Serious Eats: Recipes

The Nasty Bits: Tongue Tied

As a Nasty Bits lover, I'm willing to argue that those who dislike offal simply haven't had it prepared correctly. It's a large contention, I admit, and I'm sure my opponents will insist that it's not a matter of preparation, but rather, an honest aversion to the essential nature of innards. Still, people say that it is the mark of a skilled and knowledgeable cook to take a humble cut and transform it into something spectacular, and I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment. We could have an entire discussion on the topic of taste and whether or not it can be objective in any sense, and we will, at some point.

But what I want to talk about this week is another theory I have about offal. I want to propose this point: that the aversion to offal is actually just a visceral reaction that stems from our visual capacity. That we can see what we eat before we eat it, in its natural or raw form, contributes very much to our judgment about its taste.

A nice, juicy steak looks delicious when it's still raw—that intricate marbling of fat with meat, like snowy branches in a field of red, is beautiful even before we slap it on the grill. Similarly, fruits and vegetables are the beauties of the culinary world: Is there anything more attractive than a deeply purple and curvaceous eggplant, or a vine laden with sun-ripened tomatoes? These are the foods that beg to be handled and eaten, whereas the nasty bits are thusly named for a reason, because they look, well, kind of gross.

When we see blood, guts, and bone, what we're really viewing are the remnants of a form of life, and we may cringe in recognition of the death that occurred for those bits to be there. But in addition to the cognitive element of what it means to eat meat, there is the visceral reaction, which is in a way the more powerful of the two. Some innards, like honeycomb tripe, have a symmetrical appeal, but most kinds of offal are arrestingly nasty to the eyes of the beholder.

There is a reason why popular medical dramas use parts of animals in filming, or why medical students practice by operating on pigs. When we look down at that slab of calves liver, it looks eerily like our own liver, and in that moment of recognition, we get the feeling that there is something not quite right about eating that which so closely approximates our own.

No part of the animal illustrates this point more cogently than the tongue. When I set my cow's tongue down on the chopping board, I took one look at it and was instantly struck by its remarkable resemblance to my own. The tongue, which is really more muscle meat than inner organ, possesses that signature, tell-tale curvature regardless of whether it comes from a calf, a cow, or a human.

20090706-tongue-close.jpgRunning my hand over the length of the cow's tongue, I scrutinized the bumpy projections on its surface. Later, I learned that these projections, called papillae, contain the taste buds. Like rows of sea anemone or a neatly organized pin-cushion, the papillae uncannily resembled my own, only on a much larger scale. Wiggling my tongue in an absentminded manner, I felt the layers of muscles on the base of the cow's, and imagined the way it must have moved in the mouth of the ruminating beast. The tongue was large and weighed a few pounds; holding it in my hands, I could fathom, just for a moment, the deep aversion to offal that many eaters have. And then, I grew hungry.

The tongue is delicious. Like other tough cuts, it must be cooked for a lengthy period of time to become palatable, but when given the proper treatment, the tongue is tender yet beefy, with a pleasantly chewy texture resembling that of a well stewed gizzard or heart. If you haven't had either, think of the richness and creaminess of beef short ribs.

I've been craving tongue for a few weeks now. My go-to Mexican place, the kind of mom and pop shop where the food is carefully cooked and served with love, makes a stellar Lengua en Salsa Verde. The father is always in the kitchen manning the sizzling hot griddle; the mother serves the tables and picks up the slack. Their precocious daughter, a tiny teenager who can give you impeccably good recommendations from their menu, runs the counter when she is not in school or doing her homework at a table nearby. It is the kind of place where you can sit down and rest assured that the dish you order is cooked just for you, by someone who knows what he is doing.

Braised and served in a pleasantly sour Salsa Verde, the tongue is tender and very rich, yet tempered by the piquancy of the sauce. Even a brief simmer will allow the tongue to absorb some of the Salsa Verde, which is easy enough to make once you track down the tomatillos. You can finish all the preparations for the tongue in advance; once simmered, it may be kept in the refrigerator for several days, or frozen, until you are ready to make the Salsa Verde. This recipe for Salsa Verde will make enough to accompany about half of the tongue.

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Lengua en Salsa Verde

Salsa Verde adapted from Authentic Mexican, by Rick Bayless with Deann Groen Bayless.

About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. She firmly believes in all things offal, the importance of reading great books, and the necessity of three-hour meals. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor." Visit her blog, My Chalkboard Fridge.

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