Earlier this week I received a newsletter from PaleolithicDiet.com that included the challenge to write a blog post about what you would cook if you were selected to receive a copy of Jennifer McLagan’s book Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal. In all fairness, I don’t need a copy of McLagan’s book (I already own one), but I like having a topic that I’m enthusiastic about and that doesn’t require I pull any scholarly papers and reference my sources! I like to write, but I haven’t had time to really research some of the more academic topics I’m interested in recently. I accept Patrik’s challenge, and if he wants to send me another copy, I’ll make sure to share it with someone that will love, appreciate, and use it!
Perhaps more important that what I would (or do) cook from Odd Bits, is why I cook offal. To me there are three main reasons (in no specific order).
1: It’s the right thing to do, in respect for the animal you are eating.
As I mentioned in my post on the ethics of eating meat, I have raised (and slaughtered) my own chickens for a number of years. When I learned to “process” chickens, I was taught to save the heart and liver, both organs that I knew I should eat, but ones I’d never eaten before. My parents are British, and while it may have deeply pained them, I’d never been one for steak and kidney pie, nor had I been one to eat other ‘odd’ bits of animal. I, like so many, fell victim to the ‘eww’ factor of eating odd bits and stuck to the traditional muscle meats. This changed when I started killing my own chickens. First- I knew how much time and effort went into raising and butchering these animals, and throwing away edible bits just seemed wrong. Second- and more importantly, I was taking an animals life, and while I had done my best to make their life (and death) as pleasant as possible, it only seemed right that when I killed them, I used all the bits I could. Third- at that point I was well on the slippery slope to “evolutionary wellness”, and had been reading up on the nutritional benefits of eating organs.
I’ll admit that the first time I cooked chicken livers and hearts I needed a bit of Dutch courage. After imbibing a couple glasses of a delicious Marlborough region Sauvignon Blanc (my weakness when it comes to white wine), I briefly sautéed fresh livers (cut into bite sized pieces) and hearts (halved) in a generous portion of butter and then topped them with salt and fresh pepper. With my Dutch (or perhaps I should say Kiwi?) courage, I took my first bites and was hooked. While I rarely eat chicken these days, if I spot hearts and livers from pastured chickens for sale at the farmers market I usually nab a couple pounds. Not only are they delicious, but it seems only right that if we kill an animal, we should make the most of that sacrifice.
The same concept applies to the cattle that my family raises. I think the old guy that runs the slaughter house we go to gets a kick out of me and my enthusiasm for odd bits (or at least he’s good natured about humoring me- I can imagine him telling his friends about some ‘young woman with a hankering for weird cow parts’), and it seems like each year my list of ‘bits to save’ gets longer. Along with the cut sheets for our animals I include a cover sheet that includes all the extra bits I want to make sure he saves for us. Usually this butcher will return the heart, liver, tail, and tongue, but I’ve added sweet breads, kidneys, marrow bones, and fat to the list. This generally adds a couple extra boxes to my pickup run, and he had a funny smile last time he handed over a 40+ lb box of suet, but he complies (and I think I might need to start making soap- I probably already have a lifetime supply of tallow!). Much like with the chickens, I feel it is important to get the most out of the animals that my family has cared for that have died to feed us.
2: Offal is darn nutritious!
Not only do I think it is morally appropriate to eat ‘nose to tail’, it’s also an excellent nutritional choice. Organ meats are rich in compounds that are lacking (or low) in other parts of the animal. Liver, for example, is very rich in vitamin A (although you should never eat Polar Bear liver- it is so rich in Vitamin A it is toxic!), many of the B vitamins, and iron (to only list a few). Heart, kidney, marrow, and sweet breads all offer different nutritional profiles. I’m generally not joking (nor am I alone) when I refer to liver as “Nature’s multivitamin”.
3- Odd bits are tasty!
Once you get over the ‘weird’ factor of eating different bits of animals, you’ll start to realize they’re really not so odd and that they can be VERY tasty. Tongue tacos, grilled heart, sautéed liver (+/- bacon), steak and kidney… these are all very cookable dishes that can be very delicious. Just like anything else in the kitchen, you can mess them up, but cooked right, these dishes are a delicacy! There’s a reason that some of the fanciest restaurants serve offal, and it’s not just the ‘wow’ factor of serving something unique- offal is delicious!
It’s only in our modern society that ‘nose to tail’ eating is not the norm. I’d wager that for most of our evolutionary past, humans have taken advantage of all the edible bits an animal had to offer. While many still find ‘odd bits’ off-putting, the interest in them is growing. That’s not only obvious by the publication of books such as Odd Bits, but also by observing changes in the people around me. When my family sold our first beef cattle, few (if any) customers wanted ‘odd bits’. As I find customers that are interested in evolutionary eating, my stash of unclaimed offal diminishes (I think I miss the extra tongues the most!). I’m happy, however, if others start to embrace offal, in it’s many forms. Eating offal is delicious, nutritious, and shows respect to the animal you’re eating. If you’re intimidated by the idea of cooking offal at home, order out (Korean BBQ is a great way to have tongue (and if you’re brave, intestines-yum!)) or you can go the route I travelled and obtain a bit of liquid courage*!
*attempt at your own risk!