Granted, I’d never cooked a pig’s head until a few weeks ago (more on that below), but offal has been an awfully big part of my life for years (as have shanks, livers and marrow). Brains and tongues of various creatures enliven trips abroad, and sojourns to Au Pied du Cochon for its namesake dish fill my calendar whenever possible.
I was even born into eating bits. A “whole animal” philosophy has governed my, um – let’s say “down home” – south Georgia relatives for decades.
So Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal seemed right down my alley for this food blogger “o-rama” assignment (Made possible by our friends at Rabelais. Also, check out other books and reviews here). A cookbook dedicated to poaching, roasting, braising, and stewing the wobbly, dense, bony, protruding and down-right weird parts of animals?
Sign me up.
So what did I think of it?
The review part
For the most part, I loved it. Author Jennifer McLagan (renown scribe of James Beard Award-winning, Fat) presents most recipes with charming personal stories and clever insight. A dish for Navarin (lamb cheek stew) reads as a wistful love letter to her dear French friends Ted and Giselle (Their English. . .was so full of wonderful 40’s slang I felt like I was in a black and white movie”) while also crisply instructing (“Pat the lamb cheeks dry and season well with salt and pepper.”).
Quotes from other notable food writers and chefs sprinkle each chapter with whimsy, gravity – or a wink and a nod (“Chef Daniel used to say that they should have the feel of a firm, young breast.” – Susan Spicer, referring to the thymus gland of a calf.)
Interim sections discuss the culinary origins and historic uses of such funky animal nether-regions as the cockscomb. Did you know the wiggly red growth crowning a chicken’s head was a favorite of Catherine de Medicis, wife of French king Francois I? Now you do.
Best of all, McLagan makes every recipe sound manageable – be they challenging, day-long adventures or quick dinners. Many re-imagine the common with odd bits. Ravoli of Brains and Morels, for example, sounds simple and succulent. While copping to it as a way to sneak brain to the unsuspecting, she insists that the recipe also plays to calf brains’ rich texture. I’ve dog-eared that page for a future meal – if I can find brain anywhere in the mad-cow fearing US!
From blood sausages to goat shoulder to several preparations of the much-maligned tripe, McLagan tackles it all. Some recipes made Adam cringe in the reading (Testicles with Caramelized Onion and Double Smoked Bacon) and others barely qualify as “odd bitty” (Wild Boar Shanks with Cranberries and Chocolate). One I’m particularly looking forward to trying is Pig’s Tail and Rabbit Stew. Not only does the combination of mild meat and flavorful fat sound delicious, but I cracked up at her frank instruction, “If your rabbit comes with its head, add it in with any trimmings to the stew.”
My only issue with the book was the long, dual-purpose “preaching to the choir while scolding the unbelieving” introduction. It set me on edge. Perhaps not every reader considers sweetbreads a staple like I do, but surely those who would pluck this tome off the shelf would be cognizant of humane animal husbandry, no? Do we really need paragraphs lecturing us about how “today we are so removed from the sources of our food that we rarely think of meat coming from living, breathing animals.” I think not.
Head of the beast
To test McLagan’s recipes, I decided to dive into the deep end and roast what she calls a “cornucopia of odd bits” – the pig’s head. Or, rather, my friend Evelyn decided and I decided I was up for it! In fact, Adam and I took a back seat to these foodie phenom friends (Evelyn – who researched and purchased the head – and her husband, David) and we tackled the challenge in their commercial kitchen in Vermont. The night before Thanksgiving (crazy, I know). While the fat level in the head makes pork belly seem like child’s play, the flavor is superb. Jowl, brain and snout are greasy-luscious gifts from the Gods. Crisp cheek skin and ears are an adult (and MUCH better!) version of pork rinds.
While I’ve included McLagan’s ingredients below, for cooking instruction, I highly recommend this video of acclaimed chef Fergus Henderson doing the deed.
- 1/2 pig’s head (about 5-1/4 pounds)
- Course sea salt and ground pepper
- 2 to 3 tablespoons lard
- 2 Vidalia or other sweet onions, halved and thickly sliced
- 6 cloves garlic
- 1 bunch fresh thyme, 4 large rosemary springs, 4 juniper berries, crushed
- 4 cups poultry stock
- 4 cardamom pods, 2 star anise (broken into bits)
- 1 tablespoon coriander seeds and 1 small dried red chile
- 1/2 cup honey
- 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar or verjuice
- 1 bunch watercress, trimmed
Here’s our story in pictures: