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Got Offal?

Adventures in organ meats and other morsels

By Heather Irwin

Five or six cow feet go into a bag. The hooves and skin have already been removed, so only a sinewy, marbled little barrel of muscle and nerves remains. The meat man asks if we want anything else. Scanning the case, my friend Lily points to white folds of meat, what she calls tripa in her El Salvadorian dialect. Stomach. My knees go a little weak.

I'm already feeling conspicuous, the lone gringa standing at Lola's Market meat case. We've met here to pick up specialized Central American ingredients Lily needs to make an old family favorite, cow foot soup. I'm honored she's agreed to make it for me. OK, not really for me, but for the legions of friends and family who've been begging her to make it for months. But, hey, I'm the lucky duck who gets the first steaming bowl.

Into our basket goes a bulging bag of wet, blanched-looking stomach pieces. Along with the feet. And, Lord, I'm hoping nothing else from that case. Because even though I'm not particularly squeamish, the trough of liver, the piles of chicken feet, the severed tongues, assorted snouts and--oh, man--a whole pig's head looking back at me is making me feel a little odd. Dorothy, we're not at Safeway anymore.

This is just part of my adventure in offal. After reading the book The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating by British chef Fergus Henderson, I've decided to broaden my carnivorous horizons by trying a variety of, well, variety meats. A bit controversial--especially among vegetarians--Henderson has incredible cult-cache with chefs who are now incorporating everything from pig cheeks and tripe to brains, intestines, blood, glands, ears and lips into a trendy (though actually very traditional) form of cooking.

Choosing cuts of meats that are typically left on the butcher's floor, Henderson transforms offal into delicate, savory dishes that transfix eager diners from around the globe. Many celebrity chefs such as Anthony Bourdain (of Kitchen Confidential fame), Mario Batali and even locals like the French Laundry's Thomas Keller, Cyrus's Douglas Keane and Duskie Estes, and John Stewart of the Zazu roadhouse are dedicated offal/Henderson fans. (Bourdain once hosted a Henderson-inspired offal-only dinner in Portland, Ore., which included rabbit's kidneys and cockscombs, among other things.)

With a McDonald's or Safeway just around every corner and an easy presence of, say, a shrink-wrapped filet mignon the size of our heads for dinner, most Americans shudder at the thought of these exotic meats, though they're as commonplace as hamburger for much of the rest of the pork- and beef-eating world. Why? Lily probably explains it best when she describes having to kill her daughter's favorite chicken for a long-ago dinner. When meat is a luxury, as it has been for most of human history, you aren't about to waste anything, even the not-so-pleasant parts. And when it comes right down to it, as her daughter said through her tears, it's dead. So let's eat it.

Reaching across cultures with my fork and knife, I've decided to try menudo (a common Spanish soup made with tripe, not the '80s boy band), cow foot soup, sweetbreads, liver (of the non­foie gras type) and maybe some tongue or brain. My son says I'm braver than the people on Fear Factor who eat puréed frog guts. I'm not sure he's wrong.

I decide to start my adventure simply, with chicken livers. A friend who regularly eats that kind of thing recommends trying them at Healdsburg's Bistro Ralph. This is the same "friend" who brought me an old copy of The Joy of Cooking with highly detailed instructions on how to prepare calf head. Evil poppet. I'm not sure how much I trust her.

Ralph is fresh out of livers on my first visit, but I'm given an especially huge plate on my return trip. Oh, joy. It smells heavenly. I eat the polenta and rolls, and cut into my first bit of liver. The familiar iron tang and unique dryish texture comes flooding back from my childhood eating. And though I'm sure the oregano-infused wine sauce makes these livers a special treat for some, I can only get about five bites in before my brain takes over and stops me cold. Ew. Liver. My friend, to her delight, gets a steaming takeout bag of the stuff.

Next is my cow-foot-soup adventure. I arrive Saturday morning at Lily's Santa Rosa home to find that the feet have already been cooked overnight, and a huge soup pot is starting to boil on the stove. As we chat about life, kids and her love of canned iguana (I'm already worried), she cuts up yucca, peppers, onions and a variety of other vegetables and spices to throw into the pot. The entire house is soon infused with a heady aroma as steam rises from the pot in wave after wave--a sort of El Salvadorian Bat signal to her family. The phone rings several times as we cook, and each time she tells me more people have invited themselves over for some of her soup. Word travels fast.

After everything has boiled and cooked down, she adds the sheets of stomach for a quick blanching and then ladles me a bowl the size of a soccer ball. She plops in a choice bit of gelatinous foot with a devilish smile. Lucky me.

I can honestly say that this soup is a lot like chicken soup: brothy, full of vegetables and little bits of floating meat that's warm and comforting as an old quilt. I slurp the salty, spiced liquid; eat chewy pieces of Mexican squash and yucca happily; and gingerly pick around the stomach. Lily looks on inquisitively, downing her own bowl in just minutes. She laughs at my poorly veiled squeamishness as I finally chew and chew and chew . . . and chew and chew on a bit of stomach. My two-year-old daughter is the more enthusiastic eater, dropping bits of hoof and rubbery meat into her giggling face. Showoff.

Apparently, kids are naturals for this stuff (proving it's all in our heads). Chef Duskie Estes of Zazu and the soon-to-open Healdsburg restaurant Bovolo says her four-year-old is a special fan of the pig heart and ear salad served every year by John Bertolli at his whole-pig dinner. Slightly less adventurous than her daughter, Estes says she's more of a cheeks girl, serving the soft, somewhat gelatinous parts of the head year-round. This, I can say after having eaten it with relish, is good stuff.

At Healdsburg's Cyrus, chef Douglas Keane does a brioche-crusted sweetbread (the thalamus glands) that has been dubbed nothing short of transcendent. I can only vouch for his foie gras sampler, which is divine. But really, who wouldn't love some bready glands?

Apparently, me. After two weeks of adventure, my digestive track is done. I mean: not happy. My body has voted itself off of offal for a while. The menudo must wait, and I'm holding my tongue, for now. For health's sake, one can't be too careful when it comes to the looming threat of gout (known to be brought on by consuming too much organ meat).

Lily's cow foot soup has, I'm sure, gone the way of her tongue tacos: consumed by eager family members always ready for some home cooking. She's promised me El Salvadorian cooking lessons in foods a little less, um, challenging--as well as a date for some extreme sushi. A fair trade, I think.

Have an offal time at the following locations: Lola's Market, 440 Dutton Ave., Santa Rosa, 707.577.8846; Bistro Ralph, 109 Plaza St., Healdsburg, 707.433.1380; Zazu, 3535 Guerneville Road, Santa Rosa, 707.523.4814, Cyrus, within the new Le Mars Hotel, 29 North St., Healdsburg, 707.433.3311.

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From the May 25-31, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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