For most of my adulthood, I shied away from liver with the extent of my interaction consisting of picking at a fried chicken liver or two. Even then, the livers were smothered in a sauce. I’d like to blame my Dad (a.k.a. The Pirate) who so aptly described butcheries and food-packing plants, WHILE I was reading Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle‘, WHILE I was eating a hotdog. I was nine years old. I haven’t eaten a hotdog since.
Then, about 10 years ago I became more concerned about the source of my food and in visiting farms where my food was grown or raised, I actually met the pigs that became the bacon. And just like that, my belief in ‘rooter-to-tooter’ eating was born. If an animal dies to sustain my life, I should at least try to be respectful and not waste their gift. Over the last 10 years, I’ve opened my mindset and taught myself to eat all kinds of foods I wouldn’t have considered in the past: liver, blood pudding, sweetbreads, tripe, knuckles, heart, marrow, tongue, and so much more. I actually found other cultures do a very good job of using all of the bits of an animal and I learned in turn to appreciate the foods and cooking techniques of other cultures in the process.
I’m telling you, embracing rooter-to-tooter eating is all win, win, win. It’s not only ethical and tasty, but until everyone else figures out the unique experience of cooking with the odd bits, it is also pretty dang cheap. In order to help you embrace the beauty (and fun!) of whole-animal use, I’ve compiled a list of tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way. Take one or two at a time and before you know it you’ll be in full swing.
- Stock is the gateway food. Making really, really good stock (or consomme) is a great way to use the lesser-used bits of the animal. Collagen gives great stock or consomme that satisfying mouthfeel or body. Bones, joints, feet, and tendons release their collagen when braised. You’ll be more comfortable and confident once you get used to seeking out the weird bits, handling them, and successfully producing stock. Then it’s on to other uses! Don’t forget you can save bones from a roasted chicken, ham, or otherwise in the freezer and use them in your stocks too.
- Braise or stew ‘a mess’ of greens or beans. Every time I cook collards or field peas of any type, I start by braising some ‘weird bits’ meat until it is falling off of the bone and the water is transformed into a flavorful liquid. Great cuts for this are ham hocks, smoked neck bones, smoked pork cheek, or pig feet. My preference is for neck bones as they become tender quickly and impart tons of flavor. Make sure to pull the meat and throw it back in at the end.
- Learn how to braise. Most of the tough, connective-tissue laden meats are turned into silky, soft meat clouds when braised low-and-slow in a slightly acidic, flavorful liquid (think tomato paste, wine, vinegar, or citrus additions). You won’t regret it.
- Bacon and cracklin’. Make use of the pork belly (not stomach, but belly meat) by making bacon. Bacon can, of course, be eaten straight away but it can also be made into pork candy or bacon jam. Use up pork skin by making cracklings.
- Learn how to make sausage. Natural sausage casings are made from thoroughly cleaned animal intestines. Varying types of sausages use different parts of the small and large intestines of different animals. For example, cow bung is used to make bologna. Small sausages might use sheep casings which are a bit smaller than pig casings. Now you know.
- Eat marrow. Marrow is nutrient dense. It’s also delicious. Ask your butcher for marrow bones, soak the bones in salty water for a bit to clear out impurities and blood, rinse, and roast until the marrow is soft. Then get in touch with your inner caveman and use a butter knife to pick out the marrow. You should absolutely look like a monkey trying to get termites out of a nest with a stick. You may even growl at whoever is brave enough to be elbow deep in marrow bones you. If you can’t plop it in your mouth, spread it on toast. The fat that gathers in the pan during roasting can also be used in cooking (umm, hello best grilled cheese of your life! Bone Marrow Bread Pudding anyone?).
- Get friendly with pate or mousse. Pate and mousse mix fat in the form of eggs and cream with liver and often aromatics such as caramelized onions and cognac. If the taste of liver turns you off, know that the fat tempers the fumigating minerality of the liver. Serve with sweet and pungent items and the liver flavor will be almost completely tempered. My favorite pairing is with a tart cherry compote in a bit of a rosemary and Madeira base, quality Dijon-style or grain mustard, and buttered and toasted baguette rounds.
- Get a bowl of Vietnamese Pho Noodle Soup. Not only is it delicious, but it can be ordered with tripe (stomach). The tripe is generally cut into very thin strips that are cooked until tender and practically disappear among the noodles. I’d bet if you didn’t know they were there, you wouldn’t notice them!
- Learn how to make a civet. A civet is essentially stew thickened with animal blood. This technique is centuries old and is used around the world. If you don’t have access to fresh blood (i.e. you didn’t kill and dress the animal), you can use a bit of liver blended with heavy cream as your thickener. Either way, you’re making use of animal parts that would otherwise be discarded. I made Rabbit Civet with this recipe from Hunter Angler Gardner Cook as an inspiration and it was incredibly delicious.
- Embrace hogshead or head cheese. This gem is actually made by braising the head of the hog in order to soften up the meat (um, pig cheeks anyone?) so it can be picked from the bone. The braising also releases collagen. The pulled meat is placed into a dish with some of the collagen-rich liquid, chilled until firm, and then sliced. Yes, it’s pretty much the meat version of tomato aspic. I make a version with aromatic vegetables, pork shoulder, pig feet, and pig knuckles since it’s almost impossible to find pig heads.
- Embrace blood pudding/sausage. Blood pudding is merely sausage made from fat (all sausage has fat), some blood from the same animal, and a binder such as oatmeal or rice depending on the region from which the sausage hails. Everyone has always talked so poorly about blood sausage that I never even tried it. I vehemently snubbed it actually. Then I had a couple of glasses of wine at the Glass Onion and gave it a whirl (after all, Chris Stewart seems to be seriously good at offal cooking, so I couldn’t go wrong). It tasted like an adult version of Salisbury steak. Yep, hooked.
- Use caul fat. Caul fat is essentially the greater omentum of certain animals. It is most often wrapped around other meats to hold them together during cooking. It can also be used to surround pate. Some sausages make use of the caul fat as a casing.
- Love your organs: I know, I know. Organ meat. That’s why this one is listed after you’ve tried a few of the above. Don’t knock organ meat, though. It can be incredible if prepared correctly (and disastrous if not). For example, Tacos La Lingua (beef tongue) have some of the most tender meat I’ve ever eaten. Barbecued beef heart in the yakitori style is divine (go try some at Myles and Jun Yakitori!). I dream of sweetbreads prepared in the French manner (thymus and/or pancreas; St. Jack in Portland, OR made a delightful tarte with grilled sweetbreads, whipped butternut squash, caramelized onions, and Gruyere).
- Strip your pig (ears, tails, feet): Ears and tails can be fried. I’ve had thin slices of ear, fried, and served on a simple salad with buttermilk dressing (thank you again Glass Onion). Feet (and knuckles) can be braised until the tender meat falls off of the bone. Pair it up with some homemade sauerkraut for a real treat.
- Chitlins. I still haven’t mastered this one. I swear I’m trying. Maybe hitting up the SC Chitlin’ Strut will help? They can be braised or fried. All recipes welcomed!
Now go forth with confidence and curiosity into the world of odd and weird bits. Do you already have a favorite rooter-to-tooter recipe? Feel free to share in the comments. Up next..how to track down those weird bits so you can fully experience the rooter-to-tooter lifestyle.