Thanks in large part to the fact that "awful" is a homonym for "offal," there's no terrific English word to refer to the entrails of an animal -- the tender, delicate bits that were, until a few generations ago, still regarded as some of the most prized cuts of a cow or pig.
The sweet organ meats that are still prized across the world go by many names. Esteemed food writer Harold McGee uses the rather delicate and old-fashioned term "variety meats" when discussing them in his books, while my favorite handy reference guide -- The Food Lover's Companion -- notes that these variety meats include both "animal innards and extremities."
What neither mentions is how delicious and how underappreciated offal is.
Leaving aside the obvious fact that slaughtering an animal to only use a few of its parts is shamelessly wasteful, offal offers other benefits aside from being a tasty, responsible way to consume all the parts of an animal that someone worked hard to raise. Organ meats like the heart, tongue, kidneys and liver are low in calories but very high in vitamins and minerals -- especially B vitamins, iron and potassium. (They are also high in cholesterol, however, but the nutrient-rich, protein-packed servings mean you don't need to eat very much to get a health boost.)
Other offal meats such as tripe offer protein, vitamins and minerals with very little fat or cholesterol attached to them. And still others -- like trotters, sweetbreads, cheeks and tails -- are simply a luxurious blend of sumptuous fat and meat that's more addictive than the way cheese melts onto a hot hamburger patty.
Regardless of the reason you eat offal, there's a variety meat out there for you.
Note: I've tried to loosely organize the list of offal below from most approachable to...more exotic. As always, your mileage may vary.
The sweetbreads are most often the pancreas and/or thymus gland of a calf or lamb. These tender little bits are my personal favorite parts of the animal, with a texture and flavor that's light yet rich -- entirely different from that of muscle meat. Sweetbreads are also, in my opinion, the most approachable of all offal. Although sweetbreads have been eaten throughout human history, the term itself dates to the 16th century although etymologists aren't exactly sure of its origins. In An A-Z of Food and Drink, John Ayto posits "it would seem to reflect the glands' reputation as prized delicacies (unusual amongst offal) which survives to this day. It is possible that the second element represents not modern English bread by the Old English word broed, meaning 'flesh'." Sweetbreads aren't difficult to find in Houston, where they're often sold aboard taco trucks as mollejas, with Taqueria Tacambaro's mollejas as a particular favorite. To try the French take on sweetbreads -- a.k.a. ris de veau -- head to Brasserie Max & Julie, Cafe Rabelais or Mockingbird Bistro. More and more chefs are using them in modern applications too, such as the sweetbread and grits at Sparrow or sweetbread panzanella at Provisions.
If you've been thinking all this time that barbacoa was simply Mexican barbecue, you're...slightly wrong. Yes, the shredded meat is cooked in a pit for a long period of time. But real barbacoa comes from the whole head of an animal (usually a cow or a lamb) which means you're getting a taco full of face meat -- in particular the lovely, fatty cheeks. The best place in Houston to try real barbacoa is at Gerardo's, where the meat market serves its barbacoa tacos on Fridays, Saturday and Sundays. These days, most other restaurants and taco trucks buy the cheeks separately and stew them instead of cooking an entire head. But Gerardo's still does it the old-fashioned way every week.
This is pretty self-explanatory, and there likely isn't a kid in Texas who wasn't force-fed liver and onions at some point in their lives -- and are probably still cringing at the strikingly metallic, mealy flavor. The key to liking liver is to buy/eat liver from a young animal -- a calf or a lamb, for example -- so that the organ is still tender and relatively free of the toxins that build up over an animal's life and impart that noticeable "livery" flavor. You have to make sure it's cooked correctly too, as Harold McGee notes in On Food and Cooking: "Because their connective tissue is fragile, their muscle fibers short and their fat content relatively low, they generally should be cooked as little as possible." The result will be a dish that's light in flavor and fat, but rich in nutrients and a dense, nearly creamy texture.
If you've been slavering after foie gras lately (and that wouldn't be a surprise, as the fatty delicacy has been a national obsession lately rivaling that of bacon), guess what: You're indulging in delicious, unctuous offal. Same goes for pâté. Both are made from liver, usually the liver of a duck or goose, with the main difference being that foie gras's intensely buttery, rich flavor is a result of an enlarged liver. How is it enlarged? Through force-feeding, also called "gauvage." Pâté is regular old liver (from any animal), emulsified with fat and other bits of meat to make a spreadable paste that ranges in texture from smooth and creamy to thick and chunky. My favorite pâtés at the moment are the decadent jars of pâté at Philippe and a chunkier country-style version at Bistro Provence, while Joanna O'Leary recently compiled a terrific list of five Houston foie gras dishes to try.
