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.
Running 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.
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.
The Nasty Bits: Tongue Tied
- 1 pound (11 medium) fresh tomatillos, husked and washed
- Fresh hot green chiles to taste (2 jalapenos or 3 serranos)
- 6 sprigs cilantro, roughly chopped
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- A few tablespoons lard
- Beef or chicken broth, as needed
To prepare the tongue: Bring a large pot of water to boil; salt the water somewhat heavily, as you would for pasta. Wash the tongue, and place it in the boiling water. Put a bowl, or a weight of some sort, on top of the tongue to ensure that it will be entirely submerged in the water during cooking. Simmer for 2.5 to 3 hours.
Remove the tongue from the water and let it cool down for a bit. Peel away the white casing surrounding much of the meat. The white layer is edible, but not very tasty. Depending on how much tongue you would like, slice it into segments about 1 inch long. One tongue will yield many servings.
In the meantime, prepare the tomatillo sauce: Wash and dehusk the tomatillos. If you prefer the sauce to be milder, remove the seeds from the chiles. Boil the tomatillos and chiles in salted water until tender, approximately 10 to 15 minutes. Drain.
Place the tomatillos and chiles in a blender or food processor, along with the cilantro, onion and garlic. Process until smooth, but still retaining a bit of texture.
Heat a tablespoon of the lard in a skillet over medium heat. When the skillet is hot enough to make a drop of the sauce sizzle, pour all of it in and stir constantly for about 5 minutes, until it becomes darker and thicker. Add the broth, return to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer until thick enough to coat a spoon, about 10 minutes. Season with salt, and set aside.
Heat a few more tablespoons of lard in a skillet, and add the pieces of tongue. Brown lightly on all sides. Taste a piece and season with more salt if needed.
Add the tomatillo sauce to the tongue, and simmer for a few minutes. Add a bit of stock if you see that the mixture is becoming too dry. The dish will be ready when the tongue has absorbed some of the flavor and spiciness of the sauce. Serve immediately, with tortillas on the side.