When was the last time you giggled with delight at the thought of head cheese? Or possessed an irresistible craving for the iron-clad odor of beef liver frying on the stove top in a bath of fried onions? Have you ever tried tripe sausage? Tongue? Or brains?
The fact is, if you're a fan of offal (or variety meats, as they are often called in the U.S.), you could well be in the minority – and it's likely that the only places you're able to get your fix are an area ethnic restaurant or your home kitchen.
Offal, a term derived from the Old English "off" and "fall," includes the heart, liver, lungs, tail, feet and head of an animal – all parts typically left behind on the cutting floor during butchering in America. Although ancient Roman gourmands were enthusiasts for organ meats and "odd bits," these visceral parts have never been a big hit in the U.S.
Nonetheless, in recent years, the notion of "nose to tail" eating has grown in popularity – both as a food trend and a way to promote sustainable living through the elimination of food waste.
In response, countless restaurants, including some here in Milwaukee, have embraced the challenge and ingenuity needed to bring out the best in even the most unpromising of ingredients. We spoke with the executive chefs of a number of local establishments who told us how they're using more unusual off-cuts to enhance their menus and introduce a new generation to the joys of eating offal.
At Hinterland Erie Street Gastropub in the Third Ward, Chef Dan Van Rite has made a practice of ordering very different cuts of meat, including duck tongue, pork liver and veal brains.
"I try to find anything different that I can get my hands on," Van Rite says. "We often get things in and try them out ... and if we like them we put them on the menu. If they go over well, we keep making them. If not, we try something new."
He reports that a variety of offal dishes have gone over well. Favorites have included beef heart tartare, tongue pastrami and foie gras mousse. Many customers are trying the dishes out for the first time, but for others, it's a blast from the past.
"Just the other day a couple came into the restaurant for dinner," Van Rite recalls, "and they tried out a good percentage of the offal on the menu. They said it reminded them of foods they ate while growing up."
Chef Paul Zerkel of Roots has been working with off-cuts for a number of years, during which the menu and specials have included sweetbreads, tongue, cheek and headcheese, among other offerings.
"Inspired by a dish at Hinterland, we ran a 'tongue n' cheek' slider made from ground veal tongue and pork cheek wrapped in caul fat and served with house ketchup and caramelized onions," he recalls. "That went over fairly well, even though some people just read 'slider' and ordered it without actually understanding what we were doing with it."
Starting this winter, Roots plans to offer monthly world travel menus featuring inventive twists on classic cuisine from countries like Germany and Spain. Specials will allow diners to explore all kinds of offal from sweetbreads to hearts to livers. The winter menu will also feature a pork pot au feu, featuring pork belly, house-made sausages and vegetables cooked in a broth derived from jowls, cheeks, head and shoulder. He expects the items to go over well.
"I like to think that I have developed a sense of trust with our clientele over the last few years that they feel like they can take the more adventurous road when they sit down at Roots," Zerkel says.
Similarly, Chef Justin Aprahamian from Sanford also trusts in the venturesome palates of his patrons as he seeks to showcase the diverse textures and elements of a given animal.
"I am a big fan," he says of his work with offal. "It shows respect for the animal using all the parts. I almost always have some on hand to use in various applications, at the very least to incorporate into tasting menus."
Aprahamian favors off-cuts for starter courses, like grilled heart and cured shoulder with pickled chanterelles, fresh herbs and a sherry gastrique, garnished with ramps or fiddlehead ferns.
He is currently perfecting a play on the traditional tostada. For the dish, he'll be mixing roasted bone marrow with black bean puree and pairing it with spiced beef tongue, house pickled sweet corn, seared tomatillos, jicama and cilantro.
"It's still a dish being worked on, but I am excited about it," he says. "I am really a big fan of bone marrow. In the last year I have had some standout dishes with it, including a pasta dish at Marea in New York and a featured dish at St. John in London."
For adventurous eaters, the resurgence of offal offers a real opportunity. With liver containing a virtual multi-vitamin's worth of nutrients, hearts offering copious amounts of CoQ10 and taurine and kidneys weighing in as rich sources of selenium and B-12, indulging in these lesser-used cuts of meat can pay off both nutritionally and gastronomically. But, for the faint of heart, even the lure of nature's superfoods isn't quite enough to persuade them to leave behind their comfort zones and venture into oft-uncharted territory.
As Chef Zerkel admits, "Using an off cut can be thought provoking, educational, adventurous and edgy, but always be prepared to end up feeding it to the staff."
Bonus Bits: Home cooks interested in trying out offal for themselves should consult the Serious Eats' series "The Nasty Bits," in which Chichi Wang explores recipes featuring – you've got it – offal.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.