Published March 01, 2011
If we truly were what we eat then brains would be the best smart food and testicles the ultimate aphrodisiac. Unfortunately, most Americans just think that they are gross, so we may never know for sure. Preparation, though, makes the disgusting downright delicious. That’s why God invented chefs. Take liver – it’s flabby, chalky and mealy, but whip duck liver and cognac into a mousse pâté and you’ll find it silky, smooth and irresistible.
Sure, you can dress up liver, but it’s a toss-up as to whether the same holds true for gray matter with its exponentially higher gross-out factor. Get over it and man up, says Chef Richard Knight co-owner of Houston’s Feast restaurant. Brains are the nectar of the gods.
“Think of them as beautiful, soft scrambled eggs,” he suggests. That’s how he uses them in his Pork Brain Terrine. There’s seasoned ground pork, he says, sweet, tart cherries and then, “the sexy creaminess of brain in the center. Lovely.”
Brains lack the oomph and familiarity of other organ meat collectively called, “offal.” They don’t have liver and kidney’s meaty heft, tripe’s chewiness or sweetbreads’ versatility. Says chef, cooking instructor and author of "The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice," Michael Krondl, “you can’t cook brains crispy like sweetbreads. They’ll just fall apart.” Think of brains as you would a poached egg in a salad, he says, adding that they’re great in casseroles because they hold spice and flavor.
Brains are typically consumed in cultures that don’t define “meat” as muscle tissue the way Americans do. They’re eaten in places where people enjoy offal, says Krondl, such as Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the waste-not, want-not United Kingdom.
Steak and Kidney Pie is as ubiquitous there as is Black Pudding, a quart of pig’s blood, mixed with meat and oats, boiled till congealed then chilled. (Black Pudding is also the ammo at The World Black Pudding Championships where contestants throw six-ounce black puddings at stacks of Yorkshire pudding.) Tongue is routine as are Bath Chaps: pig's cheek or jaw meat pressed into a mold, salted, cured or pickled in brine, smoked, boiled and coated with breadcrumbs. Haggis, a cow or sheep stomach stuffed with heart, kidneys, lungs, liver, suet (hard fat surrounding cow or sheep kidneys) oatmeal then boiled, is a Scottish staple. It’s also the projectile in Haggis Hurling where players go for distance rather than the knockdown.
“These are the foods that we grew up on,” says Knight, from Cornwall, England, of himself and co-owner James Silk, who runs Feast in New Orleans. “It’s still pretty normal. They’re not the big ooooh, crazy fall-back-in-your-chair thing they are in America,” says the chef who achieves just that with dishes like Tongue in Breasts and the whole cow head he dubs, Beef Cheeks, Bone-In.
Knight offers classics like cassoulet and bouillabaisse alongside the brain food. “We do a mix. It’s not a circus. It has integrity,” he says, it’s not just crazy weird.” It’s true that civilized cultures, as well as the cavemen before them, have been cooking every bit of every animal for thousands of years. Eating brains is merely something old that’s new again.
Feast gets pig brains every two weeks from “a happy, reputable farm in Austin. There’s no animal battery. The animals are farmed in proper way,” says Knight. (Mad Cow makes cow brains off-limits.) He removes skin, ears, tongue and cheeks and then cracks the head with a cleaver: “Once you’re good at it and you know the right spot, the head splits like coconut.” Pry it open, peel back the membrane and spoon out what Knight says is a surprisingly small brain. “You see a brain that size in a 350-pound animal and you realize there’s a reason they don’t rule the world.”
It’s light pink with some dark veins and a white bit at the back. “It’s lovely at the back. Nice and juicy,” Knight says. He pours batter over them for Brain Fritters and pops them in the oven. The batter fluffs up into a puffy pancake with a brain in the center. He roasts bacon-wrapped brains for Brains, Beans and Bacon and serves them with cassoulet-style beans. Their eggy texture is center-stage in Brains on Toast, brains poached in anise-flavored chicken broth, plumped on toast and served with cream sauce.
Brain-eating reluctance comes from the fact that we’ve lost touch with food. “A plastic-wrapped chicken breast in a tray has nothing to do with where food comes from,” Knight says. He bemoans the shift to instant food and take-out, and not just in the US, saying it eliminates rituals like the sit-down family meal. Sitting down and eating with your friends and family stems from the days he says, “when you got to kill the animal and everyone sits down and eats every little bit of it.” Okay, not a universal Sunday dinner experience but point taken. Knight explains that those parts that revolt - eyes, ears, organs and cheeks - are considered the best animal has to offer and often go to the guest of honor in some cultures.
Houston is the perfect place for Feast says Knight because the oil industry attracts lots of ex-pat Asians and Europeans. People in the oil business tend to travel the world he says are open to new sensations, “they’re normal people who are excited to eat new things.”
Knight’s newest cerebral concoction is Brains au Gratin. Poached brains with a classic white sauce jazzed up with Parmesan, Worcestershire sauce, egg yolks and cream, topped with breadcrumbs, cheese and butter and browned in the oven.
Do whatever you have to try brains, says Knight. “If you need to close your eyes for a second to eat them, do it. They’re beautiful and sexy,” he says. Try them. They may just blow your mind.