Many of us know by now how good organ meats are for our health, but we may still find them intimidating or completely foreign to work with! Ashleigh Vanhouten, the author of It Takes Guts, demystifies organ meats. She offers practical tips for not only preparing them but enjoying them. She gives examples of the best-tasting organs to start with (hint: not liver!) and discusses how to draw out (or semi-hide) the unique flavors.
She also explains the superpower benefits of regularly incorporating these foods into our diets. Ashleigh also gives us a sneak peek into some of her favorite recipes, including chocolate blood pudding! Finally, she reminds us how she was once also uncertain about preparing organ meats when Ashleigh got started and encouraged us to get the guts to try them out, as she did!
Check out her website: ashleighvanhouten.com
Grab her free organ meat recipe e-book.
Register for our Wise Traditions conference.
Listen to the podcast here
Within the below transcript the bolded text is Hilda.
Many of us know by now how good organ meats are for our health, but we may still find them intimidating to work with or just straight-up repugnant. Our guest in this episode is Ashleigh VanHouten. Ashleigh is a health coach and the author of the first organ-only cookbooks. It’s called It Takes Guts. In this episode, Ashleigh gives us tips on not only how to prepare but also enjoy these nutrient-dense foods. She gives us examples of the best-tasting organs to start with. Hint, not liver. She talks about how it can draw out and enjoy the flavor. She also explains the superpower benefits of incorporating these foods into our diets on a regular basis.
Ashleigh also gives a sneak peek into some of her favorite recipes, including chocolate blood pudding. All in all, Ashleigh teaches us how to get gutsy and step out of our comfort zone in this episode. She explains that she knew nothing when she started, which is why she knows that anyone can do it. Before we dive in, I wanted to invite you to the Wise Tradition conference. It’s a conference that nourishes in every way. It’s going to be held in Knoxville, Tennessee, from October 21st to 23rd.
Amazing speakers are part of the lineup, including Janine Farzin, who’s going to speak about organ meats and many folks who’s been featured on this show, like Sally Fallon Morrell, the President of the foundation, Tom Cowan, the Vice President, Kelly Brogan, Tommy John, and many more. I wouldn’t miss it for anything. Come and join me. Go to WiseTraditions.org and register while the early bird pricing is still in effect. That expires on September 10 or something like that. Go to WiseTraditions.org now, and I’ll see you there.
Check out her website: AshleighVanHouten.com
Grab her free organ meat recipe eBook.
Register for our Wise Traditions conference.
Welcome to the show, Ashleigh.
Thank you so much for having me. I am pumped to be here.
I love your cookbook It Takes Guts. First of all, it’s a super clever name. Second of all, you made the information accessible for want to be cooks. It surprised me that in your book, you called yourself an inexperienced wanna-be chef. How did you even write this cookbook then?
I love that you asked that question because people skirt around that subject like, “You’re not even a chef, and you wrote this cookbook. What’s up?” I love that you ask it. The reason I wrote this cookbook is because I wanted to learn more about how to incorporate these foods into my diet. I wanted to show people because I believe so strongly that nose-to-tail eating and organ meats are a helpful and important part of a diet.
I wanted to show people that you don’t have to be an experienced, trained chef. To my knowledge, through my research, the only cookbooks out there that address organ meats tend to be from very experienced, trained French chefs, maybe Italian. These books are like, “Open to page one and cook tripe.” People are like, “What even is tripe? What do I do with this? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
It’s very intimidating. It can seem out of reach, so I wanted to create a resource for people that was welcoming, accessible, and truly shows it’s a cliché. If I can do it, you can do it. I have no special skills or background in this stuff. There was research, experimentation, and trial and error, but if I can do it successfully and make these meals delicious, enjoyable, and not blow up my kitchen, you can too. Maybe I’m not so much of a want-to-be anymore, but I started out that way.
You said trial and error. Tell us one of the errors because that always makes me feel better.
It’s funny. I wouldn’t say I had a ton of errors. I certainly had some recipes that didn’t turn out great the first time around. Some of the funnier stories I have with recipe developing for It Takes Guts revolves around sourcing some of these organ meats and some of the interactions I had trying to get ingredients because I had to make friends with butchers and some farmers and ask some questions. Some of the organs, cuts, or ingredients weren’t as easy to find. I remember a day vividly when I was doing some recipe development around blood. I was making different types of blood pudding.
