If Jennifer McLagan weren’t an award-winning author of the aptly-named Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal (Leigh Beisch) she would probably be the toughest Fear Factor finalist, ever.
In a sub-chapter subtitled, Testicles, Yes Balls, McLagan informs that these animal parts are “tasty, tender and surprising mild in flavor.” She’s wary though, of creating a huge testicle demand. (No worries there.) They’re such great parts, she says, “but only half of the animals have them and then they only have two.”
It’s doubtful that even her Testicles with Caramelized Onions and Double-Smoked Bacon recipe would create a run on them. That’s because to state the obvious: Americans are consumers and bigtime fans of prime cuts. Once you start meandering too far forward—snout, ears, tongue—too far back—tail, testicles—too far down—shanks, feet—or all around—skin, blood—the “ick” factor predominates. And that’s a shame, says McLagan who makes a strong case for trying these oft-ignored parts with recipes like Headcheese for the Unconvinced, Pistachio Brain Soufflés and Chocolate Blood Ice Cream.
They’re all from her ode to offal, Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal (Ten Speed Press). Most of us think eating a cow’s back is tasty, but eating a cow’s tongue and cheek, not so much. We pay through the nose for lamb loin but run like the wind from lamb neck.
We consider pig belly, leg and loin delicious but not pig trotters, snout or ears. Interestingly, these distinctions are market, not taste bud, driven. All of us once ate from nose-to-tail out of necessity. Then factory farming made prime meats so reasonable that we could afford to throw those weird bits away.
The hanging carcasses and untethered organs of years past, tangible reminders of how our meals started out, were replaced with shrink-wrapped trays of rosy-red-meat-from-anywhere. It’s poor economics to throw away the rest of the animal, says McLagan. Those parts aren’t waste; they’re wasted. And it not only devalues the sacrificed animal, she says, it deprives you of long-forgotten treats.
Udders are not hollow but a solid muscle. When you can find it, usually in France, it’s often cooked and sold by the slice. A tongue is not an organ or gland, says McLagan, “it’s a muscle, just like tenderloin.” While deli tongue sandwich might leave you cold, tongue served hot, she says, “is rich and creamy and really smooth.” People always tell me they hate brains, she says. “How do they know, if they’ve never tasted them?”
Brains have a severe image problem when compared to Porterhouse or prosciutto, are difficult to extract intact and highly perishable. The reward says McLagan, is a texture that ranges from “whipped cream to soft-scrambled eggs.” Brains are great flavor absorbers, which is why she thinks her Ravioli of Brains and Morels might convert the brain-fearing among us.
McLagan’s whole animal philosophy isn’t so far out there. It’s “farm-to-table” applied to four-legged animals instead of tomatoes. She extends that idea—knowing how sustainably and responsibly a farmer grows his fruits and vegetables—to ranchers and how they treat their animals. She reasons that if you care that an animal is humanely raised and slaughtered it follows that you’d want to eat everything it offers. McLagan’s expertise is domesticated animals but she recommends the same culinary thoroughness with game. Among the oddest of game odd bits is beaver tail, aka “the flapper.” (Beaver “tail” is the rich meat below the flapper.)
McLagan’s never cooked one but she’s seen recipes that call for blistering the flapper over open-flames to remove the thick skin. Underneath is tender, whitish meat that you can either roast or simmer. Europeans (Steak and Kidney Pie) and Asians (duck tongues and feet) actually enjoy—not merely endure—nose-to-tail eating.
Enthusiast Serbian Ljubomir Erovic proves the point with his World Testicle Cooking Championship (testicles in béchamel, testicle goulash.) Its motto: “Scots have their scotch, the Swiss, their cheese, the Serbs, have balls.” Offal won’t be an American staple any time soon but more of us are willing to taste it, realizing that the challenge isn’t on the tongue (yours) but between the ears (yours).
Chefs are aiding and abetting the offal trend by going beyond liver and sweetbreads and embracing additional, less lovable parts. If your family keeps expressing boredom with dinner, remember that there’s a brave old/new world of goodies with which to tempt, or threaten, them.