One of my favorite challenges in the kitchen is converting my dinner guests over to eating foods that they believe they don't like or won't try. Choosing a product to work with is an easy task for me and that choice is offal. I’d venture to say that somewhere in the ballpark of 90 percent of Americans aren't interested in tasting the wobbly bits of animals. So years ago, I came up with a few tips that will lure folks in for a bite and hopefully a clean plate.
One of the first things you learn in culinary school when it comes to plating, is that people eat with their eyes first. I think this is especially true for foods that they aren't familiar with and for foods they are giving a second chance. Hearts and livers may look beautiful in their raw and rich colored forms, but once they are cooked, the colors can become dull and brown.
The easiest way to brighten up a dull plate of food is with garnishes. Herbs like chives, basil leaves, basil flowers, rosemary and borage work particularly well for adding color to your plates. The zest of lemons, limes and oranges work great as well and give an extra pop of color when placed on top of the fresh herbs. If you want to go the extra mile, seeded and finely diced tomatoes or mild colorful chilies not only add color, but acid and heat as well.
Offal has a bad wrap for having a “weird” texture or mouthfeel while eating. Sometimes this is due to the fact that the protein was overcooked. But more often than not, people are expecting the texture of a steak and end up with something a little different. I’ve found that the easiest way to combat this is to add crispy textures to the plate. If the recipe calls for a sauteed vegetable, try adding the same vegetable in fried, dried, raw or pickled form. This could be anything from fried onions and freeze dried corn to pickled summer squash and pico de gallo.
Dusting the offal in a little all purpose flour or rice flour before pan searing will give a slight texture variation along with a deeper flavor profile. If a simple dusting isn't enough, “chicken fried” or “panko crusted” proteins is a comfort meal very few will turn down.
Brine, Marinade or Purge
While I agree that some foods are best left as close as possible to their natural state, offal can sometimes be elevated by enhancing flavors, adding juiciness or purging less desired flavors. Hearts for example, can benefit from a short brine before hitting the smoker or grill. This will not only tame a little of the “iron” taste, but allow more room for error with final internal cooking temperatures, as well as impart the heart with extra flavors by way of spices and aromatics.
Marinating does just that, it marinates the protein with added flavors. You may have heard the argument that marinating meat is a waste of time due to the fact that it only penetrates about an 1/8th of an inch. I for one think that this minimal penetration of marinades is a good thing. This allows just enough flavor to enter the meat without overpowering and gives a different flavor profile after being cooked. One could make a sauce or glaze with the same ingredients, but the final product would not taste the same.
Purging offal of what some chefs refer to as their “impurities” is even more controversial than marinating. This is because the meat is soaked in either water, a water/vinegar mixture or milk to release any of the impurities. This technique isn’t as widely used due to the fact that it can change the texture of your protein if done incorrectly. I personally think that livers can benefit from a 24 hour water bath, while changing the water out every 3 to 4 hours. I like to air dry them on a rack in the refrigerator for around 12 hours after purging to minimize the moisture which can be an issue if you're planning to sear or make sausages.
Burger Grinds and Sausages
Adding offal to your burger grinds and sausage blends is what I like to call the “sneak attack”. If done in the right ratios, your average diner wouldn’t have a clue what they’re eating. Now I’m not suggesting that you lie to your friends and family, but blending is a great way to incorporate offal into your everyday meals. I suggest starting off by adding a little heart and or liver to your grind that's used for meals such as hearty spaghetti sauces, sloppy joes, taco meat or chili. For sausages, I like to lean towards Cajun style boudin, Mexican chorizo and spicy Italian. These are usually seasoned quite heavily and are fan favorites in homes all across the country.
Creating your Dish
When it comes to everyday cooking, keeping it simple is usually the route to go in terms of time spent in the kitchen and the flavor of the food. So if you can create something approachable that contains three to four of the tips above, I believe that you and your crew will be enjoying those freezers full of hearts and livers. And remember, all of the garnishes and marinades don’t need to be homemade. These days grocery stores are stocked with crispy fried vegetables, various pickles, relishes and high quality marinades.
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