‘Odd Bits’ Author Gives Us the Offal Truth

Why nose-to-tail cooking is in vogue again.
Who wants some oxtail ravioli? (Photo: Leigh Beisch).
Sep 20, 2011

Try telling your family that heart burgers are on tonight’s menu and they’ll be reaching for the takeout pizza menu before you can say, “American or Swiss with that?”

But that’s exactly the kind of reaction that Jennifer McLagan hopes to change with Odd Bits (Ten Speed Press, $35), a new cookbook that aims to take the terror out of tripe and lift the lid on lungs.

 Photo: Leigh Beisch

A Melbourne-born, Toronto-based chef, food stylist, and writer, McLagan is on a crusade to bring these much-maligned and overlooked organs and offal back into favor. (It will come as no surprise that she has previously penned books on the topic of fat and bones.)

From the classic (beef stew) to the challenging (advanced headcheese), via gizzards, tripe, heart, lungs, testicles, and spleen, the recipes in Odd Bits ensure that virtually no part of the animal is wasted. Retro dishes like Liver with Dubonnet and Orange also feature, as do vegetarian sides such as potato gnocchi and desserts, including Chocolate Blood Ice Cream.

McLagan’s informative and humorous writing style helps draw us in (there are sections entitled Give Gizzard A Go and Lend Me Your Ears), as do the lengthy introduction and interesting asides (who knew that Swiss artist Paul Klee was partial to lung ragout, made to his own precisely timed recipe?).

But if you still need convincing, just flick through the book and salivate over the alluring photos—and then, only then, look at the names of the dishes.

Before you know it we’ll all be saying, “Brains. It’s what’s for dinner.”

McLagan recently dished to TakePart about Odd Bits.

Odd Bits may well make odd bits trendy again. Some of the recipes look delicious.

I’m glad because that’s what I wanted to do—to try and make it seem appetizing. People eat with their eyes as well as with their palates—especially in a book like this where they don’t expect the dishes to look nice or interesting or tasty. I was hoping I could convince them. Even my agent said, ‘Boy, those lamb testicles look good!’

As you explain in the introduction, eating odd bits isn’t actually a new thing; it’s something we used to do regularly. Why do you think it has fallen out of fashion?

I think it has happened mainly in North America—people still eat a good amount of odd bits in the U.K. and in Europe. It’s because the meat, the prime cuts, are so cheap in this country, so no one has to bother with the other stuff. Because that’s all they buy there’s no market for odd bits or offal, so there’s this continual cycle. The odd bits drop out of people’s thoughts and recipes disappear and no one cooks or asks for them and then they’re not available any more, with a couple of exceptions such as calf’s liver and sweetbreads, which have stayed on restaurant menus.

 Photo: Leigh Beisch

And, as the introduction also says, there’s a mental gap now between the mass-produced bland meat we tend to see in stores and the fact it has actually come from an animal. So when we think about tripe, say, it almost seems horrific in a way because we remember we kill these animals to eat them. It’s like we forget that sometimes.

Yes, it’s surprising that so many people look at the cover of the book and say, “I wouldn’t eat that–it’s pigs’ trotters.” But they’ve probably eaten pigs’ trotters before in some kind of sausage. There’s this total disconnect because they never see the whole carcass. That’s why I ask the question in the beginning of the book: Why do people think that a lamb’s cheek is gross and vulgar when a chop isn’t? It’s two pieces of meat from the same animal.

In North America you don’t see dead animals hanging up in the markets like you do in Europe or Asia, but in France, for instance, people see that and they’re not shocked at all because they’ve been seeing it throughout their lives.

Why do you think nose-to-tail eating is coming back into fashion now? Is it the recession and our rediscovered waste-not-want-not mentality?

I think there’s a lot of talk about where food comes from—food has become a political topic. Now that people are thinking about buying naturally raised meat or organic meat that’s going to cost them more, they’re looking at the whole animal. I see a lot of people buying from farms or getting boxes of meat delivered to them, but it has some cuts in there and they don’t know what to do with them.

I’m hoping that the book will be helpful because it’s hard to find information out there. There are older cookbooks, but there are a lot of assumptions—that you already know how to handle a prepared heart, say.

The other reason is that it’s kind of a trend—part of it I like and part of it I don’t like—among young chefs to cook these kinds of things. For instance, pork belly has come out of the Chinese restaurants and gone mainstream; it’s now on every restaurant menu in every major city. It wasn’t like that even just a few years ago.

 A Salad of Pig’s Feet. Photo: Leigh Beisch

Do you think rediscovering odd bits and offal will be fad?

I hope not, and I don’t think it can afford to be. We can’t be killing animals and throwing half of them away. We need to create a demand so when that the animals go in the slaughterhouse it’s worth it.

We just need to get some recipes out there in the public eye—that’s all it takes. Take flank steak. That was something that hardly anyone ate ten years ago. Now people don’t think twice about cooking it.

I hope it really is something we come back to because this is how we always used to cook. We can’t afford to be throwing these parts away that are full of nutrition.

In the introduction you mention that it can be hard to actually get ahold of these odd bits, especially in the U.S.

Yes, it can be difficult. That’s why I’m trying to help people. But I’m pleased that butchery seems to be coming back as a trend among young people.

People want information. They want someone to talk to and ask questions of. The worst thing is the supermarket. There is nobody there, and if you can find someone to talk to you, they usually don’t know about the part of the food you’re asking about. But if you go to the butcher, you can’t get the exact meat you want, and they can probably tell you another part that cooks in the same way.

It’s important that people go and support local butchers. Or if they don’t have a local butcher, maybe know have a restaurant that serves odd bits and they can ask them about their supplier. Or if they go to a farmers market, they can ask the seller to get them something specific for next time. Because the sellers want to sell the whole animal too. No farmer wants to waste anything.

People say it’s just too hard to get these odd bits, but if we can get the weirdest, most exotic spices from some small island in the Indian Ocean, surely we can get the animals that were killed down the road. The more people who ask, the more we will get it. We have to start somewhere.

What recipe would you suggest for someone who’s an odd bits virgin and wants to try something?

I’d say that two of the best things are heart and tongue. They’re relatively easy to get and they’re great value. Tongue, once it’s cooked and peeled, is just this big piece of meat. You can be the worst cook in the world and you can cook tongue—you just poach it until it’s tender. Then you have this meat that you can put in a sandwich, or you can chop it up and make hash for breakfast, or put it into a croque-monsieur instead of the ham.

And heart was a big revelation to me. It’s a little bit more work. If you have a good butcher who can prepare the heart for you, you can just braise it in a stew recipe—although I suggest slicing it up before you serve it because you don’t really want to put a heart down on the plate! Or you can grind it and add it to you hamburger or meatloaf mix and you’ll get this intensity of beefy, almost slightly gamey, flavor.

If you’ve not eaten odd bits in a while they’re definitely worth trying again. I wouldn’t eat brains and tripe for ages, thanks to the way my mother cooked them, which wasn’t her fault. But then when I rediscovered tripe, I loved it and now I love brains too—and that’s something I wouldn’t touch at all before.

Interview edited and condensed.

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