I went to a local butcher, and went in there friendly enough. I asked for some calf’s blood. The butcher looked at me like I had asked for human blood. If you’re a butcher and you are thinking I’m nuts, this is why the stuff is intimidating for people. This is why it’s not used or incorporated as much as it could be because we’re scared to ask. People aren’t used to it. I got to the point with that butcher shop where they knew I was the kooky organ meat lady. They liked me, and we became friends. They would end up giving me stuff for free.
For example, I was recipe developing some chicken skin chips, which are very delicious in the air fryer. I would go and ask about it, and they’re like, “Take this chicken skin. Nobody wants it. Just have it. How am I going to charge you for this? Take it.” It’s because people are going and asking for skinless chicken breasts. I’m like, “You’re getting rid of the best part, the most nutrient-dense part, the most delicious part. It’s such a shame.” It worked out to my advantage. On more than one occasion, I remember walking home from the butcher shop to my house, holding a bag of calf’s brains or a bag of frozen blood, and being like, “How did I get here? Is this really my job?”
Nose-to-tail eating and organ meats are helpful and important parts of the human diet.
I want to know how you got here from a girl that started out eating cereal with low-fat milk to looking into calf’s blood and veal brains or what have you. How did you get there, Ashleigh?
I ate a standard normal American diet. I come from a family that is concerned with feeding their family in a healthy way as much as anyone else. We weren’t adventurous eaters. We weren’t overly knowledgeable about this stuff. I was born in the ’80s. I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s and ate low-fat stuff and whole grain stuff because those were healthy, and Dunkaroos in your lunch because that’s what kids wanted. That’s how I ate. Looking back, I can see in retrospect that I always had a tendency towards animal protein, fatty, gristly, gamey, and rich, delicious stuff.
I have always liked animal protein. Growing up on the East Coast, I was into oysters, lobsters, mussels, and things like that. I always was gravitating toward that stuff. It coincided when I became an adult, traveling and moving around for life and work. I was living in New York City for a while, which has any cuisine that you could ever imagine. I was having a fun experimental phase. I loved food. I had this attitude about food that if it was new or different, I wanted to try it. I wasn’t freaked out if I went to a place, and they were like, “It’s chicken feet.” I wasn’t like, “That’s gross. I’ve never tried that before.”
I’d say like, “I haven’t tried that before. I want to try it.” I had that open mind about it, but that was also coinciding with me learning more about food and nutrition. I had this background through my work that was ancestral, primal paleo approach. I think that’s a common sense approach for most people to start when they’re looking for their optimal, healthy diet. I know people can tweak and make changes from there. I was eating whole foods paleo-ish approach. I was learning about the importance of nose-to-tail, honoring the animal, and eating everything.
I was starting to dabble in these things like, “Maybe I’ll try some liver because everyone says that’s so healthy. I saw chicken hearts at the grocery store. Why don’t I try that?” I was playing around and sharing it a little bit on social media and stuff. People were responding to me like, “What are you doing? What is that?” A lot of people were giving me gross-out emojis and like, “You’re nuts,” but a lot of people were like, “What are you doing? I’m interested. I want to know more about this.” As I was learning, I was starting to think there are people out there who are also interested and could benefit from this.
You said that you knew that the liver was healthy, for example. How did you know that?
I knew it because this is my profession. This was happening. I was already a few years into working with paleo magazine when they were up and running and hosting a podcast and health coaching. I was coming into the wellness health industry from this paleo primal, like following Robb Wolf, Mark Sisson, Art Devany, Weston A. Price, and all of these amazing resources.
I knew, generally speaking, that animal protein sources were good. I knew that nose-to-tail was good. I knew that we should be seeking out nutrient-dense foods. I was scratching the surface. I did a lot more research for the book. I did always have that baseline of knowledge but realized at the same time that even in our industry, health community, and people who eat meat, organ meats are still intimidating to a lot of people. They’re still almost taboo for a lot of people.
