Eating Offal

Modern European cooking is famously integrating long-lost and forgotten ingredients again which means we’re now all chewing on spleens, spreading ducks’ livers on toasted brioche, munching away on black pudding and ox’s hearts…

There is a growing number of restaurants serving variety meats. St. John bread and wine in Spitalfields, London for example does it extremely well, but we’ll come back to that later. So eating the stuff is ..ahm.. trendy, but what else can be said about offal? Traditionally, innards used to be eaten by poor people – mainly, as a substitute for the far more expensive meat cuts. Wiki says:

The word shares its etymology with the German words ; “Abfall” (offall in some Western German Dialects), afval in Dutch and Afrikaans, avfall in Norwegian and Swedish and affald in Danish. These Germanic words all mean ‘garbage’, or—literally—‘off-fall’, referring to that which has fallen off during butchering.

Offal is a tricky one  –  in taste, preparation and of course, popularity  –  this is why  the topic deserves a little more attention.

To start off, it is essential that you develop a taste for offal (again).
There were always people who enjoyed tripe and offal. It never went out of fashion in most parts of rural Europe. A famous execution, typical for rural South Western Germany for example is called ‘sour liver’. It tastes just like it sounds. The liver is grainy and starchy and the sour, vinegary sauce makes you  cough. There is nothing subtle about the dish, but it is highly popular where it comes from. Liver is cheap and practically always available. It is versatile and some may even say that it tastes great.

It is hard not to conclude hat liver can be left out of the equation. There certainly are some delicious uses for liver such as Fegato di Vitello, but for offal-virgins, liver isn’t such a great start. In fact,  an offal-virgin should not try to revive the offal-relationship with liver, neither fried, nor braised or poached. It’s not that great really and chances are high that it will ruin the offal-experience for good and put you off eating it for years to come.

Liver can of course be eaten in different ways and since the consistency is kind of grainy to begin with, it lends itself for transformation into a smooth, subtly spiced and creamy paste. Pâté. It can be created by mixing liver and lard, but also by force-feeding animals. Pâté de Foie Gras is the most infamous representative of the Pâté family. There’s no point in going into great detail about the treatment methods developed for the purpose of creating a culinary delight, but the amount of effort put into torturing those helpless creatures, makes Foie Gras a dish that should be taken off menus. No doubt, it tastes great, but it is not quite that easy to enjoy, knowing the methods to achieve its taste.

In terms of eating offal, with the first obstacle out of the way, the focus should be shifted onto some of the more intriguing and unlikely ingredients, such as heart, sweetbreads, spleen, blood and stomach.

This is the  first firm recommendation: Try Ox hearts. Heart is fantastic, it is meaty (it is a muscle after all..), has a mineralic aftertaste and a nice crunchy texture. My first taste of ox heart was at Spitalfields Market in 2005 or 2006. Doing our usual Sunday stroll through the East End, we came across a food stall run by the chefs from St. John bread and wine across the road. On offer was a tasty ox heart and pickled walnut vinaigrette sandwich. Its taste ingrained itself in my head forever and set the foundations for a revived relationship with offal (eating it).

St. Johns Bread and Wine is a must when wanting to eat innards and other forgotten ingredients. The dishes there are made up of delicacies such as moorish spiced bloodcake with a poached duck’s egg, spleen with a strong vinaigrette, rich rabbit terrine, grilled ox heart with beetroot and pickled walnuts (of course!) and many more. A daily and seasonally changing menu, an in-house bakery and a perfect selection of french wines including Cremant d’Alsace make this one of the coolest places to eat in London.

