Jennifer McLagan has been on a crusade to change people’s minds, palates and pantries when it comes to eating animals for years. The Australian-born chef and cookbook author, who now divides her time between Toronto and Paris, is a champion of nose-to-tail cooking, which wastes no part of a beast.
In Ms. McLagan’s gastronomy, such things as bone marrow, fish heads, cow’s stomach, duck livers, pig’s feet, even cockscomb and lamb’s testicles are to be cherished rather than dumped in the trash or ground up for hot dogs.
Her gustatory convictions are spelled out in a carnivorous trilogy of cookbooks, just completed with Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal. The new volume, which hits bookstores this weekend, celebrates cooking with off-cuts and offal, such as shanks, snouts, hearts, brains and kidneys.
Her previous cookbook, Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, With Recipes, won the 2009 James Beard Cookbook of the Year Award for extolling the health and culinary benefits of animal fats. And her first, Bones: Recipes, History, & Lore, won a 2006 Beard award for its take on such delights as braising meat on the bone and nibbling toast spread with marrow.
The books revel in a contrarian approach to the way many people think about eating animals. Far from being preachy, they’re highly readable and rich with fascinating historical and scientific tidbits of information, bolstering dozens of accessible, delicious recipes. They aim to reinvigorate an age-old mode of eating that fell out of favour with the rise of industrial farms, packaged meats and processed foods in the mid-20th century.
As packaged meats became readily available at grocery stores, many diners grew squeamish about eating things like cow’s tongue and lamb’s brain, opting almost exclusively for such premium cuts as beef tenderloin and skinless chicken breast. But in this age of sustainability and conservation, nose-to-tail cooking is making a resurgence. Today, offal, shanks and charcuterie are listed cheek-by-jowl, if you will, with prime cuts on menus.
Ms. McLagan’s mission has been to encourage home cooks to discard the wasteful practice of preparing only prime cuts and embrace all the other tasty bits.
“In a pig’s eye!” you may say, but you probably don’t know what you’re missing. We talked to Ms. McLagan at her Toronto home to get some of her top tips for eating from snooter to tooter.
Why is it best to buy fish and meat on the bone?
If you buy fish on the bone, it will have a head and gills, so you’ll be able to tell how fresh it is. You need the bright eyes and the bright-red gills to know it is fresh. And with any fish or meat, when you cook it on the bone you’ll get more muscle integrity as well as flavour and more juiciness as the collagens in the connective tissues break down.
What is the tastiest fat for frying?
I like cooking meat in its own fat, so poultry in poultry fat, beef in beef fat, lamb in lamb fat. It adds another layer of flavour. For deep-frying, beef fat is good because you can take it to a higher temperature. If I had to choose just one, though, it would be duck fat because it has a lot of flavour. French fries cooked in duck fat are just wonderful.
What is the best lard for making pastry?
I’m a big fan of using leaf lard, the fat from around the kidneys of the pig. Cut it up into little pieces and heat it gently at a very low temperature in the oven so the fat melts without developing any porky flavour, then strain it and cool it in the fridge until firm. Leaf lard is very crystalline in structure, so it makes wonderfully flaky pastry. It is very neutral in flavour if rendered correctly, so when making the pastry I often mix in about 40 per cent butter for flavour.
Why should we eat ‘odd bits’?
Today, when we are talking about scarce resources and all that, if we are killing animals to eat we can’t throw half of them away. It’s not sustainable to just eat tenderloins and New York steaks. The odd bits are different cuts, but they are just as tasty and sometimes more tasty. And they are so damned easy to cook.
What is the best ‘odd bit’ for converting the timid?
You don’t have to be able to cook to make beef tongue. It’s good if it gets put into a brine, but it doesn’t have to be. You just poach it in a pot on the stove until it is tender, or in a crock pot or pressure cooker. Once it’s cooked and the skin is taken off, you have this big, solid muscle that can be sliced in a sandwich, served with a salsa verde or cut a little thicker and put on the grill with some mustard glaze or barbecue sauce.
What is the most adventurous ‘odd bit’ for the brave?
They can try lamb’s brain fritters, which have the brains mixed with gruyere and parmesan cooked in a batter, so they’re cheesy and crispy and delicious. Or try a brain and morel ravioli. Brains have this fabulous consistency like whipped cream, so they make a wonderful ravioli filling. They have a very mild flavour.
Special to the Globe and Mail
TONGUE WITH SALSA VERDE
2 1/4 to 3 1/3 pounds (1 to 1.5 kilograms) beef tongue or lamb tongues, brined
1 small onion, quartered
1 carrot, peeled and sliced
2 stalks celery, sliced
6 black peppercorns
6 allspice berries
3 stems flat-leaf parsley
1 clove garlic
1 large sprig thyme
1 fresh bay leaf
1 cup (20 grams) arugula leaves
1 cup (15 grams) flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed
3 cornichons, rinsed
2 anchovy fillets, rinsed
1 1/2 tablespoons shallots, chopped
1 clove garlic, germ removed
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 hard-boiled eggs, halved
Place the tongue in a large saucepan. Insert the cloves in two of the onion quarters and add to the pan along with the remaining onion, the carrot and celery. Add enough cold water to cover the tongue by 2 inches, and place pan over medium-low heat. Bring slowly to a boil, then skim any scum from the cooking liquid. Add peppercorns, allspice, parsley, garlic, thyme and bay leaf. Lower heat and simmer, partly covered, until tongue is very tender, 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours depending on size.
Transfer tongue from the poaching liquid to a plate. Have a bowl of ice water ready for dipping your fingers.
Starting at the back or throat end of the tongue, while it’s still hot, use a small knife to lift up the first piece of skin. Then, using your fingers, peel skin off as though you were removing a glove. Be careful when you reach the tip of the tongue that you don’t tear it off. Discard the skin.
Scrape off any bumps on the tongue with the back of your knife, then trim the fat and gristle from the base and underside and discard. Put the peeled tongue back into the strained cooking liquid and leave to cool.
Place the arugula, parsley, capers, cornichons, anchovies, shallots, garlic and lemon juice in a food processor and pulse until coarsely chopped. Add the olive oil and pulse to blend.
Tip the sauce into a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Cover by pressing plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the sauce (this keeps it green) and refrigerate.
Slice the tongue thinly and place the slices overlapping on a platter. Arrange hard-boiled eggs around it, then spoon over some of the salsa verde.
Serves 4 as a main course or 6 as an appetizer
From Jennifer McLagan’s Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal , © 2011 by Jennifer McLagan, photographs © 2011 by Leigh Beisch, published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.