Let’s face it. They call these things “Nasty Bits” for a reason. Perhaps it’s the physical connection that we have with certain parts of our own bodies that make the idea of eating those same parts from an animal a complete turnoff. We’re all used to the flavor of steaks, loins, chops, legs, and breasts. But the off-flavors of internal organs like kidneys, liver, and heart are off-putting for most. Yet, there are those that will still eat them.
So what’s the problem with eating things like brains, reproductive organs, or tongue? Maybe because we can’t get over the idea that this was once a part of the animal that they used every day – even relied on it. We all have a tongue in our mouths. We use it every day, couldn’t live without it. So the idea of someone eating our tongue after we’ve expired makes the idea of eating an animal’s tongue repellent. Who knows where that thing has been?
After the first of the year, I said that 2012 would be a year for the Odd Bitsby Jennifer McLagan. Having tackled pig ears in January, it was time to tackle another part of the animal that I’ve never cooked before. The only debate was how I would prepare it. I’m not simply going to boil tongue and serve it. It has to have some curb appeal. And there’s no better way to make food interesting than to make it part of a taco. Sure, it’s all about the main ingredient, but sometimes those ingredients need help. Besides, there’s nothing more fun to eat than a taco.
Yeah, that looks delicious, doesn’t it? That thick skin, the taste buds – it’s a bumpy looking beast. But underneath that thick casing is firm meat, and it’s loaded with flavor. So how do we cook it? Boiling is the often suggested method, but we definitely want to make sure it’s seasoned properly. I decided to poach it. The tongue is a thick organ, so you really cannot overcook it.
Thomas Keller has a recipe for tongue, as does McLagan. I used a hybrid of both of their recipes to poach my tongue. I placed the tongue in a large saucepan, then added the following:
1 medium onion, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and sliced
1 medium leek, sliced (white parts only)
6 black peppercorns
6 allspice berries
2 bay leaves
4 stems of fresh parsley
3 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 cloves of garlic
1/2 cup of sea salt
Then I added just enough cold water to cover the tongue.
I covered the pot, put the heat on medium low, and let it all simmer for 3 hours. It was then that I started to pierce the tongue with a metal skewer at its thickest part (near the back of the tongue). You’ll know when the tongue is cooked through when the skewer comes out without a lot of resistance. When it was ready, I turned the heat off, removed the tongue from the pot, rinsed it in cold water, and set it aside.
I strained the broth, reserving the liquid in a separate container. It was now time for the critical task of removing the skin from the tongue which has to be done while the tongue is still hot. Wait too long and the skin firms up, making its removal very difficult. It doesn’t take a lot of work to make this thing look worse than it already does. One of the reasons why you really want to cook the hell out of the tongue is because the longer you cook it, the easier than outer layer of skin will be to remove. As it was, a very sharp blade running just underneath the skin made this part of the job very quick and easy.
Since I wasn’t going to be making these tacos until the next day, I put the skinned tongue into the reserved broth and refrigerated it overnight. The longer the tongue sits in this flavorful broth, the better. The tongue can be kept refrigerated for up to 4 days in this liquid.
When it was time to make the “tacos” I removed the tongue from the refrigerator, allowed it to come to room temperature, then made a couple of cups of small dices. The tongue had been cooked through quite well, so this was a very easy job. The tongue had the consistency of cooked liver. It even tasted like it.
I wanted a nice sauce to go with these tacos, so I dug into Bobby Flay’s Boy Gets Grill cookbookfor an Avocado-Tomatillo sauce. It’s no secret that I like Flay. I think he’s one of the only things the Food Network has going in its favor. His how-to shows on grilling remain some of my favorite shows on that network. And the man knows how to drink.
For Bobby’s Avocado-Tomatillo sauce:
8 tomatillos, husked and rinsed
2 jalapeño chiles
1/2 cup mild vegetable oil
salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons honey
4 ripe avocados, halved, peeled, pitted, and cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 small red onion
1/4 cup freshly chopped cilantro leaves
I halved the tomatillos, then brushed them and the jalapeños with vegetable oil, seasoned with salt and pepper, and grilled them over hickory wood until everything had a nice char on them.
I removed everything from the grill and coarsely chopped the tomatillos, adding them to the blender. I stemmed, seeded, and chopped the chiles and threw those into the blender too. Then I added the lime juice and honey. I capped the blender and blended it until smooth. Then I started pouring the vegetable oil into the blender at a slow pace until everything emulsified perfectly. I transferred this to a bowl, folded in the avocados, onion, and cilantro. I seasoned this to taste with salt and pepper. And that’s my sauce.
For the actual taco shell, I decided to use flat bread cut into rounds. We have a new market that has opened up near us that not only sells farm fresh produce, fresh cheese, and a very wide variety of middle eastern specialty items, but they make fresh flatbread all day long. You can walk into this place any time of the day, and there you’ll see this guy working his magic on a very large circular oven. The flatbread is cheap, fresh, and delicious. And I knew it would be the perfect compliment to this dish. Besides, who says a taco has to use a corn tortilla?
Setting up my prep station was easy. I had the flat bread rounds, avocado-tomatillo sauce, meat, crumbled queso fresco, and fresh sprigs of cilantro. To prepare, it was a matter of placing a small amount of sauce on the flatbread, adding 2 tablespoons of diced tongue meat, topped with a little more sauce, queso fresco, and a piece of cilantro. The sauce is flavorful, so too much of that will overpower everything else. Striking a balance is key, as always.
To me, the tongue tasted a lot like cooked liver. The poaching liquid enhanced the flavor quite a bit and maybe made the meat taste less earthy than it would have otherwise. It was very flavorful, far more powerful than most other parts of the animal (steaks, chops, etc).
Was it worth the effort? Absolutely. I’m unapologetic when it comes to being a carnivore, and I want to experience more parts of the animal than just the few select cuts we’re used to eating – not only out of respect for the animal who gave its life for us, but for the sheer understanding of why people have been eating this way for hundreds of years. The more I taste these odd bits, the more I come to realize the importance of using every piece of an animal that has been raised and slaughtered for food.
I’m already looking forward to the next challenge and tasting what I’ve been missing.