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Forbidden Pleasures or Foods of the Gods

Chef's love of offal is a good thing
Roasted Marrow Bones
Photo credit: Franco Vogt
Photo credit: Franco Vogt

The Food of the Gods or Forbidden Pleasures?

We foodies attach biblical status to something as primitive as organ meat or offal. Heavenly or Devilish—which is it?

It is a category of animal cuts that are, in the supermarket at least, the dregs, with the lowest prices and the least desired part of an animal. A huge percentage of organ meat now ends up in preformed burgers, hot dogs and other products. Ever wonder what is meant in the advertising campaign “100% Beef”? Sirloin? Filet? I doubt it. Try hearts and hooves. Yes, that is the way most Americans get their lesser cuts, disguised in low end processed items. When I was touring with a band in the late 70s, I had a temp job at a meat processing plant. They had bright yellow carts with “Hot Dogs” scrawled in black marker in the sides for every single scrap, organ and tendon not destined for the standard supermarket selection. If I knew then what I know now...I could have created a gustatory paradise from that cart’s contents.

Sweetbreads, Pates, Marrow Custard and Anticuchos still are considered specialties in many parts of the world, reserved for the refined, wealthy and sophisticated eaters. James Beard and Julia Child, icons in the American culinary revolution, revered a good chicken liver appetizer or kidneys in sweet and sour sauce. But mention these items to many today in America and you receive a groan or my least favorite response --- eeeuuwwwe, gross! In a case of mistaken identity, offal, variety meats and many “good fats” have been much maligned in the modern food media, until recently that is.

The good news is that chefs have rediscovered offal. They enjoy working with them a few reasons. First of all, they are complex and delicious. The layers of complexity in organ meats---nuances of mineral and floral aromas, layers of subtle sweetness and bitterness, the supple texture---these are the same descriptions we use for fine wine. This is the good stuff, not the house pour, and chefs like that!

The second reason is that chefs need variety to show off their creativity. After your 100th filet mignon special, chefs need to explore new things to keep their edge and offal is a great opportunity for that. The complexity of flavors make offal some of the best and most intriguing flavors to create wine pairings as well. There are a myriad of preparation styles for offal ranging from delicate white wine and caper sauces for veal sweetbreads, to fiery, acidic marinades for grilled beef heart to melty, sticky pork cheeks. These are the toys of a creative sommelier's playground.

Another reason why offal is making a comeback in restaurant kitchens is because of the global influence on modern chefs. Organ meat is still revered in all, I mean ALL parts of the world except America, where we think that a boneless skinless chicken breast has flavor. From Asia to Argentina, livers, kidneys, tongue, heart, and more are relished by the rich and poor alike. In my travels to Europe and Central America, the most memorable meals I had included some form of “forbidden pleasure”. It is what the locals encourage you to enjoy, as a way of making a connection and creating a bond with our cultures.

Organ meats from naturally pastured animals are, contrary to contemporary myth, quite healthy for you. They contain many elusive nutrients, minerals, “good” fat, cystine, elastin, collagen and other alkaloids and enzymes that are essential to the development of our own organs, joints, brain and blood. According to bone and fat enthusiast Jennifer McLagan, author of Beard Award-winning cookbook Fat  “marrow is full of minerals and good fat. Queen Victoria ate marrow every day and, while she may have had a full figure, she lived to be 81." That was when life expectancy was much shorter than today. Studies back her claim up, showing that marrow is a good source of protein and is high in monounsaturated fats, which decrease bad cholesterol levels.

Finally, using the entire animal is the essence of the sustainability movement. If all we desire is round cutlets that fit perfectly on a bun, the processing industry will continue to develop “Franken-meat” to fulfill our desires. We are what we eat and we get what we ask for!

In trying to be sensible and sustainable in our meat choices, we must honor and use the entire animal in a holistic way. New World is way on board on this fact! Use it all----make stock, and in the words of the immortal Julia Child, “Save the liver!!!”

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