If you grew up in the South, there's a strong chance you've eaten oxtails at least once in your life. Same goes for anyone who grew up in Italy, Russia, China, West Africa and pretty much all of South America. Why? Because oxtails are inexpensive and almost universally regarded as delicious -- especially when stewed for hours so that the fat between the tail joints breaks down and flavors the sweet bits of meat still attached to the bones. Stew them long enough and the husky dark meat literally falls right off the bone. Oxtails like the ones served at This Is It make for a very filling lunch, while the delicate oxtail ravioli like the ones found at L'Olivier and Aldo's showcase the meat in a more refined context.
Black pudding/blood sausage
While blood may not immediately scream "approachable" to most people, I promise you this: Unless you've had blood cooked incorrectly, you'll be hard-pressed to tell you're eating it at all. Cooked blood takes on a craveably creamy texture with none of that awful, metallic copper taste present in fresh blood. Combined with the fact that blood is extremely high in protein, iron and other essential nutrients, that's why nearly every culture across the world and across time has their own version of blood sausage. A really splendid morcilla sausage or boudin noir has the same texture as pâté, with a deeply meaty flavor in lieu of that distinctly "livery" aftertaste. My favorite morcilla is at Pampa Grill, but for something really fun try the sanguinaccio at Revival Market. Black pudding, as it's referred to in Britain, isn't restricted to savory applications -- and the dark chocolate-flavored sanguinaccio dessert at Revival Market works the blood into a delicious dessert format.
Trotters / feet
Feet are not approachable! Yes, I promise they are. Especially when the meat from, say, the pig's feet has been shredded into something that closely resembles barbacoa and deep-fried. That's how they're served at The Hay Merchant, where the "trotter tots" make a perfect bar snack, along with a little ramekin of Creole mustard that slices right through all that tasty fat. Feet in their "full" form may be a little more difficult to confront, but there's something deeply satisfying about working all the puffy, tender meat off a spicy, braised chicken foot with your tongue and teeth that's oddly similar to eating crawfish. And really, what's worse? Tiny aquatic roaches or chicken feet? You can find the latter at every dim sum restaurant in Houston -- and sometimes goose feet if you're really lucky.
Tongue gets a bad rap because of how frequently it's ill-prepared. It can be mealy and thoroughly unappetizing when simply boiled. But try the thinly sliced, marinated and grilled lengua at trucks like Tacos Tierra Caliente or Taconazo to see how tongue can taste when done right. You might even mistake it for fajita meat. For an Eastern European take on the popular organ meat, try the slow-roasted beef tongue that's shaved into paper-thin slices on top of the hearty sandwiches at Kenny & Ziggy's.
Ears / orejas
If you like beef jerky, chances are high that you'll like pig ears. The general principle is the same: tough, dried meat that's fun to chomp through and occasionally spicy as hell. The crispy pig ears at The Hay Merchant are currently the gold standard, a sort of cross between jerky and chicharrones with tendrils of soft fat underneath all that crunch. For a different treatment, try the braised orejas at El Ultimo in a hot corn tortilla. They're still chewy, but far softer and excellent against the crunch of raw white onions and cilantro.
Tripe / tripas
Tripe, or beef stomach, is eaten across the world. If it's good enough for the rest of civilization, there's a fair chance it's probably not as terrible as you're imagining. It can be found in everything from menudo to pho and in nearly every culture's cooking. Stomach is too good to waste, with a fun, slightly chewy texture that's full of goodies like protein and calcium. In an interesting twist, tripe is also rich in lactobacillus acidophilus -- meaning it's good for your own stomach and digestive system. I recommend everyone try the ruddy, spicy, soul-saving menudo at least once at La Mexicana. It doesn't have the unpleasant smell associated with "green" tripe, which is unwashed and generally more acceptable for dog food than people food.
This is a muscle that gives many, many people pause. But why? It's just that: a muscle, no different than any other in an animal's body. The heart usually offers up the most concentrated meat taste of any other muscle, too, with a dark meat flavor profile that belies its lean mass. (In addition to 20 grams of protein and loads of vitamins and minerals, a single four-ounce serving of heart contains only 130 calories and 5 grams of fat.) I like hearts grilled over an open flame, like the anticuchos at Latin Bites, which imparts a rugged sear to the beefy organ.To try a minimalist version, check out the beef heart tartare that Feast is serving for its five-year anniversary dinner.
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Although my ex-husband constantly championed the culinary accomplishment that is steak and kidney pie, I've never been able to get into kidneys much myself. Regardless of how well you wash them, there's still a faint scent of uric acid that won't quite quit. If anyone knows of a kidney dish that will change my mind, please let me know. I want to like kidneys. I really do.
See also: - Here, Eat This: A Beginner's Guide to German Cuisine - Here, Eat This: A Beginner's Guide to Argentine Cuisine - Here, Eat This: A Beginner's Guide to Nigerian Cuisine - Here, Eat This: A Beginner's Guide to Korean Cuisine - Here, Eat This: A Beginner's Guide to Indian Cuisine