There’s still this concept that if you didn’t grow up eating it, it’s strange, extreme, and gross. I have to preface that in most of the world and through most of history, it’s been normal and commonplace. It’s more about modern North American mainstream culture that thinks it’s weird. I have to recognize that because I’ve got a ton of people messaging me, saying, “This is amazing. I eat this stuff every day.” I appreciate that. I knew that it was something I wanted to pursue personally for my health and to be more mindful of my eating decisions.
Let’s talk about that. What makes these different cuts, as you’ve been discussing, the blood, brains, and liver, so healthy? Can you give us a couple of reasons why we should eat them if we don’t?
I’m speaking mostly to the animal protein eating community. I’m not going on a crusade trying to get vegans to eat liver. To the vast majority of us who still eat some animal protein and animal products and recognize the health benefits of those, we’re talking about essential amino acids that our bodies need to function. We have to get them from outside sources and in the most bioavailable form in animal products. We’re talking about micronutrients, vitamins, and minerals that we need that our bodies need to function. You’re simply getting them in higher doses, nutrient-dense doses in organs, than you would from muscle meat, for example.
If you’re going to eat a steak or a chicken breast, you’re getting protein. Maybe you’re getting some different vitamins and whatever. You’re getting way more of it in the organs. The organs are where the nutrients are packed in, like the liver, which everyone wants to talk about. You’re getting your B vitamins, A vitamins, iron, phosphorus, and selenium. I could keep going. We often don’t think about these things because our bodies are using them and humming along well. We don’t often think about having like a micronutrient deficiency until something goes wrong, we get some blood work, and your iron and Vitamin A are super low.
Our bodies are good at taking those nutrients out of animal products and, even more specifically, organ meats. If you’re somebody who, for example, wants to eat less animal products but doesn’t want to eat as much, a great answer for you is to look into organ meats because you can eat less and get as much or more of the benefits. I understand that some people want to eat healthily, they recognize animal products are an important part of that. You don’t have to eat a ten-ounce liver steak every other night to reap good benefits from the nutrition. You can eat a couple of ounces every few weeks, and you’re doing great.
It’s ethical, too, because we’re not being as wasteful. We’re using all the parts of the animal.
That’s a no-brainer. Online, this nutrition conversation can be very divisive. It can be black or white, and, “If you do it my way, you’re right. If you do it their way, you’re wrong.” Most of us, whatever end of the spectrum we’re on, want to eat healthily and do the planet, environment, and ecosystem as little suffering as possible. We can pretty much all agree on that. One of the ways to do that if you’re a meat eater is to eat the entire animal, the animal you already accepted you’re going to eat for health because you’re a part of the lifecycle and the ecosystem. You use your dollars wisely by purchasing ethically humanely raised and slaughtered animals, eating all of them, and wasting as little as possible. It makes sense.
We said earlier that you were on the standard American diet, and now you’ve transitioned into being adventurous. You make a good case for this being fun, tasty, economical, ethical, and the whole shebang. What cuts grace your table now the most, would you say, Ashleigh?
The most would be liver, heart, and tongue for a whole host of reasons. Namely, they’re nutrient-dense. They’re all great. The heart has a ton of CoQ10, which is a great antioxidant that’s so good for you. The tongue is delicious. It’s the one organ that I would tell people if you’re going to trick people into eating, I don’t say you should, but if you’re going to make a meal and not tell somebody what it is, it is the most delicious. Anybody would enjoy it if they weren’t freaked out by what it was. The tongue is a great one. The liver is super nutrient-dense. It’s so versatile. You can hide it in other foods if you want to.
I have no problem with that, but they’re also relatively easy to find. All three of those cuts you can generally find at any butcher shop or specialty meat grocery or whatever. I probably eat liver. I make it into a pâté, mousse, or maybe fry up some chicken livers wrapped in prosciutto or something. Once or twice a month, I probably make slow-cooked shredded tongue for tongue tacos or to put in an omelet. I do that probably once a month. Heart is probably my number one. It’s the number one cut that I would recommend to people getting started for a number of reasons as well.
It tastes so much like beef, just regular muscle meat.
