Seasons by the Sea: The Offal Truth

“Snout to tail” eating has been embraced by carnivores who want a less wasteful approach to butchering animals. This has helped put offal, such as this pig’s face, more in the mainstream of dining. Laura Donnelly

When I was little I was fed chicken livers and raw beef to “cure” my anemia. So you will never see me wrinkling my nose up at the various forms of variety meats. Some are divine; some are offal. Ha ha, got that pun out of the way early!

Variety meats can range from the ultra suburban and simple bologna to silky, sophisticated foie gras. Technically, offal is defined as “an edible part of a slaughter animal other than skeletal muscle,” such as liver or tongue. The “Larousse Gastronomique” 1988 edition divides variety meats into two categories: red and white. The red category includes heart, liver, kidney, spleen, tongue, and lungs. The white category has such bits as marrow, brain, feet, stomach, sweetbreads, and testicles.

Foie gras, paté, sweetbreads, and marrow are considered delicacies, while haggis, chitlins, and menudo are specific to certain cultures and are often considered to be poor people’s food. Some of these body parts are extremely perishable and require great care and time in their preparation.

I do not eat a lot of meat, but I do believe that if you are going to raise and humanely butcher an animal for food, it is best to use as much of the beast as possible, “nose to tail,” as they say. I have tried blood (pudding), livers, kidneys, brains, sweetbreads, testicles, tongue, tails, intestines, marrow, hooves, and yes, I have ordered a pig’s face at Maialino restaurant in New York City. Most of these aforementioned items I have no desire to ever eat again, but some are quite delicious and nutritious. 

Sausage is a category of variety meat that most of us are familiar with. Who hasn’t enjoyed a spinach and garlic or chicken and parsley luganega from Villa Italian Specialties grilled over a charcoal fire in the summertime? How about a few slices of dry, hard salami, served with cocktails or wine, offering up the perfect balance of fat and salt? Breakfast sausages, bacon, and baloney are common in many households. Some of us are familiar with more regional “specialties” like scrapple and Pennsylvania Dutch rope sausage and ring bologna. Stoltzfus ring bologna is an Amish treat that can be sliced, pickled, and served on crackers, or fried in butter (good God!) as featured on the Food Network.

I am a fan of kielbasa, sliced and cooked over low heat for a long, long time in a cast-iron skillet or on the grill. It is served on top of a bed of arugula with cherry tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, and warm French lentil salad topped with lots of fresh, chopped herbs. This is my friend Tom Scheerer’s recipe and you can find it online as it was featured in EAST magazine in 2016. 

When I serve it, I offer the meat portion as more of a condiment, not the main protein, thus justifying my once or twice a year indulgence in kielbasa. Also, as a kielbasa connoisseur, I find that the cheap Hillshire Farms brand is almost as good as Schaller and Weber’s. If you like it coarser and smokier, treat yourself to Cromer’s housemade kielbasa.

There are so many other varieties of sausages, they deserve their own column. From all over the world, there are cooked and uncooked, smoked, cured, and dried.

Liver and onions used to be a fairly common (and frugal) offering on restaurant menus, but it has fallen out of favor. In the supermarket, you may have noticed that livers, whether calf’s or chicken, are cheap, as are other organs, if available. When I worked at the Laundry restaurant many years ago, the owner had somehow worked out an arrangement that we were the only restaurant on the East End serving Iacono Farm chickens. However, the excess chicken livers often went to waste. Chef Andrew Engle offered them to guests in many forms, chopped with schmaltz, as a paté, and fried on crostini, Italian style. But they were not very popular. Interestingly, the Laundry was also the only restaurant still serving liver and onions, and this was hugely popular.

Abra Morawiec is a specialty bird farmer and co-owner of Feisty Acres on the North Fork, raising quail, partridge, ducks, chickens, guinea fowl, and turkeys. The farm also raises bobwhites to be released back into the wild. When chefs buy her birds or eggs, they often request the hearts, livers, or gizzards for free, assuming there is no market for them. But there is, apparently, especially at the Union Square Farmers Market. She sells her variety meats to Ukranian, Mexican, Nigerian, and Korean customers who recognize the quality and value of these sometimes shunned byproducts.

Anthony Bourdain once wrote about a dinner in his honor that was “entirely offal and nasty bits.” He enjoyed watching the expressions on other diner’s faces. The older folks looked nostalgic, hopeful, optimistic, even misty-eyed, over pigs’ feet and hog maws. The culinary novices, “young cooks, heavily pierced and tattooed metalheads, and well dressed adventuresses” seemed to regard the evening ahead as an “extreme” eating experience. 

He was delighted to see that once they tasted a rabbit kidney or sweetbread, their faces reflected “a moment of recognition, a calming reassuring wave of satisfaction, the dawning knowledge that yes — this can be good. I like it. I love it. I want it again.”

Trying different variety meats can be a voyage of discovery, or even, rediscovery.