Offal

Offal

By
Adrian Richardson
Contains
22 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740668064
Photographer
Dean Cambray

Offal definitely falls into the ‘love it or loathe it’ category of foodstuffs. There are no prizes for guessing which camp I belong to – especially since I’ve devoted an entire chapter to the stuff! But as well as finding these more unusual parts of the animal quite delicious, I also believe that we humans have a responsibility not to waste any part of the animals that die in order that we might live. And that means eating every little bit of them.

To be honest, I don’t really understand why some people have such strong objections to eating offal. If you think about it logically, why is it so much worse to eat an animal’s ear, or its tongue, than it is to eat the muscles in its thigh, or in its bum? (What did you think the rump was?) It’s all about what you’re used to, I suppose, which is going to be quite different, depending on when, where and how you grew up.

So while most people in the wealthy West won’t even consider eating offal, in many more countries around Asia, the Middle East and Europe it is prized as a delicacy. Think of how the Spanish love their blood sausages and bull’s testicles, or the Italians their calf’s liver alla Veneziana. In France they adore pig’s trotters and fricassées made from kidneys or sweetbreads. The Turks turn tripe into a soup that is widely eaten as a hangover cure, and grilled intestines are a popular street snack. And throughout the Middle East and China you’ll see offal butchers selling everything from camel’s heads to ox tendons to monkey’s brains. There is even a strong offal tradition in Britain – think of brawn, chitterlings, faggots and potted hough, not to mention the Scots’ devotion to black pudding and haggis.

So what exactly is offal? The word itself supposedly comes from the ‘fall off ’ in the abattoir – which conveys quite vividly the way the guts and intestines spill out of the suspended carcass onto the floor. As well as the animal’s internal organs, offal also extends to the extremities: the head (and everything inside it), the feet, ears, nose and tail.

Offal and nutrition

Offal is a rich source of nutrients. It is high in protein, low in carbohydrate and contains less fat than much of the meat that comes from animal muscle. In general, offal products are also richer than lean meat in many vitamins, minerals and trace elements – in particular vitamin A, the B vitamins, iron, folate and zinc.

On the downside, most offal (except for heart) is high in cholesterol and also contains high levels of purines, which you should avoid if you suffer from gout. Pregnant women are also advised to avoid offal – especially liver, which is particularly high in vitamin A, which can cause birth defects in early pregnancy.

How and where to buy offal

The aversion to offal has intensified in recent years – especially in the UK and in the USA – because of health scares such as BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) and scrapie (a similar degenerative disease in sheep). In the UK, abattoirs are required by law to remove all parts of cattle or sheep that might carry BSE – which means that brains are definitely off the menu.

While we are free of these diseases in Australia, it is still really important to buy offal from a reliable source. Many of these soft organs and glands play an important role in the body’s defence mechanisms. They are responsible for filtering out toxins, waste and infections, so they are especially vulnerable to a build-up of chemicals and damage caused by disease or stress. An understanding of the animal’s diet and lifestyle is therefore even more important than with other meat.

Furthermore, freshness is absolutely essential when you are buying offal. Because offal cuts are ‘soft’, and because of the job they do in the body, they deteriorate much more quickly than other types of meat.

In Australia most offal is exported to countries that appreciate it more than we do. Some offal is virtually impossible to find here and you are certainly extremely unlikely to be able to buy it in your local supermarket. Your own butcher should be able to buy most offal in for you, but if you are after a good range of different cuts then you should go to a specialist butcher. Butchers that sell to Asian, Greek, Turkish or Arab communities will be a good bet – you’ll almost certainly find a good turnover in sheep products in halal butchers.

So what should you look for? Fresh offal should look super-fresh. It should be firm and glossy, not dry and shrivelled around the edges. And if there is even the faintest whiff about it, then you should avoid it.

Pig’s head

Far from being scary, a whole pig’s head is a joy – and it is something that you should be able to source relatively easily, as long as you give your butcher a bit of notice. At La Luna Bistro we use the whole head to make brawn, but we also break it down and use the specific parts to make cotechini and sausages.

Brains

People seem to be particularly squeamish about the thought of eating brains. I suspect this has something to with the fact that they look so much like what they are. And many people are unable to get beyond the thought that they are our ‘gray matter’! It’s a great shame, because brains have a mild, slightly sweet flavour and a rich creamy texture.

Calf’s brains are virtually impossible to buy in Australia, although lamb’s brains are pretty easy to find. All brains need to be soaked before cooking, to remove any small blood clots. They must then be briefly poached before further cooking. Sometimes they are still covered with a thin membrane, which needs to be carefully peeled away after poaching. I think they are most delicious when sautéed in butter or fried in a crunchy coating.

Pig’s ears

Most us only ever see pig’s ears in pet shops, where they are sold as treats for the family dog. But they are very popular in French country cooking, where they can be stuffed and baked or fried until crisp. They are as tough as they look, so you’ll need to poach them for a few hours to make them tender. But through the magic of slow-cooking they become soft and tasty.

