"There is nothing quite like them--that feral taste combined with a mouthfeel not quite as tender and fatty as liver, nor as chewy as gizzards."
Of all the nasty bits on earth, liver and kidneys must be some of the nastiest. Their function--to process and disperse toxins from the diet--makes for a risky undertaking for the offal cook. Truly foul, these organs are a real treat when you can find them fresh.
Given the nature of their function, livers and kidneys are a direct reflection of the life of the animal, a tell-tale sign of its diet and treatment. Naturally exposed to toxins, livers and kidneys are far more likely than muscle tissue to develop stress and disease-related damage such as cysts and tumors. This is especially so for the kidneys, which filter the animal's urine.
The kidneys' main function is to purify the blood by removing nitrogen-rich waste and funneling the waste into the urine. At their worst, kidneys possess an "off" taste, the likes of which I could never quite identify until I learned the nature of the organ. If you've ever worked with less than impeccable kidneys, you've probably smelled them before you've tasted them--that acrid, pungent scent of animal waste.
Look for kidneys from a butcher who will leave the natural layer of fat around the organs. Keeping kidneys intact will almost always be better than buying the cut-up alternative.
If you're looking for them at an ethnic market, calves' or lambs' kidneys will have the highest probability of tasting clean, while pigs' kidneys will invariably reflect their varied, sometimes more questionable diets. Beef kidneys are the largest and toughest of all and require a longer stewing to be tasty.
When properly prepared, kidneys are a unique experience. There is nothing quite like them--that feral taste combined with a mouthfeel not quite as tender and fatty as liver, nor as chewy as gizzards. If you're hesitant to cook kidneys because you've had too many tough and rubbery memories at restaurants, know that kidneys are only tough when they're overcooked. In Chinese and Vietnamese preparations, kidney slices are frequently fried or stir-fried, tossed with spicy chilies to offset the pungent taste.
When I'm in the mood for a homier preparation, I cut kidneys into smaller, bite-sized chunks for a quick preparation in the pan. Gleaned from The River Cottage Meat Book, this kidney dish is called "deviled" due to the amount of cayenne pepper spicing up the sauce, yet there are also notes of sweetness and tartness.
Sauteed in fat, the kidneys are simmered briefly in a mixture of wine, jam, vinegar, mustard, and cayenne pepper. You may never think to add jam to a kidney dish, but the hint of fruit--a little tart and slightly sweet--works well with the cayenne's heat. The dish is finished with a very generous splashing of Worcestershire sauce. When it comes to kidneys, there can never be too much Worcestershire.
If you buy the kidneys whole, be sure to remove the gristly white center of the organ before proceeding with the recipe. As always, saute the chopped kidneys in a bit of fat for a rounder, meatier taste.
Adapted from The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
- 4 lamb's kidneys or 2 pig's
- 1 tablespoon of fat
- 1/2 cup of red wine
- 1 tablespoon red wine or sherry vinegar
- 1 teaspoon red currant jelly, or any other jelly of your choice
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
- 1 tablespoon mustard
- 1 tablespoon heavy cream
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Chopped parsley, to garnish
To prep the kidneys: Cut kidneys in half and carefully remove the gristly white centers with a paring knife. For lamb's kidneys, quarter them. For pig's kidneys, cut into bite-size chunks, approximately 1-inch across.
Heat a little fat in a frying pat and add the kidneys, sauteing for just a brief minute to brown. Add the sherry and let it bubble for 30 seconds. Add the vinegar and simmer for 10 to 20 seconds.
Add the jelly, mustard, and cayenne pepper, stirring the kidneys to mix all of the elements together. Add the Worcestershire sauce, and let the liquid simmer for 20 seconds until it is slightly reduced. Taste for balance. Depending on your taste for kidneys, you may want to add more sour or spicy elements.
Finish by taking the pan off the heat and adding in the heavy cream, stirring to mix.
Serve with toast or rice, garnishing with parsley if desired.