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The offal truth about animal parts

Unusual animal organs are winning customers' minds and hearts — and the occasional spleen

Phil Vettel

October 25, 2012

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As Halloween approaches, we're reminded that while eye of newt and wing of bat may not have invaded the nation's restaurant menus, neck of lamb and ear of pig most certainly have.

It's commonplace to find pig ears, head cheese and pig's feet on menus. You might not find a pork chop, strangely enough, but pork belly is practically a given.

And whether it's semi-disguised with a romantic-sounding name (guanciale sounds so much cooler than pork cheek, which is what it is) or literally and figuratively in your face (one of star chef Stephanie Izard's most popular dishes at Girl & the Goat is called "crispy pig face"), so-called secondary animal parts have become stars in their own right.

Some of this makes perfect sense. More than ever, chefs buy high-quality whole animals and do the butchering themselves, which means the "lesser" animal parts are part of the deal, already in the kitchen. And for reasons financial (chefs want to extract every possible dollar from the food they buy) and ethical (wasting food is wrong), chefs strive to use every morsel of protein at their disposal.

Fortunately for the public, chefs can turn bizarre-sounding stuff into delicious dishes. Fortunately for the chefs, the public seems to have largely gotten over the fear factor once attached to brains, kidneys, ears and what have you.

It wasn't always like this. Not long ago, people reacted squeamishly to sweetbreads; now they're menu staples.

When Gerard Craft opened Niche restaurant in St. Louis in 2005, he says the food world was on the brink of this change.

"We had pig's head on the menu and did beef tongue quite often," he says. "Tongue was readily accepted, which I attribute a lot to Jewish delicatessens, and it was the same with chicken liver — instantly accepted. Pig's head was a harder sell, but after a year it seemed that was all anybody was talking about when they came into the restaurant.

"Now we serve braised lamb neck, we've done goat testicles and even a pork spleen bruschetta we had for a bit. And they sell. Fortunately, the animals are almost designed to accommodate this. A pork butt is large, but the spleen is pretty small, so you don't have to sell as many of them."

In Chicago, Atwood Cafe chef Derek Simcik serves sliced veal heart over a bone marrow risotto. A year or so ago he served a bar-menu special dubbed "rabbit popcorn," which is dehydrated and deep-fried rabbit brains dusted with cheddar cheese powder. "That," he acknowledges, "was kind of pushing it."

Ricardo Zarate, one of Food & Wine's best new chefs in 2011, serves grilled beef heart, a burger made with lamb and alpaca meat, and tripe (cow stomach) stew at his Los Angeles restaurants, Mo-Chica (Peruvian cuisine) and Picca (Peruvian-Japanese).

"When I started, I took advantage of my Spanish heritage," he says with a laugh. "I put anticuchos de corazon on the menu; not everybody knew that meant beef heart. But the taste is nice."

At Storefront Company in Chicago, the beef in the beef and broccoli dish is beef heart. Chef Bryan Moscatello also has a Duck Duck Duck brunch cocktail garnished with duck confit, duck prosciutto and pickled duck heart, and he fleshes out his rabbit entree with tempura-fried rabbit kidneys, heart and livers. "People can't get enough of that tempura-fried offal," he says.

Tony Maws, of the acclaimed Craigie's on Main in Cambridge, Mass., thinks the popularity of these cuts represents a return to familial roots.

"Lots of people's families came from places where eating secondary parts was very normal," he says. "In the '50s and '60s we sterilized everything, but now we're getting back to it."

Maws hosts a "Road Less Traveled" dinner a few times each year, featuring only secondary cuts. "It's not for shock value," he says. "It's purely to showcase underappreciated parts that, if you're a good cook, are going to taste delicious."

Previous efforts have included a four-way lamb composition that had neck, sweetbreads, brains and heart sausage on the plate, and a duck consomme bolstered by duck testicles (poached in duck fat), heart (brined, cooked sous vide and finished on the grill) and neck (stuffed with foie gras).

Kyle Bailey, chef at Birch & Barley in Washington, D.C., believes presentation is a big part of making secondary cuts appealing.

"When using these cuts, you have to create the dish around the organ meat," he says. "The goal is to showcase its natural flavor and to build the dish so the organ is the shining star, but it's important to make the dish sound approachable and inviting. Pair it with produce at the peak of its season or crowd pleasers like bacon, and guests will try it.

"Ask your grandma about offal," Bailey says. "She'll tell you to eat your fill and not to waste this delicious offering. Eat every part of everything; it's all food."

And it's everywhere you look. Crispy pig's ears topping cassoulet at Benoit in New York, courtesy of chef Philippe Bertineau; veal tongue with caper vinaigrette and lamb heart with celery-fennel salad from chef Missy Robbins, at both A Voce locations in New York; poultry giblet ragu (mostly farm-raised pigeon) over polenta at Jonah Rhodehamel's Oliveto restaurant in Oakland, Calif.; veal heart tartare and chicken heart yakitori at Kevin Sousa's Salt of the Earth restaurant in Pittsburgh.

Such ingredients even factor into the planning of upcoming restaurants. At soon-to-open Found restaurant in Evanston, chef Nicole Pederson will feature a pickled beef heart salad, a dish she came up with as a guest chef at a fundraising event. When chef John Tesar opens Spoon Bar & Kitchen in Dallas next month, ingredients on his menu will include lobster liver, cockscomb, fried fish heads and codfish sperm (a Japanese delicacy).

The unintended consequence of all this is that it's getting impossible to shock customers. Craft says he misses that, a bit.

"I love that little bit of intimidation people display when it comes to food they've never tried before," he says. "It's like a first kiss; you're nervous, a bit giddy, but when you taste (the dish) and it's delicious, it makes for a great dining experience. It's hard to get that anymore because people have been exposed to so many different things. Which is awesome."

pvettel@tribune.com