Supposing you were asked to make something you've never made before for a potluck. What springs to mind? And what does it say about you?
The range of dishes on offer at my friend Rachel's latest edition of Grub provided interesting insight into the culinary personalities of a roomful of (mostly) strangers. The Mistress of Grub requires that before we can eat, everyone must describe what they brought and list any local sources of ingredients. One woman proudly announced she had baked her first pie. You've already read about Marc's ravishing chiles en nogada. Rachel herself made spaetzle. Ryan, a sous chef at Salt House, made a stew of tripe (pigs' intestines), beans, and tomatoes. Peter, a Marin vegetable farmer, explained that he'd shot a deer on the last day of hunting season and had been too busy wrestling with its carcass to plan much; he'd be grilling some of the venison loin that he'd let sit overnight in a new-to-him marinade.
Then it was my turn. "I brought beef tongue," I told the Grubbers, adding with a shrug, "I had it in my freezer."
I didn't mention that with this dish, I had licked a longstanding aversion. And apparently become part of a yet another easily caricatured foodie trend.
(Warning: Some photos of a big ole beef tongue after the jump.)
The unlovable L-shaped 4-pound lump — the taste-y part of a beef tongue comes attached to a huge knot of muscle buried backstage in the throat — had been sitting reproachfully in my spare freezer for a few months, the result of our meat CSA's random division of braising cuts. Having had only a single taste of tongue since I began eating meat again five years ago —and no, I never ate it before then, either — I didn't especially want to have to cook one. However, even if I did start the CSA, I couldn't very well pull rank and sneak the tongue into someone else's bag. If it was good enough for them, it had to be good enough for me.
Philosophically, I am pro what Anthony Bourdain calls the "nasty bits," as long as they come from humanely raised animals. I ate lamb testicles grilled by the side of the road on my recent vacation in Tunisia — twice. (More about that very soon.) I've savored sweetbreads. I've eaten fried pigs' snout and ears after making sausage with the rest. I avoid foie gras, but I sure do like duck liver mousse. Basically, I agree wholeheartedly with writer-turned-farmer Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall that "Offal offers us the chance to pay our respects, in a full and holistic manner, to the animals we've raised for meat."
But this tongue from Marin Sun Farms seemed another matter entirely. My husband put it this way: "I don't really want to eat anything that's already been in someone else's mouth." Every time I pulled the frozen lump out of the freezer, my own tongue twitched nervously behind my clenched teeth. So of course, I decided that's what I had to bring to this potluck: not only a dish I'd never made before, but a thing I'd barely even tried and was pretty sure I wouldn't like, plus that most people wouldn't want to sample.
I am alone in neither my willingness to cook tongue nor my aversion to doing so. Let's start with the ick factor. Offal comes from "off-fall" — the parts that spill out when an animal is gutted after slaughter. The rational part of me knows that "the tongue is not a gland or an organ but a muscle, so strictly speaking it need not be classed separately from other meat cuts," as Fearnley-Whittingstall writes in his ethical-eating-manifesto-cum-cookbook "The River Cottage Meatbook." (I got one as a review copy.) But it always is, he continues, because "for many people it remains the source of great gastronomic squeamishness. I guess there is something a little weird about eating a muscle that is, on our own bodies, so orally familiar."
Those of European descent might disdain offal now, but according to Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's history of food, "Near a Thousand Tables," the ancient Romans loved offal — "the prestige of pig's glands and jowls, gelatinous feet, liver engorged by hypertrophy, fungi, tongues, head cheese, brains, sweetbreads, testicles, udders, wombs, marrow." For some reason, even when the Renaissance resurrected Roman cuisine, this love affair with the viscous and chewy was not revived.
