They're the stuff of nightmares for vegetarians and squeamish eaters alike: veal cheeks, calves' lungs, sweetbreads, roasted marrow bones, pork brains, and tripe. Collectively known as offal, the innards of various beasts have historically been the fare of peasants, war refugees, coal miners, mountain dwellers, and British barristers. Once found mostly at French bistros and ethnic neighborhood eateries, today dishes prepared with organs are increasingly turning up on menus at esteemed restaurants in New York, New Orleans, Minneapolis, and other cities around the country.
Innovators such as celebrity chef Mario Batali, who slips morsels of gelatinous veal cheek into raviolis at his popular New York restaurants, have been challenging diners for a few years with innards. But offal took off in earnest last year with the U.S. publication of The Whole Beast: Nose To Tail Eating by Fergus Henderson, owner of London's St. John restaurant and the recognized godfather of offal. Why pass up beefsteak for brains? Because you're apt to get a chef's most creative juices. "Order lobster or steak frites and you aren't getting a chef's A-game," says Anthony Bourdain, chef and author of Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.
TRY A TASTING MENU
My journey into offal began in 2001 after weight-loss surgery that narrowed the passage from my gullet to stomach to smaller than a dime. Steaks and chops became too difficult to digest. But organ meats, with less fibrous structures and huge flavors, opened new vistas.
If you're new to offal, a tasting menu is the way to go. I like Onera in Manhattan, where Executive Chef Michael Psilakis frequently offers a five-course offal dinner for $50. Dishes range from an adventuresome jellied headcheese of pork (think of chunky Jell-O flavored with meat and gristle) and calf brains with fennel, dill, and shallots, to my favorite, a two-bite nirvana of braised goat heart with crispy artichoke and lemon. The heart tastes closer to game, like elk, than to liver.
Sweetbreads (actually the thymus gland of a calf) are the beginner slope of offal. Done deftly, they have a delicate, nutty flavor and disappear in the mouth almost without chewing. Onera's are served brilliantly with a foie gras dumpling in a crushed chicken liver sauce, with a streak of sheep's milk crème fraîche through which to drag each forkful.
The opposite of the nouveau offal are the old world dishes served at classic French bistros such as Manhattan's Pierre au Tunnel. There, I stared at the $14 plate of Tête de Veau (calf's head) like an En-glish major facing a trigonometry exam. The cutlet-size veal cheeks and tongue and a fist of brains were simmered in stock with vegetables. With this preparation, the brains tasted like brined packing material.
Tripe, or stomach lining, can be daunting to a new offal eater. Again, preparation is everything. At Casa Mono, a Spanish tapas restaurant on Irving Place in Manhattan, the crock of veal stock-infused, almost pasta-like tripe cooked with chorizo, served with chick peas, and finished off with four slices of morcilla (blood sausage) was rich enough to be dessert. Organ meats run high in cholesterol, so eat them sparingly. But even a little bit of offal can add an exciting new dimension to your eating.
By David Kiley