The maker behind the St John restaurants Fergus Henderson (there’s another one in Smithfield) has also coined the best description of the offal-trend: ‘Nose to tail eating‘ is what Henderson calls it, here he is live in action on St John TV:

Inspired by the new flavours and textures of offal, you should now go off and purchase the most expensive sweetbreads you can find. Sweetbreads are the thymus glands. The best sweetbreads are veal, it has the best taste.  They won’t cost a lot, another well-known good reason for re-integrating offal into your diet – it is cheap!
Take them home and soak them in cold water with a bay leave, half an onion, a garlic clove and some juniper berries. Leave them in the fridge, covered in water for 5 hours. Once soaked, take them out of the fridge and start heating the same water, not before adding salt.
Carefully poach the sweetbreads until plump. The exact cooking time varies, they should be just poached, so constant monitoring is really important.
Once cooked, the sweetbreads need cooling, then cleaning. After removing all the outer fat and tissue with a sharp pairing knife, cut the sweetbread into slices – about 1,4cm thick – and bread them with the trinity of flour, egg and breadcrumbs
(these have to be good, either homemade from good white bread or Panko Crumbs)
Add flavour with salt and spices (paprika, pepper and a tiny little bit of chili).
Once done, fry the little nuggets in hot sunflower oil until golden and serve them eventually with lemon wedges and a light salad on the side.

Having started to follow the offal trail with sweetbreads, it would now be the right time to move on to something more difficult. Blood. Blood is a wonderful ingredient that can be used for so many things. In South Germany they have a dish called ‘Dunkili‘. It is made of pork, pig’s tail, pork ribs, pork hearts, white wine and blood. The meats and offal are browned with vegetables, a cup of white wine is added, the mix gets gently stewed and thickened with a cup of pork blood at the very end. It does sound a bit strange but the sauce is lovely. They add some cinnamon and nutmeg, sometimes even a dollop of whipped sweet cream.

Other uses for blood in cooking involve turning it into a sausage or pudding or paste. Every country seems to have its own blood sausage. In England it is black pudding, a rich, concoction of blood, oatmeal and spices, flavours that are almost Christmas-like.
The Germans have ‘Blutwurst’, which is either smoked, or fresh and raw. The smoked type is not recommended, but the fresh kind is lovely. Usually eaten with Sauerkraut and an equally fresh and similarly spiced liver-sausage. Both sausages need to be poached first, then fried.

As far as blood sausages go, in Spain they have Morcilla, in France there is Boudin Noir, in Portugal Morcela, Krovyanka in Russia, Kiszka in Poland.
Here’s a blood cake recipe, courtesy of chefteddy at the eGullet forum:

Based on John Desmond’s recipe, from Oakes and Mazzola’s ‘Boulevard’ cookbook, with a few tweaks.

  • 1 T olive oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 2 T Calvados
  • 1 tsp each of mustard, fennel and cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1 crumbled bay leaf
  • tsp ground black pepper
  • 1 lb in total, of pork meat and fat – I used 1/4 lb of chilled streaky bacon and 3/4 lb of ground pork
  • 1-1/2 c fresh pigs blood
  • 1-1/4 c in total, of cereals – I used 1 1/4 cup cooked white rice
  • 1 c mixed fresh herbs – I used sage, tarragon, parsley, thyme, Cuban oregano.
  • 1 T Maldon sea salt
  • 1 T unsalted butter
  • 1 large beaten egg
  • 1 c apple sauce/caramelized apples
  • 1/2 c finely chopped dried apricots

Sweat the onion and garlic in the oil for a few minutes until soft and add the Calvados. Cover, and cook for about 20 mins on low heat, taking care not to brown the onions. Allow to cool and reserve. Take the fennel, mustard and cumin seeds, bay leaf and red pepper flakes and warm in a skillet over a low flame until they release some of their aromas. Allow to cool, whizz in a spice blender with the bay leaf until powdery, add the paprika and reserve. Chop the bacon into the smallest pieces you can , and add to the ground pork in a bowl. Combine with all the other ingredients and mix very well for a few minutes with a spoon or your hands if you’re brave. Preheat the oven to 325 F. Put the mixture into the terrine dish, cover tightly with foil and then into a large hotel pan. Add boiling water until it come 2/3 of the way up the terrine dish, and back for 1 1/2 hours. Remove from the bain marie, and allow to cool for 2 hours, before refrigerating overnight.

When  it comes to offal, it is not necessarily a question of acquiring a taste for them, it is a matter of eating offal dishes that are prepared perfectly. This way you can make sure that you get to eat a plate of food that is worth judging – as it is with all things food-related.

Here’s a video which comes from Food Curated