So, for the last several centuries, offal has been poor people's food, says a fascinating and rather unsettling article that I saved from the Spring 2006 issue of Gastronomica. Jeremy Strong, the writer of "The Modern Offal Eaters" essay (PDF), doesn't qualify that statement with "in Europe and America," but he should. Offal is a longstanding, integral part of many Asian countries' everyday cuisine and, as I discovered firsthand in Turkey, Syria, and Tunisia, of some Middle Eastern ones as well. (Just swap pork for lamb.)
Strong offers some interesting tidbits as to why the British and American poor ended up with innards: it wasn't simply that things like liver and kidneys were less desirable, it was also that they must be eaten when very fresh. Before the advent of modern food-processing transportation, only people who lived close to the slaughterhouses — the poor — could take advantage of that window.
These days, Strong observes, the working classes have abandoned dishes like chitlins — or chitterlings, the tripe staple of the African-Americans in the South — for processed storebought or fast food, which thanks to millions of marketing dollars, somehow represents an improvement over real, traditional food. Now, it's the "elite," the people who can afford filet mignon, who are eating beef tongue. While Strong doesn't seem to have an axe to grind, he does have a point to make, and it's this:
Not unlike offal itself, the new offal eaters can be interpreted as an outcome of the margins, a by-product of a distinction-seeking culture in which fashions are prompted and impelled by trendsetters who revisit, modify, and commodify the tastes and practices of other times and places.
Let me translate that from academic-speak for you: We "modern offal eaters" are well-off foodies glomming on to the latest fad so as to differentiate ourselves at the dinner table. To him, we're the pierced-labia and tattooed-eyelid avant garde of the ever-competitive gourmet landscape.
Obviously this assessment stung me because it is a little true. Think about the cult of Anthony Bourdain, and his swaggering, macho, "I use vegetarians as napkins to wipe the dripping meat juices from my chin" image. If real men eat meat, real hardcore foodies eat testicles. Since I thought Bourdain was totally hot long before I started eating meat again, I must be susceptible to the perceived cool value of eating the whole animal, "nose to tail."
Stalking the talk
But I also do so because morally, it seems like the right thing to do — as an Ethicurean, someone who cares about where her meat comes from, and no, Whole Foods doesn't cut it for me. I have met the farmers who provide me with beef, pork, and chicken. I have visited their farms. And several months ago, some let me witness the act of slaughtering, or "harvesting" as the farmers prefer — they see their animals as a crop, not pets, to be collected when they are ripe, and anyway who the hell am I to argue with their terminology? They're the ones who feed the baby piglets with bottles when they're sick, or stay up misting the fields so the free-range laying hens don't boil in the heat. So yes, I've been a few feet away as two steers, a hog, a suckling pig, and roughly 45 chickens met their ends. (Mercifully not all in the same day.) I watched them go from being living, breathing, and let's face it, adorable animals one second to stare-eyed corpses in the next, and then within minutes to flesh hanging on a hook. I saw the harvester cut the tongue out from the neck side of the steer's decapitated head and pull it bloodily through.
And I'm OK with it. All of it. It didn't make me want to stop eating meat. It did, however, make me never want to waste another piece. Knowing the work and care that goes into a small-farmed animal's life and its death, I would feel ashamed to pass up, or let spoil, any of it.
(To those vegetarians who've tuned out while scrolling down to the comment section so you can open up a can of moral whup-ass on me about how there's no such thing as humane meat, please don’t bother. Same goes for the factory-meat-eaters who say that if we raised all animals on pasture, there'd never be enough meat for all of us protein-deficient Americans, let alone the world's growing population. I will be happy to debate both your arguments when I write a post specifically about the choice to eat SOLE meat. This is not that post.)
Strong is aware of this Ethicureanish angle, and to him, me and my morals are just another sociological trend worth noting:
Questions of authenticity underpin the discourse of truth relative to meat and offal in which diners engage with a body of knowledge that concerns the origins of their food and the process of its journey to the plate. Such understanding is linked to a prevailing climate in which consumers with the financial means and disposition query the provenance of their purchases generally, motivated by considerations including food miles, organic farming, welfare standards, fair trade, and the preferred status such purchasing confers.
