My favorite dish, out of everything I’ve ever made or had made for me, has to be liver and onions. The very phrase makes many people cringe, with brutal memories of choking down poorly-prepared renditions at home, the army, or a relative’s. Some people gag without even having tried it! But this dish represents to me a lifetime of culinary and gastronomic growth: the opening of a mind, the expansion of a palette, the development of technique, and the deep understanding of the provenance and substance of ingredients.
I have been cooking with organ meats often in the past year, and so it’s hard to imagine a time when my diet was devoid of these nutrient-dense elements. But there was a time when curiosity and repulsion were all I knew about offal. Fortunately for me, the curiosity was stronger. My “gateway” was a beef tongue sandwich from a NJ deli. Served sliced and hot on rye and lathered with spoonfuls of house-made mustard, I could not understand how and why it was so good. It was meltingly tender and flavorful, seasoned like corned beef. From there I wondered that if tongue was that good, what was the rest of the animal like? Which in turn led to trying tripe, beef and pork liver, beef, pork, and chicken heart, and eventually beef kidney. In sourcing such cuts it is absolutely imperative that they come from grassfed and pastured animals, which also taught me how to find and buy meat directly from farms.
I discovered exciting sensory experiences through organ meat – new colors, flavors, textures, and smells (although the latter was the most daunting). Cooking offal presents unique culinary challenges and yields great gastronomic rewards, for the intrepid eater. It’s not like you can simply throw it in a pan – there is complex knife work involved in the trimming and cutting and prepping – and then each organ or part has a way it likes to be cooked to be palatable. I’ve found that liver in a skillet takes about a minute, and heart is best marinated overnight and seared in tallow. But kidney takes many long slow hours to cook, and a dark stout beer is an absolute necessity.
The most far-reaching impact that offal has had on me is to drive home the importance of nose to tail eating. Nose-to-tail – making use of the whole animal, or as much as possible – is a great way to try new things while honoring the life of the animal in question. It reduces waste and highlights something other than the prime cuts in high demand. It’s also healthy, interesting, and resourceful – a growing trend that has mainstream eaters trying cuts that were once discarded or neglected. Besides, the offal cuts are often the cheapest, even if (as you should) you buy them from 100% grassfed, pastured farm sources.
Offal is on everyone’s lips these days. The 2016 Oxford Symposium was all about offal, featuring a menu designed by Fergus Henderson of St. John Restaurant and The Whole Beast fame (an offal roadmap through the English countryside). Restaurants all around are taking oft-loathed and cringeworthy cuts and elevating them, too – I finally got to try sweetbreads at a fine dining establishment, served alongside escargot. I had heard them described as soft, mild, and chickeny – this was absolutely and astoundingly correct. It is not unusual now to see things like roast marrow on upscale menus; these once “peasant” dishes are now getting star treatment. Perhaps trying them in eateries will encourage people to experiment at home.
The concept of nose to tail eating as a novelty appears unique to American culture. Almost every other world cuisine I’ve sampled features offal in a nonchalant, no-big-deal kind of way. Some of my favorites are Polish head cheese, Vietnamese pho with tripe and tendon, Jamaican oxtail stew, and Mexican tacos de lengua or cabeza (tongue and head). Before you shell out the big bucks for an organ meat entree at some place with white tablecloths, I recommend trying international cuisine with offal to understand it in a context where it’s been known and beloved forever, rather than touted as an edgy food trend.
I also believe that the nose to tail term and its philosophy can be applied to vegetables as well. We waste so much food out of ignorance or convenience, but for example, you can roast rainbow carrots and make a chimichurri out of their tops. You can add celery leaves or garlic sprouts to the onions you’re sauteing, and the skin of the sweet potato? It’s delicious – don’t discard it! Nose to tail helps us understand how to think outside the box and eat outside our comfort zones. Sometimes, what you find there is unexpectedly marvelous.
I think seeing humble dishes like liver and onions put on pedestals in the food world is wonderful, and the meantime I’ll continue to share my renditions of this classic dish with the world. Should you ever procure for yourself some grassfed beef liver, try it in butter or bacon grease with sauteed onions, smoked salt, and fresh herbs – your body and soul will thank you.