Offal, also known as variety meat and organ meat in America, is one of those things that gives people the shivers sometimes. We like to talk about it around Halloween, because you're already thinking of brains (as cupcakes) and skulls (as cakes), so by the time we start talking about chopped livers and grilled hearts you're less likely to run away from us screaming.
I really like offal -- not to be cool, or caveman-like, but because I like how it tastes, and I like the sense that I'm helping to use the whole animal, even when it isn't pretty. And let's be honest, offal can look really gross. But there are offal recipes, designed via thousands of years of experimentation, that put these cuts to incredible use, highlighting their best flavors and minimizing their worst. Below, I've ranked different nasty bits of offal from worst to best, according to how I like to eat them. Also, I've tried to present you with the best version of each of them. Some of these pictures might actually make you hungry. Brace yourselves.
These are so common in English and Irish cuisine that lots of people will think this is crazy, but somehow, a steak and kidney pie was one of the hardest things for me to get down ever. Which is saying a lot, when you look at the rest of this list. When kidneys are not prepared correctly, they taste like the work they do. Let's leave it at that.
Here is where I will start to say things like "delicious" and "worth it." There's a lot of great meat on the foot, and it's worth the fight it puts up. Chicken feet freak people out because they look like exactly what they are. Pig trotters are often cooked down into a terrine, which is much easier to handle.
Alright, everyone, get your giggles out. You can call these Rocky Mountain Oysters or Bull Fries if you want, but they are testicles. And fried up to a crisp they are REALLY delicious. "But they're balls!" you might be shouting internally. Yeah, they are -- get over it.
Some people take serious ethical issue with eating another animal's brains. On a basic level I understand that apprehension, but I also think that if you are comfortable eating its shoulder or loins, making use of all of the animals other parts shows respect for its life. It also does not hurt that brains taste really, really good. They are tender and mild, meaty but totally lacking the irony flavor some other offal retains. Again, the deep-fryer is the great equalizer for beginners.
Where a lot of other offal can look just like any other meat on a plate, the preparation of bone marrow seems to celebrate knowing exactly what you're eating and exactly where it came from. Marrow is often paired with sharp garlicky pestos and bright herb salads because the stuff is rich. Bone marrow tastes like what would happen if you tried to make butter from fat instead of milk. Proceed with toast.
Tripe gets a really bad rap for some reason. Well, the reason is that it is a stomach, and that fact kept me away from it until very recently. HOWEVER, the real truth is that tripe can be turned into a really tender, flavorful cut with a lot of flavor. Tripe is one of the only animal parts that acts as a flavor sponge, sucking up the ingredients around it. When paired with a spicy tomato broth, like in menudo, you're just compounding and concentrating flavor. Don't be scared of this stuff.
What you are looking at is a Full English Breakfast. This is one of humankind's most worthwhile creations. That black stuff toward the back is black pudding, and it's made with blood (usually pig but sometimes others). What you're thinking of right now is that time you got a paper-cut and stuck your finger in your mouth. That is not what this tastes like. Once the blood is cooked down into the sausage it takes on an iron-y sweetness that goes uncommonly well with runny egg yolks and Heinz beans. Try it once. It is way less freaky than it sounds.
If someone was holding you hostage in a room until you agreed to try some offal, sweetbreads are what you would want to choose if you were afraid of everything else. These glands, whether from lamb, calf, veal, etc. taste like chicken nuggets. And the truth is, if you knew what was really in chicken nuggets, eating a thymus gland would feel considerably more appetizing.
Beef tongue honestly tastes like slightly fattier, more flavorful brisket. If you love corned beef sandwiches, try tongue next time. If you have fallen head over heels for carne asada or brisket tacos, tacos de lengua are your next step. If we had another name for this meat, people wouldn't even think twice.
If you are weirded out by where cheeks come from, then you would be really disconcerted to learn where hanger steak, pork shoulder and veal chops come from. Cheeks, in truth, barely even count as offal because they are just tucked away nuggets of the same texture and flavor of the meats you already love. They nearly always have the benefit of being even more delicious. Dive in!
Heart is another one of those cuts that would fool anyone if they didn't know what it was. Considering what the heart's job is, it's nearly always less iron-y than most other offal, full of beefy (or chicken-y, etc.) flavor and really, really cheap. Beef heart is especially good grilled, or chopped into tartare. Truly one of my new favorites.
Is chopped liver the prettiest liver dish I could have found you? No way. But it is absolutely my favorite. Liver is unquestionably offal, from chicken to beef to pork to duck to goose. This cut has suffered the indignity of being relegated to a plate of diner liver and onions, and enjoyed the glory of being coaxed into a torchon of foie gras. If you like chicken liver mousse, you will like other kinds of offal. Good luck out there!