…For the modern offal eaters their knowledge and consumption of liver, kidneys, and trotter signifies an especially pronounced participation in this culture of food awareness, an engagement with food at its most primary. With majority tastes shepherded toward convenience and away from blood and guts, offal has acquired a new potential to signify discrimination.
In essence, I was planning to cook that tongue — even though the sight of it nauseated me — because I was seeking "preferred status." I wanted to be the coolest foodie at the Grub potluck, so I could be voted Homecoming Queen and have some sort of musical flashback in which the sixth-graders who made fun of the weird healthy sandwiches my mom packed for me on lumpy homemade wheat bread turned into giant blueberries and then were rolled away by Oompa Loompas.
Or perhaps I happened to have a tongue in my freezer, and wanted to put my money where another's mouth was. So to speak. If this is a trend, frankly, I'm glad. There's no better way to meet your meat than with a little tongue. But I don't care about being ahead of the curve, or a role model. I am eating this way for myself — because it's fun, challenging, and satisfying in ways I never imagined.
The recipe, at last
At this point you may be wondering if I am ever going to talk about what I did with the damn tongue. Sorry.
I thawed it in the fridge for a few days while I procrastinated about what to cook with it that would be suitable for a crowd. I thought Fearnley-Whittingstall's recipe for tongue with lentils and salad in "The River Cottage Meat Book" sounded good, or at least the title did. When I finally got around to actually reading the recipe the day before the party, I was dismayed to learn that I was supposed to have pickled the tongue. Other recipes also called for pickling or brining. I started to get a little worried: I had no backup plan.
Fortunately, the same nice publicist at Ten Speed Press who sent me "The River Cottage Meat Book" — I asked for it — had tossed "The Niman Ranch Cookbook" in the box, too. I respect Bill Niman and how Niman Ranch has made humanely raised beef, pork, and lamb popular and acceptable to the mainstream, but when possible, I prefer to seek out 100% grassfed beef, not grain-finished like those under the Niman brand. I was intrigued to see that he specifically addresses why they do this in the cookbook. Alas, I was not persuaded by his argument that outside of peak grass season, grass-finished beef is "tough and gamy" or that so-called grassfed operations which truck in hay and silage for most of the year are not sustainable. They're not, but that's a "straw man" you're knocking down: does a Vermont farmer think he too should be able to grow oranges just because they can in Florida and California? Plug in enough hot lights and I suppose he could….but that wouldn't mean he should. Meanwhile, even a small, caring feedlot is still a feedlot.
And now back to the tongue.
I had left it sitting out while I did the prep, so it was room temperature. It felt dense and heavy in my hand — sort of genital-like, if you'll forgive the comparison. The surface of the business portion had stiff overlapping shingles of skin that created a rough texture like a cat's tongue. I imagined the cow that the tongue had belonged to, licking a boulder of salt. I smelled it — sort of like scrambled eggs. And then I put it in the pot.
Cooking a tongue when I'd only eaten it once was perhaps a bit more challenging than I bargained. I had no idea how to tell when it was done, but finally the skewer did go right through the thick part easily. While the cookbook made it sound like the skin would peel right off afterward (you don't eat the tastebuddy part), it didn't, and I had to sharpen my knives to remove it in strips. Fortunately, you end up slicing the tongue into thin cross-sections, so my messy peeling wasn't a cosmetic problem.
At this point, I wasn't unnerved by the tongue anymore. It was just another piece of meat I was carving up. I tried a slice. It was tender, slightly spongy, with a standard beef tenderloin type flavor. In brief, it was good. And having already made the salsa that went with it, I knew I would not be sent home in disgrace with an untouched, rejected potluck offering.
I had no idea whether the big muscle-y base was supposed to be part of the dish, so I just started cutting away the gristle and funky tube-like bits from it and tasting. If it was too chewy and sinewy, it went in the compost pile. If it tasted all right, I sliced it and arranged it on the platter with the not-very-appealing looking petals of tongue.
