World Chefs: McLagan savors the odd bits others shun

Posted at 11/24/11 11:00 AM

TORONTO, Canada - Jennifer McLagan doesn't necessarily want to shock readers with her new cookbook Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal but she's really good at doing just that.

In the first recipe called "Headcheese for the Unconvinced," she explains how to shave or singe the little hairs off a pig's head before submerging it in brine with its cut-off ear and foot.

McLagan, the Australian-born chef, food stylist, journalist and award-winning author of Bones and Fat, is just as comfortable with other unfashionable dishes, including brain fritters, chocolate blood ice cream and crispy testicles.

Nose-to-tail eating is not for the faint of heart, but McLagan appeals to meat lovers' moral goodness by promoting respect for the whole animal, including the tasty odds and ends that are often discarded or destined for dog food.

Toronto-based McLagan spoke to Reuters from Paris, where she lives part-time, about how to get over the fear factor and why these cheaper and challenging cuts of meat are beloved by grandmothers and top chefs worldwide.

Q: Does Odd Bits complete the carnivorous trilogy of culinary outcasts you've championed?

A: "I think so, skin is too small a book and I've got skin in all of them already. Maybe I'll just get them bound in velum, that'll do it for me. Then I'll move on to 101 Things to Do with Tofu. No, no I'm just kidding. I'll find another unpopular topic and take that, but I think I've kind of finished meat for a while, that's for sure."

Q: Do you think some chefs have pushed the nose-to-tail philosophy too far?

A: "I don't want it to be like how can we shock people the most by serving them something, and I've had a couple meals like that cooked by proponents of this type of cooking and it's like more about shocking you than making it taste good. First of all it should be about tasting good no matter what part of the animal it is."

Q: Why do you think North Americans in particular are the most squeamish when it comes to eating odd bits?

A: "It is interesting because if you go back 100 years, they were eating those parts ... I think it's two things: the rise of factory farming that made meat cheap so everyone could afford steaks and chops, which are like bulletproof to cook. Any idiot can cook a steak, right? And then (there was) the rise of supermarkets, so the loss of butcher stores and the loss of actually seeing animals, so a lot of people today don't like to associate meat with a dead animal. And these bits make them more real, like a head, or a tongue, or an ear."

Q: If you eat meat but also love animals, like me, how do you get over it?

A: "I think if you're a meat-eater you've got to be responsible for what you're eating, so therefore you've got to make sure that your meat is humanely raised and slaughtered humanely too and so you've got to make that commitment. It's a contract between animals. We look after them and they provide us with milk and meat. So you do that and then the best thing you can do is once you kill that animal is to eat all of it, that's like a way of honoring it. It's almost immoral to throw parts of that animal away in any form or waste any part of it."

Q: Which of these less popular parts do you think have the best chance of becoming mainstream and which will remain rare?

A: "Starting with the rare ones, for sure testicles will be because only half the animals have them and there are only two and it's one of those things that is kind of fun to try one time. Intestines might be harder for people unless you like that kind of gutty taste. Tripe, I think, has a kind of textural problem too. They might be more difficult to convert people to. But I think tongue and heart and I think liver is already half-way there, I think those three will really be big."

Q: What do you say to people who have already tried odd bits, especially as children, and decided it's not for them?

A: "It's not the flavor usually; it's the texture of things. It's like brains. Brains have a very soft, like whipped cream, kind of custardy texture. They don't really have a bizarre flavor, it's just a texture. So if you don't like that texture there's not much I can do. I can put it into various things like ravioli or I can make a fritter out of it. If you don't like it for the texture that's fine, but I think you should try it again, because I think a lot of the prejudice people have is between their ears and it's not on their palate."

Q: Is there any food that turns you off?

A: "I'll pretty much try anything but I don't actually like, I guess, for it to be physically moving when I start to eat it."

Peruvian Heart Kebabs (makes 8 to 10 skewers)

  • 13 ounces/375 g trimmed beef heart (Alternatives: Veal heart, lamb heart, whole poultry hearts, gizzards, or liver slices, but only marinate liver 3 to 4 hours.)
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seed
  • 1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 2 serrano chilies, stems removed
  • 1 clove garlic, germ removed
  • 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  1. Cut the heart into 3/4-inch / 2-cm cubes and place in a bowl.
  2. Toast the cumin seed in a small frying pan until fragrant, about 1 minute. Place in a spice grinder with the salt and peppercorns, and grind. Add the chilies and garlic and grind again, then transfer the mixture to a small bowl and whisk in the vinegar and olive oil.
  3. Pour the mixture over the heart pieces in the bowl and toss to coat, then cover and refrigerate for 24 hours.
  4. Preheat the grill to high. Thread the heart pieces onto 8 to 10 wooden or metal skewers and grill over high heat for about 4 minutes total, turning once.