Offal is not to everyone's liking; and photographs of it being dissected and prepared are probably to even fewer people's liking - so if you are squeamish about that sort of thing, you might want to duck out now.
For me this is not about morality. Treating an animal well and making the most of its body when you kill it is better for your health and better for your wallet, so it's a compelling case regardless of ethics.
Since we're on the topic, though, I would observe the following: our physiology has evolved more slowly than society has developed. Hardly surprising when you contrast the mechanism of natural selection with that of cultural development. Hence, vegetarianism - a perfectly reasonable concept borne of advanced cultural thinking, yet ill-suited to our bodies.
There is a point of view that a good carnivore at least shows respect for the animals he or she eats by ensuring they are well treated and using as much of the creature as possible. To me this makes sense - but I am not a table-thumping evangelist of animal rights; as I say, for me this is a health and finance no-brainer.
However, please note: eating every part of a badly fed/treated animal is not a wise compromise. Intensively farmed animals are likely to have an unfavourable fat profile and contain antibiotics.
My point about cost is this: given that eating well-treated animals is essential to ensure healthy meat, then the cheaper way to do this is by eating all of those animals.
Free FoodMrs M and I have been buying most of our non-wild meat from Fordhall Farm in central England. This is how we ensure the animals have been treated well.
They run a delivery service, but we prefer to drive over in the summer, when it's possible to see the animals in the fields or enclosures and witness their freedom first hand. The team who run it have even featured on television, where we learned more about the lengths to which they go to ensure a natural existence for the animals.
Last year, I asked whether they had any offal for sale, other than the few parcels of liver in the frozen section. No, but we have some to give away, was the response. Why would you give it away, I wanted to know. Because otherwise it gets thrown away.
Healthy FoodThat day, along with our usual purchases, we returned home with a cow's heart the size of a soccer ball, two lamb plucks (liver, heart and lungs all still joined together), a cow's tongue and two pig's kidneys:
Chopped up, this made a staggering 16 meals; and I mean man-sized meals. We are talking 300-400 grams of meat per meal. For zero cost.
What's more, this is the good stuff. Offal is packed with vitamins, minerals, healthy fats and probably much more besides. Our ancestors would have fought over these parts.
SqueamishThe trouble is, people are squeamish about offal. Mrs M is only now taking gentle steps towards eating the stuff. For the last year, I have been eating the offal on days when she is eating with friends or otherwise I make her an omelet or fish instead.
Part of me wants to shout about offal from the rooftops so that the world wakes up and stops shovelling this amazing food down the drain and can therefore use half as much land to provide the same amount of food. The other part of me wants to keep schtum so that the few of us who like the stuff continue to get it on the cheap.
Clearly the first part of me has triumphed, because I am writing this post.
Dealing with OffalI'll show you how I deal with these parts of the animal when I get them home and how best to cook them; but don't expect recipes: this is about practicalities. I'll add links to recipe ideas on other blogs at the end.
This weekend, we came home with two lamb plucks as well as our usual haul: . I laid these on a couple of chopping boards, , then separated the liver, heart and lungs into individual pieces by severing then from the main windpipe of the lamb: . What remained was various pieces of fatty, between-organ tissue, bits of muscle and windpipe itself: .
In total, this lot made nine large meals: .
I took the bits and pieces and slow cooked them with onion, tomato and garlic (I forgot to photograph the garlic): . Five hours later, I put it into a container and into the freezer: .
TongueThis is one of the toughest parts of the animal I have tried. In the early days I sliced it up and stir fried it. It was very tough. In fact I did this again recently because I had not thought ahead. It took be almost 2 hours to chew through the lot: .
Braising on low heat heat for up to 2 hours will tenderise the meat more and create a tasty, if thin, gravy...but the smart money is on slow cooking. We bought a slow cooker recently for £30 ($50) and have never looked back. After 5 hours, this piece of tongue was so tender I was able to peel the skin off with my hand: . It was as nice as any fillet steak I have ever had.
HeartI've eaten lamb, pig and cow heart. The texture and flavour is rather like a toned down version of liver. Less tender, less piquant. Although you can cook heart by braising or even frying and find it just about tender enough to eat, it does benefit from longer cooking too. Hearts come with a 'crown' of fat around the top - this is delicious and it would be a crime to cut this off.
A cow's heart usually weighs about 2 kilos, from which I create about 5 portions - here's one I cut up recently (along with a tongue): .
This is a meal of one such portion, braised: . You can see the tasty fat 'bubbles' on the left of the piece of meat.
KidneyKidneys are happy being fried, so this is how I tend to cook them. They can be slightly rubbery, so you may prefer to cook them for longer in casseroles or just by themselves... but I am too lazy for that and in any case they really are reasonably tender when fried. The ammonia smell that sometimes emanates from cooking kidneys is not to everyone's taste. Here are some pig kidneys I recently made a meal of: .
LiverThis one's easy: just slice it and fry it. The composition of liver is such that it is tender by nature and in fact the only real danger to its palatability is overcooking, which can make it tough.
LungThis is the one organ meat I hesitate to recommend unreservedly. It's not the taste, but the consistency which is a problem. Not surprisingly given its function, it's somewhat aerated, and so lacks density, which for me is main appeal of meat.
I have learned that slicing and frying lung is not the best approach. I have not tried slow cooking yet, but did discover that when I braised the whole piece for 90 minutes, the result had an acceptable tenderness, albeit that it still had that insubstantial, aerated quality.
Heads, Brains and Others...There are some parts of the animal I have not mentioned because we have never tried them.
Heads: we were once offered a pig's head at the farm. I wasn't sure whether we were expected to cook it or put it on the bed of a rival gang member. In the end we said no, mainly because we figured out we did not have a pot big enough to cook it in. Apparently you make something called brawn using pigs' heads and other parts such as trotters and bones. I am sure the heads of other animals can be cooked in the same way.
Brains: you occasionally see brains on the menu in expensive restaurants. I have never been offered brains at the farm. It's a bit of a sensitive issue in the UK after the BSE debacle and perhaps the one thing people are most unsure about eating. That scene from Hannibal doesn't help.
Stomach: two dishes I am aware of are tripe, which is made from the stomach of the sheep and haggis, made from the stomachs of cows. I have tried neither, nor have we been offered the stomach of animals at the farm.
There are, I am sure, many others.
How to Make Offal Less UnappealingGetting used to the idea of eating offal, or persuading someone you cook for to try it can be a challenge. Here are my tips:
- Don't let them see it beforehand (if you are cooking for someone else)
- Try to make it look as unlike its original form as possible
- Casseroles or stews are a good way to disguise
- Use plenty of herbs and spices like garlic - the smell of cooking will win you/them over
- Follow a recipe: it will diminish that sense that it's 'not right'.
RecipesIf you want to see the eating of offal in action, follow me on twitter or keep and eye on the My Meals photo page on this blog. I post photos of my meals on most days, and eat offal about 3 times per week.
As Mrs M is not yet on board, I revert to plain preparation for offal dishes: at best, I use tomato, onion, garlic, perhaps coconut cream. If I am stir frying I use coconut or red palm oil. The latter is worth exploring because it can add a lovely bacon-like flavour.
At worst, I simply slow cook it in water.
For some better recipe ideas, search on Google. There are plenty out there. Mark Sisson has done a couple of good articles on offal and recipes for it:
Mark's Daily Apple: Organ meat recipes
Mark's Daily Apple: More detailed post about offal (including tripe and brains).
Making the Most of Animals: Part 2 - Glorious Fat
Making the Most of Animals: Part 3 - Beautiful Bones