At the Grub party, the dish was not the white elephant on the buffet table that I thought it would be. Almost all of it got eaten, which given how much food there was for the 25 of us, was no small praise. Several people made a point of telling me how much they enjoyed it, that they had eaten a lot of tongue growing up in Jewish or Italian households and never thought they'd miss it, but did. On the other hand, I know at least one person tried it and thought it was gross.
I wasn't offended — it's definitely an acquired taste. But it's one I'd recommend everyone try at least once, if you can find a good source of grassfed tongue. Then you can brag how you're in the Offal Eating Club with all the cool kids. Or you can just feel quietly glad you're chewing the right thing.
Poached Beef Tongue with Salsa Verde
From "The Niman Ranch Cookbook," recipe credited to Eddie Arriaga, sous chef at San Francisco's Absinthe restaurant
Time: About 4 hours start to finish
1 beef tongue, about 3 pounds
6 cups chicken stock (homemade if at all possible)
6 cups water
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 bay leaf
10 black peppercorns
To cook the tongue, place it in a stockpot large enough to submerge it completely once you pour in the six cups of liquid. Add the stock, water, carrots, celery, onion, bay leaf, and peppercorns. I salted mine, too. Bring to a boil over high heat. Decrease the heat to low and cook uncovered for 2 to 2.5 hours, until tender when pierced with a knife. (My tongue, which was 4 pounds and likely from a larger, older cow, took just over 3 hours to get to this point.) Lift out the tongue with tongs, carefully. Transfer to a plate to cool. (For what to do with the liquid, see concluding note.)
"Salsa Verde" accompaniment
1/4 cup finely diced red onion
1/4 cup finely diced cornichons
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons capers, chopped
1/2 teaspoon minced lemon zest
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
Toward the end of the tongue's cooking, make the salsa. Hardboil the eggs with your preferred method then submerge in cold water to cool. When they are chilled, peel them, cut in half, extract the yolks, and set them aside for something else — or eat them with some salt and pepper, like I did. Chop the whites, put them in a small bowl and stir in the rest of the ingredients minus the olive oil, then add the olive oil and season with salt and pepper as you like. Do not snack too much on the salsa, you need most of it.
When the tongue is cool enough to handle, make a shallow cut along the length of the top and be careful here, as cutting too deep will disfigure your slices later — and peel away and discard the skin. The recipe doesn't tell you, but there are actually two layers you're removing. I wasn't sure whether I was supposed to take off the inner layer, so I tasted it — rough and tough, so yup, remove it too. Trim away any excess fat or tendons from the meat and cut the tongue part of the tongue crosswise into thin slices. There's tasty meat in the throat-muscle part of the tongue, but it's surrounded by a fair amount of gristle and odd tubular bits. Just slice off what doesn't look like edible meat until you get to a pocket that does — I tasted as I went, but visually would have worked fine too. The inner sections can be sliced into thinner slivers for serving. Set aside the raggedy bits and other remaining chunks.
Arrange all the pretty slices on a platter and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Top with spoonfuls of the salsa verde. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Leftover Tongue Soup
What to do with the remaining scraggly bits and all that rich delicious broth? Why, make tongue and vegetable soup the next day!
When cleaning up after making your tongue platter, cut the cosmetically challenged chunks of tongue into Campbells-worthy cubes and refrigerate. Pour the poaching liquid into a new bowl through a strainer. Press all the juice from the mushy carrots, onions, and celery through the sieve; discard veggies. Cover the new bowl and put it in the fridge to cool overnight. In the morning, skim the hardened fat from the top. Cut up some new carrots, onions, and celery. Throw in whatever other fresh vegetables you have or even ones languishing in the crispers (I had green beans, corn, and squash). Salt liberally. Add leftover tongue chunks. Bring to a simmer. If you feel like it, sprinkle individual soup bowls with some grated parmesan. Eat with good bread.