The Offal Truth

Written by jason otis
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Often overlooked or avoided, offal can be an inexpensive and tasty addition to your diet

The Offal Truth
Beef tongue with date sauce (above) might seem more enticing than thinking of the inside of a cow's mouth. (Eising/Photodisc/Getty Images)

People cooking and eating offal is as old as time. So this is a revival, not anything new.

— Chris Cosentino, executive chef, Incanto, San Francisco

Forget its homophonic relationship with the word "awful." A growing legion of foodies are discovering that there's nothing awful about offal. For evidence, look at the increasing number of restaurants and butcher counters offering these more humble cuts of meat to increasingly receptive customers. And if you maintain a strict offal-free diet, connoisseurs say you're missing out. Known to butchers as the "fifth quarter," offal refers to the animal parts that aren't sold as steaks, chops and roasts. We're talking heart, liver, brain, glands, feet, head, tongue and tail. And it's been showing up on more and more menus nationwide, not to mention in home kitchens. When household budgets tighten, people look for more cost effective sources of nutrition for their families. Many of them have found that offal can be an effective way to stretch a dollar. Offal is cheaper than the more standard cuts, but it's just as rich nutritionally. If you fear your family won't embrace a meal that centres on offal, consider using it as a way to supplement favourite meals. Meatballs and meat loaf can be less costly to make, and arguably tastier, if you supplement the ground meat with liver -- chicken or beef, minced finely. Tripe, a layer of the stomach of a cow, sheep, goat or pig, is an inexpensive way to add protein to soups and stews.

Offal Revival

Its surge in popularity may be a recent trend, but chef and offal aficionado Chris Cosentino says there's nothing recent about a diet that includes offal.

"People cooking and eating offal is as old as time," said Cosentino, executive chef at San Francisco's Incanto and advocate for all things offal via his website, "So this is a revival, not anything new. There is a new excitement among younger chefs for these cuts, but we're bringing back old-world technique. This is the basics. We're not reinventing the wheel."

Offal has been part of the standard diet around the world, in virtually every country and town, for centuries. Before the industrialisation of farming, when families slaughtered their own animals or bought from farmers who butchered and delivered the entire animal in pieces, it made sense to consume every ounce of digestible substance the animal provided.

"If they slaughtered a pig, they had the meat but they also had the blood and intestines, so they made black pudding," Cosentino said. "They made liver patés, they made kidney dishes, they made heart dishes, they cured meats. The art of sausage-making came from people wanting to use every bit of leftover meat. The art of charcuterie, too."

While offal is embedded in national cuisines around the world -- especially in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and much of Europe -- it is less popular in the United States, though there are geographic pockets where offal consumption is ingrained in the culture -- like Philadelphia's beloved tripe-based Pepper Pot soup, or the hogshead cheese and boudin sausage of southern Louisiana.

Squeamish Americans

In general, when it comes to eating offal, Americans can be squeamish. NBC owes six successful seasons of "Fear Factor" to little more than that fact alone. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the average American consumes just over two pounds of offal per year, placing the U.S. 96th among nations of the world for per capita offal consumption.

But even if you flat-out refuse to eat offal, there's a good chance you're eating offal, says Richard Knight, chef and co-owner at Feast, a restaurant with locations in Houston and New Orleans that offers traditional English cooking and is unabashed in its use of offal.

"Ever eat a hot dog?" Knight asked. "That's not tenderloin they're putting in there. It's noses and lips and everything else."

A native of the U.K., Knight's menu regularly features dishes like Roasted Bone Marrow, Pig's Ear Cake and Frog and Lamb Neck Pie not for shock value but because these are the beloved flavours of his youth.

"Kids (in England) grow up eating steak and kidney pie," Knight said. "The most common soup is tomato oxtail soup. The use of these ingredients is completely normal."

It should be normal, according to Cosentino, who argues that diners win when offal is on the table, since chefs have access to a broader palette of flavours and textures with which to create.

"Give a painter black and white paint, and he'll create art that's black and white and grey," Cosentino said. "Now give him a rainbow of colours. It will expand his creativity, and it will expand the art he produces."

So it is, too, with chefs who aren't limited to the skeletal cuts, like tenderloins, chops and breasts, he said.

"Those skeletal cuts all have the same basic texture," Cosentino said. "With the fifth quarter meats you're able to offer consumers a new palette of textures and flavours but with the same underlying flavour of the animal."

Home-Cooked Offal

While neither chef would discourage you from dropping into his restaurant to give it a try, they agree it's easy for the home cook to get good results with offal.

If you're looking to foray into cooking offal at home, Knight says a beef tongue is the perfect place to start.

"You basically throw it in water with stock vegetables and bay leaf and simmer for two-and-a-half hours," he said. "It's a beautiful thing, as good as any pot roast."

Cosentino suggests taking a stab at beef heart, which he says is handled just like many other cuts of beef.

"A beef heart is just a big muscle, about five-and-a-half to six pounds," he said. "It's great for making tartare, or it can be grilled, roasted or braised. It requires minimal cleaning and there's no fat -- it's very lean. In our restaurant, people order it medium rare to medium."

Cosentino says the muscles that an animal uses a lot typically have more flavour than those it uses less, which explains why chicken legs are more flavourful than chicken breasts. Beef heart, then, has a great deal of flavour, he said, as the heart is a muscle that is always in use throughout the animal's life.

Marinate your beef heart in whatever marinade you would use for a steak, and grill it like you would a big porterhouse. Cosentino says you won't be disappointed.

Eat Well, Do Good

In the U.S., ethnic markets have been and remain the best source for offal. You'll find the greatest variety in Asian, Latin and Halal butcher shops and grocery stores. But a growing number of traditional butchers have begun stocking up on fifth quarter meats.

Many of them sell offal to meet market demand as well as moral obligations.

Each of these businesses is focused on locally sourced, naturally raised meats. It's a philosophy to which many offal advocates subscribe, including Knight and Cosentino, both of whom source meat for their restaurants exclusively from small, independent farmers.

Both chefs are members of a growing group of restaurant professionals and diners who insist on knowing exactly where their food is coming from. In these circles, the term "factory farm" is a pejorative.

"If you're buying from a small rancher, you get the whole animal," Cosentino said. "You get the whole pig -- the meat, the head, the feet, the organs and the blood. You can't call a small farmer and say 'I just want the chops.' That's not how it works."

Out of respect for the animal that has given its life for use as food, he said, we should use all of it.

Knight agrees.

"It would be disingenuous to the animal to throw half of it away," Knight said. "I would hate it, and I couldn't afford to do it anyway."

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