Here, Eat This: A Beginner's Guide to Offal
Thanks in large part to the fact that "awful" is a homonym for "offal," there's no terrific English word to refer to the entrails of an animal -- the tender, delicate bits that were, until a few generations ago, still regarded as some of the most prized cuts of a cow or pig.
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt Chef de cuisine Adam Dorris serves bloody good blood sausage at Revival Market.
The sweet organ meats that are still prized across the world go by many names. Esteemed food writer Harold McGee uses the rather delicate and old-fashioned term "variety meats" when discussing them in his books, while my favorite handy reference guide -- The Food Lover's Companion -- notes that these variety meats include both "animal innards and extremities."
What neither mentions is how delicious and how underappreciated offal is.
Leaving aside the obvious fact that slaughtering an animal to only use a few of its parts is shamelessly wasteful, offal offers other benefits aside from being a tasty, responsible way to consume all the parts of an animal that someone worked hard to raise. Organ meats like the heart, tongue, kidneys and liver are low in calories but very high in vitamins and minerals -- especially B vitamins, iron and potassium. (They are also high in cholesterol, however, but the nutrient-rich, protein-packed servings mean you don't need to eat very much to get a health boost.)
Other offal meats such as tripe offer protein, vitamins and minerals with very little fat or cholesterol attached to them. And still others -- like trotters, sweetbreads, cheeks and tails -- are simply a luxurious blend of sumptuous fat and meat that's more addictive than the way cheese melts onto a hot hamburger patty.
Regardless of the reason you eat offal, there's a variety meat out there for you.
Note: I've tried to loosely organize the list of offal below from most approachable to...more exotic. As always, your mileage may vary.
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt Beef sweetbreads at Feast.
The sweetbreads are most often the pancreas and/or thymus gland of a calf or lamb. These tender little bits are my personal favorite parts of the animal, with a texture and flavor that's light yet rich -- entirely different from that of muscle meat. Sweetbreads are also, in my opinion, the most approachable of all offal. Although sweetbreads have been eaten throughout human history, the term itself dates to the 16th century although etymologists aren't exactly sure of its origins. In An A-Z of Food and Drink, John Ayto posits "it would seem to reflect the glands' reputation as prized delicacies (unusual amongst offal) which survives to this day. It is possible that the second element represents not modern English bread by the Old English word broed, meaning 'flesh'." Sweetbreads aren't difficult to find in Houston, where they're often sold aboard taco trucks as mollejas, with Taqueria Tacambaro's mollejas as a particular favorite. To try the French take on sweetbreads -- a.k.a. ris de veau -- head to Brasserie Max & Julie, Cafe Rabelais or Mockingbird Bistro. More and more chefs are using them in modern applications too, such as the sweetbread and grits at Sparrow or sweetbread panzanella at Provisions.
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt Barbacoa at Gerardo's.
If you've been thinking all this time that barbacoa was simply Mexican barbecue, you're...slightly wrong. Yes, the shredded meat is cooked in a pit for a long period of time. But real barbacoa comes from the whole head of an animal (usually a cow or a lamb) which means you're getting a taco full of face meat -- in particular the lovely, fatty cheeks. The best place in Houston to try real barbacoa is at Gerardo's, where the meat market serves its barbacoa tacos on Fridays, Saturday and Sundays. These days, most other restaurants and taco trucks buy the cheeks separately and stew them instead of cooking an entire head. But Gerardo's still does it the old-fashioned way every week.
This is pretty self-explanatory, and there likely isn't a kid in Texas who wasn't force-fed liver and onions at some point in their lives -- and are probably still cringing at the strikingly metallic, mealy flavor. The key to liking liver is to buy/eat liver from a young animal -- a calf or a lamb, for example -- so that the organ is still tender and relatively free of the toxins that build up over an animal's life and impart that noticeable "livery" flavor. You have to make sure it's cooked correctly too, as Harold McGee notes in On Food and Cooking: "Because their connective tissue is fragile, their muscle fibers short and their fat content relatively low, they generally should be cooked as little as possible." The result will be a dish that's light in flavor and fat, but rich in nutrients and a dense, nearly creamy texture.