounts of grated fresh ginger and chopped cilantro. I don’t know when it happened but at some point, I had some braised oxtail spiced with traditional Asian spices and boy was that a food epiphany! Savory rich meat with an abundance of gelatinous broth, perfect with a Central Coast Pinot Noir or Syrah. I’ve been on the oxtail bandwagon since then.
We also visited the unofficial king of offal, Chef Chris Cosentino of Incanto, who annually hosts a pure offal menu. On our visit he had no less than six menu selections featuring offal incorporated into several starters and pastas, from tripe to sweetbread to trotter to bone marrow to tuna heart to liver. And since few chefs in the 50th highlight the treat of offals, we had to sample a couple of these dishes. We tried his veal sweetbread terrina with dates and pickled ramps, which basically was a rustic pork based terrine with sweetbread. I’ll admit that I would not have known that sweetbread was in the mixture if I didn’t see the menu. But I think that’s part of the inherent nature of sweetbread, which is either the thymus or pancreas of the animal. My own assessment of sweetbread is that it’s the organ culinary equivalent of tofu — white and slightly creamy texture but not much flavor on its own. But the terrina was very good, nonetheless, with a nice balance of sweet (dates) and sour (pickled ramps and mustard) to balance the richness of the pork. We also tried the parsnip and bone marrow ravioli with sangiovese sauce. Being primarily slightly beef flavored fat, the bone marrow replaced the butter or other fat that normally would have been incorporated into the pureed parsnips. It may seem like a waste since bone marrow roasted in the bone fetches a hefty price in most restaurants. Incanto’s version was a slightly more decadent version of the traditional ravioli with a sauce that helped to cut any residual “fattiness” of the marrow.
If you would like to live a “greener” life and contribute to the perpetuation of the globe, as we know it, I encourage trying some of these “other” meat dishes. For starters, they utilize the entire animal without waste. Remember that cows are more than ribs, rib eyes and fillets. They also come with heads, stomachs, tails and all that digestive stuff in between. And not all of these parts go to kibbles and bits. Some of these parts are actually healthier alternatives since they often are full of connective tissue and lower in fat. And since preparing offals requires a lot of work, it measures the true cooking skill of a chef so if it’s on the menu, it HAS to be good, not awful.
The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa and University of California at San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kaneohe, Hawai‘i and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.