Updated: October 30, 2013 at 3:39 pm
What better time to delve into the topic of guts than at Halloween?
We're talking offal - the innards and extremities of animals that can be used in cooking or in the production of foods like sausage: brains, cheeks, intestines (chitterlings), feet (trotters), heart, kidneys, liver, tail (oxtail), testicles (fries), thymus and pancreas (sweetbreads), and tongue. And while this may leave the home cooks baffled - and maybe a little grossed out - restaurant chefs are taking the entrails and running with them.
For instance, famous New York-based restaurateur Danny Meyer offers a Quinto Quarto menu at his Maialino Roman trattoria. Quinto Quarto in Rome means less-expensive cuts of meats, including the variety meats or innards. Meyer's menu includes chicken heart skewers, spicy tripe and pecorino, veal tongue and crispy suckling pig's face. Prices for the delicacies start at $3, with a braised oxtail, celery and carrot number topping out at $23. Imagine the lowly cow tail demanding $23. Pretty hefty price, all things considered.
"If you can make magic with offal ingredients, you can make a wider profit margin because their oddity carries a sense of value beyond their actual cost," said Victor Matthews, owner of the Black Bear Restaurant in Green Mountain Falls and dean of Paragon Culinary School. "Offal became a great addition to menus after 2008. Sort of like the short ribs craze. Less-expensive meats elevated by talented chefs make good money for restaurants."
The price is further justified by the difficulty in dealing with them. For instance, it takes about three days to prepare sweetbreads, starting with a 24-hour cold water soak, followed by a blanching in boiling water. Next, they are trimmed of any visible veins, gristle or the thick exterior membrane that envelops the organ. The sweetbreads should then be pressed for about 24 hours. After pressing, the sweetbreads will be firm enough to slice into medallions by cutting on a slight bias. These medallions can then be easily saut?d, fried or grilled.
So, why bother? Matthews points out that chefs in general get bored and need fun things to experiment with.
For Tyler Peoples, chef de cuisine at The Warehouse Restaurant and Gallery, offal is his favorite part of the animal.
"It is very easy to make a 'choice' cut taste good," he said, "but it takes a little know-how to deliver a great offcut."
One of Peoples' favorite offal recipes is Veal Sweetbread Mille-Feuille with Sauce Bigarade, which he and his sous chef, Adam Stephens, created.
"This is a great offal dish," he said. "The tender, buttery veal sweetbread is layered between super-thin crisp stacks of filo. Then it's sauced with rich, blood orange demi-glace that is sweet and tart."
As executive chef and general manager of Tapateria and Pizza Rustica, Jay Gust makes good use of offal. His smoked duck tongue pizza was a big hit when he had it on the menu.
"I like using offal in many different ways," he said. "I use the cuts as whole protein and also as a blend in p?? and different sausages like beef tongue. Not only do they usually have a unique texture, but also flavor."
Award-winning Brother Luck recently opened his own eatery, Brother Luck Street Eats. There he keeps a regular bar crowd happy with dishes like Tatar Tots, which are topped with strips of crispy pig ears with a fried egg crown.
"I love offal, and I would have to say that my favorite piece is the entire pig head," he said. "I enjoy cooking all the parts, from crispy pig ears to slow-roasted cheeks. I make headcheese for cold preparations and face bacon, which includes the entire head rolled up and poached before slicing and baking."
A few years ago, when Brent Beavers owned Sencha - where he cooked and hosted literary dinners - he wowed his customers with a parts course for the Frankenstein literary dinner.
"It was to go along with the building of the doctor's creature," he said. "We served coconut tempura sweetbreads, grilled rare lamb hearts with spicy ale mustard, and saut?d onions with kidneys in red wine jus."
Forget wings on game day at his house. Beavers will make Rocky Mountain Oysters for football fans.
"They are a great fried food that is tasty," he said. "Serve and don't tell. Everyone will love them."
His favorite in the offal category is tongue. "I think tongue tacos and sandwiches are fantastic," he said.
He prepares tongue by poaching it in water or stock for about 90 minutes. Remove it from the stock, cool and peel the outside membrane away from the muscle. Let the meat cool and keep refrigerated. Slice and use for sandwiches just like you would roast beef.
With Halloween in the air, Eric Viedt, executive chef and partner at The Margarita at PineCreek, will order some caul fat, the thin, fatty membrane that lines the abdominal cavity of pigs and sheep.
It looks like a lacy net and is used to wrap dishes like p?? It holds the mixture together while it cooks, but slowly melts during the process. When the p??is baked, the caul fat has done its job of holding the meat together, seasoning it and disappearing.
"I like making things at Halloween with it because it sort of looks like cobwebs," he said.
Another dish that might come across as strange enough to be a little scary is marrowbones.
"We serve these occasionally in the bar," Viedt said. "Once people try them, they love 'em."
Marrowbones usually come from the thigh and upper legs of beef. The long bones are sliced (dare we say, severed?) in half to expose the marrow in the hollow center.
Marrow is the soft, fatty substance that turns into a spread when roasted and tastes like the ultimate butter. Viedt finishes the roasted marrowbones with a shower of sea salt. They are served with several slices of thin toasted bread. It's a ghoulishly delicious treat with a cold beer.
Colorado Springs chef Brother Luck likes to cook all the parts of a pig's head.
The intestines are known as chitterlings.
Pig feet, also known as "trotters," ears and snout all can be used.