From George Romero's seminal Night of the Living Dead through AMC's hit series The Walking Dead to the upcoming blockbuster World War Z with Brad Pitt, zombies in popular culture have something big in common: They all embrace a contemporary culinary movement known as nose-to-tail dining. And just as surely as our most treasured bit of offal is foie gras from a duck or goose, theirs is undoubtedly brains – any brains.
Of course, you probably knew that, but it is highly unlikely that the thought of brains on a plate makes you as peckish as it does me. The initiated know them to be unique in flavour, as rich as custard, a great source of protein and vitamins and – when balanced with a sauce of the correct acidity – the cut-price cornerstone of a lovely snack. Which is why I was excited recently to open an issue of the eccentric American food quarterly Lucky Peach, themed on the food of the Apocalypse, and discover therein a feature titled, "Braaaaaiiiinnsss – Recipes from the zombie diner."
But they were more like recipes for the zombie gourmand – and a well-travelled one at that. For the enthusiast of South Asian spice, there was a curried sautée of goat brains on toast points conceived by the inspired Michelin-starred Indian chef Hemant Mathur (Tulsi in New York). For the Eurocentric classicist who prefers their brains crispy, the highly talented chef and food writer Gabrielle Hamilton (Prune in NYC) had supplied a recipe for calf's brain fritto misto. And as the pièce de résistance – for the Francophile zombie – the incomparable Jean-Georges Vongerichten provided the secret of how to make the famous brain-crusted rack of lamb served in early days at his flagship three-Michelin starred restaurant Jean-Georges.
It was too much for me. In fact, it all sounded so good that I immediately decided on the obvious: to order up a heap of brains post haste and cook all three dishes for a small party, to celebrate the release of World War Z.
I anticipated just two small problems: finding brains and finding guests.
The thing is, brains do not show up on a lot of our menus. The nation's foodies are by and large far more keen to discuss British chef Fergus Henderson, the godfather of nose-to-tail eating, than to actually nibble on a succulent frontal lobe.
While cervelles do pop up now and then in classic Montreal bistros (invariably in the standard French presentation, with capers, parsley and brown butter), I have never seen them on offer in Vancouver, where even sweetbreads are a tough sell. And the only place I know in Toronto that has enjoyed any enduring success with them is Ristorante Buca, where since opening day in 2009, chef Rob Gentile has been rolling lobes of lamb's brain in slices of prosciutto with a leaf of sage, deep-frying them until crisp, and serving them up with a heavily vinegared oregano dip.
The inspiration for the dish is presumably the classic veal saltimbocca. Or possibly the simple observation that just about anything tastes great served up piping hot in a cylinder of salty, crisp-fried prosciutto. But either way, Buca's success with that item has not translated into mobs of newly converted DIY brain enthusiasts staggering en masse into butcher shops and demanding that heads be split.
In butcher shops in France and even Australia, you will find six-packs of (premium) lamb brains in the open display fridge. But here, when I get a craving for that uniquely rich offal, I know well enough to order ahead and be patient. Even with advance planning, supplies are unreliable – apparently because health inspectors are wary of the stuff, and prone to condemning whole batches of them for minor infractions such as discoloration.
For this occasion, as I wanted goat brains along with the lamb and calf, I started my inquiries with Ben Gundy, who recently took over the venerable butcher shop Olliffe, in Toronto's Rosedale neighbourhood. His sausages are superb. And, more to the point, he has a great connection for fresh goat – and where there are legs and shoulders, there should also be brains. Gundy agreed to procure some, and the lamb brains too (calf brains were not available).
Meanwhile, I began e-mailing potential dinner guests. And, to my surprise, I promptly had 10 people coming over.
"Send more braaaiiins," I croaked at Gundy over the phone the day before the party.
"How's the order coming?"
"The good news is that the brains are here," he told me. "The bad news is, they're still in the skulls…"
He had a busy day with the buzz saw. The important thing was that I got them home just in time for the requisite first step of all brain cookery: a 24-hour soak in water, acidulated water or milk, with a view to flushing out all the blood. Once that has mercifully disappeared down the drain, the next step is usually to blanch them – in order to firm them up a little, and make the lobes easier to handle and clean.
And do be warned: First time out, the process can be unsettling. Because size aside, the thing you are holding in the palm of your hand looks just like yours. Your core essence, your identity, your everything – just a small lump of meat like this one. Except of course that the baby lamb or goat brain never once generated a thought more interesting than "I'm hungry," and "where's mum?" and possibly "I wonder where this truck is going?"
So get over it, set up the breading station and deep fryer, and carry on.
The guests arrived punctually – and hungry.
For the amuse-gueule – or the brainteaser, as I called it – I served the toast points. Alas, the textural combination of soft, creamy offal with spicy, wet curry did not especially please anyone.
But next up, Prune's fritto misto (braino misto with lamb crumpet standing in for the calf's) was a hit – its crisp, panko crust a perfect foil for the creamy interior. The apple segments and baby cippolinis deep-fried in the mix added up to a great combination.
Next, for some local colour, I made Buca brains – saltimbraina – and it upped the ante further, because that prosciutto was just as crisp as the panko, but brought a depth of flavour to the mix with which mere breadcrumbs could not compete.
Yet, by unanimous decision, the single best dish was the lamb rack, wherein the bronzed crust of brain, butter and parsley was both aesthetically pleasing and such a successful complement to the meat in both flavour and texture that the old rack of lamb standby of rosemary, mustard and bread crumbs will forever now seem dull. All the lovely dish needs is a new name: I'm thinking agnello al Romero.