Monday, December 19, 2011

That's Just Offal

If pressured, I would admit that I don't really believe eating every part of the animal has anything to do with being moral. In fact, so long as the animal has had a good life, eating the parts which are most delicious to you seems like a fitting tribute. Animals, after all, are animals, whatever the quasi-religious left-wing animal rightists, or the even more quasi-religious right-wing hunters, may feel. But, as an eater, some of the best meals of my life have involved cuts decidedly not from the tenderloin/backstrap (in point of fact, tenderloin has never been very enjoyable or flavorful).

Some examples:

-Pho with soft tendon, a meltingly tender mouthful of beef essence
-My first menudo, a soup so perfect I keep chasing it to the bottom of skanky bowl after skanky bowl
-Foie gras, on the line at Au Pied de Cochon; never have the words, "ere, heat this" sounded so right
-Tongue tacos, everyday, anytime

As an anachronist and a minimalist, there is a strong drive to eat the whole animal because not wasting anything is the way it's always been done.

But, chiefly, as a cook, throwing a piece of prime strip on a hot grill with a bunch of salt is boring. What has been done, other than salting the meat and flipping it? There's no challenge, and for a while, my disillusionment with that ease allowed me no joy in cooking with meat of any kind.

One of my vividest memories of Montreal is peeling, with a vegetable peeler, braised venison tongues in the sweltering prep cellar. There was an element of medieval torture (deer are very similarly sized to humans, and the tongues I held were roughly the same shape as mine), but there was also a great deal of skill and knowledge involved. A tongue takes some care to make edible, but when done right, it is true bliss (and at Au Pied de Cochon, the tongues were most definitely destroyed by being soaked in vinegar).

Thursday: Tongue and Tail

Nose-to-tail eating can get only so much more literal than this.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is my favorite cookbook author, although his recipes aren't the most daring or technically precise or even authentic. Still, he embraces food as food should be embraced: honestly, for what it is, and for what it does to us. A pig, to him, is not a source of excessive culinary creation (like Martin Picard) or traditional nasty bits (such as Henderson), but a pig, as in that animal which lives outside his farmhouse, eating scraps from the garden, and in the fall eats fallen acorns in the oak stand along the hedgerow. A pig, quite simply, is more real to Mr. Fearnley-Whittingstall than to any other author I've read. Only Rob Levitt, of Chicago's Butcher and Larder, approaches meat, with a similar mindset (and the mindset, by definition, extends beyond meat to all food, but that is outside the scope of this week's cooking).

This dish intrigued me. Tongue is one of my favorite cuts, and oxtail is a newly discovered delight. So what would they be like, jellied in a loaf with red wine?

Really, really good.

The chunks of meat were too large, and the loaf came apart when I sliced it. Such are the results of making an aspic loaf for the first time. It was also too rich to eat much of it in a sitting, but when it was hot and served over parsnips...

Absolutely soul-warming. Just what I needed when my family were out of town.

Friday: Tripe

Rarely do I find any food unappetizing. From youngest childhood to now, almost nothing served has made me gag. There have been two, maybe three, times in my life when I simply could not chew - an oyster when I was 4 (which I don't remember), a vegetable terrine in France. One of those times was this last Friday.

Entranced with the romantic portrait Henderson painted on page 88, I decided to make my second dish Tripe and Onions. The second chamber of the cow's stomach is no stranger, with menudo being a favorite meal of mine. Sure, there have been a bad experiences, but in general, the melting quality of the tripe and the spice of the broth combine to be the most perfect accompaniment to masa.

Still, there is an element of revulsion in those memories. The texture of tripe is off-putting to Americans, but the smell is what dominates. At one moment, it is the most homely, warming aroma I know, but there is a strong part of it which disgusts me. As much as I love menudo, the smell and texture have always left me wondering if this was the time I would lose my lunch while still eating.

In the end, it was not menudo, but a warm, comforting dish of English heritage which put me over the edge. Had this tripe been grass-fed, sourced by St. Johns, served in the white-tiled dining room, by respectable waiters, and simmered for hours by their knowledgeable cooks, it surely would have been divine.