You’re getting micronutrients in higher doses from organs than you would from muscle meat.
That’s it. It is a muscle. That’s the other thing. A lot of people are worried about textural issues, and I understand that. With the heart, it’s a muscle as well as an organ. It has that beefy texture that people are okay with.
You mentioned earlier that there’s this ick factor or the gross-out emojis that people are posting under social media posts. It’s intimidating because it’s so far away from the way most of us in the Western world have been raised. We’re not eating those cuts anymore. If we’re ready to make the transition as you have done to include more of these different cuts It Takes Guts to go for it, where should we start? What would you recommend for us to get going with it?
We don’t have to go from 0 to 100. We don’t have to go from never touching organ meat to eating raw kidneys. Even if the internet tells you that’s the best way to do it, you don’t have to do that. You can ease your way into it. My very first step for people who are interested but intimidated is if you’re able and have the resources, go to a restaurant and have a professional do it for you. Understand what these can taste like when somebody who knows what they’re doing does it. Go to a Mexican restaurant and get tongue tacos. Go to an Asian restaurant and get some tripe stew. Get some foie gras, chicken liver, or duck liver pâté at a restaurant. It’s surprisingly common if you look and you pay attention to find organ meats on restaurant menus.
Ashleigh gives us more of her tips to help us enjoy organ meats. She also includes a simple recipe with chicken hearts and butter.
Check out BubbleAndBee.com & use the code WISE for 15% off.
Go to Amazon.com/OptimalCarnivore and use the code WESTON10 to receive 10% of all products.
That’s exactly what I’ve done with bone marrow. I have no idea how to get this wonderful creamy marrow out of the bone. The first time I tried it probably was at the Weston A. Price Wise Traditions conference because they would have it there. I was like, “This is amazing. I had no idea.” That is a great suggestion, Ashleigh.
It’s so easy. You can get out of your mind that, “Organ meats have to be this thing,” and you choke down because it’s good for you. You can enjoy it. That’s my first recommendation. My second recommendation is to start small in terms of the actual animal organ you are sourcing because smaller animals tend to have milder flavors. If you’re worried about a strong flavor, maybe don’t go for the buffalo liver or the bison heart.
Start with animals like chicken, duck, turkey, or even lamb. Smaller animals are going to be milder tasting. Go for that. Thirdly, start with the heart because, on the scale of organ meat flavors, it is one of the milder ones. It also has a beefy texture that is very easy for us to get our heads around. It’s also extremely versatile. You can do so many things with the heart that you can make whatever you want out of it.
You hit the nail on the head with this book because you have the section talking about specialty parts from head to tail. You go through demystifying what the kidney looks like and what you can expect if you order a brain or get gizzards in your chicken. I love this. This is so helpful.
Thank you. I didn’t want to make it scary and intimidating. It already is. I want it to make it like, “This is simple. You can pick and choose. You can play with it. You can make an adventure. It doesn’t have to be scary. It can be fun.”
You also labeled recipes so we would know which were the easiest, to begin with. What are some of the easier ones that you post in your book?
I’ve got a couple, like chicken heart recipes. It’s funny because that was almost probably one of the organs I ever started experimenting with and eating myself. I remember people messaging me and saying, “How do you cook chicken hearts?” I felt answering like, “I can’t even make a recipe for you. You just put them in a pan with some fat and then eat them. That’s the recipe.”
When I was trying to get creative with the book, I came up with some other recipes, but they were so simple. You go to the grocery store anywhere and get a package of chicken hearts. It will cost you a couple of bucks. You rinse them off, throw them in a pan with some ghee, butter, or whatever fat of your choice, cook them, and eat them. It could not be simpler. They’re so delicious and very crowd-pleasing.
Open your mind. Get rid of preconceived notions and realize that you can change your mind about things and have a different experience.
You demystify and offer some simple recipes. I have to admit that I was surprised by a couple too. Which is the most intimidating recipe that you mentioned in your book? I think there was one with a bison heart.