Tongue

Tongues come in all shapes and sizes, from the tiny duck’s tongues that are popular in Chinese cooking, through to hefty ox tongues. Your butcher is most likely to be able to find you lamb’s, calf’s or ox tongues – and they are all delicious.

I do understand that raw tongues look a bit confronting, with their dense muscular texture and bumpy skin that needs to be peeled away. But if you can get over your squeamishness you’ll find that they make brilliant eating. They are very easy to cook, and their flesh becomes soft, rich and creamy.

Many Continental butchers have pickled ox tongue as a matter of course. Pickling keeps it nice and pink and intensifies the flavour but it is not essential. If you want fresh tongue – of any animal – you’ll probably have to order it specially.

Cheek

This is sometimes sold as ‘jowl’ meat, but I think cheek sounds so much nicer.

The cheek meat from pigs and beef has become increasingly popular on modern restaurant menus – and rightly so. When cooked slowly it becomes rich, gelatinous and tasty, and is meltingly tender enough to flake with a fork.

Sweetbreads

The name ‘sweetbread’ is a terrific euphemism, because they have nothing to do with bread, and neither are they sweet. Sweetbreads are actually two different glands – one that sits near the throat, the other near the heart. They might not sound like something you want to eat, but in many countries sweetbreads are considered a real treat. They are similar to brains, with a creamy, soft texture and a very delicate flavour. In Australia, most sweetbreads – like nearly all our offal – are reserved for the lucrative export market. You’ll definitely need to order them from your butcher well in advance, but as true offal-lovers will know, it’s well worth it.

As is the case with brains, sweetbreads need a bit of preparation. First they need to be soaked for a few hours in several changes of water, then simmered quickly in a poaching stock before cleaning and trimming. Once that bit’s done, then off you go with the recipe of your choice!

Duck’s necks

This is a part of the bird that is usually completely ignored, but it makes a wonderful natural sausage casing! You can often buy ready-prepared duck necks from a poultry butcher (or of course you can chop them off whole ducks yourself, before roasting).

You need to peel the skin down and away from the internal vertebrae so you end up with a tube. Then you turn it inside out to see if there are any small tubes or glands still attached. If there are, trim them neatly away, being careful not to cut through the skin. Although it sounds a bit daunting, it’s easy enough to do.

Gizzards

In the good old days you could buy chickens with the giblets tucked neatly inside the body cavity. What you’d get was the neck, heart, liver and the gizzard, and they were ideal for boiling up to make a quick stock for your gravy. Nowadays you have to order this sort of thing specially from your butcher.

The gizzard is a funny piece of hard-working muscle that sits at the top of the bird’s stomach and grinds the food as it passes through. It’s usually overlooked, but is very meaty and tasty. These days, most butchers will sell you gizzards already cut and cleaned. Like all offal, they need to be washed and blanched before cooking.

Heart

As is the case with a great deal of offal, hearts are a bit of a rarity these days. I think it’s a great shame, because they are really tasty. To my mind, heart should either be cooked quickly and eaten a bit pink, or cooked long and slow until it tenderises.

You’ll most likely be able to find lamb’s, sheep’s or pig’s hearts. Ox hearts can be a bit tough and too strongly flavoured for some people. All hearts can be sliced for grilling or diced and marinated in olive oil and garlic, and threaded onto skewers for barbecuing. But I think they are especially good when you fill their natural cavity with a good flavoursome stuffing (or simply cut them in half lengthwise and pack the stuffing in).

Livers

Nearly everyone has tried liver, but sadly, some people never go back for seconds. There is no doubt in my mind that the reason for this is that it is so often very badly cooked. Just so you know, liver shouldn’t be tough and chewy and full of gristly bits. When properly cooked – above all, not overcooked – liver is wonderful. It has a soft, smooth texture and a much milder flavour than you might think.

Liver is probably easier to find than any other offal. Chicken livers and lamb’s liver are fairly widely available, although calf’s liver, which is the most prized, will probably have to be ordered in specially for you. Pig’s liver has quite a strong flavour (which I love) and it is perhaps best used in small amounts. I like to use it in terrines, for instance.

Buy whole livers, wherever possible, rather than slices of liver. They should look lovely and shiny, and have a vibrant deep reddish colour. To prepare lamb’s, calf’s and pig’s liver, first peel away the delicate outer membrane, being careful not to crush the delicate flesh. Trim away any bits of tube before cutting into slices. Chicken livers need to be carefully inspected all over, and any greenish bits removed before cooking.

Kidneys

I’m sure the reason most people reject kidneys out of hand is because they associate them with urine! And to be honest, they do sometimes have a faint smell. But as is always the case with offal, freshness is everything. They also have quite a distinctive flavour, which varies from mild (in the case of lamb’s kidneys) to quite strong (in the case of pig’s kidneys).

Kidneys differ depending on which animal they come from. Ox and calf’s kidneys have several lobes that are attached to a central fatty core. Lamb’s and pig’s kidneys come as one single lobe. In the olden days, kidneys used to be sold still in a thick layer of solid, creamy fat (suet), but these days this is the exception, rather than the rule.