But just look at that pile of squishy yellowish goo. I put it in my mouth and gagged. Gathering will power, I bit down and didn't gag. I bit down a second time, and gagged harder. I spit it out, and gagged. I made it to the sink, and while not gagging, I could feel muscles lower down contracting. This, I thought, was surely my stomach staging a protest. No stomach shall be digested by this stomach, it urged.

So, my second meal was a failure, but I am determined now. Between now and the next time my family leaves me alone to my own devices, I shall eat as much tripe as possible, so that the smell of it cooking does not induce panic at the thought of actually eating it.

Or maybe I'll just throw in the towel and stick to less emetic offal (like liver, and kidneys, and hearts (which really isn't offal at all)).
Saturday: Old stand-bys: roast chicken with golden beets and parsnips, and wine-braised sauerkraut. Recipes I know well, and that can be ready with minimal prep, which was good for having a couple guys over. I only mention it to explain why I didn't make anything spectacularly disgusting.
Sunday/Monday: Trotters

Le ragoût de pattes de cochon is a traditional Christmas dish in Quebec. (I'm assuming it was eaten more widely than the end of December, but the last 50 years have seen much of the poor rural element give way to a slightly wealthier eating style.) A confession: trotters are not what I would call "edible" or in any way pleasing. I am old enough, and I've eaten enough with a completely open mind, that I feel no embarrassment saying that gnawing through skin to get to cartilage which is surrounded by fat is not pleasant.

But, sometimes, you have got to do something because two days before, you made something even less enjoyable because of some romantic and foolish idea that tripe only needs respect to taste good.

Besides, I cooked at the current spiritual home of Quebec cuisine, and I was using that recipe. I had to do this.

This dish took three days to prepare. I roasted a chicken on Saturday to serve for dinner, then on Sunday used the carcass to make a simple chicken stock with carrots, while brining the pig's feet. The original recipe called for pork stock, but this is a dish from Quebec, and les habitants are nothing if not frugal, so I felt that the chicken stock was more fitting than buying more pork to make the stock with would be. Then, after the stock was made (around 2:00 pm), I put in the trotters to simmer for three hours.

This recipe also has one of the weirdest techniques I know, and it isn't just Martin Picard's insanity. The sauce is thickened with flour, but first the flour is roasted in a 400 degree oven until dark brown. There's no fat added to the flour, so it isn't a roux, nor is it mixed with anything else. It's just oven-roasted flour, which smells rather strange. My only hunch is that this is an ancient French technique which died out on the continent sometime between 1700 and 1900 with the universal adoption of the roux, but which persisted in the francophone enclave of North America.

So, that was all done on Sunday, and the stock with trotters was put in the fridge overnight.

Look at that gel! God, trotters are amazing.

As that heated up on the stove, I prepared the meatballs, which are seasoned with nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, and pepper, then browned them in a skillet with some of the schmaltz the great cooks at work gave me (they gave me a quart of schmaltz for no reason other than I asked). I reduced the broth while cooking the meatballs through in it, and then put in some fingerling Yukon Gold and boiler onions. Unsurprisingly, given the pork, cinnamon, and clove, it smelled a lot like pho until the potatoes took over.

Finally, I added the roasted flour to the broth, then reheated all of the ingredients in the sauce: the trotters, the meatballs, the potatoes, and the onions. I took them out, and then mounted it, because this is a good dish, a French dish, and what the hell else would you do after cooking pig's feet and meatballs browned in schmaltz in the gelatinous pork/chicken stock, other than melt butter into it?

Here it is:

I took a bite and... best thing I have eaten in months! I was reminded that when I first started at Au Pied de Cochon, I loved the trotters. It wasn't until I picked the bones out of 40 a night that my stomach started to turn. Trotters are a glutton's fantasy, and could only be improved by being stuffed with foie gras (incidentally, the signature dish at Au Pied de Cochon is just that). The stew was hearty, familiar, and yet exotic. It was rich and luxurious, yet plebeian. The roasted flour, by the way, gave it an intriguing, alluring depth.

So, to all of you, a very happy Christmas!

1 comment:

Kathryn said...

Jeez, look at you go! I have never tried trotters before, but I have tried chicken feet, which were pretty darn delicious (but very bony). And thanks for the image of peeling tongue with a vegetable peeler. That will haunt my dreams forever.

P.S. Laraine told me that you knew some good places to get pho. Care to share?