That wasn’t intimidating for me. The most intimidating one for me at the time was a recipe in there that was scrambled calf’s brain and eggs. Historically, eggs and brains go very well together because they have a similar texture. I remember that I bought these brains, and they look like brains. I had to hold a brain in my hand, prep it, and cook it. I remember thinking like, “This is a little bit outside of my comfort zone.” I pushed through, and I did it. One of the things I’d like to say here that is another demystifying point because a lot of people may not know this is that, generally speaking, the most intimidating-looking organs tend to be the mildest, easy to eat of all of them.
Everybody’s heard of liver, and liver looks like a cut of meat. It’s not super intimidating looking. That’s one of the stronger flavored organs that’s challenging for a lot of people to eat. Things like tripe and stomach have no flavor. It’s chewy. It has a texture but has no flavor. That’s why it tastes great and spicy stews because it absorbs the flavor of whatever you’re cooking it with.
The brain has a very mild, delicate, creamy flavor that when you cook it and mix it in with scrambled eggs, you can barely tell that it’s there. You look at it and are like, “That’s a brain. I’m freaked out by this.” It’s interesting. What I encourage people to do with the book is open your mind, get rid of preconceived notions, and realize that you can change your mind about things. Something can look or feel one way, and you can have a completely different experience.
Let’s go back to the health stuff we were talking about. I know that in homeopathy, they say it heals or cures. I’m wondering personally, or perhaps you have anecdotes from clients that when they eat the brain, their cognitive function improves, or when they eat heart, they feel stronger and more energetic?
I am not a scientist. I can’t tell you that any of this is going to bear out, but it is interesting how the brain is high in cholesterol, which, as we know, is a healthy fat that our brains use. We need cholesterol to function. It makes very common sense that eating this healthy form of cholesterol is going to be good for your own brain function. Personally, one of the reasons why I have put myself on this journey of organ meat eating and sharing it with the world is because I work hard on being a healthy, robust, resilient human being.
It wasn’t until I started incorporating organ meats into my diet regularly that I noticed a leveling up in my health, energy, and resiliency. That shocked me. It did without sounding too over the top or woo-woo. Nothing makes me feel better than when I’m eating liver regularly. I do feel like it supercharges my body. It’s because it’s this gift that has so many of the things our body needs. I don’t know if I can say the brain makes your brain work better, but I will tell you that liver and eating organ meats has had an incredibly positive impact on my health.
Another thing in your book that surprised me was that you included a dessert section. For some of these recipes, like sweet cinnamon chicharrones and bone broth ice cream, I was like, “What the heck?” I didn’t know you could make those things from those foods.
I had to include a dessert chapter because I have a massive sweet tooth. I would get rid of salty foods for the rest of my life and eat sweets forever. In my research, I was like, “These things are versatile.” My favorite dessert in the book is the chocolate blood pudding, inspired by a famous Italian chocolate pudding recipe where blood is used both as a thickener and to enhance the flavor of cocoa. It’s similar to how you might add espresso or coffee to a chocolate recipe to bring out the flavor.
It was one of the recipes also that my taste-testing family and friends, who sometimes were more or less afraid to try my recipes, had to convince them on this one. They were like, “This is incredible. It’s so good. I would have missed out if I hadn’t tried this because I was scared that there was a little bit of blood in it.” These foods are versatile. That’s it. In the ice cream, you’re adding bone broth for the nutrient density of it. It doesn’t impact the flavor. A lot of these foods are more versatile and subtle than you think.
Tell us a story of someone you’ve worked with who you have seen change like you did, transitioning from a more regular diet, or maybe somebody was big on carnivores, but they weren’t eating these specialty cuts. Tell us the story of someone who made that change and what you observed in that.
Without speaking directly about one person, one of the things I’m most proud of is that I do some one-on-one coaching. I’m more proud of how many folks have come to me through various online or social media communities and said to me, “I used to be vegan or vegetarian. I used to just not care about food. I used to have strong opinions about how gross the way you’re eating is. After listening to you and watching some of the things that you do, I gave it a try. I started incorporating more animal protein. I started incorporating organ meats. I’m sharing it with my kids now, and they love it. I’m super excited.”
That thing makes me happy. Not because it is my life’s work to change vegan’s minds, but because it means that what I’m doing is not shutting people out. I’m not trying to be exclusive. I’m not trying to be judgmental of people who are not doing the same thing as me. I’m trying to show people options and show people a potential new thing they can try that may open up their minds to new experiences that may provide some pleasure and health.
