Thursday, 26 November 2009

Making the Most of Animals: Part 1 - Wonderful Offal

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 Food
Mrs 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 Food
That 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.
The 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 Offal
I'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: .
This 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.
I'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.
Kidneys 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: .
This 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.
This 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 Unappealing
Getting used to the idea of eating offal, or persuading someone you cook for to try it can be a challenge. Here are my tips:
  1. Don't let them see it beforehand (if you are cooking for someone else)
  2. Try to make it look as unlike its original form as possible
  3. Casseroles or stews are a good way to disguise
  4. Use plenty of herbs and spices like garlic - the smell of cooking will win you/them over
  5. Follow a recipe: it will diminish that sense that it's 'not right'.
If 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).

See Also:
Making the Most of Animals: Part 2 - Glorious Fat
Making the Most of Animals: Part 3 - Beautiful Bones


Mark said...

I've just started venturing in this area - I started with pan-frying liver (yummy) and then moved into grinding up heart with ground beef in the food processor and making burgers (excellent). I tried a kidney and beef stew last week but that will take some getting use to..

I am not sure I could eat them the way you do (that is whole) at this point.

Bryce said...

Thanks M,

I'm definitely keen to give this a try, and your post certainly demystifies it a bit. It seems a lot more accessible than I'd previously thought.

We are purchasing a 1/4 cow this weekend (pastured), for the absurdly low $2-4/lb. I'll have to look into seeing what sort of offal we can come by from the same friend. The difficulty will by that while Mrs. M isn't quite on board with offal, Mrs. Lee is diametrically opposed the concept of offal consumption . . .

Some work to do here.


Anonymous said...

I try to eat 250gms of pastured lambs liver once or twice a week. I have tried lambs heart and am looking for a regular supply source. Brains are my next focus. My butcher is trying to find a supply, but apparently vets are reluctant to approve release for sale...

gallier2 said...

My mother used to make regularly lung and heart. Unfortunately I do not remember how she made it, but I loved it. It was served with in a kinf of white sauce and both were cubed and put together, the toughness of the heart contrasted well with the flabby lung parts. I will ask my sister if she remembers how it was prepared. I will come back to you when I have the answer.

LCR said...

Thanks for the post -- been dabbling in offal for a while; think my favorite is bison heart

Re tripe though, it's delicious, def one of the hardest organs to convince people to eat though in terms of how it looks

Marc said...

Growing up I hated liver and it was the only meal I didn't have to eat. my mom made tongue almost every Sunday. she would just simmer it in a large pot for hours covered with water and salt. I loved tongue. I miss it and have a hard time finding it here. (grass fed) I love chicken liver and make it often in all sorts of ways.
Great post M. Thank you for sharing.


Marc said...

My mom made tongue every sumday.
Simmering in a large pot covered in water and some sea salt. I miss it, as I have a hard time finding it here (grass fed)

I can very cheaply get chicken liver here from organic/grass fed chickens. (strange but true, the folks who pay more for organic/grass fed chickens, won't buy the livers....)
I mamke it often and in all sorts of ways. Thanks for sharing this post M. Good stuff and you gave me a good idea for a recpie post for chicken liver.


Asclepius said...

Next you'll be making your own glue and clothing! ;)

Seriously good post. I moved some time ago on to kidneys and liver, but have not tried other cuts.

I never thought to ask my local butcher for stuff like tongue or heart - and I guess he throws these bits away as well.

Nice to see a paleo-approach that has genuine benefit to health and the environment.

Good work fella!

Methuselah said...

Thanks for your thoughts everyone. Seems like this is an area a lot of us are interested in.

LCR - I am going to seek out some tripe - sounds great.

gallier2 - do let me know if you figure out that recipe.

Chris said...

I get some lamb's kidney's every week from the butcher.

Also buy heart from Morrison's and use it in curry...

Kat Eden said...

Stews and casseroles are a great idea - try sneaking some finely chopped liver and kidney into a bolognaise style sauce. I suggest this trick to my clients and they find they don't really notice the taste change at all.

The nutrient benefits of offal are far too great to skip out on it due to a little squemishness (if that's a word!)

Methuselah said...

Chris - never tried heart in curry: sounds good. Might be a good way to coax Mrs M into it.

Kat - I think it is a word!

Evita said...

While I totally respect your choice to eat animals - no matter what part of the animal it is. I do think it is a bit under-researched and unfair to make the following statement:

"vegetarianism - a perfectly reasonable concept borne of advanced cultural thinking, yet ill-suited to our bodies."

If you look into evolutionary biology, biochemistry, nutrition sciences, you name it, our bodies are completely suited for plant-based diets. Much more so than for animal-product based diets. I am not going to make this an unnecessarily long comment and teach every aspect of this as I know we can all find out for ourselves. I just invite people to really look into things for themselves, before they cut themselves off from certain view points. Mainstream society would have us believe one thing for economical reasons, but the truth is often quite different.

Aaron Blaisdell said...

I love the Nourishing Traditions recipe for beef heart kabob. I get beef heart from a vendor selling grass-fed beef at the local farmer's market. Great stuff on the grill with some mushrooms and bell peppers on the skewer!

A traditional French restaurant just opened up in downtown Culver City that serves sausage made from pig intestines. I tried it. Quite a strong flavor, and I probably wouldn't order it often, but it was yummy.

My wife grew up in China, and fish head soup is commonly made there. She gets fish heads really cheap at the Chinese markets and makes a delicious broth (with the eyeballs swimming on top and everything!).

I do love beef or chicken liver lightly sauteed in my cast-iron skillet.

Loved your offal pictures!

Methuselah said...

Aaron - those sound great. You can buy fish heads at our market too and I have been tempted to buy them and use them in that way. As it is, I always eat the heads of fish I cook, although I find it better to do this at the start when I am really hungry...

Methuselah said...

Evita - in fact I have done research in this area and have found there to be people claiming scientific evidence both in favour of vegetarianism and against it. The question, as is often the case, is whose science do you believe. I haven't cut myself off from any particular viewpoint - I just happen to be more persuaded by one than the other at this point in time. In the spirit of remaining connected with other viewpoints, you might consider reading The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith. I've not read it yet, but understand it makes some compelling arguments against vegetarianism, not least because it is written by a former staunch believer in the philosophy. Perhaps we could compare notes when we have both read it.

gallier2 said...

Ok, I called my sister and unfortunately she doesn't remember exactly how our mother made it, as she never did it herself. However, she remembered that an important component of the sauce was vinegar (I have to say that my mother died 24 years ago so it is more than 25 years ago that I have eaten it, it must be way longer for my sister as she married 37 years ago and this dish was not something my mother cooked when she came for visit).
This conversation has tickled my curiosity and I will try to make in the coming weeks (even if it is not really a christmas dish, but in our modern "bizarro" modern times, what was once expensive delicatessen food is, can be had almost daily (salmon, truffels, beef steak, foie gras, oyster...), and cheap poor folks food becomes something festive.

Methuselah said...

gallier2 - thanks for looking into it. We do use a little balsamic to flavour dishes sometimes, and I expect this would be a good ingredient for casseroles containing offal, so I will try it.

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