Most of us who buy tongues at the market are used to seeing rounded curves on either end of the organ—not just the tip of the tongue, which is by default curved, but also on the meaty end of the tongue. More or less severed at the back of the mouth, the tongue emerges autonomous like some free-floating agent from the rest of the head. It was only after I began apprenticing at Fleisher's that I noticed the way the organ connects to muscles at the base of the skull.
For last week's post on roasted lamb's head, a few readers questioned whether roasting the head in its entirety is actually the best use of a whole head. One reader made the point that roasting the head is a terrible waste of the brain, which is invariably overcooked during the process. This is certainly true—unless there's some surgical procedure by which you can remove the brain from the head and still leave the skull intact, the brain is necessarily sacrificed if you want to serve a whole roasted head.
Nevertheless, is there anything more satisfying than dishing out the proverbial head on a platter?*
*The idiom is rooted in Biblical tales about the beheading of St. John, whose head was served on a platter at the request of vengeful royalty. Upon his untimely demise, St. John was promptly martyred, becoming the subject of many a Baroque painting. The dispute about the exact whereabouts of St. John's head sounds like something rife for a novel by Dan Brown. The head was found three times in three different places over the course of many centuries and everyone from the Knights of Templar to the French have claimed possession. For the 10 percent interested in this line of conversation, the Wikipedia article on St. John's head is pretty good.
For our purposes, it's important to note that even if the brains have to be overcooked when the head is roasted, the tongue can be rescued from a similar fate. To remove the tongue, reach your hand into the space underneath the jaw and pull out as much of the base of the tongue as you can. Then, taking your boning knife, firmly press the blade against the bone and run it along the V-shaped edges of the jaw. In doing so, you'll bump into bones at the end of the tongue, which can be severed at exactly two cartilaginous joints.
Once removed, the sky is the limit for tongue preparation. Lamb's tongue, like beef, can be stewed slowly for soup or for filling in tacos lengua. Confited, the tongue can be pan-fried lightly and served with potatoes and lentils, or any vegetable or grain that would pair well with rich lamb. I've sautéed cubes of lamb's tongue as a topping for freshly made paparadelle and used it in a cassoulet instead of duck confit. Like all cassoulets, tongue cassoulet benefits from from being made in advance. The more days you can stand to leave in the refrigerator, the more the beans will take on the rich and fatty flavor of the tongue.
- 3 ounces pancetta, cubed
- 1 onion, thinly sliced
- 3 cups lamb or pork stock
- 1/2 cup dry white or red wine
- 1 bouquet garni
- One 14-ounce can of chopped tomatoes
- 2 sausages, preferably lamb or chicken
- Two 14-ounce cans of cannelli beans, drained
- 1/4 cup of freshly processed bread crumbs
In a medium enameled cast-iron pot or clay pot, lightly brown the cubes of pancetta, rendering the fat as you do so. Remove and set aside.
Add the wine and deglaze the bottom of the pot. Add the stock, the can of chopped tomatoes, the beans, and the whole sausages. Simmer for half an hour, then remove the sausages and place them onto a cutting board.
In the meantime, preheat the oven to 325°F.
Place the pot in the oven for 1 hour, until the top is well-browned. Let the cassoulet rest for 10 minutes, then serve with plenty of bread and wine.