We live in such a divisive world where a lot of people are preaching great ideas. They’re doing it in a way that is condescending, patronizing, or aggressive. They’re losing the idea of who they’re trying to reach. We don’t change people’s minds by telling them what they’re doing is stupid or dumb or telling them they’re dumb. People say, “I used to be completely the opposite of you. I listened to you a little bit, and you made me think it was okay to try something different,” which makes me happy because that’s what this book is about even more than organ meats. It’s about being willing to open your mind to new experiences and the benefits that can come from that.
I love it so much. It reminds me of Dr. Tom Cowan, who rarely gives unsolicited advice. He’s a speaker, author, influencer, and all that, but he waits until there is interest before he does it. By putting your stuff out, you’re putting it out for those who are ready for it. If they’re not, maybe they will be, or maybe they won’t. Either way, you’re not forcing it down their throat.
That’s exactly right because forcing it never works. If it worked, there’d probably be a lot more healthy people out there. I learned the hard way, too, because I’ve had friends and family members who have struggled. I’m looking from the outside, thinking, “If you just do XYZ, you would feel so much better.” In some circumstances in the past, I have tried to push it. Guess what happened? It’s not what I wanted to happen. You live by example. You put out the information you think is useful. You try to be open, friendly, and willing to hear from different people with different opinions. When people are ready, they’ll come to you. If they don’t, that’s because they’re not ready, and that’s not up to you to decide. You have no control over that
I appreciate your approach and what you’ve put out into the world. I’m so thankful. I want to pose to you now the question I’d like to pose at the end. If the readers could do one thing to improve their health, what would you recommend that they do?
This is going to be where my bias comes in. Especially for women, eat more animal protein. Generally, a lot of people aren’t eating enough protein. There are so many different kinds and preparations. You can find something that works for you and that you enjoy and be willing to give it a shot. Have fun with it. Don’t force anything. Don’t eat because you feel like you have to. Have fun. It’s a journey. We’re all on it. We’re all learning. Eat more protein.
Thank you, Ashleigh. I appreciate your time.
Thanks, Hilda. This was awesome.
Our guest is Ashleigh VanHouten. Go to her website, AshleighVanHouten.com, for her blog and other resources. She even has a mini-eBook available with organ recipes that’s free. Now for our letter to the editor from our journal. “As a Weston Price member and a chapter leader, I’ve learned many techniques over the years, from raising and cooking nutrient-dense food. As my diet has shifted from sugar-based to fat-based, I’ve grown to prefer the foods I’ve learned about WAPF.”
“When I travel, I bring special foods with me, including raw milk, raw milk yogurt, cheese, bone broth, soup almonds, and liver pâté. Once when I was traveling to Wyoming, I immediately began asking where I could purchase raw milk. I found that it was illegal to sell in the neighboring state of Idaho, even soda in stores. No one seemed to know who carried it or how to get it.”
- It Takes Guts
- Janine Farzin
- Sally Fallon Morrell
- Tom Cowan
- Kelly Brogan
- Tommy John
- Free Organ Meat Recipe eBook
- Wise Traditions Conference
- Bubble & Bee
- Optimal Carnivore
- Leigh Merinoff – Previous Episode
- Find Food/Local Chapters
About Ashleigh VanHouten
Ashleigh is a health coach, speaker, podcast host, and author of one of the only nose-to-tail, organ-meat centric cookbooks in existence, called It Takes Guts. Her new book is called Carnivore-ish.
She is the host of the Muscle Maven Radio podcast, downloaded more than 1.5 million times, where she interviews some of the leading minds in exercise and nutrition methodology and overall wellness.
Ashleigh is also a consultant in the fitness industry, helping others build their brand and communicate their messages to the world. She’s developed a range of coaching programs and workshops aimed at improving physical strength, overall wellness, and a deeper understanding of our bodies and optimal health, including Muscle Science for Women and the Jacked Back Pull-Up Program.
Connect with Ashleigh on Instagram @themusclemaven or on her website, ashleighvanhouten.com.
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