To prepare kidneys they must first be skinned and then sliced in half lengthwise to snip out the tough inner core. The kidneys from young animals are best cooked briefly so they are still a little pink inside. Pig or ox kidneys are best braised for a long time, to soften them.

Blood

Although they don’t sound immediately appealing, many countries have their own versions of blood sausages. There is the rich, cinnamon-scented Spanish morcilla, soft and creamy French boudin noir and of course Scottish black pudding. They can use the blood of any animal, although pig’s blood is the most usual.

As governments around the world take ever-increasing control over the food we eat, it is becoming harder for the average person to get hold of top-quality fresh pig’s blood. And more’s the pity, I say. You will probably have to come to terms with the fact that you just won’t be able to buy it, so I am not including recipes that use it in this book. But thankfully there are still a few small goods manufacturers left who are licensed to make real blood sausage. Michael Frederick of Morrison Street Butcher in Wodonga makes the best blood sausage that I have ever tasted – and I’ve tasted plenty.

Tripe

Tripe is the lining of the stomach from cud-chewing animals – which usually means from an ox. It’s really very versatile, and can be eaten on its own, or it can be stuffed – in fact sheep’s tripe is stuffed to make the famous Scottish dish haggis. If you’ve ever seen tripe at the butcher’s you’ll know that there are different types, depending on which of the cow’s four stomachs it comes from. Honeycomb tripe (from the second stomach) is probably the most widely available, while the tripe from the third stomach is generally considered to have the finest texture and flavour.

All tripe has to be treated by bleaching and blanching (pre-cooking) before being sold – although you might be lucky enough to find some unblanched tripe at certain specialist butchers. Unblanched tripe will need to be cooked at home for about 8 hours, but aficionados insist that the flavour is superior.

There’s no doubt that tripe is one of the more challenging cuts of offal, but anyone who’s holidayed in France, Italy or Asia will know how delicious it can be.

Intestines and stomach

These provide natural casings that lend themselves brilliantly to stuffing. In the case of intestines, they are widely used for making gourmet and homemade sausages. In France they love to turn them into a strongly flavoured sausage known as andouillette, in which they form both the casing and the stuffing itself. Intestines can sometimes be found fresh, but they are more likely to come salted. They need to be thoroughly rinsed and soaked before using.

The stomach is really just a big bag, so is ideal for filling with a tasty stuffing. It’s most famously used in the Scottish dish, haggis.

Testicles

These are more likely to be sold under the name ‘fries’ (aka hanging beef, prairie oysters and cowboy caviar) and they are a rare delicacy. They are not available all that often, and when we put them on the menu at La Luna Bistro, they are gobbled up very quickly. They must be treated gently (as any bloke will tell you), and need an initial poaching before being skinned and sliced. Like brains and sweetbreads, I think they are best fried in a crunchy coating. They have a delicate flavour and their texture is pretty much what you might expect – soft and creamy, yet a little chewy.

Tail

Of all the animals we eat, in my view, only the ox has a tail big enough to bother with. And although they are pretty bony, and are full of fat and connective tissue, oxtails are surprisingly meaty, too. All of which makes them perfect for long, slow cooking, which transforms them into something rich and lip-smackingly good.

Trotters

Because trotters are packed full of wonderful gelatine, they are often cooked with other cuts of meat where richness and body is required, or where you want to make sure your cooking stock will set to a jelly when cold. But I think they are also well worth cooking as a dish in their own right.

Although most fancy restaurants prefer to bone and stuff trotters before roasting or braising them (think of a classic Italian zampone), they are just as delicious when cooked whole. The Chinese seem to have a particular fondness for trotters – perhaps because they really understand the appeal of sucking and slurping away on all those soft, sticky bones.

Marrow

As anyone who loves osso buco knows, there’s a hidden delight tucked inside those meaty veal bones: it’s the juicy, meltingly soft and sticky marrow.

Although the main use of marrow bones is for making a rich beef stock, they can also be simmered for one to two hours or roasted in a hot oven to soften the marrow to a jelly-like softness. The hot marrow is then sprinkled with salt flakes and smeared onto toast for a wonderful old-fashioned treat.

Caul

This is the lacy skein of fatty membrane that encases an animal’s stomach. It is used to wrap around lean meats or patties to add lubrication and to hold them together. It melts away in the heat of the oven and helps to crisp the surface of the dish to a gorgeous golden brown.

Caul fat generally comes from pigs and can be sold fresh or frozen. Either way, rinse it thoroughly under cold running water then transfer to a container of heavily salted water (500 g salt per litre water). They will keep in the refrigerator for up to a month. Give them a quick rinse before using.

Storing offal

Unwrap and refrigerate all offal immediately.

Store it in a Tupperware container, or sit it on a rack on a plate and cover it with a tea towel.

Ideally, use offal on the day you buy it. It will keep for one to two days – but only if very fresh.

Some offal items come pickled or preserved, in which case follow your butcher’s instructions.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

    No results found
    No more results
      No results found
      No more results
        No results found
        No more results
          No results found
          No more results
            No results found
            No more results
              No results found
              No more results
              Please start typing to begin your search
              We're sorry but we had trouble running your search. Please try again