Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal
by Jennifer McLagan
Ten Speed Press, 2011
The rediscovery of traditional foods may face no greater challenge than that of reacquainting people with the delectable nature of liver, kidneys, sweetbreads, brains and even testicles. Jennifer McLagan, after helping to resurrect cooking traditions with her earlier books, Bones and Fat, is up to the task with her newest volume, Odd Bits. It is a beautifully written compendium of history, nutrition, and a general “how to” of choosing, preparing and cooking all the parts of the animal that are rarely used today.
Ms. McLagan is the first to admit that what she has termed “odd bits” are not really odd at all. They are the common and sought-after foods of our grandparents and traditional peoples around the world, but they have become regrettably alien to most of us today. This oddness presents the chief obstacle to their use and enjoyment. Fermented foods, animal fats, bone broths, even raw dairy may be new to a person, but the industrial food system has always offered imitations of these foods. The modern versions taste familiar and we mostly know how to prepare dishes with them. But offal? Trotters? Tongues and tails? These commonly discarded parts of animals are largely unknown to the modern palate. And while many restaurant chefs are now reintroducing and highlighting organ meats, bone marrow, and even trotters in their menus again, so many of us are at a loss as to how to prepare these “odd bits” in our own kitchens.
For years now, I have hunted down old cookbooks that have “snout to tail” recipes, but these dishes are based on the once common knowledge of what organ meats are, how to select them, and the basics of preparation—knowledge that has gone missing today, and which makes the old recipes unnecessarily difficult to prepare. Odd Bits not only offers us these recipes, it also provides much of the knowledge and skills we need to cook these forgotten foods again.
The book is divided into sections of animals: “Get a Head,” “At the Front,” “A True Snout-to -Tail Meal,” “Stuck in the Middle,” “The Back End,” and “Odd Stocks.” Information and recipes for blood, skin and fats are included. Within each section is a detailed consideration of all edible animal parts, which are, in short, everything, even eyeballs and entrails.
McLagan also presents less overtly odd cuts for the not-so-intrepid, such as neck, shoulder, breast (brisket), ribs and shanks. To give a more complete understanding of the nature of each particular cut, poultry, beef, pork, lamb and other food animals are considered together. McLagan details how to select meats astutely (what color to look for when buying lamb’s feet or pig’s ears); how to prepare meats before cooking (soak brains in salt water, blanch tripe, and remove the blood from marrow); and how to cook meats (heart benefits from either slow or fast cooking but not much in between). She also describes how to work with the flavor and consistency of each food, which is especially helpful for those of us who find tripe too chewy or kidney too strongly flavored. Even before looking at any of the recipes, one gets a working sense of how to cook these “odd bits” on our own.
An added highlight of the book is the incidental larding throughout of insightful quotes from other chefs and tidbits of gastronomical history, such as the raw meat culinary contributions of the Tatars, the history of traditional tripe dressers, artist Paul Klee’s lung ragoût recipe, and cultural stumbling blocks of translating foods mentioned in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. McLagan’s personal comments about cooking help one feel comfortable to try it all. For instance, she credits her local WAPF chapter leader, Patricia Meyer, for teaching her how to make a traditional sauerkraut, but also lets us know that her “husband is the sauerkraut expert in the house” (which is my own domestic arrangement as well).
Her delicious recipes are easy to follow, but none are routine. Try “Spicy Indian-Style Liver” or “Bone Marrow and Mushroom Custard” and relish the exceptional flavors. Many recipes are simple enough for everyday cooking, such as “Heart Burgers,” “Deviled Kidney and Mushrooms,” and a number of stew dishes. Sadly, many of the once familiar ingredients she writes of are difficult to find and some are even banned for sale in stores here in the U.S., though they are still commonly available in Europe and around the world. (I have a particular hankering to make some headcheese as soon I can find some brains!) But substitutions are offered with almost every recipe, so if we can’t get beef cheeks we can use veal cheeks or oxtail.
It is a particular shame that what ancient peoples valued as sacred food is, in modern practice, trash—a waste problem on the slaughterhouse floor. McLagan does, of course, write of the reverence these foods were shown by traditional cultures and of the superior nutrition that they offer, although she doesn’t go into as much detail as I would have liked. Still, Odd Bits more than succeeds as a cookbook. It is a comprehensive re-introduction to all the flavorful tastes we have been missing in our modern menus. Read Odd Bits and you will find your world has expanded as if seeing new colors. Prepare the recipes and discover new taste pleasures. Serve your children and loved ones this food and they will grow strong and healthy.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2012.